Socks and Lent
Talking about the Serenity Prayer with Molly Vetter
On the phone the other day, a good friend told me he’d been reciting the Serenity Prayer in his head like a mantra. Since he’s neither religious—nor a member of Alcoholics Anonymous—this disclosure surprised me. If you passed this guy on a city sidewalk—with his confident, fashionable, no-nonsense demeanor—you would never suspect that a prayer was playing on repeat in his head. But these are unusual times—so unusual that a Godless Heathen like me is thinking about prayer this week.
After my friend and I hung up, I searched for the Serenity Prayer online because I honestly didn’t know it.
Here’s the version most people are familiar with:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
According to a few things I read, the alleged author, a Protestant theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote it somewhat differently than its current form:
Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.
This version strikes me as way more proactive.
The other thing that surprised me was that this prayer isn’t some ancient handed-down-through-centuries wisdom; it’s earliest use—in print—was 1937.
When I’m faced with how little I know about a thing (often), my go-to is to ask someone smarter and better educated. So I reached out to my friend Molly Vetter. That’s Reverend Molly Vetter. When I met Molly (under somewhat harrowing circumstances, which I’ll write about here someday), she was the youngest ordained Methodist minister in the country, having earned a Master of Divinity at, like 24.
Coincidentally, when I texted her to ask about the Serenity Prayer, she responded that she was thinking about using it in her sermon this week.
Apologies to those of you who prefer to read these posts. I know doing an interview is a huge departure from my usual written pieces. I encourage you to give the audio version a shot this week because Molly is very much worth listening to.
BONNIE: First of all, I had no idea (the Serenity Prayer) was modern. As in was only written in the the ‘30s.
MOLLY: Right? It’s not that long ago.
BONNIE: But, you know, the ‘30s also really rhyme with what's going on now.
MOLLY: Yeah. Yeah.
BONNIE: So what, what do you know about it? How do you feel about it?
MOLLY: I know about it mostly through folks in recovery is I guess how it most came into my consciousness and know that it's got that kind of deep authority of something that's been helpful to people facing actual struggles in life. You know, sometimes prayers seem like a nice theoretical idea, but it feels like a prayer that’s the one that you repeat to yourself, like a mantra on the street when you're in need of something. I mean, I like it. I think it's helpful. And I like that on different days when I pray, different pieces of it are like what I need to hear, you know, like some days you need to remember that, like, I'm not in control, I can't change that. And some days you need to remember, oh, there are things I can do. And some days you need to remember, like, I need to seek wisdom.
BONNIE: Well, what I found interesting about my discovery today that it was rewritten, is the modern version of it puts the serenity/acquiescence part first and the courage part second. I don't know. That really struck me.
MOLLY: Yeah, why do you like that?
BONNIE: Because I feel like, yeah, I mean, so the modern one starts with God give me the strength or something, does it?
MOLLY: The serenity… to…
BONNIE: Yeah so it’s, I don't know. This feels more proactive and more fight-y than, you know, let me roll over and take it. I don't know.
BONNIE: It's weird that it got rewritten. I don't understand why that would have happened.
MOLLY: All of this is totally non-expert, but when I've tried to dig into a little bit about where it came from, there were at some point, some like, arguments about whether it was Niebuhr or not, who wrote it. And when he wrote it, and even the first written record we have of it talks about it as if it were a thing that people were using. Which seems crazy in the 20th century that we have like an oral history that predates written record! But I do kind of think of it as like a catch phrase that caught on and people used like a popular thing people said, but hadn't been codified or written down in a like formal structure, but more like, it was kind of a living breathing sort of set of words and ideas that people, I don't know if they misquoted or they attempted to mess with the order. Like I just screw things up a little bit every time I re-say them so I invert the order. I kind of liked the idea that it belonged a little bit and like living community before it got written down.
BONNIE: As a nonreligious person, what I find interesting is exactly what you're saying, which is, people call this a prayer. And I feel like, at least from my nonreligious perspective, prayers are locked in stone, and what you're saying is...
MOLLY: Oh no…
BONNIE: ...yeah, they change apparently.
MOLLY: Yeah. I mean, I come from a tradition, that's much more like pro-extemporaneous prayer, not that's like there's one way to say the, whatever. Prayers aren't like a set of magical words—like a spell that you have to get in the right order to unlock the...
BONNIE: They're not?
MOLLY: No. And I also think prayers are not to convince God to do something. I think God already wants redemption and healing. Like, it's not like you have to learn the right word order to unlock God's willingness? Ability? Care? To like do something good in the world. That just seems crazy to me.
BONNIE: No, I totally thought prayers were a thing you learn. Cause I really only know “now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord, my soul to keep” that's the only prayer I know like word for word.
MOLLY: Uh huh.
BONNIE: So yeah, I thought they were more a set of tools that you have to learn and that's part of religious training.
