“Dona Nobis Pacem” – Grant Us Peace

a talk by Jim Forest to be given on 24 May 2008 in Schoorl to the Iona Group, Netherlands

We use the word “peace” a great deal. Often the context is war. We live in Europe, a region that has endured more wars than anyone can count. Few Europeans have romantic ideas about war. Many of us have been part of endeavors initiated by various peace groups to either prevent war or hasten its end. Wars cause suffering, death and destruction on a huge scale. What kind of people would we be if we made no effort to encourage nonviolent ways of dealing with conflict between nations?

But peace work is not only about war and relations between nations. Peace is a way of life — not that we are always the peaceful people we wish to be, but that we choose peace as a basic direction in which we are attempting to move.

Peacemaking is in fact something quite ordinary. It has to do with daily life. Most of us are doing peace work without even thinking of it as peace work. In the context of daily life, the word “peace” sounds too grand, too ambitious.

But all of us are making frequent efforts to help peace happen — in our families, in our work places, in our neighborhoods, in the wider world. Anything we do that draws us closer to each other, that inspires forgiveness, or that brings about real dialogue is work for peace.

Peace is something we do all the time. A neighbor is sick and we shop for her. A tourist is trying to find his way and we stop and help. There is some trash on the street and we pick it up and put it in a garbage container. We turn off lights not being used and use less water rather than more and try not to waste anything. All these little things, hardly worth mentioning. But anything we do that brings us a little closer to each other is peace work — work that contributes, even if in very tiny ways, to the healing of the world.

Peace work is healing work. In fact, this is one way of defining peace. Peace work is what we do to repair damaged relationships — healing between ourselves and God, healing between one person and another, healing between divided communities and nations. Those who work for peace are in fact working for healing.

No doubt some of you are involved in work that has a healing dimension — health care, care of the aged, care of people with special needs, or helping people struggling with stress or depression.

Peacemaking is an ordinary part of family life — the daily struggle to bring husband and wife, parents and children, a little closer together, efforts to heal irritations and resentments. Domestic peacemaking is often very hard work and sometimes quite discouraging!

Perhaps it helps to recall that the peaceful results we seek are not entirely in our hands. The phrase “dona nobis pacem” — grant us peace — suggests that in fact we ourselves cannot make peace. It is something not made but given. The words “dona nobis pacem” are a short, urgent prayer.

This simple prayer serves to remind us that peacemaking requires a spiritual life, a life rooted in God’s Spirit. A spiritual life means to be living in the Spirit — God’s Holy Spirit.

It’s striking that people widely recognized as great peacemakers are almost always people with very deep religious roots — such people as Martin Luther King and Gandhi. The wisdom and inspiration they needed to give shape to their lives and work had much to do not only with ideas and theories, but, more importantly, with a profound faith that God, the giver of peace, is constantly ready to help us, yet will force nothing upon us. What God gives to us requires our cooperation and assent. We have to say and live our own “Yes” to God.

Somehow all of us here today find ourselves connected to Iona, an island in the Inner Hebrides that’s so small one can walk around its edge, even the hard parts, in a single day. A map has to have a great deal of detail for Iona even to be seen on it. Yet beginning in the sixth century, tiny Iona became of place of great importance in the history of Europe. A large part of the christianization of Europe was the achievement of the monks of Iona and their many daughter communities.

For centuries Iona was one of most important centers of evangelization and peacemaking. These two threads were, for them, one single cord.

St Columba and the twelve monks who traveled from Ireland in the year 563 made Iona their adopted home and then the base from which they reached out to others, traveling greater and greater distances as the years and then the generations passed. The Celtic monks traveled throughout the British Isles, to Scandinavia, to Holland, to Germany and France, to Italy, to eastern Europe and even to Russia. I happened to be the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Novgorod, a church a thousand years old, when archaeologists found an ancient Celtic standing cross under the floor of the church. It was through courage and holiness of those Celtic monks that countless people — many of them warriors and pirates who killed for treasure and adventure — decided to become Christians

Many stories about how the roles they played in preventing wars or ending them have come down to us. What they did is summed up in the legend of St Columba’s encounter with a great sea monster.

With several other monks, Columba was sailing in one of those lightweight little coracles used by the Celts when a dragon-like creature raised its head out of the sea, blocking their way. Columba’s response was to face to creature and make the sign of the cross. The sea dragon then peacefully submerged itself and the monks sailed on. Here is the way Adomnan describes it in his biography of Colima.

“[Columba] raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, ‘Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.’ Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to [their brother monk] Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.”

Of course it’s possible there actually was such an encounter — in Scotland, people are still on the lookout for the Loch Ness Monster, affectionately known as Nessie. Perhaps Nessie is down in the depths somewhere, occasionally raising her shy head above water but, thanks to her meeting with St Columba, no longer terrifying anyone.

