Making Peace with Yourself
A few years before his death in 1999, the great Latin American advocate for the poor, Brazil's Archbishop Dom Helder Camara, was speaking at a crowded church in Berkeley, California. He was asked, "After facing death squads, would-be assassins, corporations oppressing the poor, violent government opposition, and even hostile forces within your own church, who is your most difficult opponent?"
Without saying a word, Dom Helder pointed his hand into the air, then slowly arched it around, until it turned on himself, his index finger pointing to his heart. "I am my own worst enemy," he said, "my most difficult adversary. Here I have the greatest struggle for peace."
Likewise, Mahatma Gandhi was once asked about his greatest enemy. He spoke of the British and his struggle against imperialism. Then he reflected on his own people, and his struggles against untouchability, bigotry, and violence in India. Finally, he spoke of himself, and his own inner violence, selfishness, and imperfection. The last, he confessed, was his greatest opponent. "There I have very little say."
If we want to make peace with others, we first need to be at peace with ourselves. But this can sometimes be as difficult as making peace in the bloodiest of the world's war zones.
Those who knew Dom Helder Camara and Mahatma Gandhi testify that they radiated a profound personal peace. But such peace came at a great price: a lifelong inner struggle. They knew that to practice peace and nonviolence, you have to look within.
Peace begins within each of us. It is a process of repeatedly showing mercy to ourselves, forgiving ourselves, befriending ourselves, accepting ourselves, and loving ourselves. As we learn to appreciate ourselves and accept God's gift of peace, we begin to radiate peace and love to others.
This lifelong journey toward inner peace requires regular self-examination and an ongoing process of making peace with ourselves. It means constantly examining the roots of violence within us, weeding out those roots, diffusing the violence that we aim at ourselves and others, and choosing to live in peace. It means treating ourselves with compassion and kindness. As we practice mercy toward ourselves, we begin to enjoy life more and more and celebrate it as adventure in peace. We turn again and again to the God who created us and offer sincere thanks. By persistently refraining from violence and hatred and opening up to that spirit of peace and mercy, we live life to the fullest, and help make the world better for others.
But this process of making peace with ourselves can be one of the most difficult challenges we face. Each one of us wrestles with our own demons. The daily challenge is to befriend those demons, embrace our true selves, make friends with ourselves, disarm our hearts, and accept in peace who we are. The deeper we go into our true identities, the more we will realize that each one of us is a unique yet beloved child of the God of peace. In that truth, we find the strength to live in peace.
For some, this inner struggle is just too difficult. Many prefer to endure their inner wars, believing that they cannot change, that inner peace is not realizable, that life is just too hard. Others succumb to violence and despair. I well remember my friend Mitch Snyder, the leading advocate for the homeless. For nearly twenty years, Mitch spoke out against poverty, organized demonstrations for housing, fasted for social change, and was arrested for civil disobedience on behalf of justice for the poor. He was director of the largest homeless shelter in the United States, a facility with over one thousand beds just three blocks from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. In the mid-1980s, while I was managing a small church shelter for the homeless in Washington, D.C., I often visited with Mitch and discussed the plight of the homeless and our campaign to secure decent, affordable housing for them.
Mitch gave his life for the forgotten and the poor, but became consumed by his anger against the system that oppresses the poor into homelessness. He advocated nonviolence, but suffered many personal demons which eventually got the best of him. For years, Mitch fought to gain local legislation guaranteeing the right of every person to shelter. Finally, in 1990, his effort was defeated. At the same time, a personal relationship broke down. On July 3, 1990, he gave in to despair, and killed himself. His suicide shocked and saddened us all.
Even though Mitch espoused justice and nonviolence eloquently on behalf of the most disenfranchised people in the nation, he could not maintain that same spirit of nonviolence toward himself, and the violence inside him literally destroyed him. His death challenged many of us who knew him to reexamine our own commitments and the violence within us, and to cultivate peace within, even as we continue to work actively for peace and justice.
