Peace That Passeth Understanding

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

When I was a child I found peace in strange places. My father built a storage area over the stairs going down to the basement in an addition he built on to our small home. These shelves were deep, as wide as the stairs and probably 18-24 inches high. I could crawl into one of them and be hidden. Here I found peace. In good weather, I was gone to the great woods behind our house. I had many enchanted spots where I experienced safety and peace.

Did you have such moments as a child — in meadows, on riverbanks, or beaches or mountain tops? For me they were moments of total peace and contentment. They probably didn’t come often or last long, but they were potent. Perhaps for you such moments didn’t occur out of doors, but rather in the contentment and safety of a particular lap in a particular rocking chair with a particular song hummed around you, or before ranks of candles, or surrounded by incense, or music — organ, or choir, or orchestra.

Many women and men recall religious, spiritual experiences from their early years, experiences which were accompanied by a profound sense of peace, certainty, of connection, of hope and meaning, although articulation of just what that meaning was often seemed elusive.

As children we know the necessity of finding peace. Sometimes when a child is exhausted, they will fall asleep in very strange places. I remember seeing my son Scott asleep at the dinner table with his head on the plate of spaghetti. My children also had special places where they found peace and safety. The canyons in Los Alamos behind our home were full of caves. One of these caves had a carpet and large sticks holding up a cover to the opening.

Most of us know the importance of spiritual well-being, peace of mind, hope, faith, and that all of these contribute to our physical health. It has been well documented that people who are devout, who are clear in their faith, people who are meaningfully connected to religious communities, who are actively engaged in prayer or meditation, recover more quickly and fully from serious illnesses and injuries. We know that the surest way to health is with a blend of medical, social, and spiritual attention. We know this with scientific survey, but to this knowing we pay only lip service.

It is not easy to go to church, to make religious community a priority, yet in this secularized, pressurized world, we all – children and adults – are even more in need of sacred times and places, gathered communities of the spirits. It is not easy to live in a centered, holistic, spiritually sound way.

Extended families have often extended themselves cross the continent and beyond. Neighborhoods in which doors are left unlocked and everyone knows everyone else are nearly a figment now of nostalgia. Our time is a time of pervasive mistrust and of isolation, when we encounter mostly strangers. We and our children desperately need communities of trust, support, stability, nurture, where we might become acquainted with peace.

In the Buddhist tradition there is a concept called “monkey mind.” It includes inner chatter as opposed to inner peace. One teacher described her experience among Aboriginals in the Australian outback. “The society I was dealing with was so in contrast to my conceptual work that ‘I’ became totally undermined . . . gradually my mind became apparent to me. It was swirling, distraught, contradictory, a cacophony of ideas, statements, worries, ambitions, fears, hopes, delusions, and so on. And it was constant.” This is what “monkey mind” is about.

I believe that we today find ourselves lacking in peace and redolent in monkey mind. Unless we make an intentional effort, we can be swirled away into something like the description above. Finding peace rather than cacophony is sometimes very difficult.

Some of us may respond by setting up a cocoon in order to deal with the lack of inner peace. One Buddhist writer describes the cocoon as a stale, familiar place patched together with habitual thoughts and emotions. Whenever anything fresh or sharp or unfamiliar threatens our usual way of being, we race back to the cocoon . . It is cozy, closed in, ‘safe,’ and protected. It severs the connection between head and heart, so that we do not have to feel the rawness, subtlety, or unpredictability of our ever-changing world. We deaden ourselves to our creative energy.

This is not the peace that passeth understanding. By avoiding life, we are starving ourselves to death.

A common Buddhist aphorism is “Be here, now.” I believe Woody Allen once quipped that most of life is just showing up. Learning to be more fully present each moment of our lives, then letting that moment go for the next, not clinging, not trying to avoid pain, living in mindfulness, can lead to peace.

Buddhism is a discipline that provides a way to avoid living in a cocoon or being run around by a monkey mind. Both Buddhism and Hinduism hold that this peace, this attention, is possible and desirable and a way to avoid suffering. When the mind is quiet, when we are focused on our breath or the sound of a bell or a drum, when we have let go of troubling thoughts, surely we find peace. But is this the peace that passeth understanding. Is this the peace found standing by a running river that cascades over rocks and promises to always flow to the sea? Is this the peace found in laughter? Is this the peace experienced in our moments of deep connection with one another?

Consider these examples of moments when individuals tasted self-liberation, when they were taken out of themselves and saw things without layers of judgment and concern that usually cloud our minds. Here is one from historian Kenneth Clark:

“It took place in the church of San Lorenzo, but did not seem to be connected with the harmonious beauty of the architecture. I can only say that for a few minutes my whole being was irradiated by a kind of heavenly joy, far more intense than anything I had known before . . . . that I had “felt the finger of God” I am quite sure, and, although the memory of this experience has faded, it still helps me to understand the joys of the saints.”

