The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr is much more than a few verses on the walls of a Twelve Step program. It’s a vital petition to recover from spiritual wounds.
“Forgiveness is to give up all hope for a better past.”
I get a lot of mail. I’m not complaining, mind you, for mail in prison is the life blood of a psyche and a soul. Or, at least, it should be. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day these past months, mail call in this prison had a more sullen air about it. That was largely because of the draconian ban on greeting cards, including Christmas cards, imposed in mid-2015. At this juncture, no one knows whether or for how long that ban will hold up. A few days before Christmas, the New Hampshire office of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against this prison declaring the ban on cards to be an infringement on your First Amendment rights. I’ll keep you posted on the outcome
The word “draconian” is an interesting word. Some people spell it with a capital “D” because it’s one of those words that came into English from the name of an actual historical person. Though technically the capital isn’t necessary, the word refers to the application of harsh laws codified by Draco, a legislator in the city-state of Athens, Greece in the Seventh Century, B.C. Draco was notorious for imposing the death penalty for both serious and trivial crimes, thus giving rise to “draconian,” a rather uncomplimentary word named after him. When I explained all this to our friend, Pornchai-Max, he said, “maybe in a thousand years, going off on long, boring explanations about history will be called ‘gordonian.’” HMMPH!
Anyway, back to mail call. Of course, every prisoner loves mail, but when it comes to replying to it all, I get a C+ at best. A part of my excuse is that I can purchase only six Smith Corona typewriter ribbons per year, so that means having to hand write most mail. So I find myself writing much of the same things over and over. It’s especially difficult to respond to overseas mail because the prison commissary sells only U.S. First Class .49¢ stamps, and has a purchase limit of twenty per week. Writing overseas takes three of them. So some of my mail tends to pile up until I am able to respond.
I am so very sorry for this, but prison is one reality I wish I could change, but can’t. I hope it doesn’t discourage you from writing. Sometimes I try to incorporate responses to letters into a TSW post, and hope that readers can see some of their letters between the lines. This excerpt from a letter received just before Christmas from an Ohio reader is an example.
“Dear Fr MacRae: I first learned about you when I read the book, Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversions [by Felix Carroll]. I am always so inspired by other people’s conversions! When I read the chapter about Pornchai Moontri I was very touched by his story and remarkable conversion and, frankly, I was shocked by your story. I became very concerned when I looked you up online and found your blog and read some of your articles… It did not take me long to have your blogs come right to my inbox and I gobble up everything you write. You inspire me to want to be a better follower of Christ and to accept the things I cannot change in my life.” (Letter dated Dec. 16, 2015)
The writer added, in a paragraph later, “You are doing so much good despite what was done to you. Your light is still shining” On the same day, I received another letter from a reader in the U.K. in which he wrote that my TSW posts remind him of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous Letters and Papers from Prison. Talk about pressure!
The two letter writers are thousand of miles apart, but their letters are connected in an odd sort of way. I wrote of the great Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “These Stone Walls: The Hits and Misses of 2015.” That post mentions a superb interview with Eric Metaxas by Kate Bachelder entitled “The Death of God Is Greatly Exaggerated” (WSJ.com, Dec. 19). It’s an interview I highly recommend. In it, Eric Metaxas…
“recalls how in 1939 Bonhoeffer was sitting safely in New York at Union Theological Seminary. He elected to return to Germany, what Mr. Mtaxas calls ‘the great decision.’ What would animate someone to leave comfort and security for the depraved Nazi Germany, where he would surely be arrested for supporting the Jews?”
THE SERENITY PRAYER
There is an answer to that question, but first let’s get back to the pre-Christmas letter cited above from an Ohio reader. She mentioned that TSW inspires her “to want to be a better follower of Christ and to accept the things I cannot change in my life.” You might instantly recognize the latter half of that sentence as a reference to what is now commonly known as “The Serenity Prayer.”
It’s one of the most famous prayers in common use in Western culture, and a portion of it adorns the walls and literature, of every meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in the world, as well as most other self-help endeavors based on the Twelve Steps of A.A. The prayer was written in 1926 by Lutheran pastor and theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, but most people know it only by the few verses adopted by A.A. Here is its original form:
God, grant me the Serenity
to accept the things
I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
Taking, as Jesus did,
this sinful world as it is,
and not as I would have it.
Trusting that He will
make all things right
if I surrender to His will;
That I may be reasonably
happy in this life, and
supremely happy with Him in the next.
(Reinhold Niebuhr, 1926)
COURAGE TO CHANGE THE THINGS I CAN
The famous prayer begins with a request for the grace of serenity, but in my current location, as it was in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prison, there is little of it to be found on the outside. I received a letter from a TSW reader recently who told me of the imprisonment of his wife of some fifty years. It is not a physical prison, but it is no less of a prison than the one I am in. Having lost and buried their own son from cancer, she finds herself in a prison of distrust and resentment over the losses of the past. It’s the sort of prison that has so many of us under lock and key.
