Blessed are the Peacemakers

by Jim Forest

An elder said, “I have spent twenty years fighting to see all human beings as one.”

— Sayings of Those Who Grew Old in Ascesis

A few years ago, while visiting the parish of Saints Cosmos and Damien in Moscow, I watched two restorers cleaning a large icon of Saint Nicholas. As decades passed and thousands of candles burned before it, the 300-year-old image had become increasingly hidden under smoke-absorbing varnish until it was almost black. Using alcohol and balls of cotton, their painstaking efforts gradually revealed sharp lines and bright colors that brought the icon back to life. I felt I was witnessing a small resurrection.

Words, like icons, can reach a point where restoration is urgently needed. The word “peace” has been on the receiving end of a great deal of political smoke.

Our work of word restoration can best begin by seeing how it is used in the Gospel, where again and again we see Christ conferring peace on his disciples. He tells bearers of the Gospel that, upon entering a dwelling, their first action should be the blessing, “Peace be upon this house.” (Lk 10:5) In his final discourse before his arrest, he says to the Apostles: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (Jn 14:27) After the Resurrection, he greets his followers with the words, “Peace be with you.” (Lk 24:35; Jn 20:19)

The letters of the New Testament often begin with a blessing of peace — “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” writes Saint Paul to the young church in Corinth. (1 Cor 1:3) Addressing the Christians in Rome, he reminds them “how beautiful are the feet of those who preach the Gospel of peace.” (Rom 10:15) Writing to the Ephesians, he tells them peace is not an abstraction but Christ himself: “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of enmity.” (Eph 2:14) He teaches the Colossians that Christ “has reconciled all things to himself, having made peace through the blood of the Cross.” (Col 1:20)

Another way to restore the word “peace” is to consider its many uses in the Liturgy, at the end of which the priest calls on us to “depart in peace.” Having been privileged to take part in the Eucharist, we are returned to the world as ambassadors of Christ’s peace among those who, in many cases, hardly know who Christ is.

From both the Gospel and the Liturgy we learn that peace is not a principle, theory, concept, political program or social ideal, but Christ himself: Christ who heals, Christ who forgives, Christ who reaches out to the very people, according to the advice of the world, we should avoid, condemn and hate and possibly kill.

Among the things that Christ did not say in the Sermon on the Mount is, “Blessed are those who prefer peace, wish for peace, await peace, love peace, or praise peace.” He blesses the makers of peace. He requires an active rather than passive role. In fact peace itself is a dynamic state which can be anything but peaceful from the point of view of those who wish everyone would simply be quiet and do what is expected of them by whoever happens to be in charge.

Christ’s peace is not placid. He is at his most paradoxical when he says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” as Matthew records the saying, while Luke uses “division” rather than “sword.”

Unfortunately, for most of us peace is not the Kingdom of God but a slightly improved version of the world we already have. We would like to get rid of conflict without eliminating the factors, spiritual and material, that draw us into conflict.

The Prince of Peace can easily be regarded as a disturber of the peace. We see how unsettling Christ’s peace is when we notice how much turmoil surrounds the events related in the Gospel. Freeing an afflicted man from a demon, he sends the evil spirit into a herd of pigs, who in turn drown themselves. The pigs’ owners appeal to Christ to leave them alone. Many are offended because he heals people on the Sabbath — could he not do these things any other day of the week? Christ’s cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem involves overturning tables and expelling the money changers.

No saint in the west has been more identified with the beatitude of peacemaking than Francis of Assisi. After his conversion while a prisoner, Francis had only one ambition: to live according to the Gospel. He understood this to mean a life without money, wearing the same rags beggars wore, and owning nothing that might stir up the envy of others and thus give rise to violence. He wanted to be one of the least, a little brother living in poverty, rather than a great man.

