By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published September 25, 2023
I have a birthday coming up this weekend. The older I get, the more I enjoy my birthday, and the more I find myself looking back in reflection rather than ahead with anticipation.
Along with my birthday, I am also celebrating this year the milestone of 30 years as a Roman Catholic. I was received into full communion with the church on Shrove Tuesday 1993 at the little chapel of Our Lady of Good Counsel in the Park Place office building of Georgia State University.
I suppose I was meant to be a Catholic from the beginning. The saint for my birthday, Sept. 23, is a big one, particularly for modern Catholics. St. Pio of Pietrelcina, more popularly known as “Padre Pio,” died on my birthday one year after I was born. Just as compelling to me is that he was canonized on June 16, 2002, exactly one year after my wife and I married. It’s no wonder that hardly a day goes by that I don’t recite Padre Pio’s motto, “Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry.”
More than 30 years ago, in downtown Atlanta, when I entered what was then known simply as Sacred Heart Church for the first time, my entire life changed, and my future charted in ways I could never have imagined.
For many months before I entered the church, I had the growing compulsion to learn more about Catholicism. Much of my curiosity stemmed from the work I was doing as a graduate research assistant for my mentor professor, who was editing the Thomas Merton Annual and compiling an oral history of the Monastery in Conyers. It was fascinating work, but as my imagination stirred, my spirit was also touched. I sensed that I was being called to the Catholic faith.
I walked to school in those days so that I could save money on parking. I parked for free in a shopping center at the corner of Piedmont and North Avenues, and I walked all the long way downtown to Georgia State. Every day, I passed Sacred Heart. Every day, I wanted to open the door. One fall day, overcoming my anxiety of entering a Catholic Church, I at last entered. The weekday Mass was about to begin, and I took a seat in the back as office workers from the nearby buildings began to shuffle into that beautiful old church.
Not having any idea what was going on, I opened one of the battered red hymnals and flipped to the prayers that were in the back of the book. There were all the familiar rote Catholic prayers that I have come to love: the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be and the Anima Christi. And there was a long prayer, one I had never heard of, The Universal Prayer.
I was afraid to try the Hail Mary, so I began reading The Universal Prayer. I started reading, and I couldn’t stop. The prayer seemed to cover everything fundamental to the human experience of faith in and communion with God. I loved it.
For many years after I converted, I attended Mass on Sunday evenings at Sacred Heart. I remember that Msgr. Walter Donovan, who heard my first confession, was the usual celebrant for that Mass. Every Sunday, after receiving communion, I returned to the pew and read The Universal Prayer.
A cadence linked to understanding
The Universal Prayer is traditionally attributed to Pope Clement XI, whose papacy extended from 1700-1721. Clement’s Papacy had many challenges, including Jansenism and approaches to missionary work in China, but if Clement did indeed compose the prayer, he seems to have been in fine spiritual shape.
The oldest English translation of the prayer is frequently titled “The Universal Prayer for All Things Necessary to Salvation,” and while the prayer is effective, its litany of “Do Thous” is awkward to the contemporary ear. There are at least three more contemporary English versions of the prayer. The first two are easier to understand, but still a little clunky. But the third more recent English version is just about perfect.
If you go looking for the prayer, you want the version that begins “Lord, I believe in you: increase my faith. I trust in you: strengthen my trust. I love you: let me love you more and more. I am sorry for my sins: deepen my sorrow.” This version can be found online at Catholic.org, and there is also a YouTube video recitation of the prayer on the Catholic Online channel.
This modern version of the prayer works so well because it is divided into 15 rhythmic stanzas that depend upon repetition, refrain, and active verbs such as “Guide,” “Help,” “Enlighten,” “Let,” “Make,” “Put” and “Teach.” The prayer is a joy to recite out loud, but it works equally well in silent meditation.
For sake of example, here are two of my favorite stanzas in the prayer. First, “Let me love you, my Lord and my God,/And see myself as I really am:/A pilgrim in this world,/ A Christian called to respect and love/All whose lives I touch,/Those under my authority,/My friends and my enemies.”
As a teacher, I especially love that verse because it reminds me to treat my students with humility and empathy. It also is a perfect example of St. Benedict’s “Ora et Labora—Pray and Work.” In my academic vocation, I always remind myself that my work should also be an act of prayer.
As a second example, I also like very much the stanza “Teach me to realize that/This world is passing,/That my true future/is the happiness of heaven,/That life on earth is short,/And the life to come eternal.”
I love that this prayer, again like St. Benedict’s Rule, is rooted firmly in this world, this life, but also offers a portal of transcendence from it.
I am surprised that so few people seem to know the prayer, for it really covers nearly every aspect of the challenges we face in keeping faith. The prayer was clearly conceived by a man who knew the difficulties inherent in religious discipline. Its quiet, steady cadence is linked to a patient understanding of suffering and temptation, and as such, it becomes as much a poem as a prayer.
Is it any accident that the prayer was composed in the early 18th century, right about the time poet Alexander Pope was writing his Neoclassical masterpieces? Pope, a Catholic, lived from 1688-1744, and would certainly have been aware of Clement XI. One of the cornerstones of Pope’s poetics is the idea of “Sound and Sense,” the aesthetic principle that the sounds of poetry must echo and enhance its meaning.
Pope even wrote a poem similar to Clement’s Universal Prayer; it’s even titled “The Universal Prayer.” While I don’t like it as much as I do Clement’s, I do admire its plea for unity and ecumenical understanding, particularly when you consider the anti-Catholicism Pope faced in England. Consider its final stanza, “To thee whose temple is all space,/Whose altar—earth, sea, skies!/One chorus let all being raise!/All nature’s incense rise!”
More than three decades ago, “God called out to me from his own immense depths,” as Thomas Merton puts it, and the gifts that have come to me from my conversion 30 years ago continue to enrich my life. The great Catholic aesthetic, intellectual, and philosophical tradition contains works so profound, so vast, yet in Clement’s The Universal Prayer, we are beautifully reminded that God is often best understood simply in the murmur of a still, small voice.
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.