Peace of Mind?
Given on Sunday 5th September 2004 at The Abbey by The Vicar, Canon Eric Woods
The French writer Albert Camus was once invited to address a group of French monks on what unbelievers expect of believers. In the course of his address he said that a quality he much admired in monastic communities was their peace of mind. And he went on to say that he could understand why his audience of monks should have such peace of mind. They were men who like everybody else shared a suffering world, but they were also men who believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore they viewed things from the perspectives of eternity. That vista always before them would of course produce a deep tranquillity of heart and mind. But Camus went on to say that he himself was kept back from such a faith by what was for him the intolerable question of suffering, especially a world in which children can suffer torture and death at the hands of evil men. And so, Camus continued to the monks, 'Although I cannot share your faith I have the right to ask one thing of you: always make sure that your peace of mind is honest'. In other words, Camus was saying, if you have the serenity of faith (which of course you have the right to have, because of your belief in the resurrection), if you have passed through and beyond tragedy into hope, you will still need - for your own sake and for the sake of others - to show the visible scars made by all the things that go against faith, especially suffering. The Christian is one who will carry with him the wounds of the world's sufferings, and though by the grace of God those wounds may have healed, they will always and readily be reopened.
Camus sets Christians a hard task. A fortunate life with good health and reasonable success can easily produce the sort of contentedness which plays down the harsh realities that other people have to face (some of them pretty continuously) and which easily lapses into complacency. On the other hand, those whose lot has fallen in a hard place, who suffer much and suffer often, can soon come to believe that there is only pain and sadness, and that the only attitude one can hope for is some kind of stoic endurance. Christians, however, have both to know pain and that which takes them beyond the pain. Christians have to live by both crucifixion and resurrection. St Paul, in his second letter to the Christians at Corinth, distinguishes between what he calls the sadness according to the world and the sadness according to God. The world's kind of sadness is that the story of mankind is only a story of frailty and pain, of mortality and ultimate loss. In the end, according to such a view, the meaning of human life is essentially tragic, if it has a meaning at all. But the sadness according to God is the realisation that the tragedy of mankind lies in its wilful alienation from the source of its being, the misery of man without God, of man without hope
Those who suffer much but who can only feel the sadness according to the world may, at best, cultivate a profound courage to endure. Such courage can be very impressive, even truly heroic. In Darfur in the Sudan; in Beslan in the Caucasus, as in so many places of acute suffering and loss, there are many who display that kind of courage - and who am I to do anything but admire it? But there is another sort of courage which I trust and pray we will also see in Darfur, and Beslan, and wherever God's people are subject to violence and atrocity, namely the courage that comes from the belief that all human life, even suffering, broken human life, is redeemable. This kind of courage often turns on whether we can say that we realise that God too has suffered, that God too has faced death, because to be able to believe that
suffering and death, while real to God, are not in Him finally defeating, puts things into a different perspective. We can take with full seriousness the uncontrolled and the uncontrollable, the alien and the menacing in the world, and say not that Christ has obliterated them, but that Christ has overcome them. They are there still, but their horror is seen in this new perspective: the wounds they inflict are the prints of the nails in the body of the Lord. He has battled with the unintelligible dark, the irrationality of evil, and still lives. He contains evil. He has shown that evil cannot contain Him. 'The darkness comprehended it not.' He has looked into the heart of darkness. He has held the burning world to himself, and holds it always, at the cost of a pain we cannot begin to conceive. 'The Lord is King ... be the earth never so unquiet.'
What was done in the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ is believed by Christians to point to a reality at the heart of God. This reality is that God is eternally self-giving, that his love is eternal self-crucifixion, and that only God is sufficiently in command of the self fully and completely to give himself. This kind of belief should produce a courage to hope and a true peace of mind, but it should never give rise to complacency. It is a peace of mind that is honest because it always has to be prepared to re-enter the tragic and the suffering. That is why St Paul continually reminds his readers that while, of course, they are risen with Christ to sit with him in the Kingdom of Heaven, they are also risen for suffering. Dying, rising, dying, rising, is the permanent rhythm of the Christian life. It is when we live by both crucifixion and resurrection that we have the courage to say, to others as to ourselves, I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.