Preached by the Rev. Dr. Sarah A. Coakley
The Rev. Dr. Sarah A. Coakley is a friend of the community and the Edward Mallinckrodt Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School.
‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives’ (John 14:27)
May I speak in God’s name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
Do you know what I mean when I say that some people just make you feel better? I ask this not facetiously, and certainly not in the spirit of our narcissistic, ‘feel-good’ culture. I ask it because I long to probe what sort of ‘peace’ Jesus had in mind when he promised to his disciples a peace that is ‘not as the world gives’. I want to understand what that peace could be, promised to his followers so paradoxically – according to John – just before he led them into the agony and dereliction of the Passion. I want to know how such a peace could have been purveyed to them through the power of the risen Jesus. I want to comprehend how it carried them through all the vicissitudes and persecutions of the earliest days of the church, such that the stonings and imprisonments, and all the other violent events of the early chapters of the book of Acts – which the lection requires of us to recall, rather exhaustingly, at this time of year, as the apostles zoom around the Mediterranean world – could to them have been, not defeating, debilitating and depressing, as they would be for me, but just all in a good day’s work. This is the peace I yearn to understand, indeed to have for myself – a peace ‘not as the world gives’.
And so, as a way into this, I hope you know what I mean when I say that some people just do make you feel better. These are the special people who make you feel better, not because they are your mother, or your lover, or the Dalai Lama, or the Archbishop of Canterbury, but because they are themselves. And these are the people who, most oddly and paradoxically, still make you feel better when they themselves are distracted, sick, grumpy or dying. They just make you feel better.
Let me put it to you that the reason that they make you feel better, so much better, is that – whether they know it or not, and almost invariably they do not – they already have a share in that transcendent ‘peace’ of the risen Christ for which we all long. Something in them has died and been turned over, given over, to Christ’s own peace. They have made place for Christ’s peace. Their lives have become beacons of his peace, this special peace which is ‘not as the world gives’.
Baron Friedrich von Hügel, one of the great spiritual advisors of the 20th century – a German liberal Catholic, director of Evelyn Underhill and many others, but most famously of his neice Gwendolyn, to whom he wrote almost daily, fussy letters – tells us most illuminatingly of this special type of ‘peace’ and its particular significance in the delicate matter of spiritual direction. He writes in his Letters and Addresses of his visits, in the last days of the 19th century, to see two famous clerical figures: John Henry, Cardinal Newman, on the one hand, and his own spiritual director, the famous Parisian priest, the Abbé Huvelin, on the other. And with great prescience, he muses about which of these men, in years to come, might be found to be a saint, and how they would measure up to the official Roman Catholic criteria for such sanctity. And I’m slightly embarrassed to tell you – because of course the case for Newman’s canonization is now quite far-advanced – that as far as von Hügel was concerned, the effect of the aging Newman on him, when he visited him, was always far from peaceful. ‘I used to wonder’, he writes, in my [visits with John Henry Newman], how one so good, and one who had made so many sacrifices to God, could be so depressing’. In another letter he remarks of Newman that he had been ‘very little understood, much persecuted, … nearly always in the right, and with a mind a dozen times deeper and broader than his opponents’; and yet – how odd – that he, von Hügel, always left Newman’s presence feeling wretched and low, afflicted himself by Newman’s own oversensitivity to his opponents’ jibes. ‘He had a most impressionable temperament’, von Hügel writes, ‘easily affected by the pricks which at the end even flies seemed to give him: a temperament to which he more or less succumbed’. No unworldly peace or joy did he radiate; he notably did not make von Hügel ‘feel better’ at all.
When von Hügel writes of his beloved Abbé Huvelin, however, the opposite characteristics are to the fore, and yet in a wonderfully paradoxical way. Huvelin, one of the greatest French directors of his own time, was constantly beseiged by penitents and directees, overwhelmed by the incessant demands and needs they brought to him. Much of the time he lay groaning in a darkened room in his Paris apartment, wracked by ceaseless migraine, rendered prostrate by the stress of his penitents’ (often irritating) neediness, in many ways a stricken figure himself – yet radiating a ceaseless joy and peace that was tangible. After visiting him, even if the Abbé himself had said little or nothing, his directees simply felt they could go on – the mark, as von Hügel remarks, not only of a great spiritual guide, but of sanctity itself. ‘Under the fine rule’, he writes, ‘by which the Roman Catholic tribunals require, for Canonization as distinct from Beatification, that the Servant of God concerned should be proved to have possessed and to have transmitted a deep spiritual joy, Newman, I felt and feel, could indeed be beatified, but only Huvelin could be canonized.’ Huvelin of the darkened room: in pain, struggling, and often lonely; yet ‘radiating’ Christ’s peace to others, as von Hügel put it, enabling them just to ‘go on’.
