Chapter 8

The Peace of God

"On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures." This pivotal clause in the Nicene Creed describes the resurrection of Jesus and by application points the way of transcendence to be experienced by all in affliction who do not lose faith, who proceed by the unknown way to the destination, at once totally obscure and also the light of the soul. The end of the impenetrable gloom - a darkness inaccessible to the rational mind - is the light of God in whom there is no darkness at all. In the preceding darkness all guile has been shed, all dross discarded, and a new creature emerges from the chaos of hell, one that can confront the uncreated energy of God and be protected from its consuming heat and blinding light.

And yet, in a way barely comprehensible, the new creature is identical with what was originally formed, innocent, chaste and exquisitely sensitive, but now the thick accretion of sin has been transformed by love and integrated into the risen body. When Jesus showed himself to those close to him, who had been able to respond to his love, albeit in small measure only during the period of his incarnation, he was scarcely recognizable at first sight. Mary Magdalene mistook him for a gardener until he addressed her in a characteristic word of greeting. The disciples on the Emmaus road encountered him as an illumined stranger until he broke bread with them and said the blessing. Indeed, all the disciples needed to have their eyes opened before they were capable of receiving their beloved, unknown Master, now known in love for the first time in their association with him. He was the same person and yet strangely new. The physical body had been transmuted into spiritual radiance, and the anguish of the past emotional strain eased into a presence of calm benediction. His own delight in appearing to his friends in a form completely new to human experience is brought out in the freedom and spontaneity of his manifestation among them. His attitude is one of amazed joy. He had come through to a glory that even he could not fully have anticipated, a glory that did not emit physical power or even overt spiritual authority, but rather a sense of living presence, of work well done, a rest in the Father and then renewed effort in another dimension of reality - for he can never be at rest for long while there is suffering around him, whose round is cosmic in scope. He did not need to prove, let alone assert, himself nor to reprove his disciples for their lack of faith; his very presence among them did this. He did not show himself to the mighty in the land, those who had conspired to kill him. Had he done so, he might well have shocked them into repentance, but then they would have abused this also for their own selfish ends when the ripples in the water of time had eased out into bland memory. They were instead to learn the truth in their own time, as a heart opened to God in love but not as a body driven by the threat of punishment. And the process is not complete twenty centuries after the event of the resurrection. His was a visitation of forgiveness not power, of love not coercion.

And so it is with all those who have passed through the valley of darkness and arrived intact on the other side, breathless, almost speechless, and yet strangely composed; they are at last at peace with themselves and with the world. The attrition wrought by suffering has released them from dependence on all earthly ties, even the solidarity of those whom they sincerely believed they loved but who simply did not have the strength to accompany them in their moment of greatest need, the hour of ultimate trial, the pit of the valley of desolation. "The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mark 14:38). In the instance of the person who has traversed this darkness, the flesh is no longer weak, for it has been transfigured into something of the spiritual body we are all in process of fashioning for the life beyond death, even while we are busily involved in the things of this world. This is our glimpse of the resurrection that was fully accomplished in the life of Jesus Christ.

As the victim emerges in sombre celebration from the grave of human understanding, the eclipse of worldly honours and ephemeral delights, so there is neither recrimination nor triumph but only a deep sense of relief that wells up into wordless joy. He is invested in a bare nothing that incorporates everything; he recognizes the Deity as the supreme No-Thing, and is at peace. He no longer grasps at any worldly prize, for in himself he contains the cosmos. This sequence is especially well illustrated in the resurrection of Job from the darkness of incomprehensible woe to the awesome felicity of God's presence. He did not understand why he had suffered so cruelly and perhaps never attained this knowledge, but in the divine presence he attained a state of greater illumination, one in which his previous pain was as a fleeting shadow in the light of God's eternal day. Indeed, when we can glimpse the radiance of God's providence in the universe, our personal afflictions take on the magnitude of a little child's tears as it is carried summarily to bed when it would prefer to stay awake to play with its brothers and sisters. "I know thou canst do all things and that no purpose is beyond thee. But I have spoken of great things which I have not understood, things too wonderful for me to know. I knew of thee then only by report, but now I see thee with my own eyes. Therefore I melt away; I repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:2-6). Although in fact Job had much about which to complain, much to resent, nevertheless, caught in the divine mystery, he assumes something of that mystery himself. He attains a serenity previously unknown to him during his days of affluence, philanthropy and punctilious religious observance, when he, above all else, prized his reputation and cherished his children. No worldly concern assumed overwhelming importance any more, because the divine presence encompassed everything and transfigured it into an essence of eternal value.

