Henri Nouwen "Peacemaking & Prayer" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a very special episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and the teachings of Henri Nouwen. And we remind each listener that they are beloved by God.
On this podcast, we’re always so happy when we can offer you Henri Nouwen, himself. This week, we have a very special talk that was given by Henri Nouwen almost 40 years ago. In 1983, Henri was scheduled to address a group of Christian educators. In the five weeks prior to this presentation, he’d been in Switzerland. And during his stay there, he gave great thought to Jesus’ statement: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” A new talk emerged that he felt compelled to share. Eventually, it would become the basis of the book, Peacework. How perfect that, in a world traumatized by war and deep divisions, we listen to Henri Nouwen expound on the call to all Jesus’s disciples to be advocates for peace in their sphere of influence. In this talk, Henri is so articulate and alive with ideas. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Henri Nouwen: I’d like to start with a Psalm verse that I find important here and that is simply saying this: “Long enough have I been dwelling with those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for fighting.”
Now, does it have to remain this way? Do we have to be constantly disturbed by war drums? Do we have to hear over and over again that we need more and stronger weapons to safeguard our values and our lives? Do we have to listen to tiring speeches saying that 10,000 long-range nuclear bombs and 22,000 short-range nuclear bombs, with which we can destroy every major Soviet city 40 times over, are not enough? Do we have to let our minds be occupied with the destructive possibilities of intercontinental ballistic missiles, B52 bombers and Trident submarines? And do we have to enter into discussions about the acceptability of the deaths of 15 million people in a limited nuclear war? As the psalmist says, “Long enough have I been dwelling with those who hate peace.” Long enough have we been drawn into ways of thinking and speaking that gradually made us into accomplices in the preparation of the greatest mass murder of history. Long enough have we allowed ourselves to be impressed, as the Book of Revelation says, by the rulers, the governors and the commanders, the rich people and the men of influence, who tell us that the political situation is too complex to have an opinion about the possibility and desirability of peace, and the science of defense too far advanced for us to really understand what is going on. Long enough have we been kept silent by those who are for fighting and are eager to see the demonic products of the intelligence and imagination put to use.
“I am for peace,” we say. “I am for peace.” But saying that sounds so simplistic and naive in this highly sophisticated war world, that we soon fall silent again and withdraw in our own feelings of incompetence and low self-esteem. But maybe the truth is simple after all. And maybe the difficult grammar of war-making, with words such as fusion and fission and MAD and MIRV and MX is nothing but a very elaborate screen hiding the face of him who says, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” A simple truth, yes, but much more difficult to live than the lie of war-making. And still, this difficult truth has to be spoken and lived simply, directly, courageously, intelligently, gently, lovingly, and repeatedly. And this is what these presentations are about. I want to be of some help to you and to myself in the fulfillment of our task to speak and live the simple but difficult truths of peace.
Now, I have to start confessing to you that it was quite hard for me to prepare these presentations. For a long time, I have felt a strong resistance in my heart against speaking about peace. So long had I been dwelling in the houses of those who look at peace movements, anti-nuclear activists, civil disobedience, and non-violent resistance as expressions of immaturity, naivete, youth rebellion, or even Russian-inspired anti-patriotism, that for many years I felt somewhat embarrassed to say openly, “I am for peace.”
And much of this hesitation to be a peacemaker goes back to my own time spent in the Dutch army. Because the seminary had kept me out of the military service, but not with my own sympathy. I felt that a seminarian should not be exempt from the experience that all Dutchmen are supposed to have: two years of service for their country. And with this mindset, I volunteered to become an army chaplain, took some basic training, and worked as a priest-psychologist on a military mental-health team.
And I have wonderful memories of these days. I enjoyed the team spirit, came to know people I never would’ve met otherwise. I learned a lot about psychology, felt very useful and made closer friends in the army than I had ever made in the seminary.
And to be a conscientious objector seemed to me understandable for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who consider themselves all ministers, but seemed very unnatural for normal Catholic and Protestant in Holland. It was good to defend your country and no real man would try to escape from that duty.
Moreover, I liked the uniform immensely. I got very quickly bored with that black suit and this Roman collar. And I remember that when the students and all went on this big gala dinner where everybody was in tuxedos. And so, I said I should have something special, too. So, I put on my military uniform: captain in the Dutch army.
