As I was leaving church this morning, the Little Sisters of the Poor were at the front door of the building collecting donations. Their wonderful organization, which provides food, clothing, shelter, and medical care to the elderly poor who might not otherwise have anywhere to go, has been operating a home in the Nation’s Capital since a few years after the Civil War. I was privileged to volunteer for them briefly at one period in time, and I always try to support their work as best I can, and to encourage others to do so as well.
Reaching into my wallet I realized that I did not have a lot with me, and as I dropped what I did have into the basket held by the smiling nun, I said, “I’m so sorry sister, I don’t have anything more with me.” She immediately responded by saying, “Oh God bless you, we’re so grateful! Don’t apologize – say a ‘Hail Mary’ for us instead. It’s much better than any apology.”
We are often unaware of how much our day-to-day existence hangs by a thread, until something is taken away from us, whether temporarily or permanently; this is something the Little Sisters know all too well. Most of the time we sail through live blissfully unaware of this fact. Yet if you suddenly lose a loved one, or your job, or are involved in an accident that damages you or your property, for example, things go into a tailspin both practically and emotionally.
At this point everything can become bleak, and our outlook on life, ourselves, and others begins to be affected. We feel isolated and vulnerable, like a battle-scarred animal that retreats into its lair alone to lick its wounds. It snaps its jaws defensively and in fear, at anything that darkens its path, or whimpers softly, because it is no longer capable of helping itself.
Fortunately however, we are something more than animals, even if we are not quite angels. We find ways to cope, to reason, and to carry on, rather than simply shutting ourselves off from the world. And we can find this by following some of the counsel contained in a piece I came across this week that is attributed to Pope Clement XI (1649-1721).
Giovanni Francesco Albani (the future Clement XI) was born in the old Ducal town of Urbino, which is a place of particular significance for this writer. It is the hometown of Raphael, my favorite Renaissance artist, and for many years the residence of Count Baldassare Castiglione, the patron of this blog. It was in fact in Urbino that Castiglione rose to prominence, and befriended many of the characters who appear in his “Book of the Courtier”.
Clement XI had an interesting papacy, historically speaking, but quite possibly the best thing to come out of it is a prayer that is attributed to him, and which commonly appears in the Sacramentary, the liturgical book used by the priest at mass. I was so affected by coming across this recently, that I have shared it with a number of people, and also made it one of my “Picks of the Week” on yesterday’s episode of the “Catholic Weekend” show on SQPN. Even if you yourself are not a Catholic, gentle reader, I believe there is much wisdom to be gained from the perspective it gives on the flow of human life, both in how we deal with small and immediate issues, to how we deal with large and infinite ones. The full text is as follows:
A UNIVERSAL PRAYER
Lord, I believe in you: increase my faith.
I trust in you: strengthen my trust.
I love you: let me love you more and more.
I am sorry for my sins: deepen my sorrow.
I worship you as my first beginning,
I long for you as my last end,
I praise you as my constant helper,
And call on you as my loving protector.
Guide me by your wisdom,
Correct me with your justice,
Comfort me with your mercy,
Protect me with your power.
I offer you, Lord, my thoughts: to be fixed on you;
My words: to have you for their theme;
My actions: to reflect my love for you;
My sufferings: to be endured for your greater glory.
I want to do what you ask of me:
In the way you ask,
For as long as you ask,
Because you ask it.
Lord, enlighten my understanding,
Strengthen my will,
Purify my heart,
and make me holy.
Help me to repent of my past sins
And to resist temptation in the future.
Help me to rise above my human weaknesses
And to grow stronger as a Christian.
Let me love you, my Lord and my God,
And see myself as I really am:
A pilgrim in this world,
A Christian called to respect and love
All whose lives I touch,
Those under my authority,
My friends and my enemies.
Help me to conquer anger with gentleness,
Greed by generosity,
Apathy by fervor.
Help me to forget myself
And reach out toward others.
Make me prudent in planning,
Courageous in taking risks.
Make me patient in suffering, unassuming in prosperity.
Keep me, Lord, attentive at prayer,
Temperate in food and drink,
Diligent in my work,
Firm in my good intentions.
Let my conscience be clear,
My conduct without fault,
My speech blameless,
My life well-ordered.
Put me on guard against my human weaknesses.
Let me cherish your love for me,
Keep your law,
And come at last to your salvation.
Teach me to realize that this world is passing,
That my true future is the happiness of heaven,
That life on earth is short,
And the life to come eternal.
Help me to prepare for death
With a proper fear of judgment,
But a greater trust in your goodness.
Lead me safely through death
To the endless joy of heaven.
Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
In thinking about my conversation with the Little Sister I chatted with briefly today, it was clear that her work had taught her that no matter how difficult things were, or might be, that she had people to serve who were counting on her, and that she would try to do the best she could for them in any circumstances she happened to find her in. She was, in effect, embodying that bravery which Clement IX speaks of in his prayer.
Perhaps a reflection for all of us this Sunday, whether everything is going fine, or we feel like we are at the end of our rope, or we are somewhere in between, is whether we are being brave in facing the challenges that life is giving us. One of the ways that we can try to bring that bravery to the forefront of our thinking is by recognizing that there are other people who need us, who are in need of what we can bring to them – our presence, our prayers, our material support, etc. More than we need to loll about feeling sorry for ourselves, like the aforementioned wounded animal, we need to remember that we are not animals, but creatures with an eternal destiny.
If you are reading this on your day of rest, why not take a few moments away from trying to relax, and pick up the phone and call a friend or relative you have not spoken to in a long time, to see how they are doing? Or visit your neighbor for a few minutes, the one you know is lonely ever since their spouse died? Or drop an email to a friend you haven’t communicated with in months, just to inquire after them and let them know you still remember them fondly? Not all of us are called on to the kind of self-sacrificial work the Little Sisters of the Poor do, and yet we can all put aside our self-pity when things are not going great, and manage to find someone we are in a position to help, no mater how much we ourselves might be hurting.
“St Jerome Aiding the Lion” by Hans Memling (c. 1485-1490)