My mother often referred to a prayer that her mother said (in Swedish) nightly at the bedsides of her eight children as they headed off to sleep. The prayer became so embedded in their memories that one of her brothers, when he was dying 80 years later, asked my mother to "pray the prayer that Mama used to pray."
Like my dying uncle, many of us have simple lines of thoughtful prayer to which we cling when life becomes rough. The Lord's Prayer is an obvious one. Or some version of the "Jesus prayer": Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. Or the so-called prayer of St. Francis of Assisi that begins, "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace …" (as much as one senses the spirit of Francis in the prayer, it is highly improbable that he was its creator).
Throughout the years of my Christian journey, I have used Psalm 23 as a prayer, and there have been sleepless nights when I have repeated the Shepherd Psalm over and over, perhaps as many as a hundred times. The vision of green pastures and quiet waters has rarely failed to re-order my heart and mind.
Then there is the more recent Serenity Prayer. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
The Serenity prayer is embraced by the Alcoholics Anonymous movement. It is usually prayed at the beginning and end of any meeting where self-confessed drunks gather to help each other stay sober for another 24 hours.
There is an ongoing debate as to who authored the Serenity Prayer. It is usually attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, but some claim that the prayer's core ideas come from one or more spiritual masters of a century (or even a millennium) ago.
Friends who are alcoholics tell me that the Serenity prayer speaks to the core of the alcoholic's mental disease.
The prayer highlights three concerns. First, one needs to recognize those events and experiences over which there is no immediate control and to accept them for what they are. We might call this the act of submission. Since most alcoholics admit to being control freaks, I can see why this line means so much to them.
Second, one needs to acknowledge those events and experiences where it is possible to effect change. Here the operational word is courage.
And third, one needs insight to know which of the first two is actually in play. Is something changeable, or is it beyond my control? The answer requires wisdom.
Some time ago I latched on to the Serenity Prayer as a tool for daily reflection. I began repeating it many times during the day, especially when I faced issues that were affecting my emotions and attitudes.
The Prayer has provoked me into wondering how often I waste time and energy trying to manage things that are beyond my grasp. To do this is to invite frustration, stress, even anger to flood my inner being.
This state of agitation is easy to observe in a small child who, lacking wisdom, throws a temper tantrum because he cannot get what he wants. He may scream, lash out at others, even breaks things. One frequently observes adult versions of this behavior that are just a bit more subtle and sophisticated: irritability, blaming, defensiveness, criticism of others, manipulation.
In such moments of immature behavior, the Serenity Prayer can become quite relevant.
Herein lies one of the reasons the incarnate Jesus appeals to me so powerfully. He is such a quiet, orderly, and patient person in the face of adversity. His "serenity" originates with what he completely controls: the affairs of his own heart. When the people of his hometown turn again him, he disengages without a word. In a Galilean storm, he chooses to rest his eyes. On an early morning while others sleep, he quietly communes with his Heavenly Father. On the cross he forgives hateful people.