The Geek’s Prayer: Spirituality, comfort, and conviction in SF lit

Rowena Morrill's cover for "A Swiftly Tilting Planet" by Madeleine L'Engle

“A Swiftly Tilting Planet.” Novel by Madeleine L’Engle; painting by Rowena Morrill.

… That’s a very long title for a post that probably won’t live up to it.

I’ve been rereading a bunch of books lately, including some of Diane Duane‘s Young Wizards series. (I just bought her revised and updated versions of the first seven books for my Kindle; she has a sale that I think ends today that you should totally go take advantage of.) A couple nights ago a friend got me thinking about the intersection of Shakespeare and the Young Wizards universe, and I ended up rereading the Wizard’s Oath in order to translate it into iambic pentameter, as one does:

In Life’s name, and for Life’s sake, I say that I will use the Art for nothing but the service of that Life. I will guard growth and ease pain. I will fight to preserve what grows and lives well in its own way; and I will change no object or creature unless its growth and life, or that of the system of which it is part, are threatened. To these ends, in the practice of my Art, I will put aside fear for courage, and death for life, when it is right to do so–till Universe’s end.

That’s the version from So You Want to Be a Wizardthe first book in the series; slightly different permutations appear in other books. I’ve heard from multiple people that they figured, when they first read the books, that the Oath was slightly different in each book for safety’s sake — so that none of the non-wizardly kids reading would recite the actual, accurate Oath and accidentally find themselves pledged to a lifetime of fighting entropy etc etc.

What struck me, while I was rereading the Oath and trying to work it into a rhyming, metered scheme, was how much it reminded me of the Prayer of St. Francis, which has always been one of my favorite Catholic prayers:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

I couldn’t tell you which came first for me, the Oath or St. Francis; honestly, I probably became cognizant of them at about the same time, age 10 or so, so maybe it’s no wonder that they each remind me so much of the other.

Of course, if I’m going to talk about prayers and YA sci-fi, I can’t not talk about Patrick’s Rune, introduced to me by Madeleine L’Engle in A Swiftly Tilting Planet:

At Tara today in this fateful hour
I place all Heaven with its power
,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And fire with all the strength it hath,
And lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the earth with its starkness
All these I place,
By God’s almighty help and grace,
Between myself and the powers of darkness.

Wikipedia tells me that this is based on the Lorica of St. Patrick, and that the term lorica — a prayer for protection — comes from the Latin for “armor.” This might explain why I always find myself thinking of this poem when I’m on planes.

A third prayer/incantation that was part of my childhood did not come from the source you think it did:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

That’s the litany against fear from Frank Herbert’s Dune, which I have neither read nor seen. No, instead, I got this from the Earthworm Jim cartoon, wherein Jim’s sidekick Peter Puppy would frantically chant the first three lines in stressful situations. Maybe not as dignified a context as Herbert originally intended — but still effective, since it sank into my little geeky brain at a formative age.

My last one, from Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon series, is the law of conservation of pain:

Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased. Thus do we refute entropy.

I find these kinds of prayers/litanies/poems inspiring as a writer. They add enormously to the sense of depth in a world, and they can become important plot points: witness the magical powers Patrick’s Rune has in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, or the wizards’ frequent struggles with how to interpret the Oath and act ethically. And they can, on occasion, add to my life, as touchstones that can provide comfort or courage

Are there similar things in books you’ve read that you’ve particularly liked? I thought about including the Gunslinger’s Creed from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, but it hasn’t had such an influence on my day-to-day life. (Although back when I was doing karate on a regular basis with my very intense sensei looking on and telling me things like “Don’t think about doing it, just do it!” I would occasionally sulkily think I do not aim with my eye, I aim with my hand in an attempt to motivate myself.)

Edit: I was reminded of this, as an appropriate wrap-up.

So say we all.

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