Calm my troubled heart; give me peace.
O Lord, calm the waves of this heart, calm its tempests!
Calm thyself, O my soul, so that the divine can act in thee!
Calm thyself, O my soul, so that God is able to repose in thee,
so that his peace may cover thee!
Yes, Father in heaven, often have we found that the world cannot give us peace, but make us feel that thou art able to give peace; let us know the truth of thy promise: that the whole world may not be able to take away thy peace.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
IF YOU were to count the number of times that peace is mentioned through a typical week in church, you might conclude that a real encounter with God’s peace was a common occurrence.
Whether in sharing “the Peace” with our neighbour, blessing the person kneeling at the communion rail — “The Lord bless you and keep you . . . and give you his peace” — or in the concluding blessing: “The peace of God, which passes all understanding”, throughout the liturgy we are reminded of God’s peace, to encourage and empower us as we are sent out into the world. At the end of the service, we “go in peace to love and serve the Lord” — and there it is again.
In my experience, however, we are more often aware of the absence of peace. “Calm my troubled heart,” Kierkegaard begins. There is honest reality here. The mirror is turned on our hectic lives, in which we rush to fit in just one more child’s club, worry about a child’s making the grade, wait anxiously for test results, receive news of jobs at risk, take the phone call from the care home because Dad has had another fall. These are the waves of our lives, the tempests that threaten to overwhelm us.
In prayer, we appeal to the one who faced the storm and commanded it to cease: “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4.39). The liturgy needs to bring us back repeatedly, to remind us of Christ’s peace when the waves keep coming. “O Lord, calm the waves of this heart, calm its tempests!” as Kierkegaard says.
Important as the concerns of life are, the risk is that they fill our hearts and minds to such an extent that we lose sight of God. The waves and tempests, if not submitted to God’s peace, are distractions that keep us from Christ (Luke 10.41). “Calm thyself, O my soul, so that the divine can act in thee!”
The practice of Christian meditation has much to commend it here. Disciplining our mind to switch off the running commentary of thoughts and concerns, to empty our mind and focus more completely on Christ, is one way in which we can more intentionally seek God’s peace.
We find that quiet place — a favourite chair, the spare room, a corner in church — on regularly, and replace the busy-ness of our minds with the steady repetition of a prayer-word, or mantra.
Just how difficult this is in practice demonstrates how far most of us are, most of the time, from that true peace of knowing God to be resting deep within us. No sooner do we try to focus on God than the concerns of daily life flood back in.
What it would be to know Christ’s indwelling so completely, as if curled up in the safety and warmth of a blanket of God’s peace: “Calm thyself, O my soul, so that God is able to repose in thee, so that his peace may cover thee!”
And yet life continues apace, and the demands for our time and attention are seemingly never-ending. Wisdom comes in realising that we do not discover God’s peace by hiding from the world; we are sent out into the world, taking God’s peace with us, within us, beyond us. It is in going out that we realise the benefits of the time we have committed in the quiet place.
There is nothing new here. The Rule of St Benedict quotes: “Seven times a day I praise you” (Psalm 119.164), shaping the prayer of monastic communities the world over. Brother Lawrence instructs us to “practise the presence of God”. As one of the Desert Mothers, Amma Syncletica, puts it: “It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.”
What might be new is how we achieve that today. There are numerous apps available to prompt our daily prayers. The monastery bell as a call to prayer is replaced by reminders set on my phone: wherever I am, a quiet chime sounds at certain times to call me back, even for a moment, to the calm beneath the storm.
You could pray for God to still your heart each time you wait for the kettle to boil, or watch over the photocopier, or queue at the shop. Those who practise meditation speak of how the mantra that shapes their time spent in quiet begins to come to mind at any time of day, and particularly in challenging situations.
Whatever we choose to do, it is about making prayer our pattern, so that, no matter what the demands of the world, the waves and the tempests that we face, we remain anchored in Christ within us: “Let us know the truth of thy promise: that the whole world may not be able to take away thy peace.”
Kierkegaard’s words are certainly for that quiet space, but, perhaps even more, they are a prayer to carry with us as we go. Whatever life holds this day, this week, may the peace of the Lord be always with us. Amen.
The Revd Catherine Lomas is Pioneer Vicar of Irchester with Stanton Cross, in the diocese of Peterborough.