It’s funny how prayers have the tendency to sneak up on you when you least expect it. Been struggling with school and adjusting to studying in a foreign environment (yes, still…) and what I’ve realised is that they don’t quite abate but transform as one goes along. Not the best of states to be in but somehow the Lord has a way of getting to us and drawing us out of the darkness and into a place that’s at least a little less dimly lit. One thing that helped was the memory of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer. We all know that one as it’s been printed on t-shirts, cards and all manner of religious knick-knacks but it’s ubiquity and near-cliché status should not detract from its deeper meaning. I’ve written about it before and if I’m not wrong, I was in a similar state then too.
There are many versions of the prayer but this one sticks to me:
O God, give me the grace of serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that should and the wisdom to know the difference.
In it, we ask for the grace of serenity, courage and wisdom. I see three moments of grace that are unique but interconnected which allow one to be able to face things around us, not just appropriately but with the love and hope that marks us as children of God. Explanations are in order.
We ask for serenity – not the serenity that comes from sitting cross-legged on lily pads in the middle of lakes but serenity of mind to be able to accept that God’s will can be different from ours. This is a state of being – a sense of being comfortable with oneself where one is without the need to struggle to change that state. This is particularly difficult for most of us now because for many of us, we’ve been brought up to believe that we can and should try to make changes to things around us so that we can live and function better. While that’s not all bad, we also need the strength of character to realise that it’s not the externals that need change, it’s just us. It takes humility to realise this, to realise that we’re not all-powerful and it takes a good amount of hope and patience for us to accept that things aren’t the way that we want.
The prayer would be nice if it just ended at the first line but it gets better. It gets us to ask for the grace of courage – true courage to stand up for things that are not right, to stand up for injustice that’s being done to us or others. We need courage and strength to do this as not everyone has the ability or willingness to go against the grain and speak out for what’s right. So there are indeed times where we need to step out of the serenity to try to make a change somewhere. Therein lies the problem – when do we do either.
That’s the key to the prayer – it’s not just a call to action or a retreat within oneself. It’s a prayer for discernment. Having the wisdom to know the difference between when to act and when to stay silent is the most important grace to have. We cannot fight all the time and neither should we allow people or things to roll over us with abandon, hence the need for discernment. It’s hard because most of us would tend towards either extreme – to act or to withdraw and very often, we have to go against our normal tendencies to be or do things correctly. But, how are we to discern?
Discernment can take up an entire series of posts and volumes upon volumes have been written on it. However, what is useful here are some bits of advice that St Ignatius, who wrote The Spiritual Exercises, gave to retreatants and Jesuits. To discern well, we need to be in the right state of mind. We cannot be overly agitated by things or biased towards one mode of being or doing. We have to take that step back, reflect and pray before making a decision. Additionally, we have to note where our desires are taking us and what motivates them. Are we acting to change things out of some deep-seated desire to take revenge on someone? Are we keeping silent and accepting things out of pure resignation or are we keeping silent because that’s the path of greater love? Keeping such considerations in a mode of prayer helps.
And so I continue to ask for the grace of wisdom, to not only know the difference but to be able to continue to live and accept the life of constant discernment that we’ve been called to. I don’t feel particularly wise now but I do feel that asking for the grace to be wise helps. For what it’s worth, at least it’s helping to cause a change within – from existential angst to tentative hope. And with that hope, we can survive.