What was most surprising was the spirit of joy that surrounded Francis. His customary greeting to those he met was “pace e bene” — “peace and goodness.” Before long a dozen friends joined him, forming the nucleus of a new order, the Minores — Lesser Brothers — rather than the Majores, the great ones who ruled the cities and organized wars. They were not simply poor but had, he explained, married the most beautiful bride, Lady Poverty. Assisi’s bishop didn’t approve. “You and your brothers are a disgrace,” he told Francis. “At least you can provide what will make you a bit more respectable.” “O Domini mi,” replied Francis, “if we had possessions we should need weapons to protect them.”

Among the well-attested stories in Francis’s life is his meeting in 1219 with one of Christianity’s chief opponents, Sultan Malik-al-Kamil. It was the time of the Fifth Crusade, shortly after a Crusader victory at the port city of Damietta — modern Dumyat — on the Nile Delta. Francis, who opposed all killing no matter what the cause, sought the blessing of the Cardinal who was chaplain to the Crusader forces to go and preach the Gospel to the sultan. The cardinal told him that the Muslims understood only weapons and that the one useful thing a Christian could do was to kill them. At last the cardinal stood aside, certain that Francis and Illuminato, the brother traveling with him, were being led to die as martyrs. The two left the Crusader encampment singing the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Soldiers of the sultan’s army captured the pair, beat them, and then brought them before Malik-al-Kamil, who asked if they wished to become Muslims. Francis replied that they came to seek his conversion; if they failed in their effort, then let them be beheaded. According to legend, Francis offered to enter a furnace to demonstrate the truth of Christ’s Gospel; whether or not he made such a proposal, going unarmed into the enemy’s stronghold was analogous to leaping into a fire.

For a month Francis and the sultan met daily. Though neither converted the other, the sultan had such warmth for his guests that not only did he spare their lives but gave them a passport allowing them to visit Christian holy places under Muslim control and presented Francis with a beautifully carved ivory horn which is now among the relics of the saint kept in the Basilica of Assisi. It is recorded that “the two [Francis and Malik-al-Kamil] parted as brothers.”

What a different history we would look back upon if Muslims had encountered Christians who did not slaughter their enemies. When the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, no inhabitant of the city was spared — men, women and children were hacked to pieces until, the chronicle says, the Crusaders’ horses waded in blood. While Christians in the first three centuries would have taken a nonviolent example for granted, by the thirteenth century Francis was a voice crying in the wilderness: Christianity was preaching the holiness of war.

While the encounter with the sultan was embellished, nonetheless certain aspects of the story shine through the embroidery. Francis gave an example of love that refuses weapons. His courage is impressive; he was not only praying for enemies but meeting them, even at the risk of his own life — after all, to die in war for the kings of this earth has been the fate of millions of people; why should those who serve the Gospel hesitate to risk their lives for the king of Heaven?

Francis became the soldier he had dreamed of becoming as a boy, as willing as the bravest soldier to lay down his life in defense of others. There was only this crucial difference. His purpose was not the defeat but the conversion of his adversary, a goal that required refusing weapons of war because no one has ever been converted by violence. Francis always regarded conversion as a realistic goal. If God could convert Francis, anyone might be converted. But such actions — equivalent to leaping into a furnace — are only possible when nothing in life is more important than Christ and his kingdom, a discipleship that begins with poverty of spirit.

“They are truly peacemakers,” Saint Francis wrote in his Admonitions, “who are able to preserve their peace of mind and heart for love of our Lord Jesus Christ, despite all that they suffer in this world.”

How desperately we need people such men and women in our own time, and not only in places where wars are being fought or planned or where weapons are being perfected, but wherever people are targeted, whether in the womb before birth or at any stage along the way. We need servants of peace in our communities, work places, homes and parishes.

And who is the peacemaker who is needed? It is each of us. The beatitude of peacemaking is part of ordinary Christian life in all its daily-ness.

But serving peace is not easy. Often it is harder to seek dialogue with someone close at hand — a spouse, relative, co-worker, employer or neighbor — than with a distant enemy seen only on television screens.

In our home, scene of many battles on such monumental issues as television, table manners, dishwashing, length of showers and cleaning of rooms, it is my wife who deserves a Nobel Prize for peacemaking. She more than anyone has helped us talk and listen our way through many squabbles, disagreements and misunderstandings. Her successes have value not just within our family but dramatically affect what sort of people we are outside the home.