The peace of God that passes all human understanding is an atmosphere of holy communion in which every creature moves beyond its solitary identity to give of itself in unsparing service for the entire community. The sacramental life is then completely fulfilled in the divine fellowship of the present moment. Pain has given way to reconciliation, the demand for recompense to a burning charity for all that lives; and the fear of personal loss to a spontaneous self-giving for the sake of the neighbour, who includes all that lives. A mutual sharing of resources now blesses the whole community whose centre is the Father, whose periphery is the Son, and the energizing force that fosters relationships on all levels from the divine to the secular, the Holy Spirit. The evil of the world, a world subject to the corrupting influence of powers and entities far beyond the grasp of the reasoning mind but incarnated in human relationships by the divided consciousness that is part of the inheritance of unredeemed mankind, has in a glorious way been transcended. And this transcendence has not simply bypassed the corrupting currents that so often govern the world. It has incorporated them in the goodness that lies at the heart of all searching relationships, growing in painful truth to the self-giving of real love. And so a divine compassion, an overflowing forgiveness, pervades the entire living scene. God was indeed in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding men's misdeeds against them (2 Corinthians 5:19), and in this presence the darkness of cosmic evil has been submerged in the abyss of God's compassion. From the depths of the divine being it has emerged new and untainted. Now at last the enormous demands of Christ can be, indeed have been, fulfilled: do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you . . . love your enemies and pray for your persecutors . . . there must be no limit to your goodness as your Heavenly Father's goodness has no bounds (Matthew 5:38-48). The mystery of the naked evil of Gethsemane that has its lesser counterparts in every human situation of incurable illness, impenetrable depression, heartless crime, vicious persecution or cosmic disaster, is that it finds its resolution and healing in the process of life itself, when that life is completely open in childlike trust to the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of all life. The Gethsemane experience is the ultimate transmitter of evil inasmuch as evil itself can do no harm in the person who accepts it unconditionally, without resentment and in a state of innocent love. That is the chaste love of the humble person who gives of himself to his fellows without so much as being aware of his great gift. He also takes on himself unconditionally his share of the world's darkness, and by his simple incorruptibility transfigures it into a thing of holiness.

The return from the dead is an attainment of a second simplicity, common to all the saints of the world's spiritual traditions, a realization of the supremacy of reconciliation glimpsed by the martyrs as they move beyond their individual allegiance to embrace a corporate unity even with those who persecute them. The new life of the sanctified, who are the ordinary people of any age that have passed from the darkness of imprisoning despair to the light of God's love by their own courage and self-sacrifice, is a presage of the new creation promised by God at the end of time (Revelation 21:1-5). The restoration is no longer sombre and forbidding, as is mortal existence even at its most prosperous, inasmuch as decay and death lie at its end. It is open and full of joy; it sparkles and bubbles over with a sense of the ridiculous at the pomposity of all human aspirations, no matter how proper in tone and correct in content, when they are not liberally seasoned with an awareness of the essential humour that underlies all events. The human earnestness contrasts as a dark pall with the unpredictable radiance of the divine providence that embraces all creation, whether good or bad. For in this moment of truth the mystical understanding of God as the coincidence of opposites dawns upon the newly born creature. God is indeed beyond all concepts, even those of good and evil. In him all things co-inhere; though he transcends the cosmos, yet he is the indwelling power in every creature, and he has also walked beside the creature along its own path of death and resurrection in the person of Jesus Christ. That which defeats the naked intellect of the thinker explodes like a flash of brilliant light on the one who has passed through death to the life that knows no end. And this life is none other than the previous life of the person, but now fully experienced in unclouded awareness for the first time.