The problem was when I put it on, I hadn’t had my basic training yet. And I jumped on my bike to go to the railroad station to join the party. And suddenly I realized I was in a city with a lot of military, and everybody had to salute – and I had no idea how to do that. So, I took off my cap and said “Hi.” And everyone turned around and said, “You better do your training first before you start using your uniform.”
But anyhow, I enjoyed it and I was very proud and had all sorts of very impressive things around me. And you know, I wasn’t necessarily a pacifist. And a few years later, after this army experience, I found myself in the United States at the University of Notre Dame. And there I became very sympathetic toward those who objected against the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, and a very deep, personal friendship with an ROTC lieutenant, who had refused further service with the risk of going to prison, had slowly changed my attitude. But when I suddenly received a letter from the chaplain’s office of the Dutch army, announcing that it had pleased Queen Juliana to promote me to major in Her Majesty’s army on reserve, I still was not very sure if I should be proud or slightly embarrassed.
But not only my Dutch army experiences had made me hesitant to join the peace movement. Also, my observations of the style, the language, and the behavior of anti-Vietnam rallies had created skepticism in me about the value of much of the anti-war activities. Just pointing to the conflict and divisions among peacemakers was enough to evoke an inner distaste in me and a new respect for the cleanliness, orderliness and discipline among those who serve the country in the military.
And even today, having become deeply convinced of the immorality of war, especially nuclear war, I still feel quite nervous to speak or act for peace, especially when it brings me in the company of people whose lifestyle, ideology, and tactics contradict the very essence of the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And still, this is the time, yes, the hour, to say “I am for peace.” For the words of Jesus – “Blessed are the peacemakers. They shall be called children of God.” – have suddenly moved to the front of our Christian consciousness.
On August 6th, 1945, the day on which the atom bomb was first used in war, peacemaking came to mean what it could not have meant before: the task to save humanity from collective suicide. On August 6th, 1945, when Christians celebrated the transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor, the nuclear era was inaugurated by a light that incinerated the city of Hiroshima and killed 75,000 people, in one moment. On August 6th, 1945, as Dale Aukerman says, “The light of the world stood, uncomprehended, comprehending, and undone by the hideous splendor of man’s stolen fire.”
On that day, the blessing on peacemakers became the blessing for our century. The bombing of Hiroshima and the nuclear arms race that followed has made peacemaking the central task for Christians. Now there are many other important tasks to accomplish: alleviating worldwide poverty and hunger; the defense of civil and human rights; the struggle for Christian unity. These are only a few, urgent tasks. But all of these tasks are closely connected with the task that overarches them all: making peace. Because making peace today means giving a future to humanity, making it possible to continue our life together on this planet.
Now, all and every one of the eight Beatitudes that Jesus proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount are for all people and for all times. But there are times in which one word speaks louder than another. Now, in the 13th century, St. Francis brought to the foreground the blessing on the poor. In the 19th century, many saints and visionaries called new attention for the blessing on the pure of heart. Our century is clearly the century of the peacemakers. Without peace, there will be no life now or in the future. And if this century will be remembered at all, it will be remembered for those who gave their life to the cause of peace.
And today, I’d like to show to you how peacemaking can no longer be regarded as peripheral to being a Christian. Nobody can be a Christian without being a peacemaker. The issue is not that we have the obligation to give some of our attention to war prevention, nor that we should be willing to give some of our free time to activities in the service of peace. What we are called to is a life of peacemaking, and all that we say and think and do or dream, even, is part of our concern to bring peace to this world.
And just as Jesus’ command to love one another cannot be seen as a part-time obligation, but requires our total investment and dedication, so, too, Jesus’ call for peacemaking is unconditional, unlimited, uncompromising. And moreover, nobody can be excused. We might be tempted to leave peacemaking to the specialists who are competent in political, social, economic, and military matters, or to the radicals who have dedicated themselves to leafleting, demonstrating, committing acts of civil disobedience. But no specialist or radical can diminish the undeniable vocation of each Christian to be peacemakers.
