In September our Columbia Mennonite Fellowship observed Peace Sunday together, worshiping more formally for the first time since we began meeting. Each person who was there contributed: stories, songs, prayer requests, scripture reading, as we followed in the way of Jesus with peace at the center of the Gospel.
Peace before us // Sarah’s reflections from worship // 9.14.14
The other week Jamie and I took a retreat at Conception Abbey. It’s a stunningly quiet campus in rural northwest Missouri not far from Maryville. One of the first things you see when you walk up to check-in at the retreat center is these words from the Rule of St. Benedict: “Let all guests be welcomed as Christ.”
Besides the retreat center, the abbey is home to several dozen Benedictine brothers. And it is home to a basilica – a church – filled with images of biblical stories and monastic lore, ever more ornate than any Mennonite worship space. When one walks in the sacred sanctuary, Mary the mother of Jesus looks down kindly from the front apse and on overhead panels above the rows of pews Jesus turns water into wine and counsels his disciples and carries his cross. The domed navy blue ceilings represent the heavens, and angels look down upon the monks and the worshipers.
Six times a day the brothers gather in the basilica. In black robes they stand and sing and chant the psalms, and they pray over their space and over our world each morning and evening. It is a transcendent experience to be invited into communion with God through the prayers of these brothers.
While we were there Jamie reminded me that that kind of space doesn’t just happen overnight. It comes from years of prayers, from years of tending to God in our midst so that the basilica and the abbey itself come slowly to embody the peace of Christ, and each person who visits is invited to join that bottomless peace and take it with them as they go.
Twelve years ago one June day an elderly man walked into the basilica with a gun and interrupted the peace of Christ. He walked through the always unlocked church and into the private quarters of the monks, killing two men and wounding several others before taking his own life. The shooting gained national attention, but a clear motive was never uncovered.
In the moments and days following, the monastic community was confronted with how to respond, and Abbot Gregory Polan said in some of his first remarks, I am thinking of forgiveness.
Later the community explained: the tragedy is not that Father Philip and Brother Damian are dead. We all come to the monastery to die… the real tragedy is that this man came here troubled and without peace, and he shot the people who might have helped him find it. To this day the brothers’ website reminds us that though those events threatened their tranquility, they did not destroy their peace.
Those who were around at the time remarked not only on the wise leadership of Abbot Polan but on the peace that he embodied in those days. At one point he was asked by the coroner whether out of respect he should use one ambulance for the bodies of the slain monks and a separate one for the body of the killer and the abbot said, “No. Put them together. They’re all children of God.”
This kind of blessed peacemaker isn’t just formed overnight. He is formed through years of prayers, through years of tending to the peace of Christ in our midst.
The Catholic spirituality than anchors our Benedictine brothers and sisters can be so far away from the simple faith of Anabaptist Mennonites. But it can also be so close.
When we look around our world today, how can we do anything but hope for peace? The Middle East conflict seems never-ending and complex international relationships have lead to the growing power of the Islamic State and last month the events in Ferguson, Missouri reminded us that violence in the form of racism is closer and deeper that we’d thought. And while it may be easy to stand for peace as an abstract thing that we believe, it can be harder to imagine how it matters here and now. And it can be overwhelming to think about how we might make a difference.
Which brings us back to the lesson from the monks. Peace isn’t only out there, an issue to stand for, a war to oppose. Peace is here, above and below us, behind and before us and under our feet. It is something to live in our families, our workplaces, our local community, our relationship with creation, our economic choices.
And the monks remind us that we don’t become people of peace over night. We are formed through years of prayer and practice in community, through years of following the way of Jesus and tending to the peace of Christ in our midst.
Today when you visit Conception Abbey, the doors to the basilica are still unlocked: let all who enter will be welcomed as Christ. In spite of everything that has happened to them and in spite of everything that is happening in our world, every day the monks still practice the ancient rule of peace and in doing so invite us to do the same.