Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Spirituality of Peace

Triduum in Preparation for the Solemnity of St. Ignatius
Day 2 - A Spirituality of Peace

Readings: Genesis 2: 4-9. 15-25; Psalm 71; 2 Corinthians 5:17-6:2; Matthew 8:18-27
Picture: CC carulmare

From Lectures to Locations
Dear sisters and brothers, before we begin our reflection this evening, I’d like to make a suggestion. It has to do with how we understand, how we look at, what is happening in this Triduum of ours. What are we really doing on these three consecutive nights that we have dedicated to preparing for our parish feast? I suspect that one common approach is to think of them as three lectures on three different, though related, topics. So yesterday we heard about The Bible and Justice. Tonight, we will reflect upon A Spirituality of Peace. And tomorrow we will examine The Social Mission of the Society of Jesus. Justice, Peace, and the Society of Jesus – three topics to consider. Get your notebooks ready.

That is, of course, one way of looking at it. But if these are really only lectures, what does that make you and me? Don’t I become only a speaker, and you a mere audience? And what happens after that? The lecture ends and we each go our separate ways. Is this really all that is going on? Or are we not engaged in something quite different? On each of these three nights, we are coming together not so much as an audience, but as a people assembled by God. We gather not so much to listen to a lecture, as much as to experience the power of God’s Word, as it addresses us both from the ambo and the altar? And things happen when we allow God to address us. In opening our ears and our hearts to listen to what God has to say, we experience God’s consolation and God’s challenge. We leave this place more inspired and united than when we first entered it.

Of course, we cannot deny that each of these three nights is dedicated to a particular theme. But perhaps these are not so much topics as they are locations. Perhaps they are not unlike the stations in the Stations of the Cross. They are particular places in which we come to encounter the Word of God. Yesterday, our focus was on the Bible. Tomorrow, in examining the mission of the Society of Jesus, we will consider the world. But how does the Word move from the dusty pages of the Bible out into the messy situations of the world. It needs first to pass through the depths of our hungry – and sometimes hardened – hearts. And this is our concern tonight. Tonight, we focus our attention on what goes on within us, especially when we allow the Word of God, in the Bible and in the world, to address us. Tonight we consider how the Word can not only melt our hearts, but also move our hands to action. For that is what Christian spirituality is about.

So, sisters and brothers, are you ready to begin?

From Panadol to Photo-Album
Do you really want to experience peace? Is peace something that you truly desire, something that you seek, something that you work for? If so, what does your desire feel like? How do you go about seeking peace? What does your search look like? Sometimes, I think that our efforts for peace, mine included, look a lot like someone popping painkillers. Although we may have a ready supply of the pills in our medicine cabinet, we don’t really think about them until we feel some kind of pain. It’s only when we get a headache, for example, that we reach for the Panadol. Otherwise, who needs it?

Similarly, isn’t it true that we often only think about peace when we encounter some kind of difficulty, some kind of obstacle on the highway of life? It’s usually only when disease or disaster strikes, when dreams start turning into nightmares, when our comfortable lives are thrown into chaos, that we begin to think of peace. It’s only in troubled times that we search desperately for someone or something that can ease our suffering – perhaps a doctor or a friend, a counselor or a priest, a pious devotion or a new diet. But once the storm has passed, once the pain has subsided, we continue on our merry way, living our own life, pursuing our own happiness, until the next crisis comes along. Then off we go to frantically ransack the medicine cabinet once again. And so the cycle continues…

Which is all fine and good, I suppose. Except that we cannot fail to recognize how extremely limited is this kind of Panadol peace. For one thing, it can be very self-centered. It can be focused only on me, on my pain, on my comfort. There often doesn’t seem to be much room for others here, except as potential painkillers. And notice too, how unstable is this kind of peace. Notice how it fluctuates according to the direction in which the wind is blowing. If it suits me, then I’m OK. If it doesn’t, I immediately become anxious and upset. Isn’t it amazing how my so-called peace depends so much upon favorable external conditions?