And so the justifiably rebellious Job is given a kindly, though illuminating, lesson in natural history by God, who reveals himself in his magisterial glory when the theological impotence of all the disputants has reduced them to silence. God shows himself not only as the creator of the world but also as one who is intimately involved in the welfare of his creatures - not only the brilliant human being but also the brute force of nature and its manifold animals. All these are as much subject to the divine compassion as is mankind. One can, if one reads the text with the simplicity of a small child, hardly avoid smiling as the prodigies of the various animals are called to Job's mind: the ostrich, the horse, the hawk, the vulture, the whale (or hippopotamus) in its enormous size, the crocodile in its ferocity and impregnability. Each passes before his entranced gaze in one mighty cavalcade directed by God. The divine pity disports itself prodigally with a universal, celestial love, while the human plays his little part in the world's economy before he too is put to rest like a tired but spirited child.

The final chapter of the Book of Job has often been criticized as something of an anticlimax: after the magnificent theophany in which God reveals to Job something of the enormous mystery of creation, Job returns once more to earth. He gains wealth and cattle while a new family takes the place of the one that perished. Indeed, Job's final state of affairs seems, if anything, to be even more satisfactory than the earlier period of his career. But this view is, I believe, to misunderstand the essential nature of his restoration of resources and personal rehabilitation among his compatriots. When anyone has come through an experience that has, quite literally, stripped from him all the previous landmarks whereby he could recognize his place in the community, his perspective is immensely broadened: His priorities, his sense of values, undergo a radical reappraisal. No longer is he seduced by possessions, for he has seen beyond the fascination of private ownership. He does not cease to care for worldly honours, nor do even personal relationships of an intimate character ensnare him. To be sure, human relationships are the staple of our life on earth, but even they, at their most blissful, can imprison us in a web of complacency which is unceremoniously cut away by the inroads of decay and death. They are to be seen, in the mature light of attrition and resurrection, as transient episodes of great beauty which, if cherished in nobility of service, will lead us to the greater relationship with all that lives, a relationship that can never end, since God and not the personal beloved is its centre.

In other words, our little term of ownership is seen in its more enduring form as stewardship of resources for the benefit of all those around us, just as family ties school us for the time when, as Jesus taught, all who do the will of God are our ultimate family. We hope that in the fullness of time this family will be all-inclusive. The death of the beloved, once it has been borne with courage, will find its sequel in a greater concern for our neighbour, in whose familiar features we may suddenly see the face of the loved one, just as the disciples on the road to Emmaus saw the person of Jesus in the stranger they encountered on the way. To those who have not been stripped of all they had previously regarded as essential to their lives, such a radical broadening of concern is inconceivable; to those who have had their lives miraculously restored, what they have left of themselves is no longer personal property but communal resources. This is the transpersonal life that Jesus shows his disciples as he moves among them in his resurrected form. Mary Magdalene can no longer cling to him in a uniquely personal relationship, nor can the disciples on the Emmaus road detain him indefinitely. His scope of action is altogether wider now, until the time of his ascension to the Father. After that event his is a truly cosmic presence available universally as a light of transforming radiance.

