Throughout the Western World these days, and well beyond, we hear the hope of Christmas expressed in song and word, peace on earth. But how do we turn this creed into deed? How do we move from hope to practice?
Much of what we do, whether as nations and individualities, or as religions and communities, contributes to disparity and further separation in our world. How do we translate our Christmas carols of peace into commitment to action for peace?
On 11/11/11 in Austin, Texas, I gathered with hundreds of people to chant for a new end to hostilities in our world. Jews, Christians and Muslims offered words and wisdom from their respective traditions to pray for what we all desire, peace in our lives and world. It was a most moving event. And it was an important place to start, to cross boundaries that have separated us in order to recover the vision that is shared by us, our common hope for healing. It is an essential place to begin, for it is relationship, relationship, relationship that will sustain the work of peacemaking.
A few hours after our chanting for peace on 11/11/11, my father died in Canada at the age of 89. He had been frail for some time, but I believe he held on to allow me to finish this piece of work in Austin. He would certainly have approved. But the synchronicity of chanting for peace on 11/11/11 and my father's death that same evening has led me to ask what it is of my father that I am now to carry more consciously in my life and work.
One of my father's great gifts was his desire to connect, whether that was with world leaders in his international refugee work or with the most powerless families he met in his travels. He couldn't walk down a street without acknowledging those he passed. He would open doors for strangers at shopping malls and say, "That will be 50 cents, please." And the more he aged the more confident he became that he carried blessing within himself. This was not an inflated sense of self. This was his belief that within him, and within us all, is the blessing of God to be offered to one another. In his last months he had forgotten many, many things, but there was a particular prayer of blessing that lodged itself at the very core of his heart.
During one of my visits to Canada earlier this year, my sister arranged for me to sell my father's car. He had been illegally driving for months. I phoned up the salesman to let him know that we were coming in the next day. I said to him, "My father may seem confused about many things, but please honour him by speaking to him, not me. This is his car and I will be with him." The young car salesman totally got the point. The next day there was playful banter and repartee in their conversation. There were also absurd moments when my father would ask the salesman how much money he owed him. When the salesman said, "No, no, we want to give you money," my father would look at me and say, "This is very generous of them."
When the transaction was completed I said to the young car salesman, "Whenever I finish a telephone conversation with my father or part from him, he gives me a blessing. And I think he would like to give you a blessing now." So my father took the car salesman's hand, looked straight into his eyes, and said, 'The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace." All of my attention was on my father. I thought, "If only I could carry such blessing for others." Then I looked at the car salesman. Tears were streaming down his face. Never will he forget that moment.
Part of the way forward in our lives and world is to know that we carry blessing for one another, whether as individuals, nations or religions. To give and receive blessing changes the very nature of relationship. When we exchange blessing we know that within us is a sacred energy deeper than our ego, and deeper than the defined boundaries of our individuality or nationhood. It opens our heart to the other in ways that change the way we choose to live and relate.
This is not to pretend that there is no need to police and protect our communities and nations. Those who are wronged in our world need the strong arm of protection. But the strength of our armies and defense structures cannot on their own make peace. They can inhibit wrongdoing and try to defend against injustice but if what we are seeking is true peace, then we need much more than brute-force. We need also the transformative power of blessing, "soul force" as Mahatma Gandhi called it, the mighty energy deep within us that has the power to bring us back into relationship with one another.
May the deep blessings of earth be with us.
May the fathomless soundings of seas surge in our soul.
May boundless stretches of the universe echo in our depths,
to open us to wonder,
to strengthen us for love,
to humble us with gratitude,
that we may find ourselves in one another,
that we may lost ourselves in gladness,
that we may give ourselves to peace.
--from John "Philip Newell's Praying with the Earth: A Prayer Book for Peace"
John Philip Newell is the co-founder of Salva Terra: A Vision Towards Earth's Healing.