Peacemaking, therefore, not only is a full-time vocation, but also a vocation that excludes no member of God’s people. How would the world look if all Christians in Australia, Asia, Europe, Africa, and America would speak out without reservation for peace? How would the world look if all Christians – young, middle-aged, or old – would say loudly and clearly: “We are for peace.” How would the world look if all Christians from all colors and races would unite in a common call for peace? And how would the world look if all Christians – Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox – would witness together loudly and clearly for him who is the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ? Would we still spend billions of dollars every year to build ingenious instruments of death while millions of people are starving to death? Would we still live with the increasing fear of an impending holocaust? Would we still hear about parents who doubt if it’s responsible to bring children into this world, and about children who doubt if they will see the turn of the century?
The tragedy is – and I’m just interested if you agree with that – the tragedy is that in some demonic way, the word “peace” itself has become tainted. For many people, this most precious word has become associated with sentimentalism, utopianism, romanticism, and even with irresponsibility. Not seldom the remark, “Oh, you are for peace,” seems spelled out to sort of, “Oh, you’re sort of soft in the head or a dreamer.” We have come to be surprised when civil or religious authorities make strong statements for peace. And when a plea is made to invest time, money, energy in a department for peace or a peace academy, many smile and dismiss the whole idea as an idea of people who really do not have their feet on the ground.
“If I speak of peace,” the psalmist says, “they are for fighting.” And these old words of the psalmist are more real than ever. Every day, the newspapers and the radio and the television broadcasts reveal our unashamed desire to show our teeth, to fight, and to be the strongest and the most powerful one. And words of peace are sparse, very sparse in our world. If they are spoken, they tend to be distrusted.
While the word “freedom” has become a word uttered with self-confidence, pride and dignity, the word “peace” is said timidly and often with the fear of being considered disloyal and not trustworthy. Christians today, when they want to be Christians, have to find the courage to make the word “peace” as important as the word “freedom.” And to announce everywhere and always in schools, university, meeting houses, family homes, churches, or any public place: “We are for peace.” And there should be left no doubt in the mind of the people who inhabit this world that Christians are peacemakers.
Now I say this so simply and so sort of directly, precisely because I am so aware of the many questions that keep the Christians divided. These questions related to the “just war” theory, to pacifism, nonviolence, conscientious objection, civil disobedience and many other issues under discussion. And many books and articles have been written on these important issues. And hopefully, there will be less disagreement in the years to come. But it would be a catastrophe, a real tragedy, if the divergence of opinion on these issues would prevent the people of God to witness clearly, unambiguously, and convincingly for peace.
If, indeed, our planet is on the brink of a worldwide nuclear catastrophe, peacemaking is our most important task. And this urgency must allow us to speak and act for peace in great spiritual unity, even when many concrete issues on tactics or strategies remain open for further discussion. It is with this urgency in mind that I present these reflections to you, and therefore I won’t focus on those many things that remain to be worked out, but on what gives us the power to speak and act together now.
Peacemaking belongs to the heart of our Christian vocation. Peacemaking is a full-time task for all Christians. Peacemaking has become, in our century, the most urgent of all Christian tasks. Now, these statements form the basis of what I want to share with you today. They explain why I want to develop a spirituality of peacemaking. That is a way of living in the spirit of Jesus Christ, in which every aspect of our life is geared to peacemaking. From the perspective of the Christian tradition, I don’t think I am going to say anything that has not been said before, but from the perspective of the urgency of peacemaking, I might say a few things that sound new.
Nobody should necessarily feel that he or she should do or say something different than before. But everyone here should come to realize that nothing that he or she is doing, saying, or thinking is worth being thought or said or done, if it doesn’t lead to peace, somehow. In this sense, I want to be least demanding as well as most demanding at the same time.
Now, this was just an introduction. Can you believe it? I’d like to develop here a spirituality of peacemaking, and to do it around three terms. The first term is prayer, the second term is resistance, and the third term is community. Now it’s hardly anything new to say that we all have to pray, that we all have to resist evil, and that we all have to live together in love. There’s hardly any spiritual book written that does not say this in one way or another. But I want to say it again, but now against the background of a world dangerously close to self-destruction, a world in which the choice no longer is between peace and war, but between peace and the end of history. And in such a world, the ages-old call to prayer, resistance, and community becomes truly a new call.
Okay, well, that gives you an idea. I’m going to take this coat off, because I’m now going to get into this whole thing and it’s very warm and hot, and so, I hope I can do this in – and let me see what our time schedule is. Let me get a little feeling of it – probably 45 minutes to even talk about prayer, half hour. So, feel prepared for this. And it might ask you some energy not to wander off, but I will try to stay in touch with you. And also, start already making some notes that might help you to respond. Again, your response would be very much appreciated as a personal response to where you are in your life, and what those issues mean to you in your pastoral work, your ministry, in your family life, or whatever. And so, maybe as we go along, you can get involved in sort of in a reflection.
