Written as an agglomeration of thoughts and reflections over several years, with influences from a visit to Guernica in July 2017, the organists and choristers of Guildford Cathedral, school chapel talks given and received, stolen days of late summer sun in Weymouth in September 2018, climbing the Worcestershire beacon, and canonical conversations:
A piece for International Peace Day on the concept of peace, and what it means to choose to be at peace.
Peace is a choice. It cannot be imposed, and it isn’t found by chance.
It is still. There is an hour to go before Eucharist begins. Glacial white walls are blank thoughts, gently splashed with honey-golden sparks, where the early morning light peeks in through the dusty rain-stained windows, adorning the soft arches with a gilded halo. A soft breath, and a floating whisper are the only hints of life in the nave. I stop and sit in a comfortable spot, just behind the pillar, 3 seats from the aisle. I experience that craved paradisal, divine moment; there is a warmth that enfolds, though the blankets of icy winter months are now gone.
Gently, slowly, the choir begins to rehearse: “O, pray for the peace of Jerusalem, ye shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and plenteousness within thy palaces.” Howells. Music can seem so sure, so reassuringly peaceful. But I cannot help but question: where is this foretaste of promised celestial peace? I begin to cradle peace in my hands. This is a strange thread which binds us together, yet fragile, frayed.
Peace, where are you?
The Nobel Peace Prize is one of the most renowned global awards, given to an individual or organisation promoting peace. In October last year, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize, “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.” It may seem ironic that the now President of the United States, Donald Trump, was nominated for the same prize, a President who has threatened, not obscurely, the ‘total destruction’ of North Korea in retaliation to the nuclear threat posed should de-nuclearisation not take place. Are ‘peace talks’ between the countries lasting? I suspect I may not be the only one to have have doubts.
For, despite the work of the Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, we are far from such prohibition. Indeed, at several points over the last few years, we may even seem to have been at the threshold of nuclear crisis. For those who lived through the Cold War period, the feeling is all too familiar. Historical sites remind us of broadcasts our parents heard, warning about possible nuclear attack, what to do and where to go. Is this history? I certainly cannot answer definitively, in the way I would like to.
Nuclear war does not weigh alone on the world at the moment. We are under threat from supremacist politics. We are lost in conflict over a no-deal Brexit. Party turns on party, man on man. We are victims of barbaric terrorism; the inquest into the Westminster attack goes on. The Salisbury and Amesbury poisonings remind us that peace is threatened as we live out our lives on a quotidian basis.
In many ways, we may seem to be far from peace. And peace may seem far from us.
So, we suffer trials with peace not only as a society, but as individuals. Every day I try to seek a moment for that inner peace I so desire. Perhaps it’s turning off the alarm and lying in the stillness and blackness of the morning, the blankets wrapped around me like a cocoon, holding me as I live, breath by breath. Perhaps it’s a stolen moment in the cloister, watching the sun cast the radiant solstice on the sky, buildings becoming silhouettes against a sky which fades from a burning red, to a halcyon blue. Perhaps it’s the sand, still warm from the September sand, running in rivulets through toes hastening towards water, so still in the shelter of the bay. Perhaps it’s receiving someone else’s care, reassurance and time. Perhaps it’s the feeling of reaching safety, or the anchor of safety in a sea of fear. Perhaps it’s the feeling of a pen in hand, and night ahead. Perhaps it’s choosing love despite the pain. Perhaps it’s the feeling that no words will ever suffice to describe a feeling. Perhaps it coming from climbing to a peak in gale force winds, being battered and blown, shouting and not hearing, to resting with a cup of tea in front of the television, whilst outside it grows dark, the wind continually roaring outside. Perhaps it’s holding a hand, sharing a smile, or laughing with each other. Perhaps it’s sharing a story with someone else. A second: a breath, a blink. A momentary escape from such a world as ours, which daily descends into a deeper political spiral. It’s so important to my day.
But it is easy to say ‘find time for peace.’ It is much harder to do, especially today, where the joy of modern technology brings a daily battle between a sense of peaceful detachment, and the attraction to news that can be with us in an instant: Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat. We are never more than a tap away from what we want to know. So, are we never more than a button press away from turning that phone off, and taking a moment for peace. But that peace is all too often thrown away. The addiction to knowing everything in a moment is unrelenting. We want to share, we want to find fulfilment in being known. On average we check our phones 150 times a day, and are online for 31 hours per week. When a notification pops up, we respond instantaneously. Having been in a girls’ house makes it all too clear: when the boy she likes is not texting her back, she is constantly checking to see if she has missed something. Is he online? Is he ignoring her? Why hasn’t he responded? It’s been 2 minutes since she sent the text. Social media has the force to bring so much good: introductions, foundations, common ground. I know it well. But from time to time, it takes its toll. It is a vicious cycle.
I stumble through the noise, trying to find some peace. A stranger in the crowd, I lose myself.
Both on a personal, and worldwide scale, today’s populations are never at peace.