And so, to return to the restored Job, one can feel a peace about him that was not present at the beginning of this wonderful story. Then he clung to his wealth, his reputation and his children, and there was something even about his piety, sincere as it was, that worshipped a far-off God of inflexible justice, who had to be appeased at all times, especially when Job's children celebrated and perhaps said or did something improper. After his suffering, Job's relationship with God is altogether easier: the distant potentate of justice and power is now a friend in the spiritual atmosphere around him. God still transcends all human definition since he is not encompassed in the cosmos he has created, and yet the divine presence lies within Job closer than his own soul. In Christ, furthermore, God also walks alongside us in our travail, and probably Job became aware of this when he had returned from his own private death to participate in the new life of eternity that still embraces the world of creatures. But now the creatures, including the humans among them, are part of the divine providence into which Job can throw himself in joyous abandon. Jesus tells us to set our mind on God's kingdom and his justice before all else, and then all the things of this world, for which we strive so obsessively and fight so obdurately in ordinary consciousness, will come to us as well (Matthew 6:33). One feels that Job has arrived exhausted but entire at this knowledge, and can now relax in all his new friends, letting them pursue their own existence and simply flowing out in benediction to all life. Thus the spiritual person bestows blessings quite spontaneously, as a presage of the Holy Communion, in which we receive a joint blessing from the Author of all creation. All life is a sacrament of God's grace, and as we move in love to all we encounter, so the sacrament attains a universal fulfilment.

It seems a strange progress in a person's life to move from the innocence of childhood to the murky depths of adult sensuality and greed, only to be brought low by one misfortune or another in order to rediscover something of the chastity that was long ago discarded. The path of integrity seems to require nothing less than a total renunciation of all worldly favours. The first part of man's descent into the grime of common existence was poignantly lamented by William Wordsworth in his "Ode on Intimations of Immortality" from Recollections of Early Childhood.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
  Hath had elsewhere its setting,
  And cometh from afar;
  Not in entire forgetfulness,
  And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
  From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
  Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
  He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
  Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
  And by the vision splendid
  Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

It seems that the hard school of adult competitiveness and insidious temptation to corruption of moral values, as far from the manifest light of God as a riotous public house is from the sanctuary of a church, plays its part in developing the individual character, in a way that the bliss of childhood purity could not provide. This is the darker meaning of incarnation, both our own and that of the Son of God. Even Adam and Eve came to a stern self-knowledge and an awe of God that was remote from their experience during their idyllic existence in paradise, only when they had fallen outside it. The golden youth, more prevalent no doubt in the spacious era of the early romantics like Wordsworth than in the chaotic, undisciplined world we now inhabit, can still breathe the atmosphere of holiness as a gift. Later on, when he descends into the grime and dirt of common manhood, he has to provide this atmosphere from his own resources, as Jesus did among the common people with whom he consorted. But whereas Jesus adorned any society he encountered, no matter how morally unclean it might be, the golden youth is rather more likely to be corrupted by his environment than to edify it. The wages of sin are indeed death, if not immediate mortal dissolution then at least the destruction of the entire edifice of security that the heedless person has built around himself. In the suffering and isolation that ensue, the person, like the Prodigal Son, may come to himself once more. It is indeed the same self that he knew as an innocent child, the soul no less of a unique individual, but now that self has come of age, and can start to do the work for which it was called at the time of its conception. In the call of Jeremiah, God said, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you for my own; before you were born I consecrated you, I appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jeremiah 1:4-5). I believe that some vocation lies at the heart of all human existence, and it may be that the Prodigal Son type of experience is necessary for many of us not only to discern the true from the false but also to learn humility and thus be able to enter into the lives of our many suffering fellows. The humble person does not know everything, and can learn from even the most unpromising people.

