PEACE ON EARTH OR PEACE WITHIN?
A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on March 23, 2003
These past few weeks and months have had an aura of unreality, as millions across the world have been marching, demonstrating, and calling for peace, while at the same time a "coalition of the willing," mostly the United States, has been amassing enormous numbers of troops and unparalleled amounts of weapons in preparation for war. Now the war has begun with a vengeance and one wonders: If the majority of the nations of the world are against this war, and yet it happened anyway, what hope is there for peace on earth?
Along with some of you, I have attended meetings with sincere people trying to avert what they felt would be a disastrous engagement. Along with some of you, and some of my colleagues in ministry, I have stood on street corners with my little sign saying "Support our Troops Bring them Home," and with candles around the peace pole in New Ulm saying prayers and sharing concerns. As I did so, I felt the futility of our actions, and a sense of hopelessness. And I wondered: Is there ever going to be peace in the world?
All of my life, there have been wars. There were big ones, like WW II and Korea and Vietnam; there were little wars like Grenada and Panama and Nicaragua; there were hot wars, cold wars, proxy wars and covert wars. There have been other declared wars, also Johnson's war on poverty; Bush's war on the environment; Ashcroft's war on our civil liberties, and so on. And now, there is the war on terrorism, which seems to have morphed into a war to liberate Iraq, depose Saddam Hussein, rid the world of weapons of mass destruction and bring democracy to the middle east! Given that our leaders seem to believe that war can accomplish all this and more one wonders if we can ever have peace, or if it is a totally elusive concept.
Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil's Dictionary, says that peace is a period of lying and cheating between two periods of fighting! H.L. Mencken claims that "War will never cease until babies come into the world with larger cerebrums and smaller adrenal glands." Cyrus Bass says that war is a natural activity of the higher forms of animal life. Scariest of all, Pat Robertson preaches that war is the result of man's sinfulness. inherited from Adam. Since man is born in sin, says Robertson, he will always wage war! (I apologize for his sexist language, but I did not correct it because I feel there may be some truth in it perhaps if women were in control, war would not be so inevitable.) None of these claims provide much comfort.
Perhaps we are looking for peace in the wrong places or for the wrong kind of peace. Curtis Bok says peace will never come to the world until there is peace within each person. Maybe Bok is on to something. Maybe we should spend less time trying to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of making peace on earth, and spend more time trying to find peace within our selves.
What, really, is peace? As Sri Chinmoy asserts, peace is more than just the absence of war. We think we know the answer peace will come when war is no more. But after we win the latest war, or even all wars, will we have peace? True peace is more than the lull after the victory parades. It is more than the cessation of conflict. It is even more than an absence of ill will between parties. True peace is something found only within. Perhaps that is why it is so ungraspable. Perhaps finding inner Peace is the way we can deal with our feelings of hopelessness, fear and despair. Maybe if we have inner peace, we will no longer feel the need to act out our anger and fear by declaring war.
Recently, a news correspondent interviewed a Russian citizen, and asked how he had managed to live through all the years of hopelessness and fear in the Soviet Union. "By praying for freedom and finding inner peace", the man said. "One can always find peace inside oneself". The quest for inner peace may be necessary, but it is also difficult. The question is: How do we find it? I am not sure there is any one answer, but I do have a few suggestions based on my personal quest, and my experience working with people who were seeking it.
One way to find inner peace is through release letting go of things that cause fear and hopelessness and despair. I saw this approach at work when I was working on the oncology ward where I served as hospital chaplain in Chicago. Patients in the last stages of cancer yearn to find peace. I don't mean this as a pun, but peace seems to be dying word. It is something people seek to attain before they are ready to give up life on this earth. People in extremis speak of "going in peace", "being at peace", "finding peace" and "feeling peaceful". Inner peace, for them, was found by "letting go" of life, by preparing themselves mentally to die. They were able to release themselves from the need to keep living, and accept the inevitability of death.
There was a very obvious difference between those who attain inner peace, and those still trying to find it. This difference permeates their very being; the way they cope with what life dealt them; how they relate to persons close to them, and to death. Those who experienced an at peaceness, were calmer, friendlier, happier and more composed. They were ready to die, and it held no fear for them. Those who had not yet found inner peace were often angry, upset, restless, depressed and lonely. Yet they often struggled to hold onto life, even when its quality was less than desirable. Peace through release made all the difference.
Another potential source of inner peace is relief from despair. In these uncertain times, many of us fear what lies ahead. We feel hopeless and helpless in the face of seemingly inevitable conflict, recession and suffering. We despair for the future. What to do? When an extremely difficult circumstance causes a disheartening set of thoughts to attach themselves to us, we can try to refuse to let them get us down. Say, "Off you go! Out of here, nasty thoughts!" Don't dwell on what psychically depletes you of hope or contentment chase away the bad thoughts.
For some people, getting angry and doing something like protesting or striking back makes them feel better. Putting our anger and frustration into efforts to try to stop what is making us angry and fearful can have a palliative effect. Some act on their fear to make war; others to try to stop war. I have seen people be able to discover a sense of peace within by acting on their convictions. I think the war protestors around the world were practicing this approach. I know I feel much better after I have gathered my anger into some positive channel, like calling or writing a letter to my congressperson or president or governor. I think anger and fear only increase with inaction, which breeds a sense of helplessness.
Some seem to find peace through atonement by seeking forgiveness, repenting in other words, by making their peace with their God, family, friends or persons they think they have wronged. Such spiritual cleansing can be very redeeming, and many feel much better for having done it. Yet how often do we allow unresolved antagonisms to fester and unspoken feelings to eat away at us. Perhaps we have to start by forgiving ourselves and others by loving ourselves and those around us.