Yet Christ promises: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). What is it he left? What gift did he bestow? What peace do we know? What peace do we find? In my world, your world, our world, where is peace?
Perhaps peace is an equilibrium, difficult, between the various languages, cultures and outlooks, the different situations and the millions and hopes and desires in the minds of civilisation. It’s a wide-ranging, desirable and unclassifiable concept. Indefinable. In its exchange it demands of us understanding, tolerance, humility, reconciliation and strength. But if this is so, peace is an energy deeply rooted in ourselves; a tool we choose to use, and to give to others. Peace is about how we choose to balance in a world that pulls us apart.
How can we live peacefully? Perhaps all we can do is start by being at peace within ourselves.
Giving a Chapel talk, I once described personal identity as a Rubix cube: different categories of our identity are like colours on a Rubix cube. All the six colours can be all randomly mixed up, just like parts of identity are in our personalities. A mix of our different identities shapes our thoughts, speech and actions. In reality, there are far more than 6 parts to selfhood. But whilst each part cannot ever be mutually exclusive, when we think about our identity, we can attempt to categorise it into sections and focus on one particular type at a time. Either way, discordantly mixed up or harmoniously separated, it still makes a cube, oneself, it is just that one identity is clearer to conceptualise than the other.
Perhaps when we seek to be at peace with ourselves, it is like the constituent parts of our lives are in the process of being shifted, from the thick harmonious texture of jumbled multicoloured faces, to the pure, vulnerable, yet powerful, melody of distinct sides. Sometimes the solution is easy. Sometimes it takes far longer. Perfect peace is a moment of transitory solution. How long does it last? How long does a Rubix cube stay solved? Not long at all. A brief, intangible, ephemeral but innately transcendent time. Something, someone comes along, and suddenly we return to a state of melted and busy reality. Yet somehow, when we choose, we can return to that moment, or a similar, if we are willing to choose to work for clarity, for harmony; if we are willing to choose to work for peace.
Again, it is easy to say, and harder to do. Indeed, though I see its necessity, it’s a concept that I, in my own way, struggle with. When I came out of hospital I didn’t know where to turn. I felt like my world had been flipped upside down, like all the colours on the cube were irreparably jumbled, squares had fallen off, and the colours were blurring one into another. I felt as far from individual peace as I have ever done. I frequently asked the question: who am I? I didn’t feel like I was myself anymore. I felt defined by my condition, and I lost that sense of peaceful equilibrium. I couldn’t find the peace to reflect, to think, to work through my own identity. I had lost peace with myself. I couldn’t understand how Christ could leave us peace, and yet that I could not grasp it in those dark weeks.
We all fight battles, where peace seems very distant indeed.
Now, as I sit here, toying with peace, I think that Christ gives us the power, the energy of peace. He does not tell us how to use it, or reassure us that it is always evident in the world. He could not give us tangible peace. Instead, he gave us the tool for reconciliation, and for forgiveness. We are the artists: we have to make it ourselves.
So, I had to seek out peace for myself. I had to take those moments to be still, though all I felt like doing was shouting and screaming. I had to hold on to peace in torment. I wanted to make war with myself. Sometimes I still do. I had to, I have to, consciously choose peace, forgive myself, and reconcile myself to my future. Sometimes I fail. I am headstrong, foolish, selfish. I believe those days too are allowed, because they provide a striking foil to the days I chose peace. It is not complete failure, but a lack of equilibrium. The days I do find peace are the days I find plenteousness; the days I am able to flourish again. We may not be at perfect peace every moment of every day, but we should aspire to strive, daily, for moments of extraordinary celestial peace, in the ordinary and mundane world around us. We should be the artists, write the score, illustrate the page.
Following the Skripal poisonings, a flock of 3000 origami doves flew through the Cathedral, some inscribed with messages, and prayers for peace. Breath-taking, and uplifting, ‘Les Colombes’ spoke of the choice of peace and solidarity, in torrid moments of despair. It was particularly striking to see the doves’ reflection in the baptismal font – a reminder that even when we look down, peace from above is never far away, reflected all around us. Look, and you will find it. Choose peace, and flourish. We cannot solve world peace alone; we can only live at peace with ourselves, and so encourage others to choose peace. We can be those flock of doves, flying through life, with grace, with hope, with peace.
We harbour our own Christ-given inner peace, though the world around us may seem peace-less. It is Christ’s peace that we must strive to live out in our lives. We must find peace, use peace, and seek peace. We must pursue peace, in the darkest of night. We must be a peaceful people. We must rest in the assurance that Jesus gave us this peace to use in the world, and pass on to others, living at peace with everyone. Yes, he didn’t tell us how. How is different for everyone. But however we find it, with that divine peace, we will never let our hearts be troubled, or be afraid.
Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast to that which is good; render to no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honour everyone.
Peace be within thy walls, and plenteousness within thy palaces.
May the peace of the Lord be with you.