January 1987 1,943 words.
Despite being written over 30yrs ago it’s a timeless and wise piece about the real relationship between inner peace and peace-making in the social sphere. It takes Francis of Assisi as an exemplar, using his insights into the acceptance of the dark shadow in ourselves and also his understanding of ownership and wealth. Tom beautifully reflects upon an issue which will forever challenge any Christian who wants to be a true disciple. It also critiques a society that places wealth and private ownership above everything including the human person.
DONA NOBIS PACEM
(The Beatitudes, more or less)
Last year the leaders (as we strangely call them) of many faiths met as Assisi. They met to pray for and pledge themselves to peace. They met at the place of St. Francis because Francis is held in people’s minds and hearts as a man of peace, of reconciliation, of transcendence.
I remember feeling heartened by that Assisi meeting, and then thinking that no doubt our political leaders would be heartened too, and then wondering what sort of romantic Francis have we aligned with what sort of romantic ideas of peace, that praying for peace at Assisi can warm everyone and challenge no one, make Ronnie and Margaret and Michael feel good, but no one feel threatened?
That led me to the question that all of us must wonder about: what sort of peace are we all talking about? And in particular what sort of personal, inner peace relates honestly to peace-making in the social, political sense?
In Bernstein’s “Mass” at the point of communion, the people chant over and over again: Dona nobis pacem, Dona nobis pacem, give us peace, give us peace. And the celebrant, in anger, crashes the body and the blood to the ground.
What are the clues to a peace that will not be domesticated along with the rest of our domestic and bourgeois lives?
I suggest two elements in the life of St. Francis which may help us. (We find the same in Jesus, in Gandhi, in Luther King…). They are each quite foreign to our modern western minds, almost unbearable.
The first is that Francis was utterly persuaded that we cannot learn to embrace others if we refuse to acknowledge and to accept the dark shadow in ourselves.
Until we are ready and willing to abandon the endless and intricate games of keeping our own self-image intact – intact in our eyes and intact in other peoples’ – until we are willing to let our own ego be stripped, dis-mantled, before truth, then we do not discover our common humanity, nor discover that we live, just and unjust alike, in God’s mercy.
This is as true of our church, our local councils, our communities, our families as it is in our personal lives. But it is especially true of our national lives.
Twenty years ago, I happened to find myself, with a friend, at Expo 67 in Montreal. We toured many of the National Pavilions, each as grandiose and self-conscious as the next. We came out feeling awestruck, bemused and a little crushed. My friend said: That whole enterprise would have been worthwhile if each nation had been told that it could only have a pavilion if the last exhibit was a presentation of one thing in which that nation knew it had really failed. In our U.K. pavilion we could have shown ‘Cathy come home’.
Last year a member of the Argentine Council of Churches told us that one thing they had learnt from the Malvinas war was that the nation which refuses to acknowledge injustice and failure in itself is already preparing for war.
Friends from the Sojourners community in Washington tell us how they provide soup kitchens for more and more destitute people, and then listen on the radio to senators, two miles away, denying there is any real poverty in America.
As a young man Francis had fought in the interminable civic feuds of his day. He had been a prisoner. He had come to see how that strife was the inevitable result of the refusal to lose face, to admit one’s dark shadow, when life becomes a constant round of splendid living and civic pride.
To cast off his father’s clothes in the public courtroom and walk naked to a new way, was to abandon the games of façade keeping. But he pursued the point relentlessly.
He would tell the guardians, or ‘mothers’, of his small groups of brothers, that if they came to a community meeting and one brother said: you are the worst guardian we have ever had, and the next said: and you are not doing what Francis wants, and the next: that you should not be a brother at all – well you must rejoice and thank God for them even more than if they praise and affirm you.
“Blessed are you when all speak evil of you…” Such purification such stripping is the quickest way, however painful, of being in the business not for ourselves but for truth and love and people and God’s glory.
(It is not, either in its personal or social forms, a type of self-flagellation or self-hatred)
This stripping of self-esteem is very closely bound up with a real ability to be vulnerable, wounded, with those who suffer. Not a concern for the poor, not a concern about the poor – both of those are possible while keeping our own edifice intact – but a deep, personal ‘com-passion’. “Blessed are those who mourn”.
And it goes with a refusal “to be comforted” by all the easy, plausible and fallacious comforting on offer.
You recall how, when Herod slew the young children in Bethlehem, Matthew recorded the importance of naming and sharing the sin and the suffering. Rachel ‘lamenting for her children and refusing to be comforted’. Herod could not lament, because he was comforted now.
“Blessed are those who mourn, they shall be comforted”.