And there’s also another problem with this approach: we only seek peace when we feel pain. But isn’t it true that, at least medically speaking, even when we may not experience any pain, it doesn’t always mean that we’re in the pink of health? Haven’t we heard enough stories of people who seem to experience no symptoms, and then suddenly drop dead of a heart attack, or are diagnosed with end-stage cancer? Also, isn’t it true that we can actually get so used to chronic pain as to ignore its presence? Can’t we say the same for peace? Isn’t it true that the absence of pain or discomfort – whether real or apparent – isn’t a reliable indicator of the presence of true peace?

Sisters and brothers, given all these factors, we might well question whether this is really the full extent of the harmony and tranquility for which our hearts are yearning. Or is there not perhaps something more – a fuller, deeper kind of peace, and a different way of seeking it? But what is this alternative? If not a Panadol peace then what does it look like?

Reflecting on these questions, I’m reminded of occasions when, for some reason or other, I’m sometimes drawn to take out an old photo-album to look at the pictures inside. You’ve probably done the same before. You know what the experience is like – how gazing at old photographs can remind us of things that we may have long forgotten. And, in the remembering, something happens to us. Thoughts are inspired. Feelings are evoked. Tears may even be shed. It’s as if we somehow get back in touch with ourselves, with who we are, with where we have come from, and where we need to go. We may even be filled with new energy, reinvigorated to face the many challenges of life. Could our search for peace look something like this? Is there perhaps an album of pictures that we need to contemplate?

The Garden that Gives Rise to Groaning
Interestingly enough, it is precisely such an album that our Mass readings present us with today. Two images, in particular, are brought to our attention – two different depictions of what true peace might look like. In the first reading, we find the image of a garden. And not just any garden, but the garden before all other gardens: the Garden of Eden. Pay attention to what we find here. Notice what it looks like. Not only are there the first man and the first woman, as well as every kind of tree and all the wild beasts, but God is also powerfully present here. And, above all, notice the relationships among all the creatures, and between them and their Creator. Notice the harmony – the right relationship – that exists among them: between nature and humanity, and between humanity and God. Everything has its proper place. Notice too how at ease the man and the woman are, not only with each other, but also with their own bodies. They have no hang-ups. They are comfortable in their own skin. Both of them were naked… but they felt no shame. Here, in this picture of a prehistoric garden, we are presented with an image of what we are looking for. More than simply the absence of pain, what we find here is the fullness of peace that comes from right relationship within all of God’s creation. This is the peace that we were made to enjoy. This is our birthright. We were created to live in a tranquil garden like this. It is for such conditions that our hearts are yearning.

And what is our reaction as we gaze upon this sight? What thoughts come to our minds? What emotions are stirred in our hearts? It is likely that we will find a part of ourselves enjoying the peaceful scene that we find here. And then, perhaps all too quickly, we may also be moved, quite spontaneously, to compare it with what we see around us today. Although there is still much goodness and beauty to be appreciated in our world, it is quite undeniable that our relationships are far from right. To begin with, humanity’s dealings with nature are becoming ever more problematic. We continue to pollute our planet to such an extent that even the polar icecaps are melting. We continue to rape our earth, in search of more and more oil and wood and every other kind of natural resource, without caring much about the needs of future generations. Increasingly, we are suffering the effects of deadly droughts and flashfloods, ever more powerful typhoons and scorching heat waves. It’s as though Mother Earth were protesting the abuse to which we are subjecting her. And, sadly, it is often the poorest among us who pay the highest price for our recklessness and negligence.

Within humanity itself, it is hardly necessary to elaborate upon the difficulties that exist among us at every level: international conflicts and wars, global terrorism, an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor… Even in an affluent and relatively peaceful place like Singapore, are we not plagued by various personal hang-ups that are often the result of an increasingly stressful environment? Do we not have to deal with dysfunctional families, broken marriages, declining birth rates, and troubled youth? Also, might the locals among us not examine the degree of hospitality that we show to the foreigners who come here to work or with hopes for a better life? When a child is killed in a road accident, for example, there are legitimately loud cries for seatbelts on school buses. But isn’t it strange that nowhere near the same degree of concern is generated when a pick-up packed with foreign workers overturns?