Okay, I’m going to speak about prayer and I start again with a psalm that might be of some help:
There is one thing I ask of the Lord,
and for this I long:
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
For there he keeps me safe in the day of evil.
There he hides me in his shelter.
And now my head shall be raised
Above my foes which surround me,
And I shall offer within his tent
The sacrifice of joy.
A peacemaker prays; prayer is the beginning and the end, the source and the fruit, the core and the context, the basis and the goal of all peacemaking. Now, I say this without hesitation or apologies, because it allows me to go straight to the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is that peace is a divine gift, a gift we receive in prayer. In his farewell discourse, Jesus said to his disciples, “Peace I leave to you. My own peace I give to you, a peace the world cannot give. This is my gift to you.”
And when we want to make peace, we first of all have to move away from the dwelling places of those who hate peace, who are for fighting, and we have to enter into the house of him who offers us his peace. Now this entering into a new dwelling place, this movement from the house of those who are for fighting into the house of the Lord of peace, this movement is prayer, because the main question is: Where are you staying, or to whom do you really belong? Where is your home? Praying is living in the house of the Lord. “There he keeps me safe in the day of evil. There my head shall be raised above my foes.”
And therefore, our first concern is to be preventing ourselves from being seduced by those who prepare for the day of destruction and for the end to all things, and to remain erect with head high in the presence of God. Jesus says, “Watch yourselves or your heart will be coarsened by debauchery and drunkenness and by the cares of life. And the day of the Lord will spring on you suddenly, like a trap, for it will come down on every living human being on the face of this earth. Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen, and to stand with confidence before the Son of Man.”
Praying at all times is the first aspect of peacemaking. Now, what does this completely mean for us who have hardly time and space to keep some distance from the cares of life? To answer this question, it’s important that we first of all are willing to critically explore the ways in which the cares of life strangle us. Only then can we see the converting power of prayer and its own prevailing role in peacemaking. As I reflect, without being very defensive, on our daily human behavior, I’m overwhelmed how needy we really are, how needy people we are. Wherever we look, we see our own needs at work: the need for attention, the need for affection, the need for influence, the need for power, and most of all, the need to simply be considered worthwhile.
When we explore honestly why we do what we do, say what we say, and think what we think, we discover – at least I, and more and more so to my horror – that even our most generous actions, words, and fantasies are entangled by these needs. When we go to comfort a friend, we find ourselves wondering if he will really appreciate our visit. When we spend time and money to fight hunger and oppression in the world, we find ourselves suddenly concerned about recognition and praise. When we listen with great attentiveness to the struggles of those who come for help, we find ourselves often caught in a trap of sensationalism and curiosity. And even when we speak with fervor and conviction about the humility and patience of Jesus, we cannot avoid feeling a strong desire to put ourself in the center of attention: “Do you hear me talk about his humility? Wasn’t that intelligently done?”
And thus, we have to confess that much of our behavior, even our so-called good behavior, is an anxious attempt, often, to advance our own cause, to make ourselves known, and to convince our world that we need to be reckoned with.
Now, this is the goodness that Jesus is so radically critical about. If you love those who love you, what thanks can you expect? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what thanks can you expect? Even sinners do that much. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what thanks can you expect? Even sinners lend to sinners to get back the same amount. What’s new about that? Why is it so hard to go beyond the strange moral exchange in which every good deed has a price attached to it? Why is it that our needs are spoiling even the most altruistic-looking gestures?
Now, the answer is written right over all the pages of the Old and New Testament. Our needs for affection, attention, influence, and power are anchored in very deep, hidden wounds – hurts. And these wounds can be experienced as feelings of being disliked, not appreciated, or rejected. And these feelings can be attached to concrete events in the past, like, “My mother and father didn’t really like me,” or “My teachers, or something happened that made me wonder if I’m worth being.”
Sometimes they can be attached to those very concrete events, but sometimes, they are attached to sort of vague memories or even to sort of dreams. They can be connected with grandparents, parents, siblings, teachers, or friends. They can be very specific, these feelings of hurt or wounds, or very global. But somehow, somewhere, they make us wonder if we are really worth being.
