Part 15 in a series; see other parts here.
Peace is the prayer on our lips that our own hands must answer. As human beings we are capable of great evil, but also great beauty and goodness. We live most of the time not altogether resolved between them, and sometimes we purchase a sham peace by dissociating ourselves from the evil around us. “Not I,” we say, instead of “Lord, is it I?” To which the answer, if we’re really being honest, is usually at least partly “yes.” We are of a species with the human horrors we see, and there will not be peace so long as we deny that fact.
We cannot have peace without charity, without love, which means learning to see God’s image in the people around us, even as they do terrible, ugly things. We cannot have peace without bearing witness to those human acts that rob us of it most completely. Grace waits on us, not the other way around. For this reason, peace is both always present and an utter fantasy. It’s there as soon as we want it, which is the problem: we don’t. Not really. If we want peace, we have to meet everything that militates against it with hearts open wide as eternity. One doesn’t bring about peace by waging war against its enemies; love, vaster than the ocean, is the only way.
That kind of hard love demands a steady peace in our hearts, and that peace can only come through prayer. It’s the peace that enables us to stand up and speak when our limbs and voices are shaking—not to defend whatever part of the truth we may possess, but to bend the arc of a room toward love. Hatred is not something to be conquered by denouncing it, but something to be transformed by love. We cannot purchase salvation by obliterating people we consider unsaveable, unless we would consign ourselves to hell in the process, where we’ll have to sit with the shades of those we’ve cast out until our hearts learn to make room for them.
We attain peace so rarely because the opened heart it requires comes at the cost of considerable restlessness. If we want peace, we cannot risk trying to pray the restlessness away; rather, we have to pray for the courage to face the world in its full admixture of beauty and ugliness, refusing no complexity or nuance that would disrupt our simple pictures of how things really are. There is no peace without having looked into the abyss with eyes wide open, nor without turning our eyes upward to mountain splendor or the deep field of the starlit night. How can we hope to bear that kind of witness without prayer to sustain us, or to help us process a reality so excessive as to be agonizing, or to turn us from introspection outward yet again?
When we pray for peace, then, we are praying for the intervening heart’s-anguish, not for something to paper over the evident gracelessness all around us with an inner stillness. Prayer, though, can enable Jesus’ words—”Peace, be still”—to settle our hearts even as the storm churns on, not to save us from the storm, but to let us enter it, transformed. The prayer for peace always ends with the words of Shakespeare’s Henry V: “Once more, dear friends, into the breach!” The breach we enter is not between us and other people, though: it runs through all of us, together. May God settle our hearts in the peace and courage we need to heal it.