With Francis to embrace the leper was both to embrace his suffering, and to acknowledge himself as kith and kin.
The extent to which we learn, or are taught (kicking and screaming), to die to whom we are not and be born to who we are is the extent to which we cease to be patrons of peace and become instruments of peace. Peacemakers rather than peace sponsors.
Without that dying we can easily be lured into quite phoney ideas. Forms of pacificism, for instance, which do not recognise seriously the existence of evil, but somehow wish it away. If we are all non-violent, if we all learn true inner peace, then the world will be at peace!
Oh dear. Surely it is only after his confrontation, his crucifixion, his re-birth, that Jesus can say “my peace I give you”. True inner peace is a bonus given within the struggle, within the woundedness. (He shows them his unhealed wounds as he says it).
The second element in Francis is one that he is known for, his understanding of ownership and wealth.
A few weeks ago, I went to buy a pair of waterproof trousers in our local cycle shop. The young man in the shop was dealing with a couple just in front of me: …yes, and that BMX costs £75, but you know madam that BMX’s are not quite the kudos things they were two years ago. Mother: The trouble is that her friend, next door, has one and our daughter would so like the same. Man: they are in very short supply this year, but I could try and get you one by Christmas – but you know these over here are better bicycles and less costly. Father: But she already has one of those and it sits, dusty, in the back of the garage. Mother: Of course, Annie is not really having a bike this year, she’s having clothes. Father: Yes, the BMX is just a stocking filler.
I caught the look on the young man’s face as he went to put their name on the BMX waiting list.
There is a simple and unquestioned assumption lodged firmly in our western mindset that what is mine is mine, I earned it didn’t I, or at least it came to me by right.
The basic assumption that we have an unqualified right (even duty) to acquire, to hold, and to use wealth exactly as we want is at the root of most economic policy, is the divisive cause of incredible injustice in our world, and is quite incompatible with any scriptural, theological, faith-centred, way of living.
For a good treatment of this fundamental question in an earlier age Charles Avila’s book on Ownership (Sheed & Ward) is a real eye-opener. He shows how the Church Fathers (esp. Ambrose, Augustine and John Chrysostom) saw in the principle of unqualified private ownership, and its embodiment in law, the origin of the social disintegration of the Roman Empire. Land being amassed, peasants uprooted and moving to the cities, mass unemployment, greater and greater rich/poor divides.
Many years ago, Arnold Toynbee remarked to one of my brethren (OSB) in the States that whatever people say about the confrontation between the USA and USSR – to do with democratic freedoms etc – in the end it is a question of two incompatible understandings of ownership.
It is not easy, I find, to discuss these things in England today because there lurks in our collective memory a revulsion of the Puritan ethic. It is assumed that any questioning is kill-joying. But for Francis it was quite the opposite, nothing to do with guilt complexes, but everything to do with being set free! It is when nothing possesses us that all things are ours, when our self-image is free of being equated with what we have (and with whom we are trying to keep up) that we discover our true communion with people as people. And indeed discover ourselves.
You remember how Jesus, after his parable of the wily steward, says to those standing around: use money, that tainted thing, in such a way that the poor will feel able to welcome you into the tents of eternity. (That tainted thing! It is not possible that the money we handle has not been involved in injustice at some stage, just as it is not possible that the land on which we live has not been acquired unjustly, at some stage. So, we are all in sin and therefore open for redemption!)
Jesus goes on to say: if you cannot use what is not your own, your wealth, then who will entrust you with what is really yours, your own self?
And they laughed at him, because they were wealthy.
“Blessed are you poor”. Jesus was amazed how the Kingdom was being recognised by the poor of the land. Later on, Luke records the saying as “Blessed are the poor”, but even so it is not a generalised, social, comment about a social class (“the poor”) but rather specific to those among whom God’s blessing was in fact being realised.
Then Matthew: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”.
Some think he meant: have a holy detachment. Keep your Porsche and your bank balance but be detached.
Others think he meant: it is not enough to be poor if you spend all your time dreaming of being rich. (A Peruvian friend told us there are only two sorts of people in my country now: the bourgeois and those who wish they were.) That is not an easy thing for any of us to preach, though Jesus or Francis or Gandhi could have.
And others think he meant: whoever or wherever you are live in solidarity with the poor, the afflicted ones. In and with them you will learn to receive God’s blessings.
** ** **
Penance, poverty, prayer enable peace-making. They focus our minds and hearts, free us from double standards, enable us to perceive (however partially) where truth will set us free, enable us too to know where the web of lies and half truths and delusions hold people in fear and aggression.
“Blessed are the single hearted. They shall see God”.