It is this fundamental doubt about our own inner value that catapults us into a search for selfhood so loaded with fear and apprehension that it easily explodes into violence and destruction. When I listen to the omnipresent sounds of greed, violence, rape, torture, murder, and indiscriminate destruction that we see around us, I hear a long, sustained cry coming from all the corners of the world, saying, “Please, please, is there anyone who really cares, who really loves me, who really pays attention?”
And it is the cry of a deeply wounded humanity, a cry of a humanity that no longer knows a safe dwelling place, but wanders around the planet in a desperate search for love – so desperate that it constantly turns into its opposite. You know, I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but I’m just speaking in images for a moment, but somehow if I have a very deep question about my being worthwhile, something, and if I continue to go around in this world trying to hear that I am worth being, my desire for being loved might end up expressing itself in violence.
“Please love me. Do you really love me? Don’t leave me. If you really love me, then you do what I want you to do, so you can really prove that I am existing.” And the self-doubt, this deep, inner questioning if I am worth being, makes my kissing into biting, and my caressing into slapping, and my surrender into rape, and my looking gently to the other into an ongoing suspicion. And what comes out of a need for affirmation becomes in fact an expression of anger, hostility, conflict. That’s first.
Now, these needs anchored in wounds cannot be explained very simply, even though we often point our accusing finger to someone who we consider the cause of our problem. And you see that in counseling a lot. And even though we often make ourselves believe that things would be different if only he or she had done something different, we are part of a chain of wounds and needs reaching far beyond our own mental view. Aren’t our parents children, too? And our grandparents, grandchildren, too? And aren’t our children becoming parents, too, and our grandchildren becoming grandparents, too? Who did hurt whom and who does need whom?
Our inexhaustible need to be loved may be connected with an experience of rejection in our early months of life. But when our parents [are] subject to wounds and needs, too, wounds and needs that go back to their parents and grandparents, and through them far into the recesses of the past, and we in turn may have a strong desire to be blameless in the eyes of our children and friends, not to hurt them and keep them away from pain. But don’t we have to come to the painful realization that they, too, will feel wounded one day, and continue to search for the love we could not provide? It’s a search stretching out into the far reaches of the future.
This is the true tragedy of humanity, the tragedy of an experience of homelessness that finds its way through history and is handed over from generation to generation in a seemingly unending sequence of human conflicts. And the vicious repetitiveness of wounds and needs is the milieu of those who hate peace and are for fighting. It is a dwelling place of the demons, precisely since we are all wounded and needy people. It is such tempting place to go to.
How important it is to realize, first of all, how easy it is to act out of that place of needs and wounds, because our needs to be liked, loved, and affirmed often match other people’s needs to give what we so desperately look for. And there’s an intricate network of interlocking, mutually reinforcing needs developed that from the perspective of an innocent outsider, might look as the manifestation of the works of mercy, but that, in truth, is the demon’s favorite place of seduction. And it can indeed be a great shock to come to the realization that what we consider to be works of mercy, works of service, what we consider to be ministry of care in the name of God’s kingdom, is in fact so deeply motivated by wounds and needs that it gives Satan a solid foothold to lead us to destruction. Now this might sound very dramatic and romantic, but it’s not. If we see the resentment, anger, and even violence among those who are for peace, we may be more easily convinced of the power of the enemy who, as Peter says, “is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat.”
And we have to be willing to consider this seriously. If we cannot see the dark works of conflict and war in our own immediate, daily lives, we will never fully understand the cruelty, the torture, and the mass murder that fills the pages of our newspapers, day after day.
The name of God is used for many demonic actions. It is the safest mask of Satan and we have to continually rip it off again, if you want to be peacemakers. It might be very hard to recognize in our good works the forces of darkness at work, and easy to recognize these forces elsewhere. But only when we are willing to confess that we, too, are implicated in the making of war, true peacework can begin.
I’m convinced that some of the most cruel and inhuman acts are committed in the illusion of working for God. Otherwise, the horrendous crimes against humanity are hard to explain. Let me give you an example. One of the most hideous examples is an example from Guatemala. In March, 1982, General Efrain Rios Montt came to power there. He presented himself as an ardent follower of Jesus, belonging to an evangelical group with many followers in the United States. Seven months later, 2,600 Guatemalan peasants, many of them women and children, had been killed. The 500 soldiers who killed totally innocent men, women, and children with their own hands were not 500 psychopathic criminals. They were soldiers born and raised in Christian families who, in some sinister way, were made to believe that what they were doing was a holy duty in the service of the country and in obedience to their God-fearing president.
