Only in prayer were his knightly ambitions turned in a new direction; only in prayer did he find the strength to lead the people who wanted to follow him—but on their own terms. Prayer enabled him to discover the link between the Church that Jesus established and the Church that needed much more conversion to Jesus’s ways.
We often think of prayer as an activity that is guaranteed to leave us more serene than when we began it. It does ultimately lead to serenity, but only after it has led us into deeper honesty about God, other people, and ourselves. As long as certain parts of a person’s life are “off limits” as the subject of prayer, that person’s possibilities for conversion will be stunted.
Prayer is not for sissies, and Francis of Assisi knew that. Prayer is not simply rearranging a person’s mental furniture; it leads to discarding some furniture (attitudes) that is no longer compatible with God’s ways and acquiring other furniture (different attitudes) as necessary in order to live honestly before God, with other people, and with ourselves.
Perhaps no part of the Bible provides a bigger help to prayer than the Psalms. They spring from every part of our emotional spectrum and lead us to the same point: gratitude for God’s generosity and a desire to imitate it as much as we can here and now. Francis knew the Psalms by heart, and those who followed him quickly did so too. They learned the Bible’s other most famous prayers and could pray them as they walked from place to place, reflecting on what God had accomplished through them in their previous location and preparing for what God might be asking from them in the next place.
Francis was as much subject to self-doubt as any of us. His motives were purified in prayer; his ego became right-sized there. His prayer was both private and public; one without the other tends to lead the person praying into some type of illusion. Instead, prayer leads us into deeper and more radical honesty while enabling us to deal with the consequences of any newfound honesty.
John Dewey, an educational theorist, once wrote that all education is about making connections. Prayer enabled Francis of Assisi to see the connections in what otherwise could have been a very fragmented life: preacher, healer, leader of friars, spiritual guide for many lay people, and advisor to popes and bishops. Rather than ask how he could find time and energy to pray, Francis asked himself, “How could I not pray?”
People who share prayer regularly may be able to handle tensions that arise in common life better than people who do not pray together—assuming that common prayer deepens their conversion to the Lord’s ways. Prayer allows us time to distance ourselves from everyday concerns and see the bigger picture of life. This in itself can create a more calm and balanced spirit.
Consider whether you might be afraid that a deeper prayer life could lead to greater conversion, and of the change that would bring. Pray for yourself and for everyone who is tempted to give in to discouragement. God has rich gifts to offer us!