Jean-Pierre Isbouts, a California college professor, has been sifting history searching for prayers. They're everywhere — from the soaring lyrics of King David to the chants of the Navajos.
Isbouts settled on 10 — "Ten Prayers that Changed the World." National Geographic Books published his findings.
Among his top 10 are prayers so monumental they could not be ignored. The Lord's Prayer offered by Jesus, for example. Some, like the well-traveled prayer of St. Francis ("Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace"), earn a place on the list through mere repetition.
And some of the prayers Isbouts includes aren't really prayers at all. The hymn "A Mighty Fortress," by Martin Luther is listed. So is Constantine's dream of the cross. And Abraham's silent cries before raising the knife above Isaac have a place here.
In fact, more than the words, Isbouts seems to see the lives of the souls who uttered these as prayers themselves. Mother Teresa, Gandhi — even George Washington — made each day one long, ongoing act of devotion.
That's why one of the prayers listed by Isbouts seemed to come out of the blue. He includes a pre-battle prayer by Gen. George Patton at Bastogne, France, in 1944 before the Battle of the Bulge.
Patton's place on the list caught me off guard because, in my mind, "Old Blood and Guts" with his silver revolvers and colorful language hardly painted a picture of humble submission. But there he is. Isbouts says Patton had 300,000 copies of the "Prayer for Good Weather" he commissioned typed up and distributed to the troops.
"Between the plan and operation there is always the unknown," Patton told one chaplain. "The unknown spells defeat or victory, success of failure. Some people call that getting the breaks. I call it God."
The battle was won and the prayer became part of military lore now. There are several versions of it circulating. It's to the point people can no longer separate reality from wishful longing.
But maybe that's the point of prayer in the first place — to blend one's inner sense of truth with the outer world.
In reading Patton's prayer and thinking about the negative image I had of him, I thought of Henri Nouwen's comment that we spend far too much time trying to decide what we think of each other.
There was a lot of grit and rust on Gen. George Patton.
But most of the others on Isbouts' list would tell you there was plenty of grit and rust on them as well.
There's a lot of grit and rust on me.
But maybe, if I'm fortunate, I have a prayer down inside that can make a difference.
Maybe that's the point of Isbouts' book.
Maybe it's the point of us being here on a world that does need "changing."