An Instrument of Peace by Rachel Holbrook
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.
-Saint Francis of Assisi
St. Francis and I don’t have much in common. He loves animals, and I curse our family dog on the daily. He was kind to everyone. Generous. Gentle. I run roughshod over life with good intentions but veering toward self-absorption. We did share a name, until I married at seventeen and abandoned it in lieu of my husband’s. I never liked my family name—Francis. It felt redundant, like having two first names. But twelve years later, when I left that husband with four kids and his name, I found an unexpected friend in St. Francis of Assisi.
I couldn’t have been less Catholic if I tried. I grew up in a Fundamentalist sect of Baptists, who considered themselves to be the only saints worth knowing. Some of our preachers taught that the Great Whore of Revelation fame was, in fact, the Catholic Church. So, when I found myself newly divorced and on the verge of losing my faith completely, it was a bit surprising that I began reading book after book about St. Francis. I was drawn to him. Learning about St. Francis, this kind-hearted monk who preached to birds and literally gave a beggar the clothes off his back, I felt loved. I felt like God might be real to me again someday. I couldn’t explain it. Maybe it was a comfort to know that, even as my faith ebbed away, there was love and goodness in the world. There was faith to be had. I just kept reading. I began praying with a homemade rosary, strung together from wooden Hobby Lobby beads. I didn’t know the right way to do it, so I just prayed “help me” on the small, round beads, and the “Our Father” on the larger, oblong ones.
By Mary’s front door stood a three-foot St. Francis. My first time there she asked me to root around in the flowers and find his gray, tonsured head. She was responsible for his accidental decapitation, but wasn’t physically able to retrieve the broken piece.
Around that time, I met an elderly friend, aptly named Mary. She was devoutly Catholic, but, just for kicks, also attended the interdenominational church I was trying out with my kids. I was broke and trying to go back to school, so I started selling my plasma and mowing lawns for tuition money—a humbling job for a thirty-year-old mom. I mowed for Mary, and, every time my mower stopped, she pft pft’ed her way outside to talk, sucking oxygen through the plastic tubing that snaked its way to her nose. Mary was lonely, and so was I. It always took me twice as long to mow her hilly yard. I hated weed-eating around her flower beds with their decorative rocks and concrete statuary. Mary had angels everywhere.
By Mary’s front door stood a three-foot St. Francis. My first time there she asked me to root around in the flowers and find his gray, tonsured head. She was responsible for his accidental decapitation, but wasn’t physically able to retrieve the broken piece. When I found his head and balanced it back atop his shoulders, Mary was visibly relieved. I didn’t know then, during that time, that my life was going to change soon. I didn’t know that I would find love again or that I would get to be a stay-at-home mom and spend my days writing. I was holding on the best I could. Every time I mowed, I saw St. Francis, and, even on the days I fought off tears, when I was hot and miserable and exhausted and missing my kids, he made me feel seen.
Four summers later, for my birthday, my new husband—who is kind to everyone, generous, and gentle—took me to Italy. We ate our way through Rome — pizzas and pastas and limone gelato. We toured the Coliseum and churches. I threw a coin in the Trevi Fountain. I turned thirty-four in the Vatican, staring at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We drove to Naples, risking our lives with each new street, noticing how every car was dinged and not wondering how. We made our way to Florence where we took a cooking class together with Nicolae who called us Rachelle and Mateo. In Venice, we toured St. Mark’s, ate gelato, and felt helpless and accosted when the widows in black, with their humped backs and bare feet, shook paper cups of change at us, begging alms in angry Italian.
My husband planned the whole thing, including his biggest surprise. In between Naples and Florence, he took me to Assisi. We got lost looking for the Saio winery, named after the robes the Franciscans wear and situated in the valley below the city. Our rented car bumped over the rutted dirt roads until a friendly Italian man who spoke no English interpreted our desperate pantomiming and led us in his old, blue pickup to where we meant to be. I couldn’t help but imagine St. Francis walking down the same road, and my eyes welled with tears. We toured the vineyard, me already giddy from the tastings, and ate a picnic of homemade bread, cheese and prosciutto, and drank a whole bottle of good white wine. St. Francis could have stood where I stood. On the same patch of dirt.
I walked down the cobbled streets of the city and up again to the basilica, squinting against the summer sun and my tears. I walked through the church, dimly lit and holy, and found it hard to breathe. St. Francis was buried here. I gazed at his robe and his shoes, and I wished I could touch them. These were his things. Every time I caught my husband watching, he smiled at me—his Baptist bride pining for a Catholic saint. Afterward, I sat for a long time in the sweltering Italian heat, on a bench in the stone courtyard, thinking of all those days in Mary’s yard, when I was hot and tired and missing my kids. Remembering how I put her St. Francis back together, and how St. Francis helped me find my way to put my own pieces back together. Remembering how I learned to talk to God again—how my fingers prayed “help me” and “Our Father.”