Just as Job returns to his little world a stronger, wiser man, so does the Prodigal Son come home to the estate he had left in the precipitate, thoughtless haste of youth. But now both of them can appreciate their good fortune with mature vision and a peace of benediction. By contrast, the older brother of the Prodigal Son, despite his virtue and industry, has been oblivious of the magnitude of God's grace. The saddest part of this great parable is his father's gentle remonstrance at his unloving attitude towards his brother who has come home, as it were, from the dead, "My boy, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours." So many of us can become caught up with our work, possessions and personal relationships to the extent of being imprisoned in them instead of enjoying them. In the same way obsessive piety can obscure from us the face of the living God; the history of religious persecution is a terrible testimony to this tendency to worship religion rather than God, to love the set dogmas of our faith to the extent of hating our brethren. Once we have passed through our own valley, as dark as death, we can, in the words of Psalm 23, relinquish all fear of evil, for the Lord himself is now manifestly with us, an unfailing support day by day. He always was with us, but until then we were not with him, since the glamour of the world had captivated our attention and blinded our spiritual sight. When we come together with God in a mature, responsible relationship, we regain the vision of our heavenly lineage and can start the homeward journey in a joyous faith that far transcends the unaided reason.

In this state of quiet benediction, we no longer need to justify ourselves, our faith or the providence of God. The intellectual proofs (and disproofs) of a meaning behind the creative principle, indeed the very existence of such a principle as opposed to blind chance, become increasingly irrelevant to our inner stability. Our faith no longer hangs on the support afforded by great names or fresh scientific evidence, nor is it disturbed when the names depart and the evidence is questioned by the agnostic faction. This does not mean that the intellect is contemptuously dismissed, but simply that a higher principle of understanding has been revealed to us, one on which all other modes of human knowledge ultimately depend. This principle is the Deity himself, who is known, as The Cloud of Unknowing tells us, by love but not by thought. The state of contemplation transcends all discursive thought and enters that breathless silence in which all human knowledge is illuminated with a purpose whose nature is love. And so we no longer have to dispute with others so as to prove our particular point. Instead, we can embrace all people with love, learning from them instead of merely arguing with them. At last we can attain the height of the divine commandment: love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. At last we can grasp Jesus' supreme commandment, old enough indeed in the annals of spirituality but now new in its blazing intensity: "Love one another; as I have loved you, so you are to love one another" (John 13:34).

And so the end of this strange life of ours appears to be the full actualization of the soul, always illumined by the Holy Spirit immanent in its holiest place, the spirit, but so often clouded by the cares of the world and the emotional turmoil that flows from them. To know who we are and what we are to become is the purpose of our brief, but very significant, sojourn on earth. And yet we always knew this in the depths of the soul, but ran away from the place of peace to be diverted by the world's vanity. Nevertheless we, like the Prodigal Son, shall return to our own being - which is also the kingdom of God - enlightened and radiant with love. As T.S.Eliot puts it at the end of Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate.
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always -
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and rose are one.

When I read these familiar lines, my mind recalls with poignancy Beethoven's last quartet, how the deep suffering of the penultimate slow movement is consummated in the joyful simplicity of the finale - not a simplicity of craftsmanship, but one of mood. It evokes in me the vision of little children playing in the Elysian Fields, with no thought except the immediate present which is also eternity. And so a lifetime of hardship, frustration and deep inner suffering, but illuminated by divine inspiration, attains its apogee in a paean of childlike innocence. There is no triumphant conclusion here, at least in terms of the world's bombast and show, but instead a return to the paradisical state of Adam and Eve before they fell from grace. But whereas our two allegorical ancestors were unaware of the bliss in which they lived, the resurrected person not only appreciates that bliss but also adds his unique contribution to it. Joy and Love unite in service which works towards the healing of all that is out of alignment, that cannot face the reality of God. "As in Adam all men die, so in Christ all will be brought to life" (1 Corinthians 15:22).

We started this study by considering how the sun fills us with hope and resolution when its warm rays play upon our skin and brighten our sight, and how its decline darkens our inner vision no less than the outer one, so that we retire into a state of pensive regret. But when we are born to reality, we no longer depend on the sun to encourage us. The true sun is radiant within us, the divine presence radiating the uncreated energies of God. "And the city had no need of sun or moon to shine upon it; for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb. By this light shall the nations walk, and the kings of the earth shall bring into it all their splendour. The gates of the city shall never be shut by day - and there will be no night" (Revelation 21:23-24).

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