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The Way of Peace

May 23, 2011

Receiving the gift of transcendent peace requires of us that we become more intimate with ourselves, with the world, with others, and with God.  We do this first of all by deepening our attunement to or consonance with our founding life form.  A very paradoxical phenomenon of human life is that in the course of our lives we often more consistently move away from, rather than towards, our deepest originality.  This dissociation from our true originality and coercive attempt to re-create ourselves requires an act of suppression or repression of our founding life form.  This profound self-alienation makes reminders and intimations of our founding life form, our own deepest identity, a source of anxiety and fear to us, a disturber of our peace. 

     In his book In the Valley of the Shadow, James L. Kugel writes a reflection on a personal life experience which occurred some ago while he was Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard.  In 2000, Kugel was diagnosed with a “particularly aggressive form of cancer.”  He was told that it could not be cured, but it could be treated, with a life expectancy of a few years at best.  When he left the doctor’s office Kugel describes an experience of “a certain state of mind.”  He says that the “background music” of ordinary life suddenly stopped, leaving him in a state of total silence.  Everything we ordinarily think about (our concerns, our duties, the future) all fell away.  And when all these thoughts and feelings (born of the illusion we will live forever) fell away, he was left in total silence with a sense of his own smallness: not smallness in relationship to anything else, just the experience of his absolute smallness in the world.  This is a description of the falling away of our own “pride form,” that which in ordinary consciousness we confuse with our foundational identity.  It is the falling away of that life which is the product of our own efforts and imagination.

     While the background music of our ordinary consciousness is playing, any sense of our smallness is an affront to us, and a source of fear and anxiety.  This is the source of violence in us.  It is the fear of our smallness, impotence, and limit that coerces us to violence.    But when we move toward instead of distancing from our smallness — that is, our unique founding life form which is small but significant and loved — we become more intimate with ourselves and thus begin to experience the peace of being truly at home. 

     If distance leads to dispositions of coercion, manipulation, and control, intimacy moves toward love and “submission.”  The fruits of this love and obedience are appreciation and appropriation of our smallness, an awareness of where we really fit in the world, and thus, an ongoing discovery of what is our true work in the world.   We begin to become whole and complete, to know shalom, when our designs begin to be replaced by those of the Mystery.   In the Divine Comedy Dante puts it this way:  “In his will is our peace.”  So, as a 3rd century Rabbi that Kugel quotes puts it:  “Make His will your will, so that your will may be His.”  In the experience which Meister Eckhart refers to as “remaining within,” we know and can live out our life call and life work that as our life ends we may be able to say, with Jesus, “I have finished the work you have given me to do” (John 17:4).

     This is living out of a life of prayer, a prayer that is the most intimate of actions.  It is bringing our whole will, our whole self before God that we may inter-form, that we may learn the truth of things, and that we may be available to a fuller expression of our founding life form in our heart and character.  This submission to God’s will in us leads us to more fully give form to and receive form from the world instead of our trying to control or manage it.  Violence springs from our attempts to make the world correspond to our will rather than our submitting to being directed by God through our field of formation. 

     Adrian van Kaam writes that what prevents peace and joy from taking root in our hearts is not primarily our missing things we would like to have but rather our coercive strivings for them.  It is our coercive strivings “that make us hoard things and hurry time.  This is what keeps us from savoring the surprises of life the mystery inspires us to enjoy.” (Transcendent Formation, p. 253)  Coercive strivings keep us from living and enjoying what the day brings to us and, by extension, the life that is given to us.  Peace and joy come from receiving, appreciating and enjoying whatever is given to us – none of which is the result of our effort. 

    Peace is the Lord’s gift to us, but to receive the gift requires of us that we mitigate the power of our coercive strivings on our life and world.  Van Kaam suggests that one of the primary ways to do this is to grow in awareness of how we attempt “to make situations fit coercive longings instead of flowing with them as formation opportunities.”  (ibid., p. 254)  Hospitality is the disposition which will help us flow with situations in such a way that they become “formation opportunities” rather than threats to be controlled.  In Gethsemane the disciples are unable to “stay with” Jesus and to share in and suffer through the experience which he and they are having.  In the resurrection story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus, we see the opposite experience as the Risen Jesus is recognized by the disciples because they have besought the stranger to “stay with” them.   It is by staying with, in openness and unknowing, in faith and trust, in hope and love, that the Way becomes known to us.  Our compulsions, our coercive strivings, are always trying to avoid aspects of life, to escape the strangeness of our life and the mystery at its core.  Scriptural hospitality is the opposite of coercion – it is creating a space for the stranger and the strange; in its openness and receptivity it the opposite of violence.

     In the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples “tune out” despite Jesus’ appeal that they stay, watch, and pray with him.  In such a difficult and painful situation most of us would probably do the same.  We often tune out of the unpleasant aspects of life in this way.   We can physically or psychologically sleep, blocking out what is part of our life situation that seems too difficult to bear.  But, very often, we fail to stay awake to life by our futile attempt to remake the situation or person to fit our coercive longings.  This is ordinary, daily violence.  It is most of all the violence of refusing the formation opportunity, the will of God in the moment.  It is also the root of all other forms of violence.  Our formation field and the World have the Divine Mystery as their radiating center.  Peace comes to us, individually and communally, in our hospitable openness to reality and the conforming of our will to the Way that is God’s will.  We know the way because we have the transcendent potency of our founding life form, a potency that is, in itself, the gift of peace that Jesus and God have given us.

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Last updated: 11/25/10.