And this is a true sinfulness of humanity, that is, a sin so deeply anchored in us that it pervades all our lives at all times. And when it is possible for normal human beings of our time to kill indiscriminately men, women, and children in a remote village in Guatemala, why then would it not be possible for us to become accomplices in a worldwide mass-murder, in which the death and nuclear incineration of 15 million people is considered an acceptable risk? The difference between them and us is obviously not the difference in personality and character, but only the difference between machetes and nuclear warheads. But that difference is large enough to put the continuation of humanity itself in question.
What, then, is the dwelling place of those who hate peace? Well, it’s our own world, in which peace still has not become a possibility and in which the wounds and needs of individuals, groups, nations, and whole continents continue to make peace undesirable.
Now against this background of dark and fearful world situations, I want to express the urgency of prayer as the first characteristic of the work of peacemaking. The invitation to a life of prayer is the invitation to live in the midst of this world without being caught in the net of wounds and needs. The word prayer stands for the radical interruption of the vicious chains of interlocking dependencies leading to violence and war, and for an entering into a totally new dwelling place. It points to a new way of speaking, a new way of breathing, a new way of being together, a new way of knowing, and a whole new way of living.
Now, it’s not easy to express the radical change that prayer represents, since for many the word “prayer” is associated with piety, with talking to God, with thinking about God, with morning and evening exercises, with Sunday services. There’s grace before meals and sentences from the Bible and many other things.
Now, all of these have something to do with prayer, sure. But when I speak about prayer as the basis for peacemaking, I speak first of all about moving away from the dwelling place of those who hate peace, into the house of God himself. Prayer is the center of the Christian life. It is, as Jesus says, “the only necessary thing.” It is living with God here and now. And when I read the gospels with the task of peacemaking in mind, I’m struck how often images connected with a new place are being used. And reflecting on these images, I gradually come to think of the peacemaker as the one who has found the new dwelling place where peace resides and where peace is brought into the world – from where peace is brought to the world.
John the Evangelist described Jesus as the Word of God who came into the world and pitched his tent among us. He also tells us how he himself, John, and Andrew asked Jesus when they first met him, “Master, where do you live?” and how they were invited to stay in Jesus’ home. Here we already are being made aware that following Jesus means changing place, entering into a new milieu and living in new company. And the full meaning of this is gradually unfolded in the gospels, especially in the gospel of John. You come to see there that Jesus not only offers his followers to live with him in the same house, but that he himself is the house. On the evening before his death., he says to his friends, “Make your home in me as I make mine in you. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty.”
This divine dwelling place enables us to live as peacemakers in the midst of a hostile world. In Jesus’ words of farewell, he leaves no doubt about the nature of the world his followers have to live in. But he also assures that they can live in that world with peace.
Listen: Jesus says, “They will expel you from the synagogues and indeed the hour is coming when anyone who kills you will think he’s doing a holy duty for God. And they will do these things because they have never either known me or the Father. But I have told you all this so that you will have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but be brave. I have overcome the world.”
And these words express powerfully what the intimate connection is between prayer and peacemaking, while being surrounded with conflict, war, torture, and death, while being threatened by individual and collective destruction. It no longer is necessary to live in a dwelling place of those who hate peace. We now can find peace in him and live bravely in the midst of a troublesome world. And prayer is the new language that belongs to that new house.
Now, I’d like to explore in some more detail what these biblical images about a new dwelling place can say to us, who live in a world threatened by total extinction. It’s not hard to see that the house of those who are for fighting is a house ruled by fear. One of the most impressive characteristics of Jesus’ description of the end time is the paralyzing fear that will make people lose their heads, so to say. And run in all directions and be so disoriented that they lose all control and are swallowed up by the chaos that surrounds them. He says there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars. All Earth’s nations in agony, bewildered by the clamor of the oceans and its waves. Men and women dying of fear as they await the menaces of the world when the power of heaven will be shaken.