"Love your neighbors as you love yourselves," Jesus tells us. As we love and accept ourselves, we will find strength to love others, and to love God, who loved us first. As we make peace with ourselves, we can learn to make peace with others. Such true self-love is not selfishness, egotism, or narcissism, but wholeness, even holiness. First, we humbly accept our brokenness, our weakness, our limitations, our frailty and vulnerability, and our dependence on God. We accept our failures and forgive ourselves for our mistakes. Then, we accept the living God who dwells within us, and allow God's peace to make her home within us. Making peace with ourselves is like building an inner house of peace and welcoming the God of peace to dwell there forever.
"While you are proclaiming peace with your lips," St. Francis of Assisi advised, "be careful to have it even more fully in your heart." St. Francis put down his sword, took up the life of peace, found his heart disarmed, and started serving the poor. Everywhere he went, he proclaimed the good news of peace and people would flock to hear him, just to be in his presence, because he radiated peace.
But inner peace does not mean we float around in blissful tranquillity, talking to the birds, untouched by everyday mishaps, personal tragedies, or world events. In fact, true inner peace pushes us into the thick of the world's problems, where we rub elbows with all kinds of people and confront their greatest terrors, as St. Francis did. From the hustle and bustle of a crowded subway to the death of a loved one to turmoil at the workplace to the threat of nuclear destruction, life presents daily challenges to our inner resolve, but it is possible to cultivate and pursue inner peace no matter what obstacles come our way. Through the grace of God, all our frustrations, turmoils, and tragedies can be transformed.
The inner life of peace means acting from a deep conviction about who we are, that each one of us is a beloved child of God, a human being called to love and serve other human beings. Living from this conviction does not mean we ignore our emotions--quite the contrary. In fact, as we go forward into the world, to places like death row, soup kitchens, or war zones, we touch the pain of the world and feel the full range of human emotions, with sorrow and anger, as we experience the pain of human tragedy and injustice. In 1985, while living in a refugee camp in El Salvador's war zone, I felt terrible sorrow, grief, and outrage as I witnessed the death and destruction around me, but I also felt a great inner peace because I clung to my faith in the God of peace, who seemed palpably present in the suffering people around me. Deep down, I rested in God's peace and even felt joy while I endured and resisted the horror of war with the refugees around me.
Our inner peace is not self-satisfied. We cannot idly pursue inner tranquillity while wars, bombings, executions, greed, and violence continue unchallenged. If we do not address the violence in the world, our inner peace is an empty illusion. Likewise, we cannot seek peace publicly and expect to help disarm the world while our hearts are filled with violence, judgment, and rage. Our work for peace cannot bear fruit if it is rooted in violence.
"One of the reasons why so many people have developed strong reservations about the peace movement is precisely that they do not see the peace they seek in the peacemakers themselves," the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen once observed. "Often what they see are fearful and angry people trying to convince others of the urgency of their protest. The tragedy is that peacemakers often reveal more of the demons they are fighting than of the peace they want to bring about."1
The roots of war, violence, injustice, and the threat of global annihilation lie within each one of us. Unless we recognize our complicity in global violence, we can never accept God's gift of peace. If, however, we recognize, acknowledge, and confess the violence within us, we allow God to begin the process of our disarmament, first in our own war-torn hearts, and then in the world itself.
As we pursue this inner journey and disarm our hearts, heal our internal divisions, seek inner reconciliation, and make peace with the God within, we can speak about disarmament, reconciliation, and peace with greater authenticity and integrity. Like Dom Helder Camara, Mahatma Gandhi, St. Francis, and Mother Teresa, we begin to embody our message. Because our message is rooted in our very being, in the God of peace who lives in us, our peace will spread out around us, even throughout the world, because it will be God's own peace springing forth.
Thomas Merton wrote that Gandhi's nonviolence "sprang from an inner realization of spiritual unity in himself. The whole Gandhian concept of nonviolent action and satyagraha ['truth-force'] is incomprehensible if it is thought to be a means of achieving unity rather than as the fruit of inner unity already achieved."2 In other words, Gandhi had plumbed the depths of peace within himself. He renounced inner violence, advocated public nonviolence, and so, radiated peace to a world at war.