A letter several years ago from Denise Jillions, mother of three contentious boys, included this observation: “To be a peacemaker, however tiny or great the issue and the stakes — I have in mind one of my sons being willing to let the other pour his orange juice first rather than fight over it — is always heroic, is always reminiscent of the Cross and the sacrifice of Christ and his courage to appear weak. He could have called legions of angels to rescue him and fight at the moment but instead he chose to ask the Father’s forgiveness for his enemies. Being a peacemaker is hardly ever popular with people who are sparring to win, it really takes all the ‘fun’ out of it and can be denigrated as ‘wimpy’ or foolish. Also, being a peacemaker is different than being an ‘appeaser,’ not making waves, not standing up for truth. Just as the idea of ‘humility’ can often be misunderstood as a passive act, so can ‘keeping the peace’ in a dysfunctional way be confused with being a peacemaker. On the other hand, choosing to deny oneself and avoid a conflict originating in wilfulness and selfishness, is also peacemaking, or rather ‘war prevention’.”

Sometimes Christ’s peace seems especially absent between his followers. Among Christians, we don’t simply disagree with each other on many topics, but often despise those who hold what we regard as false or heretical views. Disagreement may be necessary — the defense of truth is a virtue — but hatred is among the gravest sins. Most often it isn’t truth we battle for but opinion, vindication of our irritation with someone else, or just the desire to have things our own way. Parishes have been destroyed over issues that participants five years later were embarrassed to think ever mattered to them, but at the time there was enough rage to spark a war. That our own parish has held together despite interpersonal frictions and a wide range of opinions on potentially divisive issues owes much to quiet efforts made by various individuals, lay and clergy, during periods of tension.

The ear and eye have much to do with peacemaking; the less carefully we listen, the less attentively we see each other, the more likely we are to become embroiled in irresolvable conflict. Peacemaking requires a discipline of quiet, patient attention to what others say so that the listener can repeat what he or she has heard with such understanding and attention to detail that opponents are certain they have been heard. Such listening can dramatically change the climate so that real dialogue happens. Without conscientious listening, dialogue is impossible. What is needed is hospitality of the face and ear.

A still more important dimension of peacemaking is prayer — prayer for enemies, adversaries, opponents or whomever we fear, find difficult, or wish would vanish from our lives. “The two main activities in peace work are prayer and listening,” our friend Rosemary Lynch reminds us. “Christ says we must love our enemies and pray for them. The two go together. You will never love anyone you don’t pray for. Prayer opens a channel inside us to participate in God’s love for the other person.”

Far from loving our opponent, as Christ commands us to do, it often happens that we don’t even respect him or try to understand him or consider that it may not be him who is wrong but me. Even if they happen to be dead wrong, there may be ways in which my attitude or response keeps them from changing their mind or way of life.

The peacemaker is anyone used by God to help heal damaged relationships. Dorotheos of Gaza, one of the saints of the Egyptian desert, used the image of a wheel:

“Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The center point is the same distance from any point on the circumference. Now concentrate your minds on what is to be said! Let us suppose that this circle is the world and God himself is the center; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of men. To the degree that the saints enter into the things of the spirit, they desire to come near to God; and in proportion to their progress in the things of the spirit, they do in fact come close to God and to their neighbor. The closer they are to God, the closer they are to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God. Now consider in the same context the question of separation; for when they stand away from God and turn to external things, it is clear that the more they recede and become distant from God, the more they become distant from one another. See! This is the very nature of love. The more we are turned away from and do not love God, the greater the distance that separates us from our neighbor. If we were to love God more, we should be closer to God, and through love of him we should be more united in love to our neighbor; and the more we are united to our neighbor the more we are united to God. May God make us worthy to listen to what is fitting for us and do it. For in the measure that we pay fitting attention and take care to carry out what we hear, God will always enlighten us and make us understand his will.”

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and co-editor of In Communion. This essay is a shortened version of a chapter in The Ladder of the Beatitudes (Orbis). Jim’s other books include Praying With Icons and biographies of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.