Faced with difficulties and divisions such as these, in a highly uncertain world where things often don’t seem to make much sense, we might perhaps expect many to turn to religion and to God. And that has indeed happened. But don’t you find it disturbing that many are choosing to embrace forms of religion that are as rigid in their beliefs as they are intolerant of others? Notice how fundamentalism is becoming ever more prevalent. Not just in Islam, but in Christianity as well. And, on the other hand, isn’t it also interesting that Borders now finds it worthwhile to have a section dedicated to books on atheism?

Sisters and brothers, when we gaze upon our world today, can we not be moved by how far it is from the ideal presented to us by the image of the Garden of Eden? However painless and free from anxiety our lives may appear to be from time to time, can we allow ourselves to be unaffected by the many broken relationships that we see around us –relationships within and among us, between us and nature, as well as between us and God? When we gaze upon the tranquility of the Garden of Eden, do we not feel our hearts groaning within us, crying out for a better tomorrow? But what is the way forward? How might we go about restoring this lost paradise? What, if anything, can we do to regain the fullness of peace for which we all hunger and thirst?

The Crossing that Calls and Commissions
It is as we begin to ponder these questions, even as our hearts continue to groan within us, that we find ourselves prompted to turn the page, and to gaze upon the next image in our photo-album. Like the first, this too is a picture of peace, but peace seen from a very different perspective. In contrast to the ideal innocence of the Garden, what we find in the gospel is tranquility in the midst of trouble, serenity in the face of a severe storm.

As we gaze upon this new picture, quite likely our attention will quickly be drawn to how Jesus miraculously calms the wind and the waves. And we will comfort ourselves with the thought that this is also what Jesus does for us when we sail through the storms of life. But, as consoling as such an approach may be, isn’t it also rather narrow. By doing this, aren’t we returning to the kind of Panadol peace that we talked about earlier? Aren’t we using Jesus only as a painkiller? Is there not more to this story? Is there not another image of peace in this picture? The answer, of course, is yes. And the peace we are looking for is found not so much in the calming of the storm, as much as in the full force of its fury. We find it in the figure of Jesus, sleeping soundly in the boat, apparently oblivious to the howling of the wind and the churning of the waves, snoozing even though they are in danger of going under.

To understand what is going on here, it’s necessary for us to consider the background of this boating adventure. Recall that it is Jesus himself who orders the disciples to make the crossing to the other side of the lake. And notice that Jesus gives this order at a time when his popularity is growing, when there are great crowds all about him. In such a situation, when others might have decided to settle down and start a business or build a career, Jesus leaves and crosses to the other side. And if we were to refer to the bible to see how the story continues, we will see that on the other side of the lake is Gentile territory, the country of the Gadarenes, where Jesus encounters two foreigners whom he frees from demonic possession. It is while crossing from a familiar to an alien land that Jesus and his disciples encounter the terrible storm. And it is in the midst of this storm, and in the middle of this crossing, that Jesus finds peace.

With this background in mind, as we continue to gaze upon the surprising sight of Jesus asleep in the belly of the storm-tossed boat, perhaps we might be reminded of two other very similar scenes. Perhaps we will first recall the image of the newborn Jesus, slumbering in a stable. There too, so many years earlier, he was making a crossing. Even as an infant he was negotiating the unimaginable distance between the Creator and his creation. And neither was that first crossing free from trouble. For Jesus was laid in a manger only because there was no room for him at the inn. And, not long after his birth, he had to flee for his life to faraway Egypt. Silent night, holy night… This is what we sing at Christmas. And yet, as quiet as it might have seemed inside the stable, on the night of our Savior’s birth, outside a terrible and deadly storm was blowing. And in the middle of this storm, the tiny Prince of Peace was so serenely sleeping.

And, as it was at the beginning of his earthly existence, so too was it at its end. Where, on earlier occasions, Jesus had snoozed in a manger and slept on a boat, now he submitted himself to the final slumber of death, even as he hung upon the wood of a cross. And how appropriate that it should be a cross. For, on this rough unforgiving surface, Jesus was making the ultimate crossing. Through this supreme sacrifice, he was smoothing the way for us, obtaining, on our behalf, the forgiveness of our sin. Through this Crossing of all crossings, Jesus was finally connecting the heights of heaven with the depths of earth. As we heard in the second reading: God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself…

