Another spurious quote has surfaced in not one, but two books that I’ve read recently. Both are examples of contemporary spiritual writing.
Both claim that Francis said, “Start by doing what is necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
I first ran across the quotation in Jana Riess’s well-received Flunking Sainthood (Paraclete, 2011). It appears as a sidebar (page 15) in a chapter on fasting, so it’s apposite. But apparently no one checked its authenticity. What I find especially troubling is that the book is about reading – paying attention to written texts. In that context, you would think that the author and her editors would take particular care to verify their sources. Here, they apparently didn’t. Its presence also makes me wonder whether the author has actually read much of Francis. I’d like to think that if she had, she would find this little text suspect in the first place.
Then I saw it again in Anne Lamott’s latest, Hallelujah Anyway (Riverhead, 2017). She uses it to structure the essay “Planes,” which is about listening and trusting, moving with others to deeper spiritual “planes” (see especially pages 110, 112, and 116-17). In the process, she expands on the quote: for example, “St. Francis said we begin with what is necessary: water, food, shade, and a way in.” Shade and a way in? When did Francis say that? What she seems to mean is that those things were necessary in the situation she is writing about – a desert village in need. But her sentence ties them directly to Francis. Here again, the topic is apposite; it’s the attribution that is off base.
I haven’t yet traced the origins of the quote. A quick Web search shows that it’s very widespread, turning up in (among other places) the Obama White House, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Catholic high school, and the Congressional Record. The earliest citation I found was the Reader’s Digest in 1987. I wouldn’t consider that the last word, but it does show that the saying has been around for a while. The saying also bears a spooky resemblance to the motto of the U. S. Army Service Forces: “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.”
I’ll continue to watch for its origins, and I’d welcome any information from readers. My best guesses are that (a) it’s a recent aphorism that got connected to Francis through a folk process; or (b) it appeared in a work of fiction about Francis and was received as authentic; or (c) it’s a deliberate invention, probably with the best of intentions.
But does it matter? Here is what I would like to say to the authors:
Why should I trust your spiritual insights if you can’t get your facts straight? How do I know that you’re telling the truth about spiritual things, which can’t be independently verified, if you’re not telling the truth about things that can be verified? She who is faithful in little is faithful also in much.