And the advice that Jesus gives his followers for these times of turmoil is to remain quiet, confident, peaceful, and trusting in God. He tells them not to follow those who sew panic and say that time is near an end, nor to join those who claim to be Christ, nor to be frightened by rumors of war and revolution. But to stand erect and hold their heads high, stay awake, pray at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen, and to stand with confidence before the Son of Man. It’s clear from all this that panic, fear, anxiety are not part of peacemaking.
Now, you might say that’s obvious, but many present-day peace activists not only are themselves motivated by fear, but also use fear to bring others to the action. Fear Is the most tempting force in peacemaking. The stories about the arms race and the description of what will happen if a nuclear war will take place are so fear-provoking that we are always inclined to use that fear to bring ourselves, as well as others, to be advocates of peace. Many films, slideshows, and picture books are made with the explicit intention to shock people into the change of mind and heart. It doesn’t work. But when peacemaking is based on fear, it is not much different than war-making. It might use other words, but its language has not really changed and it remains part of the numerous strategies of those who want to fight. Many wars have ravaged the world while words of peace were cheaply used by those whose only concern was to be victorious.
Peacemaking is the work of love and love, as John says, casts out fear: “In love there can be no fear, but fear is driven out by perfect love.” More important than anything else is that peacemaking flows from the deep and undeniable experience of love. Only those who deeply know that they are loved can be true peacemakers, and because the intimate knowledge of being loved sets us free to look beyond the boundaries of death and to speak fearlessly for peace. And therefore, prayer is the way to that experience of love, because prayer means entering into communion with him who loves us long before we could love. It is this first love that is revealed to us in prayer. The deeper we enter into the house of God, which is the house of prayer, the less dependent we are on the blame and praise of those who surround us, and the freer we are to let our whole being be filled with that first love.
As long as we are still wondering what other people say or think about us, and as long as we try to act in ways that will elicit a positive response, we are still victimized by the dark world in which we live. And in that dark world, we cannot be our true selves, but have to let our surroundings tell us what we are worth. It is the world of success and failure, of trophies and expulsions, of praise and blame, of stars and [unintelligible]. In this world, we are easily hurt, wounded, and we easily act out of these hurts to find some satisfaction of our need to be considered worthwhile.
But as long as we are in the clutches of that world, we live in darkness, since we do not know our true self. We cling to our false, illusory self, in the hope that maybe more success, more praise, more satisfaction will give us the experience of being loved, for which we crave. And that is a fertile ground for violence and war.
When we pray, however, we let ourselves know that the love we are looking for has already been given to us, and that we indeed can come to that experience of first love. Prayer is entering in communion with him who molded our being in our mother’s womb with love and only love. And there in that first love lies our true self, which is not made up of rejections and acceptances of those with whom we live, but is solidly rooted in him who called us into existence. In the house of God, we were created; to that house, we are called to return, and prayer is the act of returning. Prayer is the basis of all peacemaking, precisely because in prayer, we come to the realization that we do not belong to the world in which conflict and wars take place, but to him who offers us his peace.
And the paradox of peacemaking is indeed that we can only speak of peace in this world when our sense of who we are is not anchored in this world. We can only say we are for peace when those who are for fighting have no power over us. We can only witness for him who is the Prince of Peace when our trust is in him and him alone. In short, we can only be in this world when we do not belong to it.
And all this is expressed by Jesus himself in his final prayer: “Father, he says, “I am not asking you to remove them, my disciples, from the world, but to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, any more than I belong to the world. As you sent me into the world, so I will send them into the world.”
And here the mystery of peacemaking is unfolded for us, in Jesus’ own prayer. What finally counts is that we do not belong to the world in which we are sent to make peace. The life of prayer, the spiritual life, thus becomes not one of the obligations peacemakers should not forget, but the essence of all they do, think, say in the service of peace. Only by living in the house of peace can we come to know what peacemaking for us will mean.
Karen Pascal: As Henri has articulated so beautifully, peacemaking belongs to the heart of our Christian commitment. Henri Nouwen continued to develop this theme, and it eventually formed the basis of the book Peacework. You’ll find a link to this book and a special discount code if you wish to purchase the book from Orbis Press.
Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. In our next episodes of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then, we will continue to offer the recordings from this unique and powerful series of talks on peacemaking by Henri Nouwen, first recorded in 1983.
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From all of us at the Henri Nouwen Society, we wish you a Christmas filled with peace and joy. May the Prince of Peace fill you afresh with the knowledge of his great love for you.
Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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