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Starting Point

Learning to humbly play our part in the symphony of God’s voice


This morning I was awakened by the trilling of a single bird. It burst like sunlight into the lambent darkness, so sweet and pure as to seem to be the first sound ever heard in all creation.

I walked to the window to listen. The bird, unaware, continued its solitary anthem. The breeze had stilled; the night rustling had subsided. Peace lay over everything. It was as if I were present at the dawn of time.

Slowly the day began to awaken. Light limned the distant horizon, turning the edges of the sky to lavender. The trees began to move with the gentle breathing of the wind. All around me life was stirring. But above it all, the single voice of the solitary bird sang out in celebration of the day.

As the light grew, other sounds began. The rustle of the branches, the bark of a dog, animals scurrying, people beginning their day. And as the sounds of daily life layered across the sunrise, the bird fell silent. It had played its part. Now it gave way to other, louder voices. Its song disappeared into the music of the morning.

Such a Franciscan vision, and how close to the first line of Francis’ gentle prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” It was as if the bird was giving a sermon, and I alone was blessed to be present to hear.

I thought of an image a teacher had once offered me. God, he said, is like a great symphony in which we must all play our individual parts. None of us can hear the whole, none of us is suited to play all the parts. We must be willing to accept the limitations of the instrument we have been given, and to offer up our voice as part of the great and unimaginable creation that is the voice of God.

Francis, more than any other saint, understood the godliness of music. He sang constantly. His prayers are filled with entreaties to “sing to the Lord a new song,” and petitions for the earth to sing out to the Lord in praise. He was even said to stop often in the middle of a road, pick up a stick and mimic the playing of a violin while he sang. It is as if prayer itself was song for Francis, and life itself was prayer.

Imagine what music must have been in his time. In a world with no machines, none of the background noise of modern life and no way to capture the elusive and ethereal tones of music other than to hear them when they were created, it must have been a miraculous thing indeed to hear a sound, sonorous and haunting, created by the breath or the plucking of strings. It would rise up, like birds in flight, and float above the day’s drossiness, like the very voice of God itself.

What more hallowed object could have existed in such a world than something crafted by the skilled hand that could create such sounds and turn breath or touch into melody? To play an instrument would have been a divine skill. To be an instrument would have been a sacred thing indeed.

When Francis asks to be made an instrument of God’s peace, he is bowing down before God’s skill, as maker, as musician, as composer of our days, and offering himself up to be shaped into a form through which the voice of God can be heard.

When we give ourselves to his prayer, we are asking the same.

I once had a conversation with a woman while I was on a train traveling across Canada. She was a musician -- a violinist -- who, as a child, had performed with major symphonies in America and Europe. She had been a prodigy, one of those individuals who seem to have a talent that comes from somewhere far beyond the realm of normal human affairs.

In her early 20s she had suddenly abandoned the violin in favor of the viola, the deeper throated, less celebrated cousin of the instrument on which she had already achieved such stunning success. It seemed an odd decision to me. She had established a promising career as a violinist; the repertoire for the solo viola is limited; and the part assigned to the viola in most musical compositions is far less significant and complex than that created for the violin.

Why, I asked her, would you turn away from an instrument of such color and vibrancy, so favored by composers and revered in the orchestra, and turn to so quiet, recessive and generally overlooked and underappreciated an instrument as the viola?

Her answer was simple and direct.

“I like its voice,” she said. “It’s more me.”

Like the bird singing out its solitary song in greeting of the morning, this woman knew that it was more important to play from the fullness of her being than to seek fame and favor for something that did not come from her heart.

This is the truth that Francis would have us learn.

Most of us do not live special lives. We are seldom called upon to make great pronouncements or to perform heroic deeds. We fall in love, raise children, have heartbreaks, help those in need when we can. We go to our beds at night uncertain whether our actions have had any effect.

But when Francis calls us to pray to be instruments of God’s peace, he is reminding us to honor our own part in the music of creation, no matter how humble or great. If we accept our part as a gift and play it well, we will have done our small part to help create the symphony of God’s voice.

For this brief moment Francis reminds us that we are the reed through which the breath of God is blown, the strings on which the music of God is played.

For this brief moment, he reminds us, our lives are music in the heart of God.

Kent Nerburn’s new book is Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace: Living in the Spirit of the Prayer of St. Francis. This excerpt appears with permission from Harper-San Francisco.

National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 1999