Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Serenity Prayer

If you’ve ever attended a 12-Step meeting such as Alcoholics Anonymous, you’ve probably heard the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Although one of the shortest of prayers, it’s also one of the most powerful. It covers pretty much everything we face in our lives. And it rightly balances our need for acceptance with the need for courage to make changes informed by the discerning wisdom that only God can give us.

And actually, the Serenity Prayer is longer in its (purportedly) original form. Here’s the whole thing:

God, grant me serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;
taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it;
trusting that you will make all things right
if I surrender to your will;
so that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
and supremely happy with You forever in the next.

I’ve always been told that the great 20th Century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the Serenity Prayer (or at least the first part of it used by 12-Step groups). But according to Laurie Goodstein at The New York Times, the prayer’s authorship is receiving renewed attention that calls the prayer's attribution to Niebuhr into question:

Generations of recovering alcoholics, soldiers, weary parents, exploited workers and just about anybody feeling beaten down by life have found solace in a short prayer that begins, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

Now the Serenity Prayer is about to endure a controversy over its authorship that is likely to be anything but serene.

For more than 70 years, the composer of the prayer was thought to be the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, one of modern Christianity’s towering figures. Niebuhr, who died in 1971, said he was quite sure he had written it, and his wife, Ursula, also a prominent theologian, dated its composition to the early 1940s.

His daughter Elisabeth Sifton, a book editor and publisher, wrote a book about the prayer in 2003 in which she described her father first using it in 1943 in an “ordinary Sunday service” at a church in the bucolic Massachusetts town of Heath, where the Niebuhr family spent summers.

Now, a law librarian at Yale, using new databases of archival documents, has found newspaper clippings and a book from as far back as 1936 that quote close versions of the prayer. The quotations are from civic leaders all over the United States — a Y.W.C.A. leader in Syracuse, a public school counselor in Oklahoma City — and are always, interestingly, by women.

Some refer to the prayer as if it were a proverb, while others appear to claim it as their own poetry. None attribute the prayer to a particular source. And they never mention Reinhold Niebuhr. ..

The precise origins of the Serenity Prayer have always been wrapped in a fog. Even in Niebuhr’s lifetime, his authorship was challenged. His response was typically modest. He was quoted in a magazine article in 1950 as saying: “Of course, it may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don’t think so. I honestly do believe that I wrote it myself.”


Read it all.

As interesting as all of this is, whether or not Niebuhr actually wrote the Serenity Prayer is ultimately irrelevant. For regardless of its true author, the Serenity Prayer will continue to provide the comfort, guidance, and connection to a Higher Power that millions of persons deeply need.

And speaking of Niebuhr, you can watch a Mike Wallace interview with him from 1958 here.

1 comment:

Joe Rawls said...

I'll bet the Jesus Seminar could solve this thing in nothing flat. Anyone got any colored beads?