Trigger Warning: Hard Things AND Theological Concepts (yikes!)
What does “peace” even mean in this world where there is so much suffering?
I spent my summer doing pastoral care training and clinical hours with the Night Ministry of San Francisco. Five nights a week I worked on their Care Line–a phone line that handles not just crisis calls, but also calls from people who simply want a friendly voice in the middle of a dark night. I spoke with people who were suicidal, practicing self-harm, hearing voices, wondering why God was absent in their pain; people with issues in their mental and physical health, family, finances, and living situations. On a rare occasion I could offer a referral or some advice that might bring material support. But most of the time there was nothing I could do to make all things well for the callers.
I finished my internship one Friday, and on the next Saturday much of Northern California suffered massive lightening storms that have, once more, ignited fires that threaten countless acres of land, including homes, businesses, the lives of animals both domestic and wild. And the lives of people.
People that I know have been forced to evacuate, to go–where? The air all over the West Coast is hazardous to breathe. We shelter in place at home, or try to find safe spaces elsewhere. But what does safety even look like in a global pandemic?
And speaking of the global pandemic–we don’t need reminding of those–so many!–who have lost the lives of loved ones and/or their own health as a result of the coronavirus.
Everywhere we look there is pain and suffering that we cannot deny. And while it can provide some seeming comfort to blame someone–people who made bad choices, government failures, etc.–pointing the finger offers only false comfort.
Although it is hard for us to accept, nothing that we can possibly do will assure our safety from the dangers that wait all around us. The disasters we see all around us happen without regard to the merit of those afflicted.
Now that I’ve offered a very depressing litany of pain and suffering, it’s probably past time to return to our original question:
What does “peace” even mean?
We might want peace to mean being in peaceful, comfortable, safe circumstances. But as we’ve already established, while that type of peace might be wonderful, it is at best a temporary state.
So the question remains–is there a peace that transcends our circumstances? A peace that allows us to say, along with Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well”?
Yes. There is.
True, deep peace is grounded in something much bigger than our circumstances, or even than the circumstances of the entire world.
This is where the dreaded Theological Concepts are going to come in to play. (Remember, you were warned!)
Sociologists and theologians speak of “immanence” and “transcendence.” Immanence is the concept that the divine is held and manifested in the material world, including human reason, culture, and nature. Transcendence, in contrast, claims that the divine, or maybe the Divine, is not limited to the material world, but has a reality that transcends time and space.
Atheists, agnostics, and the followers of many belief systems all can experience the divine as immanent. Love, and beauty, and meaning, and all sorts of sacred things, are accessible to us in the immanent frame.
But with all due respect to atheists and agnostics, I find myself at a loss when I try to find peace in the midst of suffering in the immanent frame. Certainly love and joy and hope for better things are possible in the material world. But peace? Not just denial, but true peace? I would not speak for others, but for me, peace is impossible in the merely immanent frame.
Stoicism and/or denial both allow me to deal with my own suffering, and in that I might find a type of peace. But when I encounter the suffering of others–So. Many. Others.–it feels selfish, even narcissistic, to speak of being at “peace.”
If I locate and center my deepest self in the transcendent instead of the immanent, then maybe, just maybe, I can find a tiny seed of peace even in the midst of chaos and tragedy. Maybe, just maybe, I can understand peace as separate from any circumstances, even the most dire.
The transcendent is where earth touches heaven. Where there is a tangible reality to hope as imagined joy. Where I remain aware of, connected to, and empathetic for the very hard things around me, but where the central part of my soul remains at peace.
Perhaps in that space I can truly say, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” And know that it is true.