Monday, January 26, 2009

The Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, Not so?

Saint Francis of Assisi (1181/1182-1226) is one of my favorite historical figures. He and the movement he incited with the founding of the Franciscan Order is one of the most fascinating threads in the history of the Middle Ages. 

My favorite novel, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose deals with the fractious politics surrounding the Franciscan Order. My novel in progress features Saint Francis as a character. I have been to La Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Italy and still take a simple wooden rosary from Assisi in my pocket when I get on an airplane. On my door hangs a wooden plaque (also from Assisi) with the famous prayer that the Saint composed:

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;
and 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,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Words to live by? Maybe. Actually written by Saint Francis? Well... probably not. A New York Times article from January 22 explains the true story. An article published in L'Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Vatican, says that the prayer can be traced only to 1912, a far cry from the 12th century in which Francis was born. 

The prayer was printed in L'Osservatore in 1916 which caused it to become wildly popular during the traumatic years of World War I. At some point, the prayer ended up being published on the back of cards bearing the picture of the Saint, hence the confusion. The NYT article also points out that figures like Margaret Thatcher and Mother Theresa spoke the prayer and attributed it to Francis in public. Interesting that the prayer can only be dated back to two years AFTER Mother Theresa was born.

I have to admit, this makes me a little sad. But in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, "So it goes."


  1. Wow, that's really sad. I wonder who DID write it. It's still such a good prayer.

  2. Yeah, maybe I will apply for a grant to go back and visit Rome to "work" really hard, digging through the Vatican library to uncover the mystery!

  3. Cool. Reminds me of Dr. John Dee's 16th century journals filled with "angelic" language.

  4. I did some investigation of this John Dee fellow. Yes! And I noticed that he is a character in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, which I STILL have not read.

  5. Enochian is fascinating. And I've got Foucault's Pendulum and The Island of the Day Before if you ever want to borrow them. Though I don't think you'll have time to read them this term.

  6. I just ordered Island of the Day Before and Baudolino from amazon. I saw them for 1 cent each. no joke. so I thought I should go for it.

  7. Wow, Just read this blog. I think your words are apt - so it goes ( or Kurt Vonnegut's). I wonder who wrote the serenity prayer - that's another one I like.