–Gandhi (Indian Opinion, August 9, 1913)
Only a couple of days after the celebration of Mahatma Gandhi falls the “feast day” (in the Roman Catholic tradition) of St. Francis of Assisi. Two people from different times, hundreds of years apart, they realized one and the same vision: simplicity, selfless service and uplift of the human image. Gandhi was interested in the “little man from Assisi” as my teacher Sri Easwaran calls him, and had read several books about his life, including the most famous, Little Flowers of St. Francis. He concluded that St. Francis was indeed a “great yogi of Europe” and compared his harmonious relationship with animals with the sages that wander the forests and mountains in India, living among many species of predatory, venomous and other potentially dangerous creatures. Only a person who embodies or even strives to embody ‘ahimsa,’ or compassionate action, he said, could achieve this. It is no wonder that Francis is known as the patron saint of animals and that World Animal Day also falls on this — his — day.
One of my favorite stories from the life of St. Francis–and there are many–is when he heard the voice of God telling him to “rebuild My church.” Francis at the time was praying at the San Damiano Cross, hanging in a small, dilapidated church on the outskirts of Assisi. (This is after giving away all of his father’s cloth (he was a rich cloth merchant) to the poor…and then undressed before the entire town because he had lost body consciousness in the rejection of materialism…all good stories…). Thinking, as any of us might, he was being asked to rebuild that church, the one with the falling stones around it, he did so. So dear was it to him that when he shed his body, he asked to be lain there, “naked on the bare earth.” Only later did he realize that his mission was much bigger and much more radical. He was being asked to rebuild The Church itself, one that had lost its spiritual bearings and whose values in relationship to materialism were unclear at best. And such work would begin by living the values he most believed would transform the institution in question–deeper simplicity, deeper nonviolence, deeper compassion. It was St. Francis who said, “Always preach the gospel, when necessary, use words,” which is not at all a far cry from Gandhi’s famous quip, “My life is my message.”
How do we do this?
Sri Easwaran, inspired by St. Francis and drawn to his ideal of “being the change,” recommended the Prayer of St. Francis as a passage to commit to memory to inspire us in the deep work of transformative peacemaking:
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.