Peace, but what a strange peace (4th week of Advent)
The opening of In This House of Brede captured my attention immediately. This 1969 novel by Rumer Godden portrays the lives of religious sisters in England, in their simplicity and complexity. Even now, years after reading this novel, it is these opening lines that came to mind as I considered how to write this blog post on peace, the theme of the fourth week of Advent.
"The motto was ‘Pax,’ but the word was set in a circle of thorns. Pax: peace, but what a strange peace, made of unremitting toil and effort, seldom with seen result; subject to constant interruptions, unexpected demands, short sleep at nights, little comfort, sometimes scant food; beset with bitter disappointments and usually misunderstood; yet peace all the same, undeviating, filled with joy and gratitude and love. ‘It is my own peace I give unto you.’ Not, notice, the world's peace." (Prologue, pg. 3). 1
This challenging depiction of peace pushes back against what I often want peace to mean. I want peace – at least partly, and at least often – to mean a calm, unemotional stupor that frees me from the pain of unrealized hopes, bitter disappointments, and ongoing anxious turmoil. If I have to go through infertility, can’t I at least be free of the pain or, at best, be Pollyanna? But this is not peace and I know that, at least intellectually. My head can point to peace as a fruit of the Spirit: “perfections that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory”. 2 My mind can acknowledge that peace is not an absence of pain nor a denial of grief. And yet teaching my heart these lessons seems to be a much longer and much more painful reality.
Perhaps for some, accepting God’s gift of peace comes more naturally. It hasn’t for me - not when it comes to infertility anyway. In many ways, infertility has ruptured my understanding of how God operates in my life. Because coming up against my head (telling me that God’s plans are better than mine and that He can bring good out of anything) is my inner toddler having a tantrum that I’m not getting the life I wanted when I wanted it and how I wanted it! I signed up for carrying the cross of (to use our novelist’s words) “constant interruptions, unexpected demands, short sleep at nights” etc – but as it applied to raising children. Not the “beset with bitter disappointments” infertility cross.
How, then, does my heart experience peace? Even if it is peace “set in a circle of thorn”, even if it is “peace, but what a strange peace”? I can remind myself to avail myself of the sacraments, to connect with community, to unburden myself in prayer. And all of these things can help to maintain and cultivate peace. But regardless of my efforts, peace will always only flow from God first. “It is my own peace I give to you,” the prologue to the novel tells us, quoting from John 14:27. “Not, notice, the world’s peace.” Not, notice, my own preference for the absence of pain. Not, notice, my inner toddler’s demands.
So as Advent draws to a close and as we celebrate the birth of the Christ, whose journey on earth was set in a circle of thorns, let us ask God for peace and invite the Holy Spirit to perfect that fruit within us. Because, even if it is a “strange peace”, it is “yet peace all the same, undeviating, filled with joy and gratitude and love.”
1. Godden, R. 2013. In This House of Brede. London, UK: Little, Brown.
2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, part III, para. 1832.