But what is more likely is that the real “monster” Columba and his monks faced time and again was, on the one hand, their own fear, and on the other hand, the many actual dangers they had to face in meeting people who might kill them. The pacifying of the sea monster sums up in a simple, vivid image the pacifying both of ourselves and our potential adversaries. It also reminds us that our goal isn’t conquest or victory — the dragon isn’t killed or harmed — but conversion, the conversion of the adversary, the conversion of ourselves.

What the monks of Iona and their monastiuc descendents achieved would have been impossible without their faith. It was not the mild faith that we are used to in modern times, in which Jesus is seen as a rabbi who survived death only in the sense that his teachings lived on, but a faith centered in Christ’s actual resurrection, and the astonishing courage the fact of the resurrection gave them.

Courage was necessary, for they were very often risking their lives in standing either before or between adversaries. What they achieved was always linked to their resourceful efforts to spread the Gospel message, a message of God’s love and Christ’s peace, in a world whose cultures glorified war and those who fought in wars.

A question for us is what can we learn from St Columba and all those monks whose extraordinary efforts, near and far, made Iona — that remote pinprick on the map — into the greatest center of pilgrimage in the north of Europe? So many pilgrims came to Iona that it didn’t take long for it to become known as “the Jerusalem of the North.”

One of the realities that we see in Columba and those who lived a similar life is their great love not only for friends and fellow Christians, but even for their enemies. I don’t mean love in the emotional sense, but in its biblical sense. Love is not an emotional condition but how we actually relate to others. It is not a matter of feelings but of doing. Love is what we do to help others live. It is what we do to benefit their souls and bodies.

This is what so many of the stories of Columba and his monks is all about. To be a missionary, Columba understood, was to be someone communicating to others the astonishing fact that God is love, and that those who live in love live in God. To allow God’s love to pass through one’s life is to be in heaven, not in the future but here and now. Those who participate in God’s love are living in what Jesus calls the kingdom of God.

To be a missionary in this sense is more than bringing non-believing people to baptism and setting up a local church. It means being concerned about how those whom we meet are living and what problems they face. No one is just body and no one is just soul. We are all body and soul, and the one cannot be separated from the other. This is why you find Christ so concerned about hunger and illness. You cannot love anyone and not care about his or her well-being, both spiritual and physical. If such actions have the support of our feelings, fine. But what finally matters is what we do, not how sentimental we are.

“The word ‘love’ has been only a form of mouthwash for many Christians,” said George MacLeod, the man who inspired the rebuilding of Iona. “We need to learn to put it into practice.”

Or as Dostoevsky put it in The Brothers Karamazov: “Love in practice is often a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

One of the most revealing of the stories that come down to us about Columba’s life concerns a sword. It was the custom of people who visited him not only to seek a blessing for themselves, but also for some item of personal property. One day, absent-mindedly, Columba blessed a sword that was put before him, only to realize immediately afterward that this was something that might well be used in battle. Swords, after all, are not for healing. Columba was horrified to realize he had accidentally blessed a deadly weapon. He thought for a moment and then gave the sword a second, more careful blessing, praying that the blade would remain sharp only so long as it was used for cutting bread and cheese, but would acquire a dull edge if ever used to harm any living thing.

This is a very different sort of story than the one about the sea dragon. I have no doubt it’s as true as a weather report. In Columba’s world people had swords and they used them not to decorate the house or for cutting meat in the kitchen but to kill men in battle.

I would love to know more of the story of that particular sword. Did the owners safeguard its use and retain both the sword’s special blessing and its everlasting sharp edge? Or was it stained with blood and its edge made dull? Let’s hope that it remains sharp and unstained by war to the present day.

It is helpful to recall that Columba’s coming to Iona in the first place was an act of penance for having been involved in war. As a penitent monk, he was determined to do all that he could to discourage bloodshed and in its place encourage all who came to him to devote themselves to living a peaceful life, a life of healing, a life that gives witness to Christ’s resurrection.

Columba of Iona and the monks who came after him didn’t succeed in all their goals. While they helped bring about the conversion of Europe, despite their saintly efforts they did not cure all their converts of enmity and war or create a Christianity with deep enough roots to retain unity even among Christians. But we are in their debt for all that they achieved and are free, if we choose, to carry on their work according to our possibilities.

Surely they knew and used the prayer, “Dona nobis pacem.” Let us use it often and from the heart, finding in it an invitation to participate more and more deeply in Christ’s peace so that we too can face dragons and use ours swords only for slicing bread and cheese.

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Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

Forest-Flier web site: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: www.incommunion.org
photos: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/

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Nancy and I have been keeping a journal that follows our recent kidney transplant. A blog has
been set up for this purpose — A Tale of Two Kidneys. See: http://ataleof2kidneys.blogspot.com/
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