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The Serenity Prayer's Journey From Wartime To Recovery

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People praying the serenity prayer
People praying the serenity prayer

If you are looking for it, the Serenity Prayer is everywhere. The words to the familiar prayer are: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The Serenity Prayer is best known as a central prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery programs. Yet freedom from substance abuse was not the prayer's original intent. The Serenity Prayer was composed during wartime by a 51-year-old pastor named Reinhold Niebuhr.

His daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, author of The Serenity Prayer, Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War wrote:

“The Serenity Prayer addresses the inconsolable pain, loss and guilt that war inflicts on the communities that wage it; it goes to the heart of the possibilities and impossibilities of collective action for collective betterment—that is to say, to the heart of the possibilities for peace.”

The first time the Serenity Prayer was prayed was at the height of the war against Germany in the summer of 1943. It was a run of the mill Sunday morning service at Union Church in Heath, a farming village in a remote corner of northwestern Massachusetts where Niebhur was a seasonal pastor. The original prayer was longer and contained a second verse that contained more explicitly Christian references. (click here for the entire Serenity Prayer)

Sifton told The Huffington Post that her father’s political concerns were the same as his spiritual ones: “to pray for the strength to change unjust, illiberal, selfish policies which gave rise to war, social unrest, and economic woe; to pray for the strength to help fashion a more fair, just, and peaceful world, and to work for that end.”

These days, the prayer is more often used to help bring about individual peace and personal well-being. At the Realization Center, an outpatient addictions treatment program in New York, the Serenity Prayer is often used to close the program’s twelve step meetings. Paula Schwartz, who leads the food addiction recovery program, told The Huffington Post that the Serenity Prayer “summarizes the way we need to be in the world and in recovery. It had to be divinely inspired.”

The first report of the Serenity Prayer’s use outside church walls was in 1944 when it appeared in the Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces which was published by the Federal Council of Churches after a member of Heath Union’s church congregation asked Neibuhr permission to reprint that little prayer about grace, courage and wisdom he heard one Sunday.

According to "Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age," an AA history book written by the organization’s co-founder Bill Wilson, the Serenity Prayer ended up being adopted as the unofficial mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous in the late 1950s when the organization was barely a decade old.

Wilson's Book claims that their first secretary, Ruth Hock, saw the Serenity Prayer printed underneath a routine obituary. Hock wrote an AA member and printer named Henry S. (AA members do not use full last names) asking if he could make some wallet size cards with the Serenity Prayer on it. He allegedly printed 500 prayer cards and the legacy and tradition evolved from there.

In "Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age," Bill Wilson states says that AA “counts the Serenity Prayer author (Niebuhr) among our great benefactors”.

The Huffington Post asked Sifton what she would say to a room of AA members about her father’s famous words. In an e-mail response, she said, “I'd tell them that they're a step ahead of most everyone else, since they have acknowledged the need for daily, patient, modest work in building a good life--not everyone else has.”

Before bumper sticker wisdom, retweetable nuggets of inspiration and even before the Serenity Prayer, Niebuhr, a devout Missouri native once said, "The problem we often face is often the choice between different kinds of inactivity rather than of choice between action and inaction."

Shifting the perspective of a person in recovery from powerless to empowered is what Paula Schwartz from the Realization Center notes as the key benefit of the Serenity Prayer. The prayer can help those in recovery assess options for action with those people, places and things that can trigger a relapse into addition.

“It allows us to exhale,” says Schwartz. In those crucial moments, praying the Serenity Prayer can becomes life saving.

According to DrugRehab.org, as many as 19,000 people die of drug-related causes every year. According to AlocholicsAnnoymous.org, more than 2,000,000 people call themselves members of the unique fellowship.

Tell us your serenity prayer story today in the comments.

CORRECTION: This post originally quoted the Neibuhr's age as 28 at the time he wrote the Serenity Prayer.

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Filed by Gina Ryder