in the tender compassion of our God
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.
Because we “dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,” because we live with conflictual desires and insatiable longings, peace does not come all that easily to us. As the letter of James points out, if we are to live in peace we must, in fact, “cultivate” it.
It’s a great irony of human existence that most conflicts and wars occur out of our frustrated and anxious search for peace. There is always something in us that believes that it is another, the outsider who is the obstacle to peace for us. This was focused recently for me in a conversation with two people who, in the course of a conversation about a problem in the community, became more and more angry and then almost frantic as they described, in unrecognizable words, the behavior and character of another community member. Their language became more and more not only critical but violent. At the end of the conversation I found myself saying to them, “So what you are saying is that this person should be eliminated.” In fact, this is often what we do with the “problematic” other. We think that we shall know peace when the other or others who disturb it somehow cease to exist for us. This is true both with individuals and with the world as a whole. As President Obama said yesterday in his commencement address at Rutgers University: “”The world is more interconnected than ever before, and it’s becoming more connected every day. Building walls won’t change that,” A current presidential candidate has said that once the threatening others are purged from our society, then “We’re going to love each other, we’re going to cherish each other, we’re going to take care of each other . . .” As strange as this may sound, it does resonate with a very basic human illusion: once those external factors that upset and disturb us are eliminated, then we shall know peace and love.
The violence we perpetrate on other people and the world is reflective of what we do to ourselves in search of inner peace. In all the ways that are possible to human creativity, we work to create alternatives to the living out, the suffering of, our own life as it is. As spirit, as creatures with souls, we are a capacity for experiencing (suffering) life far beyond anything we can do about that suffering. Our capacity for experience far exceeds our ability to manage that experience. And yet, we devote the bulk of our energy to the illusion of management and control. We falsely believe that peace will only come to us when we can functionally manage the experience of our own lives.
The truth of the matter, however, is quite the contrary. It is in awakening to the deep experience of our own lives that we can begin to receive the gift of peace, to allow the Lord to “guide our feet into the way of peace.” As long as we insist on avoiding aspects of our own lives, of repressing or attempting to violently eliminate what seems like “too much” for us, we can never know peace. The Zen poet Ryokan has written:
Alone, wandering through the mountains,
I come across an abandoned hermitage.
The walls have crumbled, and there is only a path for foxes and rabbits.
The well, next to an ancient bamboo grove, is dry.
Spider webs cover a forgotten book of poems that lies beneath a window.
Dust is piled on the floor,
The stairway is completely hidden by the wild fall grasses.
Crickets, disturbed by my unexpected visit, shriek.
Looking up, I see the setting sun—unbearable loneliness.
We are able to bear the unbearable loneliness, but first we must open our eyes and hearts and cease avoiding it. To cultivate peace today requires that we pay attention and awaken to what we are going through, to the unique witness of reality in all its fragility and temporality that we are.
We sometimes mystify prayer and contemplation because we fear them. in truth, we are too busy to contemplate and to pray because we are too fearful of life and of our small share in it. And so, for all the good we try to do, for all the help we try to bring to others, for all the contribution we attempt to make to the world, peace eludes us. Until we work out of the heart, the passionate and suffering heart of our lives, our work and our busyness is but evasion. As long as we are “on the run” from ourselves, peace remains a distant hope and promise. At the moment we recognize and face the “unbearable loneliness,” we discover that not only is it bearable, it is the very “way of peace.”
Contemplation is mind, heart, knees. It is the ability to wonder, the ability to listen to the silence and to hear the tiny whisper amid great silence by which God speaks to us. To enter into the mystery demands that we not be afraid of reality: that we not be locked into ourselves, that we not flee from what we fail to understand, that we not close our eyes to problems or deny them, that we not dismiss our questions . . . , going beyond our own comfort zone, beyond the laziness and indifference which hold us back, and going out in search of truth, beauty and love. It is seeking a deeper meaning, an answer, and not an easy one, to the questions which challenge our faith, our fidelity and our very existence.
Pope Francis, Homily Easter Vigil, April 4, 2015