Teach Me to Be Generous

by Jim Manney

A while back, I felt deflated when I discovered that the wonderful Prayer of St. Francis (“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”) wasn’t written by Francis at all. It was written in 1912 by a writer for a small French Catholic magazine. My disappointment wasn’t on the level of discovering the truth about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, but it stung a bit. I wish Francis had written it in the 13th century.

So imagine how I felt when I found out that something similar is likely true of St. Ignatius’s wonderful prayer for generosity. You know it, I’m sure:

Lord, teach me to be generous,
to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to look for any reward,
save that of knowing that I do your holy will.

Turns out that no one can find any reference to this prayer before 1897. The oldest publication of it dates from 1910, where it appeared as “The Scout’s Prayer” in a French Boy Scout manual. The author is unknown, but no one who has looked into the matter thinks that it was Ignatius. British Jesuit Jack Mahoney has all the details on the website ThinkingFaith.org.

I’ve prayed the Prayer for Generosity many times, thinking that Ignatius wrote it. Does it matter that he didn’t?

I don’t think so. It’s a great prayer. It expresses wholehearted commitment, a desire to imitate Christ, a generous spirit, and a readiness to work hard–all sentiments associated with Ignatian spirituality and the Spiritual Exercises. They fit Ignatius perfectly. You feel like he could have written that prayer, just as St. Francis could have written the prayer attributed to him.

Maybe Ignatius didn’t write the Prayer for Generosity in the 16th century. But the spiritual movement he started was healthy enough in the 20th century to produce a prayer that sounds just like him. That’s impressive.

Image by elyse under Creative Commons license.

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Jim Manney

Senior Editor at Loyola Press
Jim Manney is a popular writer on Ignatian topics (God Finds Us, A Simple, Life-Changing Prayer) as well as the editor of many books on Ignatian spirituality, including What Is Ignatian Spirituality? He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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February 29, 2012

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda G February 29, 2012 at 12:23 pm

I read that Ignatius’ exercises/material/teachings were based on what was already there; he didn’t invent anything. He just put it together into the format we know today. As you say, he started the spiritual movement. Everything starts with God, Jesus came to show us how it’s done, and from generation to generation the Holy Spirit inspires the scribes to re-write it into a new format. Ah we mortals — always thinking that life is unique to us.

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Fran Rossi Szpylczyn February 29, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Jim, I feel that disappointment as well – about both prayers. I did not know that either one was not from each of the saints. I had wondered about the Francis one, truth be told.

Yet, I consider this as I consider my journeys to the Holy Land. Once someone asked me how I knew someplace was the spot where an event happened? (I had told them about one of Mary’s many possible burial places.) To me, it doesn’t matter. I figure that so many people have prayed there over the years, that a sort of patina of faith begins to appear. Does it matter that it is a “real” spot or not? To me – no, not so much when I think of it this way.

These prayers, like the holy places, take on something from their numerous visits and/or utterances. That had to mean something.

Speaking of meaning something, I have come upon Jack Mahoney three times in less than an hour… Hmmm, what does that mean?

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Linda G February 29, 2012 at 2:31 pm

He is pre empting you ha hahah.

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helen February 29, 2012 at 7:33 pm

It makes no difference to me who writes the prayers. It is the prayer itself that counts. When I look out my kitchen window into the garden, and I see the statue of St. Francis out there, I am minded to say the prayer he didn’t write. Thank you God for St. Francis and all his good works that are being emulated throughout the world by the Franciscans, and thank you God for the guy who didn’t write the prayer.

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Sue February 29, 2012 at 11:23 pm

How do we know that St. Ignatius and St. Francis DIDN’T write those prayers?

If men were inspired by God to put together the books we now know as our Bible, if the gospel writers wrote each of them after the time of Christ but one can feel the authenticity of the character of Jesus revealed in each one, and it makes no sense to think that God ceased inspiring mankind centuries ago, I believe that we can still receive guidance, wisdom, creativity and inspiration from the Source of all.

When we recite in the creeds the communion of saints exists on both sides of the “veil”, I do believe that St. Francis and St. Ignatius still take interest in the teachings and the followers and the spread of Christian practice that they started, from their nonphysical state. I believe that St. Francis inspired the writing of his prayer, and St. Ignatius inspired the writing of his.

As Francis Church replied to 8 year old Virginia about whether there was a Santa Claus:

“You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.”

The energy of what St. Francis and St. Ignatius embodied and taught through their lives is much more alive in those two prayers, and their lives and inspiration better remembered through them, than through any of their own works. Yes, there are those of us familiar with the Canticle of St. Francis or the Spiritual Exercises–but how many Protestants and even non-Christians are familiar with and devoted to, these prayers not penned by the physical men in question?

Real and abiding–these prayers are that indeed.

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Jim Manney March 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Sue — I agree. I think St. Francis and St. Ignatius did inspire those prayers. As you point out, they are very much alive in the movements associated with them. Those prayers are proof of it.

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Sara Damewood March 3, 2012 at 4:58 pm

See, I think St. Francis “Make me an instrument of your peace…” (He did write that; right?) inspires generosity as well. I cross-stitched it several years ago (when I wasn’t practicing Catholicism) and it has been an inspiration for my entire adult life. Now, I’m challenged with getting organized (and especially my finances) so I know what I can best do with my time and my resources. Please say a prayer for me that I stop procrastinating about this! (=:

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Linda G March 3, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Well Sara, the only way I have ever been able to get to writing my novel, doing the ironing, cleaning the stove, doing whatever, is to do it by accident. It goes like this: I’ll clean up that spot/narrative/shirt. Oh I might as well do the rest of the narrative/stove/shirt. Oh. EGAD I accidentally did the whole job. No. No. Oh noooo.

But I will add you to my prayer this day and I can see him smile already.

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Sara Damewood March 4, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Thanks, Linda! Have a wonderful week!

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