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Peace: For That I Came

I have been thinking about peace today as I continue a road trip through British Columbia and Alberta. I arrived this afternoon at Waterton Lakes National Park, which is part of what is called the International Peace Park, because it is contiguous with Glacier National Park in Montana. Together they form the only cross-border national park in the world.   It is also Shabbat, which is always paired with Shabbat Shalom, the Sabbath Peace. 

It was a good day to ponder what peace means both abstractly and personally, and as is often the case, a poem—this time “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Gerard Manley Hopkins—popped into my mind. I have a lot of favorite poets, but no other who has been a favorite in my teens, twenties, thirties, and every decade of my life.  He’s not an easy poet for a lot of reasons—unusual use of language and meter, great leaps from one image to another, and very heavy Christian messaging (which I tend to ignore unless there is a bigger idea, which there often is).

I was driving through an area burned by a wildfire five years ago (see photo), and noticing both what is irrevocably dead, and what is now alive and thriving. The immediate connection I made with the poem was upon looking at a beautiful patch of golden wildflowers amid the white skeletons of dead trees. The line I thought of was this: “Whát I dó is me: for that I came.”  

Those flowers came into existence to be flowers. The trees came into existence to be trees. They are doing, or did, it well.  It is the simplest of thoughts,  but there is a whole world of meaning to it. 

The larger context of that line is this:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

So to translate a little (I told you he isn’t easy), he is saying that every living thing has as its purpose to manifest what it innately is. A magpie must express its magpieness, a willow its willowness.   “Myself,” they all speak and spell. “I came here to be me.”

Sometimes when I see a living thing, I will say out loud to it that it is doing a great job of being a whatever it is—a squirrel, a butterfly, a trout, a poppy, a redwood. I did this once when I was with a friend and she thought I was a little nuts (well, maybe there is something to that).  But it’s true. Everything in nature does a beautiful job of “selfing.”

Except humans. We are terrible at it. We are the only ones who are confused about what we are, and what we are supposed to be.  We are the only ones who get our past selves tangled up with what we are now, or who project future selves we may never become. It’s hard being human.  We so rarely are at peace. 

Maybe the key to peace is in the Daoist principle of wu wei, often translated as effortlessness. Doing what comes naturally.  Going with the flow. For humans, this might mean learning to hear what our deepest “indoor” self is trying to tell us, and manifesting that as our “outdoor” self.   Perhaps peace lies in “selfing” as a verb, not just any old self, but the self that we are truly meant to be. The one that fits in this world. The one that doesn’t fight to be something or somebody else, the one that doesn’t need to judge, compare, control. 

But how?  Hopkins suggests something really profound. ‘The just man justices.”  How can I walk around “justicing”? How can I walk around “peacing”? Can it reach a point where I don’t just practice these things, but become them? This is what the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad did, (peace be upon them all), and it’s important to remember that we don’t have to make it all the way to Nirvana or believe in heaven to find at least glimmerings of that perfect peace just by trying to be our best selves

Someone once said “God is a verb”.  I think what I am saying, and what Hopkins is saying, is similar.  When we can say “what I do is indeed truly me,” when we live the verbs that bring us into the harmony that every other creature participates in, we will indeed know why we came.

if you are interested, here is the whole poem:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; 

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells 

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s 

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

I say móre: the just man justices; 

Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; 

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — 

Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 

To the Father through the features of men’s faces. 

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