The Elusive Gift of Peace

virgin & mother

Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God

On the first day of this new year 2015, the octave of Christmas, the people of God turn our gaze to the woman who is closest to the center of all the excitement that frames this joyous and holy season—Blessed Mary of Nazareth. It must have been quite a year for her: with her betrothal to Joseph the carpenter—most likely a marriage arranged by her parents; then a most unsettling angelic visit announcing she would be the mother of God’s Son—to come about in a most unconventional manner; how she unintentionally put Joseph and her own family through such confusion and anguish; then astonishing news of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy—mostly that she was past when most women have children; then the mysterious unfolding of events that accompanied her visit to Elizabeth and Zechariah, from the day she arrived to the birth of their son; then her own journey with Joseph to Bethlehem in the waning days of her own pregnancy; then the birth of her own son in a humble stable far from home, the utter stillness of that holy night; and now a most curious visit from shepherds who spoke excitedly of a vision of angels announcing the birth of her child as they watched their flocks by night. Scripture tells us the young mother “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Not only is it absolutely astonishing she seems so unperturbed, nor does she demand the answers we all are dying to know, but she is cool as a cucumber, the picture of complete peacefulness and total confidence in God whom she knows and trust well.

Also on the first day of this new year 2015, the Catholic Church throughout the world observes the World Day of Prayer for Peace, first introduced in 1967, inspired by St. John XXIII’s encyclical “Peace on Earth” and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “On the Development of Peoples.” And yet it seems each year ever since, and probably many more years before, the peace we so ardently pray for seems so elusive, so out of reach.

Pope Francis leads the Palm Sunday mass at Saint Peter's Square in the Vatican

Is it perhaps because it’s just the Catholic Church praying for peace on this day? Other religious and civil world leaders have introduced other days of prayer for peace throughout the year. Some of them we might join in, but probably not all, not because we don’t desire peace as they do, but rather because we all have a lot on our plates. And curiously, there are people who will claim to sincerely desire peace who will stubbornly refuse to stand anywhere near their historical enemies, or just as carelessly reopen old wounds, or demand specific language for prayer some might find offensive, or seek unconditional redress for past catastrophic grievances and transgressions—truly difficult obstacles to get past. So while we say we sincerely desire peace, we will arrogantly require some non-negotiables that make peace completely unattainable, giving ourselves the excuse we need to justify giving up on a true lasting peace.

I stopped to consider why the gift of peace is often so elusive, a gift we all seem to want, a gift we all believe comes from God’s tremendous compassion, a gift we all know God desires for us. I suggest the idea of a gift can sometimes be deceiving. When we think of “gift,” we customarily regard “gift” as undeserved or unmerited, and of ourselves as unworthy recipients. So when we imagine God’s gift of peace, we see God handing it to us in a box wrapped in colorful, shiny paper and tied with a big bright bow, while we receive this gift as totally undeserving and unworthy recipients.

Okay, we really don’t see it that way. Most of us understand peace to be hard work—consistent, focused, unrelenting hard work. We cannot for a moment lose our resolve or slack in our efforts. Rather, we constantly express support for one another, everyone we work with on all sides. We pray for courage. We explore new inroads and possibilities. We make every effort to de-escalate conflicts. We take time to reflect and ponder our progress as well as our setbacks. We make every effort to avoid mindless and harsh rhetoric. We are attentive to sensitive symbols. We don’t give in to assuming malicious intent on the part of others. We try to keep hope alive. We do not give in to despair. But we must understand, we are not primarily the recipients of this elusive gift of peace. Rather, while we work with God’s help to achieve peace, we are in fact working to establish peace as a lasting legacy for others.

peace at home

In this joyous and holy season of the immortal Prince of Peace, we raise our hearts and minds to God in prayer for the elusive gift of his peace. But prayer without action is naïvely ineffective, while action without prayer is arrogantly presumptuous. God is still the only source of true and lasting peace, which he bestows on those who seek it sincerely and humbly. And those who receive the gift of peace must possess it truly before they can extend it to others. For we cannot give what we first do not have. I don’t know who among you are involved in any level of sensitive, high-stakes international peace negotiations, so I will suggest we can use the same principles to achieve peace right where we find ourselves, at home, among family, with neighbors, in our civic community, our church, our political process, with those of diverse priorities, opposing persuasions, or irreconcilable disparities. If we truly desire peace, we will need to be consistent, focused, unrelenting, and we will need to work hard at all times. It matters little that others around us do not share our passion for peace. For the peace we seek will be of no use to them until we possess it truly in ourselves. And we will not possess it truly unless we seek it sincerely and humbly.

So we cannot for a moment lose our resolve or slack in our efforts. Rather, we constantly express support for one another, everyone we work with on all sides. We pray for courage. We explore new inroads and possibilities. We make every effort to de-escalate conflicts. We take time to reflect and ponder our progress as well as our setbacks. We make every effort to avoid mindless and harsh rhetoric. We are attentive to sensitive symbols. We don’t give in to assuming malicious intent on the part of others. We try to keep hope alive. We do not give in to despair.

This past year, we have confronted troubling incidents and thorny issues that give us pause. They may have presented obstacles to peace—shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Navy Yard and Ft. Hood, conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Syria, Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Afghanistan and Iraq, nuclear weapons in Iran, mistrust and animosity with North Korea, the Ebola epidemic, airline and ferry disasters, weather related disasters, sexual assault in the military and on college campuses, Ferguson, Staten Island, ongoing protests demanding a discussion on racial issues, the murder of policemen in Brooklyn, alienation and suicide among transgender teens, mental illness, diplomacy with Cuba—I could go on. And it can seem so overwhelming. But if we truly desire peace, are we willing to work hard to achieve peace? Prayer is good path to take. But we need to get our hands dirty. Or peace will continue to elude us.

United-Nations-day

Rolo B Castillo © 2015