Mark Twain

The War Prayer 

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 spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading 
spread of roofs and balconies a fulttering 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 with 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 outpourings 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 young faces alight with 
martial dreams--visions of the 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 heroes, 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 the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in 
His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; 
help them 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 clothered 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 and 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 will grant it if such 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--excpet 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, and the other not. Both 
have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the 
unspoken. Ponder this--keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon 
yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon your neighbor at 
the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain on your crop which needs it, 
by that act you are possibly praying for a curse on 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 the 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 fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put 
it into words. Listen! 

"Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into 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 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 in the wastes of their 
desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in 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 pilgrimmage, make heavy their steps, water their way with 
their tears, strain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! 

We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who us the Source of Love, and Who is 
the 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.