By Chelsea Rose Odhner
How do I find peace in a violent world?
So many answers come to mind,
but all of them could be written on a holiday card.
None invite breath. None don’t feel strained.
How do you find peace in a violent world
without clamping your jaw?
Answers are the packing peanuts
of what is really needed.
How do we find peace in a violent world?
I browse Facebook and stop to read others’ answers
that the recent winter holiday has inspired.
Though full of wisdom, none are a salve.
They are very good answers for finding peace,
though no peace is found.
How do I find peace in a violent world?
Rather than as an answer, it appears in my mind,
at the bottom, not hiding anything.
“It’s okay to be empty,” the words are there.
“It’s okay to be empty.”
When the Lord was being emptied out he was in a state of progress toward union; when he was being glorified he was in a state of union itself. . . . The reason why the Lord experienced these two states, the state of being emptied out and the state of being glorified, is that no other method of achieving union could possibly exist. Only this method follows the divine design, and the divine design cannot be changed. . . . This is the divine design we follow, and have to follow, to go from being earthly to being spiritual. (True Christianity §§ 104, 105)
For me to believe that we are either in a state of “union” or a state of “progress toward union,” whatever our circumstances might be, is a matter of trusting the Lord’s providence. When tragedies happen, especially violence brought on by human hands, life feels like it’s going backwards. It can feel like hell is winning. In the aftermath of tragedy, I know that I always strive to find ways to make sense of the broken pieces. But when the rug is ripped from beneath your feet and you’re shocked to realize that it looks like there was no floor below to begin with, that empty, free-falling state can be terrifying. Any patchwork effort by my own hands to create a sense of firmness in life lacks persuasion, and the last thing I am inclined to do is soften into the emptiness. And yet this “softening” is the message that came to me recently during one of these moments: “It’s okay to be empty.” We may feel that life is void of hope and feel that we are absolutely empty inside; and the Lord will still fill us. More precisely, he is still filling us, as we are never outside the care of the Lord’s providence.
“You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman, when she is in labor, has [pain] because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world . . . These things I have spoken to you in figurative language . . . These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have [suffering]. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:20–21, 25, 33)
A “union” state is when we feel in step with God’s will for our lives, and we are at peace. The only other option is “progress toward union,” but our “progress” states rarely feel like they are moving us toward union in the moment. And yet they are. The analogy with labor in John 16 is apt; every moment of “progress toward union” is a labor leading to the birth of new life, even though the truth of that is most often hidden from us. While this truth is known to God himself, it was hidden from him while in the world in his own “progress toward union” states. In the most severe of them—while being crucified—God even believed himself to be utterly forsaken.
The truth is that surrendering even our deepest fears to the Lord in the midst of an overpowering sense of emptiness and aloneness is safe. I’ve found that when I do this myself, tears come. Sobs have a way of scattering anxious thoughts, dissipating the hovering fear, and rooting me in my body. And somehow, afterwards, the thinnest film of peace has condensed in my spirit, as mystifyingly as dew forms on the edges of night. In fact, Swedenborg writes that dew corresponds to the “truth of peace”:
“Dew” signifies the truth of peace because in the morning it comes down from heaven and appears upon the [vegetation] like fine rain, and has also stored up in it something of sweetness or delight more than rain has. . . . This truth . . . is . . . from the Lord, . . . for peace [affirms that] the Lord . . . directs all things, and provides all things, and that He leads to a good end. When a [person] is in this faith, [she] is in peace . . .” (Arcana Coelestia §8455)
Sometimes the best we can do is affirm this truth in our thoughts while being present to the hollowness of emptiness—breathing and crying through the cognitive dissonance this brings.
These two alternations of our spiritual path—union and progress toward union—are perhaps why the Psalmist remarks that, “Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You” (Psalm 139:12). Our nights, our stretches of feeling empty, while deeply unsettling to our minds, are far from dark to the Lord, because they are times of progress toward union. It is scary to feel empty. But it is enough for us to remember the Lord when we feel far from Him and allow Jerusalem (the abode, city, or foundation of peace) to come into our minds (Jeremiah 51:50). Perhaps it’s not about us finding peace in these moments but about peace finding us. And we can trust that peace will never stop finding us, no matter how empty life seems.
A Five Step Guide to Finding Peace (or for Allowing Emptiness to Lead to Peace) in the Midst of a Violent World
- Lie down.
- Let yourself cry.
- Call or text a friend.
- Sleep, if you can (watch a TV show or movie, if you can’t).
- Remind yourself that there is a Love holding all the suffering.
The best trick up God’s sleeve is turning suffering into love. It’s not something that you can decide to do with your mind; it’s what you can allow to happen by following these five steps.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths. (Proverbs 3:5–6)
Chelsea Rose Odhner is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to the Swedenborg & Life show on the offTheLeftEye YouTube channel.