Our family returned last week from La Casa de Maria Family Retreat. The theme this year was “Living Peace in a Wild World.” It was a beautiful week: relaxing and exhausting at the same time. I usually come back from Family Retreat full of ideas I want to share, but this time, I struggled. With at least a half-dozen drafts sitting on my desktop, none of them were quite right. Also, it’s summertime, which makes it extra hard for me to buckle down. I have to take care of all my usual responsibilities, but afterwards… my kids are around, the sun is shining, the water is calling. You get the picture. And now it’s Sunday morning, Monday night, Tuesday afternoon, Thursday morning. I hope you don’t mind if I just get the conversation started, even if it’s not as polished as I’d like it to be.
The retreat team had our first meeting to discuss the 2017 theme just days after the election of President Trump. Emotions were high and if we wanted to work together, politics had to be off the table. The retreat wasn’t for another eight months, but we agreed they should remain that way. But at the same time, we wanted to address what is so clearly needed in our world right now – PEACE. How could we and the families on retreat more truly become the peacemakers our faith calls us to be? How could we learn to be part of the solution, instead of the problem?
Each day at La Casa, we tried to address that question.
On Monday, we talked about how to make peace with others in the wider world by recognizing that what we have in common is far greater and far more important than what makes us different. We can’t hold hatred, prejudice, and self-righteousness in our hearts and be peacemakers. It just doesn’t work that way. We’ve got to hold space and grace for difference – of color, orientation, nationality, religion, politics. That doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but that respectful dialogue is essential. In fact, when we drop our impulse to attack, or condemn, we can actually learn to appreciate and celebrate “the other,” (which obviously makes for a more peaceful world). The day ended with this great reminder from Heineken.
On Tuesday, we explored how we can make peace within our families by recognizing that we have each been made in the image and likeness of God. We used a quiz to discover our “True Colors:” Good as Gold (reliability and rule-following), Genius Green (justice and investigation), Beloved Blue (relationship and heart) and Optimistic Orange (spontaneity and freedom). Although it was fun to find out more about ourselves and family members, the point wasn’t about identifying our “color.” Peacemaking comes by recognizing that our differences aren’t weaknesses, but rather strengths we can appreciate. Respecting each other’s unique gifts and ways of operating in the world is actually a way of honoring God’s divine plan for difference and diversity, embedded in the very fabric of creation.
On Wednesday, team members gave beautiful testimonies reminding us of this big truth.
Life is never simple and the more we insist that it make sense according to our own limited perspective and understanding, the less peace we will have. Only the wisdom of the Holy Spirit allows us to make peace with the paradoxical nature of life. The major themes of the gospels were alive that morning in the stories that were shared as we heard how the more gifts we’ve been given, the more likely we are to squander them, that losing everything can make us more willing to give it all away, that tragedy can bring reconciliation and that sometimes, death can even bring healing.
Remember the line from the hymn so many of us sang when we were small from the prayer of St. Francis?
We might still sing it in church to this day, but have we ever considered that we can’t give what we don’t have? Peace can’t begin with me, if I don’t have it in the first place! So on Thursday, I invited the retreat community to consider what it means to find inner peace, beginning with our own bodies.
Too often, we think of science as something separate from our faith. Our churches haven’t done us any favors on that front either, but if we believe that God is our Creator and that we are beautifully and wonderfully made, then we can see how we are biologically hard-wired to make peace.
In conflict, our heart rate elevates; our muscles twitch and tense, and our breath gets really shallow. That’s how our bodies respond to stress – courtesy of the Divine wisdom of our biology. Yeah for the flight-or-fight instinct! Because of you, we survived as a species! But in a world that moves so fast and is so full of tragedy and trauma and conflict, our bodies are on the verge of high alert all the time. Conflict and stress are the air we breathe.
But we have also been given a gift in our ability to calm our central nervous system, particularly by controlling our breath. When we slow down our breath, when we make it deeper and longer, we also change the state of our bodies. We are creating peace within, which gives us a lot more freedom to decide how to react to things. That’s Divine wisdom we don’t hear nearly enough about.
I began with a guided breathing meditation from Plum Village for the little ones and then I asked everyone else in the room to chant with me. I knew it was a risk, like nothing we had ever done before, but chanting is an ancient part of our faith tradition. For thousands of years, people in in religious communities have chanted the Psalms, multiple times a day. And if you are a part of the evangelical tradition, you might think of chanting as the proto-type of the modern-day worship experience – where a worship pastor repeats the same low, steady chorus over and over again, so the whole congregation can find the same rhythm of breath and sound and experience the same emotions. Chanting allows us to regulate our breath, slow down our heart rate, and create a peaceful place within ourselves.
We used the most famous lines from Dame Julian of Norwich, the medieval English mystic.
All shall be well.
All shall be well.
All manner of things shall be well.
The response blew me away. I had hoped to get a few people chanting with me, but the whole room participated fully for several minutes. And I’ve heard from quite a few people that they’ve kept it up since they’ve been home! And to get the benefits, it doesn’t have to be chanting; any type of intentional breathing during prayer, singing, yoga, sitting, or meditation will help us increase our experience of inner peace.
One of my favorite quotes about peace comes from Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman, an artist, activist and writer who was killed during the Holocaust.
Creating peace within ourselves an essential part of becoming a peacemaker, but it’s too often neglected. I think that was one of my main takeaways from family retreat this year.
We can get so focused on making peace that we forget to be peace.
A peaceful presence will do more to change the world than any activism we might take on.
I want to close with this reflection on peace offered by a young woman at a church service I attended. She began with John 14:27: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
And then she read her poem:
The sound of slow, quiet breathing
The waves of the ocean
Standing steadily on a balance beam
The sound of the turn of a page
The softness of old paper
The quiet of a library
Silk, rubbing soft against your skin
Singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer says, “The things that have saved us are still here to save us.”
Snuggling someone you love
A crackling fire
A warm mug in your hands
A kiss on the forehead
Someone who holds you while you cry
Sunrays coming through clouds
Making a daisy chain
A butterfly, coming close enough to touch
Lying under a tree and looking up through the leaves
Braiding long hair
The feel of a hug
Peace is a balance between light and dark, happy and sad, warm and cold, fire and water. It’s at the center of a wheel of opposites.
I was blown away that this almost-child was so attuned to what slows her down, unites her heart with God’s heart, makes her feel safe and content, in harmony with herself and the world around her. She cherishes all that brings her peace and honors it in the telling.
When was the last time you felt at peace in your own body, in your own home, or in the world?
That’s my invitation to you this week. Take some deep breaths. Come home to your own body. Let your mind wander.
What and where and who brings you peace, so you can be a peacemaker, first and foremost at peace yourself?
If you are as brave as the young poet, share three places of peace you experience on a regular basis here, or on my Facebook link!