The War Prayer

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It
was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up
in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of
patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols
popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and sputtering; on every
hand and far down the receding and fading spreads of roofs and balconies
a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young
volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new
uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts
cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung
by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot
oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts and which
they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause,
the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the
pastors preached devotion to flag and country and invoked the God
of Battles, beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpouring of
fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash
spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt
upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning
that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of
sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday
morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the
front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their faces
alight with material dreams – visions of a stern advance, the
gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the
flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce
pursuit, the surrender! – then home from the war, bronzed heros,
welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers
sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and
friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field
of honor, there to win for the flag or, failing, die the noblest
of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old
Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by
an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the
house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out
that tremendous invocation – "God the all-terrible! Thou
who ordainest, Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!"

Then
came the "long" prayer. None could remember the like of
it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The
burden of its supplication was that an ever-merciful and benignant
Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers and aid,
comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them,
shield them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident,
invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant
to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step
up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body
clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white
hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy
face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following
him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended
to the preacher’s side and stood there, waiting.

With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued
his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered
in fervent appeal," Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O
Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!"

The
stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which
the startled minister did – and took his place. During some
moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes in
which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said

"I
come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God!"
The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived
it he gave no attention. "He has heard the prayer of His servant
your shepherd and grant it if such shall be your desire after I,
His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that
is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers
of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware
of – except he pause and think.

"God’s
servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken
thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the
other not. Both have reached the ear of His Who hearth all supplications,
the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind.
If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent
you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray
for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that
act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop
which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

"You
have heard your servant’s prayer – the uttered part of it.
I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it
– that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts,
fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God
grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory,
O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer
is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary.
When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned
results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help
but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell
also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it
into words. Listen!

"O
Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth
to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also
go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite
the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody
shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with
the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder
of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain;
help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire;
help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing
grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children
to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags
and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the
icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring
Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes
who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract
their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way
with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded
feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source
of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that
are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts.
Amen.

(After
a pause)

"Ye
have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the
Most High waits."

It
was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there
was no sense in what he said.

Note:
Twain wrote The War Prayer during the US war on the Philippines.
It was submitted for publication, but on March 22, 1905, Harper’s
Bazaar rejected it as “not quite suited to a woman’s magazine.”
Eight days later, Twain wrote to his friend Dan Beard, to whom he
had read the story, “I don’t think the prayer will be published
in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.”
Because he had an exclusive contract with Harper & Brothers, Mark
Twain could not publish “The War Prayer” elsewhere and it remained
unpublished until 1923.

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