“When we pray to God we must be seeking nothing — nothing. We should seek not so much to pray, but to become prayer.” ~ Saint Francis of Assisi

It is most appropriate, I believe, that I begin this week’s column with words from everyone’s favorite saint (I know that might not be entirely true. Still, Francis’s compassion, humility, love for animals and ecological sensitivity are admired by millions.)

This weekend I will head to Springfield to join in retreat with the Hospital Sisters of Saint Francis at the Chiara Center. It will be the culmination of months of preparation to formally commit myself as a Lay Associate (not a nun) and to join in the sisters’ healing charism within the parameters of my unique life. I will make an initial two-year commitment, renewable every two years.

For those who don’t know, the sisters formerly operated St. Mary’s Hospital in Streator. In all their hospitals throughout Illinois and Wisconsin they previously established the Lay Associate program as a way for employees and other interested parties, to carry their healing charism out into the community.

While the sisters have been officially gone from Streator for a few years now, their legacy lives on in the many hundreds of people who formerly worked there and at some point found a home and a family within their job. Many people who worked there for most of their lives look back on those years with a fond nostalgia.

As a Lay Associate, I will be supported by and support others in the Streator group, which meets monthly at Evergreen Place. It is an opportunity to join in a small spiritual community of like-minded people, seeking to do what they can to place a healing stamp on a troubled world.

Francis was born in the late 1100’s and died on October 3, 1226. He grew up in a life of privilege but renounced that all, to his father’s dismay, to follow Christ and to live a life of poverty.

Tradition says that Francis was once praying alone in front of a crucifix in the abandoned chapel of San Damiano, located down the hill from Assisi. Suddenly, Francis heard these words of Christ coming from the cross: “Francis, repair my house, which is falling into ruin.” While he did build an actual church, Francis realized later that it was the Christian Church itself that Christ was asking him to rebuild.

Francis has remained popular through the centuries and his following only continues to grow. In the divided world we live in today, both in politics and in religion, it could be argued that Francis is once again leading the way among the orders he and Saint Clare of Assisi established to restore a sense of peace, simplicity and equilibrium to a hurting humanity and planet.

I feel blessed to have been invited to be part of that healing movement, and in some small way to be part of the long history of Franciscan spirituality. And while the Streator group would welcome with open arms new people also seeking to formally join in that mission, it doesn’t take being a member of a group to leave a healing imprint on this world.

In my humble opinion, this grassroots effort for each of us to be an “instrument of peace,” could be just the strengthening force needed to turn the tide from hatred, war and division to our planet’s birthright of peace and harmony. If you wouldn’t mind, please pray for me this weekend as I open myself in quiet prayer, seeking to know how I can be that healing presence in my life.

In closing, it seems appropriate to finish with the peace prayer popularly attributed to Francis, although it is likely it was written in the early 20th Century by a Franciscan follower. If you feel the nudge to be a healer in your own life, perhaps you can start by simply reading this prayer every day and allow it to set you on your path of not just praying, but actually *becoming* a living prayer.

The Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your 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;
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.

SPIRIT MATTERS is a weekly column that examines spirituality in The Times' readership area. Contact Jerrilyn Zavada at jzblue33@yahoo.com to share how you engage your spirit in your life and in your community.

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