‘I do not give to you as the world gives’, Jesus promises. We tend to think of peace simply as the cessation of hostilities, the ending of pain or sufferings, and we wait for it anxiously, wondering why it never comes; but that of course is the ‘wordly’ way of peace. It is hard to see, except when an unacknowledged saint so unexpectedly makes us ‘feel better’, that Christ’s transcendent peace is already given in hostilities, in pain and sufferings, here and now in the chaos and muddle and sin and physical frailty of this world. It is hard to see, in our rightful human struggles for worldly peace and justice, that even that worldly peace and justice, if we could ever attain them, would mean nothing without the unworldly peace of Christ attending and suffusing them. It is hard to remember, let alone understand, that the peace which the world cannot give is ever on offer, elusive as it may be, pressing amongst us now in the body of the saints which is the ‘church’, often most paradoxically held out to us by those in the greatest internal anguish themselves, yet enabling others simply to ‘go on’.
The Abbé Huvelin, says von Hügel, was ‘one more melancholy in natural temperament than even Newman himself, and one physically ill in ways and degrees in which Newman never was …’ He was a depressive, in other words, a neurotic even, a bit of a wreck. And that is why von Hügel ‘marvelled’, as he puts it, that the Abbé could so ‘radiate spiritual joy and expansion’. He was one, in other words, who – probably unconsciously, and certainly without any manifest lifting of his own symptoms of physical and psychic weakness – had at some deep level accepted Jesus’ gift of a ‘peace not of this world’. And the gift was catching, inexhaustible, spread to all to whom he ministered in direction, making them ‘feel better’ in that special, transcendental sense which we seek to ‘understand’ but finally cannot – for indeed it is a peace which ‘passes all human understanding’. Let us therefore tonight, as we dare to offer each other afresh this gift that only Jesus can give in us, remember with joy and gratitude all those who have ‘made us feel better’ in this special sense – those who have taught us what that elusive peace is that the world cannot give; and let us also know that this peace is ours too to accept and purvey: here, now, tonight, in the power of the risen Jesus, even in this sad and fractured world. Amen
© Sarah Coakley 2006
Michael de la Bedoyere, The Life of Baron von Hügel (London, Dent, 1951):
p. 32: ‘I used to wonder, in my intercourse with John Henry Newman, how one so good, and who had made so many sacrifices to God, could be so depressing’ (Essays and Addresses, II, p. 242)
p. 43: ‘And again, twenty years later, I used to marvel contrariwise, in my intercourse with the Abbé Huvelin, how one more melancholy in natural temperament than even Newman himself, and one physically ill in ways and degrees in which Newman never was, could so radiate spiritual joy and expansion as, in very truth, the Abbé did. I came to feel that Newman had never succeeded in surmounting his deeply predestinarian, Puritan, training; whilst Huvelin had nourished his soul, from boyhood upwards, on the Catholic spirituality as it flowered in St. Francis. Under the fine rule by which the Roman Catholic tribunals require, for Canonization as distinct from Beatification, tha the Servant of God concerned should be proved to have possessed and to have transmitted a deep spiritual joy, Newman, I felt and feel, could indeed be beatified, but only Huvelin could be canonized. (Ibid: Essays and Addresses, II, p. 242)
p. 32: to Maude Petre von H wrote that he had never liked ‘Newman’s pulverization of Kingsley in the personal parts of the Apologia’ .
To the ex-priest Houtin (in 1903): ‘How all this has been aggravated by, it seems to me, a temperament a little like Cardinal Newman’s who (I knew him personally) has been very little understood, much persecuted, has nearly always been in the right and with a mind a dozen times deeper and broader than his opponents: but who, also, had a most impressionable temperament, easily affected by the pricks which at the end even flies seemed to give him: a temperament to which he more or less succumbed’ (Selected Letters, p. 122 – in French).
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