December 2023

Let us continue to pursue peace in our hearts

“The LORD will bless (his) people with peace” (Psalm 29:11). This was the response to the Psalm on Tuesday 13 February 2001. I will never forget. Even now, it brings a flood of memory to the surface, writes Congregational Leader Catherine McCahill.  

I remember because that Tuesday night I was celebrating eucharist with some other participants in the interfaith program at Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.Tantur is built on a hilltop on the boundary between Jerusalem and the West Bank. We walked out the front gate to Jerusalem and out the back gate to Bethlehem. February 2001 was the second of three months that I spent at Tantur. It was also the height of the second intifada – the uprising of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza against the Israelis.

Most nights that month Palestinian ’terrorists’ would shoot missiles and incendiary into the southern suburbs of Jerusalem and the Israelis would shoot back into Beit Jala, the village next to Bethlehem. If we looked into the night sky, we saw the trajectory of bullets like a stream of light. Sometimes we heard small explosions.

On the night in question, the explosions were stronger and our prayers were interrupted by the thud and seeming closeness of the ‘attack’. We prayed on, “The LORD will bless (his) people with peace.” Will God, can God, act? The troubles seemed insurmountable. In fact, that intifada continued spasmodically for the next five years.

Day after day, children, women and men on both sides were injured and killed. I met some of their relatives and friends. The anger and hatred that fuelled the uprising was magnified and grew. As an outsider, the issues were beyond my understanding.

This memory is near and strong for me. Yet, at this time, these events pale into insignificance compared to the scale of atrocities currently being experienced in Gaza, in Israel (especially the south) and in the West Bank. So many innocent people abducted on 7 October, and so many lives lost on all sides since. The destruction is unbelievable and traumatising. Even at a distance.

How do we make sense of all this as we continue to pray that ancient prayer, prayed by so many of these people, “The LORD will bless (his) people with peace”?   

The history and politics of this small part of the Middle East is complex and in this small article I could not do it justice. I could write of Palestine, an ancient designation re-used by the British after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

Then in 1948, the establishment of the State of Israel displaced and dislocated the inhabitants. Some are still in the ’refugee camps’. The State of Israel was, in some part, a response to the dreadful tragedy of the Shoah, the attempted annihilation of the Jewish people by the Nazi regime, and the blindness of the rest of the world to the unfolding genocide.

The experience of abuse, trauma, displacement, despair and a fight for survival are the fabric of life and death in this region. The abused become the abusers. ‘Terrorists’ grow up throwing stones at the ’enemy’ and then learn the skills of modern warfare. Fear becomes hate, and hate becomes violence. Murderers become martyrs. Women and men forget how to be neighbours.

As day turns into night we continue to pray, “The LORD will bless (his) people with peace.”

St Benedict in his Rule urges the community, in the words of the psalmist, “Seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34.14; RB Prol 17).” We long for peace for the people of Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. Most of us will not be able to do much about that. I know though, that there is an invitation for me to consider the pursuit of peace in my own life.

I know how easy it is to harbour the hurts, the disappointments and injustices of life. Then, unexpectedly, they erupt in anger or lead to inappropriate behaviour. It may not be on the scale of the destruction of open conflict but certainly it disrupts human relationships and can, in fact, be destructive or harmful of the wellbeing of another person.

So, against the backdrop of the lack of peace in so many places in the world, there is an invitation to seek peace in and around my own life.

Dealing with hurts and injustice can be difficult. Sometimes we need help: a trusted friend, a supervisor, a professional psychologist. The extent and nature of the hurt may mean the path to peace is long and arduous.

I want to suggest that we cannot be good neighbours unless we are pursuing peace. Writing to the people of Corinth, St Paul exhorts them to be “ambassadors” of Christ’s reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-20). The danger is that our Christianity, our neighbourliness, will be hollow or even false if we have not pursued peace in our own hearts.

For some of us this process will be long, but just as surely as God became human and lived among us, as we celebrate each Christmas, and as surely as night becomes day, peace will creep into the recesses of our hearts.

We know that forgiveness is part of the journey. I know also that, in some instances, forgiveness is beyond our human capacity. The trauma has been too great, the damage to our psyche too severe. Then, perhaps, we will have the courage to pray with Jesus, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). This may be all that we can do.

As we come to the end of another year, for me this is one of the tasks of Advent; my preparation to celebrate the coming of God as human into our world – the pursuit of peace in my heart. This is my preparation to be neighbour in the year ahead.

Along the way, I am encouraged by many others pursuing the same goal. Near the end of his semi-autobiographical novel, The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini reflects (p. 329):

I realised something: That last thought had brought no sting with it… I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.

So, I have the courage to continue my prayer, “The LORD will bless (his) people with peace.”



Catherine McCahill

Good Samaritan Sister Catherine McCahill is the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She has served on the Congregation's leadership team since 2011. Catherine has been involved in education for more than 30 years, in secondary schools and, more recently, at a tertiary level in biblical studies and religious education.

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