We had church in the woods today, gathering and chopping more kindling, spreading gravel in the driveway, clearing flower beds. Old hymns often surface when I’m doing handwork; today “When peace like a river ….” decided to run through my head. I remembered the chorus of the hymn – which I have always loved for its echoing refrain – but not all the words, so I looked them up.
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot
Thou hast taught me to say
It is well
It is well with my soul.
Refrain: It is well (it is well) with my soul (with my soul), it is well, it is well, with my soul.
It’s funny that this hymn cropped up, because at first glance it seems representative of the problems I have with the notion of peace. It seems too often peace is presented as a personal goal, and a political unreality, only sought by the naïve. Conflicts in groups as small as families and churches and communities already feel too big or scary to address, and inter-ethnic or inter-cultural or international conflicts feel beyond the reach of mere mortals, though they do provide endless engagement for career politicians and diplomats, non-governmental organizations and aid agencies.
To a person with a hammer, everything looks like it needs a nail; to the most militarily equipped nation in the history of the world, every conflict looks like an opportunity to gain access to resources, control over outcomes, and profit out of arms production and sales. Wars generate industries … profits … jobs … and death. Wars (seem to) settle things quickly; but “settled” and “peace” are not the same thing. Usually the only thing that is settled is who gets to dictate the terms under which a society will be restructured and reconstructed.
The prophet Jeremiah knew the problem well: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (6:14)
We have gone far, far afield from the place where we might understand and practice the things that make for peace. Those who try to imagine a return to that place are called naïve and foolish; those who call for a chance to practice peace are shouted down as unproductive and unrealistic. I remember the words of Ada María Isasi-Díaz in a sermon at Brite Divinity School: “Give us an unlimited budget and 2000 years, and let’s see what we can do.”
So, yeah, I have a problem with peace. It’s too little when it’s “just” personal, and it’s too much when presented as a task for all of us to engage.
Where is a disillusioned citizen of the empire to go with all this …
Well, let me go back to that hymn, for a minute. I keep thinking about it. Maybe it’s not just “don’t worry, be happy” music.
Peace like a river … kind of odd, when you think about it. Rivers aren’t still. Maybe peace isn’t, either. If like a river, then peace comes in motion, rather than stillness … is always changing, rather than static … is turbulent, rather than predictable. If like a river, then peace can flood in, surprising us, or dry away to a trickle in time of drought. If like a river, then maybe peace is one of the waters of life. I do know its absence deals death.
I might like this.
Let me jump tracks for a minute. I’m one of many Christians who dabbles in Buddhist thought and practice. I do know the Christian tradition has its own history of contemplative practice, and I have found both comfort and challenge in dancing with the ones that brung me. (Speaking of which, yeah, that hymn’s refrain reminds me of Julian of Norwich’s prayer, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” a surprisingly comforting prayer when the sea billows are bigger than your boat.) And I do have some questions in encountering Buddhist thought, especially its advocacy for no-hope and non-attachment. Christianity has some very strong ideas about hope, and does create some very strong attachments: e.g., to the notion of justice-love, God’s for us and ours for each other.
But there are Buddhist thoughts that stay with me, and keep me thinking (and sitting with …). Some of these come from Thich Nhat Hanh; here is Krista Tippett’s introduction of him from the Speaking of Faith podcast in which she profiled and interviewed him (read or listen here): “Thich Nhat Hanh first came to the world’s attention in the 1960s during the war in his native Vietnam. He forsook monastic isolation to care for the victims of that war and to work for reconciliation among all the warring parties. He called this ‘engaged Buddhism.’ Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. And in 1969, Thich Nhat Hanh led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace Talks.
“Thich Nhat Hanh was expelled from post-war Vietnam because he had refused to take sides even as he worked for peace. He settled in exile in France. There he founded Plum Village, a Buddhist community or, or sangha, that has spawned communities of practice and service around the world. In recent years, Thich Nhat Hanh’s counsel has been sought by CEOs at the World Economic Summit, Harvard Medical School faculty, even members of the United States Congress.”
Here’s hoping the muckety-mucks keep listening. And try practicing. (Yeah, I know. I need to listen. And practice.)