Loving ourselves is not always easy to do. Sometimes, like the Velveteen Rabbit, we need to know someone else cares about us before we are capable of self love. You probably know the story:
"What is real?", asked the rabbit one day, when the toys were lying side by side on the nursery floor. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you?" "Real isn't how you are made", said the skin horse, "it's a thing that happens to you when you are loved for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loved. Then you become real." "Does it hurt?" asked the rabbit. "Sometimes", said the skin horse, for he was always truthful, "but when you are real, you don't mind being hurt." "Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?" "No, it doesn't happen all at once," said the skin horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That is why it doesn't happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are real, you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
It is too bad that we sometimes have to suffer to find out that we are real are loved but it is wonderful when it does happen, and it brings a joyous inner peace to many people.
Some people find peace through giving love to others. When people are sick, we find it easy to reach out to them with expressions of love cards, flowers, visits, cookies and the like. I think one reason for this outpouring of love even to strangers is that it helps give those doing it a feeling of peace. What is sad is that so many people do not know how loved they are until they get sick, or something happens to cause others to show their love. We often wait until times of crisis to let others know we care about them, and how special they are. And yet it is this very caring that can help both the giver and receiver of love find inner peace.
Some people find peace through exercise, or running, something that can be done with no thoughts other than putting one foot in front of the other, or doing one more body press. This can lead to an experience of complete peace an at oneness with one's body, the earth and our inner being. Many of us feel most peaceful when we are absolutely exhausted, and flop down on the bed in a semi stupor!
For others, finding peace is more like a break from running. I used to try to run every day, partly for my health, and partly because people told me it would help me find inner peace. But I found the greatest sense of peace was when I was through, and I was swept up in gratitude Thank God, my prayer began, Thank God I don't have to keep on running. I felt the peace to get in touch with the fragility of life and our inner being. We all need a time to pause and ponder silence, for in silence we can feel our breath return and, occasionally, if we are very, very quiet, we may even hear our souls speak. This is, for some, a wondrous time of peace. It is no accident that the words "peace" and "quiet" so often go together.
Many people experience peacefulness through meditation, or just walking in the woods or being close to nature. It is no accident that so many of the world's religions include practices like prayer, yoga, meditation, chanting, etc. These are all ways to help forget the trials and tribulations of the outer world, and to concentrate on the inner self. There is peace in beauty, in serenity, in worshipfulness. Sometimes we need to seek out these things and engage in some spiritual practice.
Others find peace in a sense of the Spirit. Just like our breath, we can try to ignore the spirit, but we can't do without it. It yearns to be felt and begs to be lived. This is the supreme paradox of spirituality it can almost never be captured, but can almost always be seen. It can be seen in any person whose presence offers healing; it can be seen in any incident which calls forth a blessing on creation; it can be seen in any place or time which evokes a wonderful enchantment. Is there any one of us who has not at one time or another been caught short by the grandeur of existence? Who has never known a touch of love or shed a simple tear beyond that which can be explained? Are any of us so dulled to the Mystery which is Being that we do not feel the spirit, and find in it some degree of peace, if only for a little while? We yearn for the spiritual, but we are often not open to accepting it when it comes.
Another way peace is found is through acceptance. When we cannot accept something, we have no peace, because without acceptance there can be no good resolution. A patient one day was very upset. She had to make a decision about some surgery. The operation was necessary to save her life, but it would also leave her severely disfigured. I tried to help her, but I could not, because she could not accept either alternative. As we talked, some flowers arrived for her, and among them were some wildflowers. She started crying, and then told me how she loved picking early spring wild flowers in the woods, feeling the quiet, hearing the rustle of the leaves, and experiencing the thrill of finding tiny blooms among the debris on the forest floor. As she spoke, a look of serenity came over her face and she said, "I've made my decision. I need to pick wildflowers again. I will have the surgery." She had found a way to accept what was about to happen to her something that was more important than what she feared and the acceptance gave her peace. We, too, can find a measure of peace through accepting what we must, instead of fighting it and by focusing on things which are important to us.
Yet another path to inner peace is through the arts, and aesthetics. Many find their peace in music, or art, or poetry either reading or writing it. Dwell in what strengthens you. For some it is reading, for others gardening, cooking, or crafting. Remember, what brings you peace tends to be the same as what strengthens you.
How can we attain inner peace? There is no one way, or even a best way. We must each seek our own path, through our own resources, in our own way. Peace does not come automatically, nor does it come effortlessly. But it is very strange it often comes when we least expect it, and we wonder, "why now?" Perhaps the answer is to be found in an old folk tale:
"Tell me the weight of a snowflake," a coal mouse asked a wild dove.
"Nothing more than nothing," answered the dove.
"In that case I must tell you a marvelous story", the coal mouse said. "I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow, hot heavily, not in a raging blizzard, no, just like in a dream, without any violence. Since I didn't have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the next snowflake dropped onto the branch nothing more than nothing, as you say the branch broke off."
Having said that, the coal mouse flew away.
The dove, since Noah's time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for awhile and finally said to herself: "Perhaps there is only one person's voice lacking for peace to come in the world."
Nothing more than nothing and yet there is something
there. Something which makes us feel at peace, which makes us real. Inner peace may well begin
when expectation ends. Perhaps it will come with the
next prayer, the next hug, the next meditation, the next image, the next experience. Each may be,
as we say, nothing more than nothing, but make all the difference. Sri Chinmoy says to hope to
achieve inner peace without exerting some effort is to expect water in the desert. We need to find
peace for the peace that comes from inner awakening is the peace everlasting. If we work at it,
we too might find peace peace through forgiveness, peace through solitude and rest, peace through
peace through acceptance, and, most of all, peace through love.