or, an encounter with another human being

Tonight I sit in a room sparsely-decorated, save for one white-flocked artificial Christmas tree. A woman plugs it in and the meager, tinny lights spring to life. Somehow a few dollars of cheap electronics, and I can feel my heart cheer, just a little.

The book in front of us, and the topic at hand, concerns the St. Francis Prayer. It is read aloud, and I listen as I have before.

A version:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace!
That where there is hatred, I may bring love.
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.
That where there is error, I may bring truth.
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.
That where there is despair, I may bring hope.
That where there are shadows, I may bring light.
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.
To understand, than to be understood.
To love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.

A man in the room shares how he interprets the prayer. He’s an alcoholic, sober a month. He says to imagine the words like a fire on a cold night, warming the body. He enlivens the analogy and as he speaks, I discover I like that way of seeing it. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with anxiety, with anger or hurt. Times like this I can’t think my way out of the pain and suffering. But prayers, Buddhist texts – they help me a great deal. They are like that fire, warming me when I have little left to give.

The group disbands for the evening. Outside it is cold, damp – the beginning of a long winter. This man who’d shared so eloquently, he wraps himself up in his best winter clothes and sets off to wherever he lives, wherever he sleeps, on his bike.

My car is cold and the heater only works part of the time, so it’s pretty damp inside. A friend’s yearly Christmas CD – populated by irreverent parodies, horror movie dialogue clips, and Motown Christmas standards – provides me sustenance in the dark and cold. In some small way I am comforted by the modesty of my surroundings; the car barely working. The yard bedraggled in winter sogginess. The humble but absolutely blessed rite of making dinner. A late meal, curled up by our own fireside – not a figurative fire, either.

Tomorrow is the last day of work for a while. A weekend to recover the slings and arrows of the week.

And comfort? It dwells within; but we find bits without, too. Like a spark, to find its twin flaring to life in our own breast.

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