MOLLY: Hmmmm...I think of them as like... I mean, if you think of it more like a folk song that you like learned that there's always going to be a little variations in it too, and you learn it because it gives helpful form. Like it teaches you things about who God is and who you are. So there is this like a lot of commonality in how in like prayer form or in phrases used, and it's like helpful to lean on traditions or generations that have gone before us, or like really good prayers, but it's not the only way to pray and not the most proper way to pray.
BONNIE: Well, getting back to this prayer, there's a Yale librarian who is the one who wrote the article that showed up in the New York Times saying, “Hold the phone! We're not sure if this dude wrote it.” And what's interesting is that the dude and his family were like, I'm pretty sure he did, but it wasn't necessarily written, like you say, it was oral history.
MOLLY: Yeah. Which makes me suspect it was probably a woman. You know, it was Prathia Hall who came up with the “I have a dream” line that Martin Luther King, Jr. borrowed and used in his speech. Like it's always like a piece of wisdom uttered by a woman in a church basement that gets repeated and repeated. And like is helpful and then ends up in, so man's writing.
BONNIE: Well, that actually tracks with what I was reading today because it's his wife who was like, I'm pretty sure it's a thing we all said in our family.
MOLLY: Right? And it's like, no one wants to undercut the authority that like Niebuhr was speaking into the world at that time, or, I mean, in my little Prathia Hall example, like, you don't want to undermine MLK, like he's still brilliant, right?
BONNIE: You said you were maybe going to write, write your sermon about this prayer for this week. Is this a thing you're thinking about in current events?
MOLLY: Thinking about it in current events, it's also lent right now, which is this magical season before Easter, where there's a little more like introspection/reflection. I normally preach following a pattern of scripture readings that's a three year cycle. And the scripture reading that we’re assigned for this week from the gospels is one where Jesus is like praying to God lamenting that it's not going the way he wanted that Jerusalem hasn't received his like leadership, gospel, message, whatever. I mean, he's playing this theme that belongs in all our like Hebrew scriptures as well, too, about the prophet being not listened to not heard, not received in their time. So the scripture is him like Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets, how I've longed to gather you together like a mother hen gathers her chicks. So it's this moment where he's accepting that things haven't gone the way he hoped, which I find really useful right now.
BONNIE: No shit… Well, what I've found myself doing without even being conscious of it was I completely ripped my closet apart. Took everything out and then like reorganized it and put things back one at a time. I mean the ultimate control.
MOLLY: Let me have one corner of my life where things are like in order. I cannot alone prevent global thermonuclear war, but I can organize my closet.
BONNIE: Exactly. That's what I did. And I gotta tell you, I feel stronger and more ready to face, whatever is coming.
MOLLY: That’s awesome.
BONNIE: Also it might be a good place to hide when the...
MOLLY: Right! There's room for you, if you need to take refuge.
BONNIE: It's the one place with no windows.
MOLLY: Yesterday I read a long piece that was about the like climate cost of nuclear war. It was like, what happens if a hundred small nuclear devices are set off? How does that affect climate? I don't know. Do we even, like, are we around in this scenario?
BONNIE: Well, I did read one Tweet that said, well, nuclear winter might really cool the planet down.
MOLLY: So this article said that it would in the short term cool the planet down, but it would also result in like massive crop failure in acidification of the oceans. And like, it's not the solution we're looking for, comes with other costs.
BONNIE: So when I cleaned my closet, I actually like even marked things. I marked boxes. That's that's, that's the level, that's the level of control I got to. No. I mean, that's where my brain goes when you're telling me all this, I'm like, hmm, what else can I do? I have some junk drawers I could go through. Go through my sock drawer, make sure all, all my socks match, you know, that they all have a mate.
MOLLY: Have you ever succeeded at like stacking them all sort of like in a useful way in your drawer?
BONNIE: Stacking my socks?
MOLLY: I mean, you know, I'm persuaded by Marie Kondo's “you should be able to see everything in the drawer when you open it.”
BONNIE: Oh no, I like that idea. Tell me more!
MOLLY: Do you bundle your socks or just fold them together?
BONNIE: You know, I used to bundle them but then I found that it really put a lot of wear and tear on the elastic. So now, I just kind of…
MOLLY: Right? Right? You’re a stacker.
BONNIE: I make a sandwich and fold them over onto themselves.
MOLLY: If you have the capacity to fold them in a way so that you could have them like sort of vertically, then you could just make like a whole row of them. And you could see all of them. It would be very satisfying.
BONNIE: See, thank you, Molly. I knew I needed to talk to you just to get some guidance on how to make it through.
MOLLY: I feel like if your sock drawer is really well organized, it will contribute significantly to your overall wellbeing.
BONNIE: I think you're absolutely right. Thank you so so much. And I, you know, I encourage you to add this to your sermon this week. Socks and Lent? I think so there's, there is a tie-in.
MOLLY: There’s so kind of crossover here. It all connects.