The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore was watching the sun rise in a Calcutta street when, “suddently, in a moment, a veil seemed to be lifted from my eyes . . . . The thick cloud of sorrow that lay on my heart in many folds was pierced through and through by the light of the world . . . . There was nothing and no one whom I did not love at that moment.”

And finally Warner Allen, in his book, The Timeless Moment, describes a flash of illumination that occurred during a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Again he found his experience hard to describe:

A dim impression of the condition of the objective self might be given by a jumble of incoherent sentences. “Something has happened to me — I am utterly amazed — can this be that? (That being the answer to the riddle of life) — but it is too simple — I always knew it — it is remembering an old forgotten secret — like coming home — I am not ‘I’, not the ‘I’ I thought — there is no death — peace passeth all understanding.”

How can we talk about such experiences in a way that permits us to understand them without scoffing at their legitimacy? Perhaps there is a fence within our consciousness that keeps us on one side day after day. And on this side are all our thoughts, our anxieties, our judgments, and our fears. We are deeply attached to being on this side of the fence and we’ve totally forgotten there is another way of being.

But when, for one reason or another, we find ourselves momentarily on the other side of the fence, it all seems so simple. It is clear that we need do nothing to feel at ease and at peace. We know we are at peace. And we know that nothing can threaten this peace, for it is an intrinsic quality of life itself, not something that can be created or destroyed. It seems obvious that all we need do is relax and simply let go of our fears.

But it isn’t that easy. Our experiences of being on the other side of the fence are often far too rare. Some of us refer to these as peak experiences, highs, exhilaration, moments of insight. They involve moving out of the cocoon of our everyday existence, turning off our monkey mind and stepping into a place where the noise goes away, where we feel connections, where time may stop.

In my Interpreter’s Bible there is a very long discussion about the peace that passeth understanding. My edition was published in 1955 and was a gift to me from the Rev. George Easley who spoke here last October for my ordination and installation service. The orientation of the writing in the Interpreter’s Bible includes a traditional view of God as creator and sustainer of humanity. Within this context, however, the view of the peace that passeth understanding is very helpful.

First, it is a peace of humility. Our awareness of the moments of serenity and exhilaration are nothing we work to create. They happen. They are moments of grace. Second, it is a peace of singleness of mind. Whenever we are in a position of letting go of all the noise in our minds, when we can be – there is the possibility of finding this peace. Third, it is said to be a peace of a justifiable life. The reference here is to a person who has given of self. Regardless of who we are, we have moments when we step out of our self concern and open ourselves to release from our imperfections. The Interpreter’s Bible next speaks of a peace of final judgment. While their view is that we are all subject to God’s judgment, the alternative is to be constantly concerned about how other people will judge us. When we can let go of ego long enough to recognize that we have nothing to hide, we find peace. It is also a peace growing out of forgiveness. “To be delivered from the endless wear and tear of nursing grudges and remembering offenses unprofitably is to be set free for understanding others who, like ourselves, do wrong when they do not quite know what to do.” Certainly reconciliation comes of humility and opens us to the paths of peace. This peace is found in contentment with being, as contrasted with having or doing. Surely our spiritual connections with others are found in our increasing ability to be with them. Participating in the union of one’s spirit with the larger spirit of humanity offers opportunities for peace. Finally, letting go of guilt from our past is essential. We cannot leave the past behind, but we can work to make our lives whole through understanding and healing.

The peace that passeth understanding is the peace that surpasses all thought. It is the peace which we can prepare ourselves to receive by being open to the beauty of the world around us. It is the peace which can enter our lives at moments when we quiet ourselves from our cares, when we submit to the possibility of grace. It is the peace that comes when we don’t expect it. There are times when we feel it is impossible to achieve anything approaching this kind of peace.

William Ellery Channing summed it up nicely back in the early nineteenth century. “You are unhappy, and you ascribe to outward circumstances the misery within – to ill health, the loss of property, bereavement, the perplexed state of your affairs, the east wind, the maladministration of the government, the offensive prod of a neighbor. Yet I have read of those who, with all these misfortunes I have enumerated, are yet at peace.” Perhaps we can follow the suggestions of this poem written by his nephew, William Henry Channing:

“My Symphony”:

To live content with small means,
to seek elegance rather than luxury,
and refinement rather than fashion,
to be worthy, not respectable,
and wealthy, not rich.

To study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly,
to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart,
to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions,
hurry never.

In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious,
grow up through the common.

This is to be my symphony.

Rev. Carolyn R. Brown