“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Blaise Pascal
It is the second week of advent and this week’s theme is on Peace.
I’m struggling for a good definition of peace. Most of the places I’ve looked define peace by what it’s not. It is the absence of conflict, the freedom from disturbance, a lack of worry or contention, or the cessation of war. A peaceful environment is one free from threats or the things that trigger our anxieties. If we’re safe, secure, and in control we’re at peace.
Except that we aren’t. At least I’m not.
I’d like to think that the external things that threaten my peace are like germs and if I can sterilize my environment from disturbances, then my heart will be calm. If I could just remove the irritants, I’d go back to my normal place of rest. If my kids would just do their homework without needing constant reminders, I would be able to relax and not stress. If the guy not letting me merge in on PCH would just be cool, I wouldn’t have to mumble bad words under my breath. If the guy that just paddled into my wave hadn’t dropped in on me, I’d be having the best surf session of my life. And on and on.
If only this was true. But it isn’t. The worry and fear isn’t out there. It’s in here. And it goes deep.
Often it is in moments of quiet that I become aware of just how troubled the waters of my soul truly are. My natural state of rest is anything but restful. It is uneasy. It is insecure. It longs for distraction, for diversion. Anything will do…endless Instagram scrolling, bored Facebook meandering. Videos of cats and cucumbers.
Pascal writes this about diversion. He says,
“What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us. That is why we prefer the hunt to the capture.”
That last line is so convicting. It isn’t the prize we’re after, it is the thought of the prize. Most of us know by now that the new thing we’re saving to buy won’t deliver the satisfaction we hope for, but we’ll keep playing that game. Why? Because it is what we like. Even if the process is broken. Even if it is hopeless. Any time those piercing thoughts pass by we pull out our phones. We pull out our credit cards. Peace is just one purchase away.
Of course, it isn’t actually. We already know this. But the hunt is often enough to divert our attention away from this reality. Diversion is just another form of self-medication.
True peace is costly. It is painful. It requires us pressing further into the anxiety. It requires an uncomfortable amount of vulnerability. It is humbling, even humiliating. We are letting light shine into our closets and exposing the shadow sides of ourselves. The road to peace is anything but peaceful.
Merton says that what we find, when we remain in this honest place without diversion, is “the one truth that can help us solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more or less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggressivity and hypocrisy.”
It reminds me of that story about G.K. Chesterton being asked the question by the London Times, “What is wrong with the world?” Chesterton’s response: “I am.”
This is the birthplace of peace. It begins with the painful dying of the ego and the humiliating admission of our own insufficiency. We can’t do it alone. This is the beginning of hope.
Because as our hands open in helplessness, we realize that the God of peace is always already there. Richard Rohr writes, “This doesn’t take a lot of thinking. It doesn’t take a lot of theology. It doesn’t take a lot of education. It doesn’t even take a lot of morality. You just have to walk and breathe and receive and give, and –voila!- you’re in the flow.”
This is one of the most beautiful reminders of advent. Emmanuel means God with us. As Jesus said, “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 key is not in us avoiding conflict, nor is it us detaching from pain, but moving through it with humility and accepting the gift of peace that has already been given. If it sounds too simple, I would just say, give it a try.
This sort of peace can’t be hoarded. When we accept this peace, we realize that all those around us are equally as deserving. We are empowered to forgive by the forgiveness we’ve received. We extend mercy because we’ve been shown mercy.
Merton writes, “If we can love the men we cannot trust (without trusting them foolishly) and if we can to some extent share the burden of their sin by identifying ourselves with them, then perhaps there is some hope of a kind of peace on earth, based not on the wisdom and the manipulations of men but on the inscrutable mercy of God.”
Amen to that!
My prayer for this week is that we would allow the light of God’s truth to illuminate our hearts, and that, in this place of humility, we would accept the tremendous gift of God’s love and mercy, and allow the peace of God to fill us and flow through us to a world in such desperate need.