"Nonviolence is not a garment to be put on and off at will," Gandhi wrote. "Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our very being. Nonviolence is a matter of the heart. It implies as complete self-purification as is humanly possible."3
Pursuing peace at every level of life--beginning within our own hearts and souls, and reaching out toward every human being alive on the planet--is the greatest and most fulfilling challenge one can undertake with one's life. But making peace in a world at war is an act greater than any of us. It is a spiritual journey that begins in the heart and takes us on a road not of our own choosing. But because it is a spiritual journey, a course charted by the God of peace, it is filled with the simplest but greatest of blessings.
As we make peace with ourselves, and welcome the God of peace who lives within us, we will learn to make peace with those around us and with others throughout the world. Over time, we will become true instruments of God's own peace and help make the world a better, more just place for all. The challenge is to do both: to pursue peace within and to pursue peace with the whole human race.
That journey, though difficult, promises a happy ending. We will be ready to meet the God of peace face to face when our time comes because we will have spent our lives welcoming God here and now in our hearts. We will look back and see that our lives have been a step-by-step pilgrimage from peace to peace until that great day when we enter God's own house of peace.
The life of peace begins anew each morning. We take a breath, awaken, and receive the gift of life, the gift of the present moment. The great spiritual traditions urge us to take time each day to center ourselves in the spirit of peace. If we dare enter the solitude of peace, we will rediscover who we are, each one of us a beloved, precious child of the God of peace.
"When you pray, go to your inner room, close your door, and pray to your God in secret," Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount. "And your God who sees in secret will repay you" (Matthew 6:6). As we learn to sit in solitude and silence and turn down the noise of our mind, we create a sacred space for God to move within us. Paradoxically, if we seek out that lonely place within, as Jesus advises, we realize that we are not alone.
Solitude is often maligned in our culture. It is taken as a sign of weakness, and confused with loneliness. Yet those who accept solitude as an opportunity for spiritual growth and inner healing experience it as a great blessing.
Why do we run from solitude? Why do we hate to be alone with ourselves? Because in solitude, our fears, insecurities, brokenness, hatred, and inner violence easily reveal themselves. Solitude can be terrifying at first. It reminds us of the deep loneliness we carry. But if we want real peace, we have to face our inner demons and transform our loneliness into love. Solitude is essential for this inner transformation.
The late spiritual writer Henri Nouwen exemplified this process. Throughout his career as a theologian at Yale and Harvard, and then during his pastoral ministry at L'Arche Daybreak, a community that serves the disabled in Toronto, Nouwen struggled with many personal ups and downs by taking quiet time alone each morning. Every few years he retreated for six months to a monastery. He recorded all these highs and lows in his many books and journals, explaining the value of prayerful solitude as the way through one's own inner anguish. By the time of his sudden death in 1996, he had weathered many personal battles, but reached a deeper level of self-understanding and peace.
As we sit by ourselves, feel those feelings, and embrace the spirit of peace, we take a deep breath and feel the peace of God enter our hearts. Slowly, over time, we even befriend our fears, anxieties, and inner turmoil as Henri Nouwen did. We make peace with our demons, they leave, and we gain inner freedom. In the process, we make friends with ourselves and learn to appreciate solitude as a precious gift.
History's spiritual leaders valued their solitude. Before Jesus began his public ministry, he spent forty days alone in the desert. Afterward, he regularly withdrew from the crowds to pray alone. In the Gospels, we frequently see Jesus finding deserted places to pray. Jesus' encounter with God in lonely hours of solitude allowed him to face the crowds with compassion, to speak truth with love, to seek justice come what may, and to resist evil nonviolently. He could speak of God because he experienced God in solitude.
Excerpted from Living Peace by John Dear. Copyright © 2001 by John Dear. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.