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Living without weapons in this world of wars

by
13 May 2022

Every moment of social tension needs a peacemaker, and monastics offer an example, writes Joan Chittister

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Pax, a sculpture by Octave Rotsaert showing two monks embracing, one old one young, sited in the courtyard of St John’s Hospital in Bruges, Belgium

Pax, a sculpture by Octave Rotsaert showing two monks embracing, one old one young, sited in the courtyard of St John’s Hospital in Bruges, Belgium

THE Latin for peace is pax, the official motto of Benedictine life. Benedictine pax has two facets: one personal, the other global. The two are closely related.

The first dimension of Benedictine peace is a commitment to personal calm and serenity — a gift of aplomb to a complex and agitated world. This kind of peace brings a sense of equanimity and patience to those most harried by life for ever at warp speed.

The second dimension of Benedictine peace has to do with peacemaking itself, with the way we ourselves face pressure, sometimes even danger, in a world of opposites, of strangers, of those who are not “our kind of people”.

Pax has a long and ironic history. The early use of this term may be one of the first times in the Western world when one group became consciously absorbed by the language that described another — and turned that initial meaning upside down.

The first widespread use of the term was applied not to monastics but to Roman life. Pax Romana, the term given to the rule of Rome between 27 BC and AD 180, defines an almost 200-year period when all the countries around the Mediterranean were united under the Roman Empire.

This pax, however, was an unnatural peace that looked good for a while but deteriorated under its own weight. Rome’s legions, which maintained the peace in areas distant from Rome, were over-extended and too costly to sustain; so the empire collapsed financially. Rome was a hollow master, but a master, none the less.

The Pax Romana became a shell of an idea based on an unnatural system — wealth, war, power, control, and suppression of peoples. None of its pillars were fully human; none of them reflected the will of God for all people. None of them could last in the face of other ambitious and militaristic societies.

 

WITH the decline of Rome, Europe became a cavalcade of chaos. Average labourers had no jobs, no money, no security. Life was all about what people could get for themselves, and what they could manage to maintain. With no central government left, small landowners fought for power one inch of turf at a time.

Then, monastic communities stepped in; they established judicial systems, they heard complaints, they arbitrated differences, they gave spiritual direction. They became the centres of the social system. They kept the peace. But there were bigger problems. All of Europe was a hive of conflict.

With the breakdown of government, the whole notion of the “Royal Peace” disintegrated for lack of support. This compact among members of the ruling class of the ninth century, which declared that the weak of society — especially ecclesiastical properties, women, priests, pilgrims, and merchants — would be spared the terrors of war, was no longer honoured.

Monastics, too, were immersed in these negotiations. Benedictines were key to promoting peace as a spiritual value as well as a social need. Most of all, this ideal not only contributed to the stabilisation of the 11th century, but laid the basis for a new kind of public contract.

It seeded a newly emerging awareness that the community itself needed to give aid to the poor and protect the defenceless, if human life was going to be humane for everyone.

Modern European peace movements still owe a great deal to these early insights and efforts. Benedictines were central, as well, to the development of the Truce of God, another major social attempt to stop violence so that communities could concentrate on development rather than survival.

This time, various warring factions agreed to outlaw fighting on specific days and times. This agreement prohibited fighting from 9 p.m. Saturday to 3 a.m. Monday. Fighting was later prohibited from Wednesday evening to Monday morning, in addition to religious feast days. That left only 80 days a year for fighting.

By 1123, violation of the calendar of violence carried the threat of excommunication, and, by the 13th century, the rise of strong national governments made such individual commitments unnecessary.

 

MONASTIC life was a life without weapons in a world full of warlords and sieges. Even monasteries that themselves fell to the onslaught of foreign tribes did not fight back. Finally, monastics were instrumental in forging peace among the warring lords of every region. The part played by monasticism in the search for peace left enduring cultural marks.

The Peace of God and the Truce of God, which imposed controls on the conduct of war, led eventually to the concept of the Just War. It guided Christian soldiers to fight only at acceptable times, to protect non-combatants, to make and keep the peace between tribes.

It raised the commitment to war to a growing consciousness of the need to separate warriors from innocents — a concept that has only recently been ignored. Monasticism remained the one enduring commitment to peace in a world where peace lay in the hands of warring forces.

What would integrating the practice look like? If we are to create global community in our time, there must be a voice that can transcend the current politics and national ambitions. During the great nuclear build-ups of the 1960s, monastics spoke out, organised programmes, and raised their voices again and again against national violence as a foundation for human development.

Now, with new American threats to deploy nuclear weapons on other peoples, Benedictine peace groups have steadfastly opposed their government’s willingness to use lethal force on civilians, to strike first, to prepare for global mayhem, to risk the existence of the planet with their so-called inhuman defence plans.

 

BUT what is that to you and me? Just this: every moment of social tension needs a peacemaker. Otherwise, how can the human family get beyond the competition, domination, annihilation, and blind struggles for power that pass as defence even now?

The truth is that only one thing can really bring peace: the commitment that we will not destroy other people’s sense of self, of dignity, of value in the name of truth. Modern Benedictines have gone to the poorest, least educated, most ignored people in the world in order to be voices for the voiceless.

Modern-day Benedictines began Benedictines for Peace in a nuclear world. Benedictines of our time have taken corporate commitments to nuclear disarmament and begun new monasteries in the least stable parts of the world.

The commitment to be peace, to speak peace, to create peace wherever you go is the call of monastic peacemakers. Monastic peacemaking illuminates an important distinction between military peace and Benedictine peace.

Peace is not an unwillingness to tell a hard truth. It is a commitment not to make war on either the personal or the planetary level in the name of making peace. Peacemaking is your promise to tell truth kindly, clearly, and compassionately. Compassionately. When you live out that promise, then you are truly peacemakers.

 

This is an extract from The Monastic Heart: 50 simple practices for a contemplative and fulfilling life by Joan Chittister OSB, published by Hodder & Stoughton at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.59); 978-1-39980-085-3.

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