September 11 and The Peace Prayer of St. Francis

Sept. 8, 2011

With the ten-year anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001 coming up this Sunday, musicians all over the country will be involved in commemorations of all sorts. I will be conducting the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers singing “America The Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a program dedicating a monument that features a large beam from the World Trade Center. My church choir at Shalom United Church of Christ in Richland will be singing my setting of “The Peace Prayer of St. Francis” (you can listen to a recording of Opus 7, Loren Ponten conducting, and view a score here. That setting came about directly due to to my participation in the planning and presentation of a community wide commemoration held in the Tri-Cities, Washington on the first anniversary of the attacks, September 11, 2002.

In the winter of 2002, the need for some sort of event to help the community cope with the turmoil, anger, and sadness that we all felt was clear, and some of us began talking about how to go about doing it in a positive spirit. We could already see how wide-ranging reactions were from person to person, and even in the same person on different days. We grappled with our desire for revenge, with our need to mourn, and our hope to find a way to learn, grow, and move forward. A group of local religious and community leaders, including arts leaders, formed a working group to bring together all these disparate forces into a cohesive and positive force that we hoped would have a lasting impact on the community.

In the early planning stages, the Interfaith Quest for Peace, including local Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu representatives, set a wonderful tone and framework for discussion. We took the time and made a conscious effort to intentionally listen to all the groups who generously stepped up to offer their help and support as well as their ideas. Local police and fire departments, first responders organizations, community service clubs, educational institutions, and others came to meetings and told their stories. That process in itself was a remarkably powerful exercise, people just telling their stories and expressing their responses and needs. As you can expect, that yielded quite a diverse set of ideas. It was clearly going to be a large event, and the local baseball stadium was chosen as the most effective and flexible venue. Some wanted a show of force and might, with one idea being a low-level flyover by Air Force bombers and fighter jets. Some wanted an extended period, up to an hour or two, of silent meditation by the projected thousands in attendance. Everyone realized that the only way to make our way forward would be to honor the needs of all of us, but that we agreed that we wanted to find a positive message, a way forward, and focus on a few simple things and build the program around what was common to all of us. Before each of those meetings, and often several times during the meetings, the Peace Prayer of St. Francis would run through my head.

I was the coordinator and conductor for the musical portions of the program, but I believe the best thing I did was to get Joel Rogo, a nationally experienced stage manager and dance production master, to recruit and manage a crew of local theater artists to coordinate the physical operation. The knowledge and experience they brought to the table was crucial to the event’s success, in ways that the people who came and participated will never really fully understand.

The event was well promoted, and over 10,000 people showed up, approximately 10% of the population. The program ended up being in two parts. First, “We remember…”, expressing our sense of loss and mourning. A procession led in by the the Desert Thistle bagpipers and drummers, the National Anthem and flag raising, the ringing of a large bell with remembrance of the lost, “America the Beautiful” sung by my children’s chorus, and first-hand stories from local first responders who had worked at Ground Zero in the weeks and months following the attacks.Then, “We look to the future…” transitioning with “Alleluia,” by Randal Thompson, noting that this piece was written the first week of July, 1940, as France and much of Western Europe fell before Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, and the Battle of Britain was about to begin. Next was a recitation of the most central idea in civilized societies, The Golden Rule, by children from a variety of local faith and cultural groups. Each was a little different, and it was so powerful to hear children say the words, all with the idea that we must treat others the way we believe we should be treated, the most basic idea of equality that all human civilization shares. After the brass choir played Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” there was a short closing speech asking us all to find our best selves as we respond, to make a positive future and not fall into the trap of our baser instincts, but to rise above the ashes. With red, white, and blue glow sticks and the lights lowered, we sang “God Bless America” and the recessional was led out by the bagpipers.

It was during the final stages of planning and rehearsing that program that I worked on my setting of “The Peace Prayer of St. Francis” as a meditation and mantra for myself, a way to balance the amazing pushes and pulls I was feeling from such an powerful flow of group energies. It is not known who wrote that poem, though it was certainly not St. Francis. It was found written on the obverse of a holy card of St. Francis, which was found in a Normal Almanac and appeared in a religious magazine, “La Clochette,” in the December, 1912 issue.

Whatever your religious tradition or current understanding is, this poem is worth contemplation.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy 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.