They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”
Acts 14: 22
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled; neither let them be afraid.
John 14: 27
The words of Jesus in today’s gospel are very familiar to us: “. . . my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.” We recognize that the transcendent peace that Jesus offers is different from that which we seek in the societal, bodily and functional spheres of life. We recognize that, as John’s gospel presents it, this peace of which Jesus speaks is one that he offers on this very eve of his passion and death. We thus realize that the peace of which Jesus speaks and which he gives us is one that is not dependent on external circumstances and, what Freud termed, the vicissitudes of the ego.
What Jesus is teaching is clear enough to us. Yet, our experience is that the peace of which Jesus speaks often seems absent from our lives. We each have our own profile of what creates anxiety in us, but the reality of the anxiety is quite universal. Rising affluence does not seem to have diminished our anxiety but rather, in many ways, to have increased it. Just last weekend I found myself waking at 5:00 am, on a day I had anticipated as offering extra rest, obsessed with the outcome of a situation that was totally outside of my control. I was troubled because somehow I had confused my responsibility to do what I could with a false sense of responsibility for the outcome of my work.
We worry about our own health and the health of those we love; we worry about maintaining our jobs and providing for our families; we worry about the safety of ourselves and our children; we worry about what it will be like to die and pass into the unknown; we worry about our own significance and the value or our lives; we worry about the authenticity and integrity of the lives we live; we worry about the future of our planet and the inheritance we leave our progeny. The list of possible worries is endless. Given all these sources of worry, how are we to know peace and is there a “peace the world cannot give” which somehow allows us to transcend the inevitability of all these worries?
There is in the ground and core of our being a peace that comes from the life of God in which we participate and that we inhabit. This is the place, not only in the future but even in the present, of which the book of Revelation speaks: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation: 21: 4) We all, at least at times, look forward to this place of eternal rest. When a loved one dies we console ourselves with the thought that they now live in this place. It’s consolation lies for us, in large part, from how different such a place seems from our ordinary lives here and now. What we far too often fail to realize, however, is that we can already know and live in this place in the present. “You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:4)
Every great wisdom tradition teaches, in the words of St. Catherine of Siena, that “all the way to heaven is heaven.” The Buddhists say that “nirvana is samsara,” the goal, the end is the practice. What this teaches us about peace, a peace that the world cannot give, is that we shall know peace to the degree that we are committed to “the way.” When we give all we have to the task at hand, we are much more able to be free of anxiety about the outcome. When we devote ourselves to serving each situation and person in it as best we can with our limited abilities, we become much less worried about how we are seen and what we are worth. When we are honest with ourselves and are willing to recognize our mistakes and weaknesses and to seek forgiveness for them, we need not worry about the judgments of others or even of God.
In the Canticle of Zechariah, we pray of “the tender compassion of our God” from which “the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-9) The way of peace is a way of living. It is living mindfully of “the tender compassion of our God” and so in the “inner light” of that merciful love.
In listening to the anxiety of others, we can often hear that their anxiety is due, in large part, to inaction, to the fear and refusal to act in the way that is called for by the situation. Paradoxically enough, we often prefer the anxiety to the responsibility of acting. The peace the world cannot give is within us, but we must make the fundamental choice to orient our lives and actions in response to its call. To follow the way is simple but difficult. We will probably never “do it well” in the way we and the world measure. But peace does not come from “doing it well” but rather from doing and giving what we can, however small and humble it may be, to God, to our neighbor, to the world. To give without holding back is a great act of trust in God. The gift that God gives in return is peace.
The good will rejoice here and rejoice there when they see the good things they have done. They delight and rejoice in their own good deeds. They are happy to follow the path onwards.
The one who does harm suffers both in this world and the next. He suffers when he thinks about what he has done, and he suffers more when he wonders what will happen to him.
The one who does good is happy both in this world and the next. He is happy when he thinks about the good he has done and happier still when he contemplates the path ahead.
The Dhammapada, vs. 16-8