Hanh’s practices give his teaching greater power to capture my attention. When he says daily mindfulness practice leads to an internal peace that is critical to doing anything about peace in the world, I believe I need to listen. In his own words (from the Speaking of Faith interview):
Brother Thây: Well, peace always begins with yourself as an individual, and, as an individual, you might help building a community of peace. That’s what we try to do. And when the community of a few hundred people knows the practice of peace and brotherhood, and then you can become the refuge for many others who come to you and profit from the practice of peace and brotherhood. And then they will join you, and the community get larger and larger all the time. And the practice of peace and brotherhood will be offered to many other people. That is what is going on.
Ms. Tippett: And you experienced that to be…
Brother Thây: Yes, because when I came to the West, I was all alone, and I was aware that I had to build a community. And there was no Buddhists at all at that time. So I work with numerous people, and I suggest the practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sitting. And slowly it built a community practice. We even have communities in the Middle East consisting of Israelis and Palestinians.
Ms. Tippett: Right. I know that you’re bringing Israelis and Palestinians together at Plum Village.
Brother Thây: Yes.
Ms. Tippett: Is your teaching any different if you’re speaking to members of Congress or you’re speaking to Hollywood filmmakers or you’re speaking to law enforcement officers?
Brother Thây: The practice would be the same. But you need friends to show us how a certain group of people lead their life or what kind of suffering and difficulties they encounter in their life, so that we can understand. And after that, only after that, we could offer the appropriate teaching and practice. That is why we continue to learn every day with our practice and sharing.
One of the most wonderful story-images from that interview came when Hanh spoke of knowing how to make use of suffering in order to build peace and happiness: “It’s like growing lotus flowers. You cannot grow lotus flowers on marble. You have to grow them on the mud. Without mud, you cannot have a lotus flower. Without suffering, you have no ways in order to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. That’s why my definition of the kingdom of God is not a place where suffering is not, where there is no suffering…. [S]uffering and happiness, they are both organic, like a flower and garbage. If the flower is on her way to become a piece of garbage, the garbage can be on her way to becoming a flower.”
Mud. As in a slow-moving river, dropping its sediment and making a place for something beautiful to grow, and not rushing away so fast that tender beginnings are ripped out by the roots. Garbage … what the flower was, and what the flower will be, and not something to be disdained.
Slow is not all bad. Mud can be fruitful. Even the garbage-mind of distraction or dis-ease can be composted to mindful, moment-by-moment awareness.
This has been my practice, of late: fitful, irregular, but ongoing. And in many of these moments, when my awareness opens fully to the moment right in front of me, the reality I perceive through my senses is overwhelming. Awareness explodes within, an explosion that integrates me with what I perceive, such that there is hardly a place between within and without.
This last weekend my beloved fell ill; I needed to go get her (she works in Philadelphia during the week) and bring her home. It was 1:30 in the afternoon by the time I squared things away to leave. I took food I knew I could eat (traveling gluten-free is a challenge) and what I thought she might need and headed out into a glorious Carolina fall afternoon, blue and bright.
The sun set early in the Virginia hardwoods, lit candle orange and Advent purple. The monuments of Washington D.C. glowed stark white in the early dark of a sharp winter’s night. The moon rose over Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, an atmosphere-magnified monument to another sort of Glory.
Over and over on this drive, even deep into the night, some kind of inner instinct kept whispering the command to “Mind.”
Mind the road. Mind what you’re doing. Mind the cars around you. Mind your driving. Somehow even my poorly practiced mindfulness had taken root somewhere deep, and the recollection to mindfulness helped to keep me safe and alert on this long drive, and tuned me in to beauty after beauty. I arrived safely. I had energy to care for my beloved, to feel the joy of returning the care she so often lavishes on me.
This kind of mindfulness very nearly becomes prayer without ceasing, as close as I can get, anyway. Any worry or anxiety that arises is seen, heard, prayed over and given up, so that my attention and awareness come out of the past and future back to the present moment, the only moment in which I can experience loving and being loved, the only moment in which I can accomplish any form of justice or community, the only moment in which I can trust and seek to be trustworthy.
And in that moment, with all that is wrong in the world, with all that I am called to attempt, with all that remains undone and that I want to do, I still can say it is well … it is well, with my soul. Not because all is well in the world; not because I have given up hope; not because I am detached; not because there is nothing left to do. But because of the One who made this world and who shines through the river, the mud, the garbage, the lotus – wherever we look, and truly see, we can see peace, like a river, ever-flowing, ever-changing, ever-calling us to lives worth saving, lives worth living.