Ellen Romer Niemiec
From where do we enter the chaos?
I took a class on ministerial leadership a few years ago. One week we were gifted with the presence of the late William Barry, S.J., a prolific spiritual writer and a leader in a multitude of ways. During the class, he offered one of the most important pieces of advice that I’ve heard: Focus on closeness to God so as to be free in all of your choices.
This was someone who had had to make very difficult choices that were popular with some and not popular with others. He had to make choices for himself and for his community - conflict was inevitable. Celebrating and remembering today as the World Day of Peace feels almost out of place in a world and in lives so steeped in conflict. We end up treating peace as an unreachable ideal that is incompatible with our experiences of life.
The answer Fr. Barry gave our class wasn’t a way to avoid or dismiss conflict. What it did was offer a way to approach conflict and chaos in a way that does not abandon peace. Instead of asking ‘how can I avoid conflict and achieve peace?’, it shifts the focus to where we find and sustain our peace.
Jesus, the Prince of Peace spoken of in Isaiah, did not avoid conflict or chaos. If anything, it followed in his wake. His ventures into the desert and the times when he would step away from crowds show us where he found his peace - in God and in community. He repeatedly made it clear that carving out the spaces with those we loved and who love us most should not be the exception but the rule.
To whom do I go for my peace? I am grateful that I have a spouse in whom I am grounded. I find my peace in prayer. I gratefully have family and friends who can hold and share in how I want to live my life. And, of course, I don’t go back to any of them enough. I let go of what brings me peace too much. I find myself too busy to pray, keeping both my gratitude and grief locked up instead of shared with God. I unload my anger and frustrations on my spouse. I lose my temper with my children. I avoid accountability, refusing to see hard truths and the ways I need to grow.
Not that it is always fair to them, but showing off and at times imposing my warts, impatience and anxieties on those closest to me actually cultivates a deeper peace. We have committed to loving each other through them and with every outburst and unfair word we forgive in one another, the groundedness of our peace deepens its roots. And if I am trusting in God’s love for me and in that God created every one of us as beloved and inherently good, I might be able to trust my choices, whether unpopular and terribly difficult.