With these three images of the sleeping Jesus before us, do we not come to a deeper appreciation of what true peace really means, and how we come to experience it? Do the images of Jesus, asleep in the manger, on the boat, and upon the cross, not speak to us of a deep peace that remains even when danger threatens and when darkness seems to rule? Do they not remind us of how Jesus comes to experience this same peace? Isn’t his slumber a sign of his humble submission to his Father’s will? And in his obedience, he crosses over from his Father’s side to where we are, restoring for us, once and for all, the ruptured relationships of the Garden of Eden. In the words of that praise song that we know so well: he came from heaven to earth, to show the way; from the earth to the cross, my debt to pay; from the cross to the grave, from the grave to the sky; Lord I lift your name on high...
And what happens to us and in us as we continue to ponder this great mystery of Jesus sleeping peacefully in the bosom of his Father’s will? Do we not find ourselves called to do what he does? Just as Jesus beckons the first disciples to share his boat, does he not also invite us to allow our own groaning for peace to lead us to lay our heads on the pillow of the Father’s plan of salvation? Aren’t we being drawn to imitate our Lord in making crossings in our own lives? Wherever we may experience division and disharmony – between husband and wife, woman and man, parent and child, Muslim and Christian, Protestant and Catholic, rich and poor, gay and straight, local and foreign, nature and technology – aren’t we called to resist those seductive temptations that would have us remain comfortably where we are, pointing fingers of self-righteous judgment and contempt at those on the opposite shore, or seeking to shield ourselves from them by, for example, sending them a check in the mail once a year? Instead, do we not find ourselves commissioned to do as Jesus did, to seek first to understand what the others are going through, to learn to share, as we are able, in their joy and hope, their grief and anguish, to attempt crossings even if we have to face the fury of a mighty storm?

As we are told in the second reading: it was God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation… After losing the innocence of the Garden of Eden, it is only by accepting this great commission to cross over tumultuous waters that we come to enjoy true and lasting peace, a peace that the world cannot give (John 14:27).

Sisters and brothers, what crossings are we – what crossings are you – being invited to make today?


  1. Like they all say: Now that you have read the book, go watch the movie. Well, in fr Chris' case, now that you are familiar with his writings, go listen to him in person. And that was what happened last night, when he preached at the 2nd triduum Mass in honor of St Ignatius of Loyola. It was awesome.

    Like most other Christian tenets, the paradox of true and lasting peace is that we have to make that crossing over tumultuous waters - not alone, but powered and empowered by The One Who is peace.

  2. Having read your long and exhaustive tract, going to mass takes on renewed fervor.
    In an aside; a few Sundays ago, an elderly Church helper gingerly came and asked me what I was doing in Church. It was a very simple lesson in basic theology.
    She said, "you Sit, you Stand, and Come and you Go." These four actions remind me of the cross.
    We SIT down in the presence of the Almighty, in contemplation. We STAND up to praise HIM. (that's the vertical dimension) We COME to worship Him and GO to spread the good news. (the horizontal dimension).
    The fourfold action of rising (sit-stand) and moving (come-go) remind me of my active faith. How true to life that in order to seek Peace (lasting ones), we need to be nourished and reminded by learning from one another and from private reflections.
    Thanks for your thoughts on crossing from manger to boat and then the ignominy on the Cross.

  3. I'm reminded of Henri Nouwen's thoughts on "Who Is My Neighbour" and "Crossing the Road for One Another" in his book, "Bread for the Journey":

    When Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan (see Luke 10:29-37) to answer the question "Who is my neighbour?" he ends it by asking: "Which, ... do you think, proved himself a neighbor to the man who fell into the bandits' hands?' The neighbour, Jesus makes clear, is not the poor man laying on the side of the street, stripped, beaten, and half dead, but the Samaritan who crossed the road, "bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them, ... lifted him onto his own mount and took him to an inn and looked after him." My neighbour is the one who crosses the road for me!

    We become neighbours when we are willing to cross the road for one another. There is so much separation and segregation: between black people and white people, between gay people and straight people, between young people and old people, between sick people and healthy people, between prisoners and free people, between Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Greek Catholics and Latin Catholics.

    There is a lot of road crossing to do. We are all very busy in our own circles. We have our own people to go to and our own affairs to take care of. But if we could cross the street once in a while and pay attention to what is happening on the other side, we might become neighbours.