“Forgiveness is to give up all hope for a better past.” I began this post with that quote, but I do not know its origin. John Spaulding, a fellow prisoner whose mother died just weeks ago, stood in my doorway one morning to tell me that someone sent him that quote. It made me realize how much serenity requires the grace of surrender for the events of the past. It’s a real challenge where I am, but it’s a real challenge wherever any of you are too. Dare we hope? Dare we believe? Both take serenity, courage, and wisdom in the present moment. Our crosses of the present cannot be an excuse for retreating into the past.
John Spaulding and I spoke at length about the death of his mother, and about the painful letting go that it required of him with no opportunity for good-bye other than from within his own heart. I gave John a copy of “A Corner of the Veil,” about the death of my own mother during my imprisonment. But it’s really about more than that. It’s about my own letting go of the things I cannot change-. John kept it for two weeks, and said he read it at least five times. He said that he was profoundly affected by my challenge not to reduce the present to a litany of losses in the past.
Through this discernment, John made a decision to explore his Catholic roots of faith from which he had become separated. Through the loss of his mother, John opened himself to the one thing he has left to share with her, a faith that spans a bridge between his life and her’s. John has now signed up to attend the next “33 Days to Morning Glory” retreat, the third time it is offered in this prison.
The wounds of the past surface in times of loss. Like the wife of the TSW reader mentioned above, the struggles and wounds of life accumulate into a litany of loss until it is life itself that we now distrust. Sometimes it is life itself that requires our forgiveness. To do so, then, is to surrender all hope for a better past because such a hope is futile. No matter how you spin it in your heart and mind, no matter who you blame for it, no matter how long you have lived with it, you will never have a different past. Eric Metaxas alluded to this in his WSJ interview:
“One of my favorite Bible verses is Philippians 4:6” ‘Be anxious about nothing.’ Nothing. Now what does that mean, ‘nothing’? It means ‘NOTHING.’ [So] ‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’ That’s a command.”
THE WISDOM TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE
I was so very struck by the reader at the beginning of this post who wrote that TSW reminds him of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. I find no truth in it, but the letter caused me to return to Bonhoeffer’s writings. Reinhold Niebuhr, who composed “The Serenity Prayer” was on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York where he had a profound influence on Bonhoeffer at the time he arrived at “the great decision” that Eric Metaxas described. The great decision was to return to Germany because “He who believes does not flee,” no matter the cost.
Both men also had a very great influence on my late friend and mentor, Father Richard John Neuhaus, one of the inspirations behind These Stone Walls. His own great decision to pave a path from Lutheranism to Rome by becoming a Catholic and a priest – took great courage and wisdom.
You do not have to read very far into Bonhoeffer’s words and actions to see Reinhold Niebuhr’s “the courage to change the things that I can” reflected there. I think serenity itself was more of a challenge. Bonhoeffer freely chose to return to Nazi Germany from the comfort of Reinhold Niebuhr’s New York seminary knowing – very much like Father Maximilian Kolbe – that his own moral compass would not permit him to cease writing the truth.
And like Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Bonhoeffer wrote knowing, and fearing, that the truth would land him in a Nazi prison, but he wrote that truth anyway. Finding serenity along such a path is an immense spiritual challenge, and its only source is grace – and the conditions in which such grace is found are often surprising.
True courage does not mean the absence of fear. It means to do the right thing, to act morally, in spite of fear. There are some things which have terrified me – decades in prison being one of them – but terror alone was not sufficient cause to take up an easier cross. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and for Maximilian Kolbe, prison was no obstacle to grace.
The powerfully riveting book by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2011) presents Bonhoeffer’s very life as a profile in courage. His writings and actions led inexorably to the sacrifice of his life on April 9, 1945, eight years to the day before I was born. Just imagine then the irony of my own introduction to prison. Standing in court facing prison on September 23, 1994, I was forced to be silent while prosecutor Bruce Elliot Reynolds asked Judge Arthur Brennan and my jury to disregard any good I have ever done, because “for some people, even Hitler was a nice guy.”
Over the years between his imprisonment and his execution by hanging upon the orders of Hitler himself, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his Letters and Papers from Prison. When what he wrote was posthumously published, those who knew him found some of it shocking. One of his most pointed criticisms of his own church during those years in prison was its tendency to limit faith and the requirements of faith to the “otherworldly,” focusing on the next life at the expense of this one. Though that is a part of all faith – certainly Catholic faith -we are now in this life, “taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.”
It was in the unjust imprisonment imposed upon him through the corruption of others that Dietrich Bonhoeffer found the core of his Christology. It could be summed up in three words: “life for others.” And it was in that same circumstance that Maximilian Kolbe discerned that “Love alone creates,” the center of his life in Christ that drew him toward surrendering his life that another may live.
In both men, in the struggles between courage and wisdom, in the midst of great suffering, trial, and loss can be found inspiration for the greatest challenge and adventure of our lives, that most essential part of Reinhold Niebhr’s famous prayer: “God, grant me Serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
God, Grant Me Serenity, but Wait Until I Calm Down!