By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published June 4, 2009
For many of us, peace is hard to find. We know it exists, and we can experience it many ways. The ways and means vary as to how it comes to us, how we find it. Amidst the hectic activities of our days, we may clear some time to be alone, to still the voices in our heads and to savor a bit of solitude.
There are many disciplines that foster the experience of peace. Here at the monastery, we are familiar with many of them, and we try to live and foster peace as much as possible. But even here, it is not easy. Peace eludes us as well. We certainly have an ideal setting for it—all these acres free of the many varieties of traffic that jam the highways of outer and inner roads—the landscape of our culture and the interior roads of the mind. It is hard to secure a lasting sense of peace. A monk may work at it in the relative serenity of the cloister, but there are times when peace flies out of one’s hands, like a bird that one holds for a while but which soon fears the foreign grasp of human hands, and struggles to be free again.
Peace, in a lasting sense, is something from which we are estranged.
Try as we might to realize it or even describe it, it never seems to feel at home with us very long. It senses our dis-ease with it and takes flight.
A man came to stay with us for one night. He arrived late in the afternoon, on a bicycle with a small trailer hitched to the rear wheel. I met him by our gatehouse. He was a strong looking man, with a full beard and a friendly face. We shook hands and began to chat. I introduced myself, and he told me that his name was Jerry Nelson. He told me that he needed a place to stay for the night and that he would be no trouble for anybody. All he needed, he said, was a place to pitch his tent. I was at first hesitant to let him stay, since I did not know who he was or where he was coming from. It is hard these days to welcome the stranger.
He anticipated my hesitancy and took out some papers from his small trailer. He handed them to me, and they were newspaper articles about him and his journey. One article had a picture of him accompanying the story and I trusted the connections that were becoming apparent to me. I told him to stay, and we walked down by the lake, where I thought it would be most convenient for him to pitch his tent. We chatted for a while. It was nearing time for vespers, our late afternoon chanting of the psalms, which is followed by dinner. I asked him if he would like to have dinner, and he said yes. I headed back to the church as he started to set up his tent. I sat in church and read the articles he had given to me and was astounded. He had biked from Washington, D.C., to Oregon, stopping at churches and veterans homes along the way, giving talks so as to raise awareness of the plight of veterans, in particular those men and women who really never found their way home again after the experience of war. They may have been brought back to this land of the free, but the experience of war imprisoned them in a place of mental anguish and spiritual death.
It is to these that Jerry has given his life, his passion, his words.
After vespers, I headed back down to the lake and brought him back to the retreat house, where we had supper together.
I tried to make him feel as much at home as possible. I felt guilty that we had no rooms available, and told him as much. He assured me that it was OK, that he had everything he needed down in his tent.
And he told me more, about how he never planned far down the road, that God always took care of him. He learned, he said, not to plan too far down any highway, to take things a day at a time, and that when evening fell, he would be given a place to stay. I sensed volumes of spiritual wisdom, hard won, behind every word he said. His face had a weathered but serenely wise look as he spoke. There was a gentleness to him, and something that gave me the impression that he had learned to receive every aspect of life as a gift, a gift from God. I thought how every mile that passed beneath his spinning wheels had given him something.
He carried a lot more in his trailer than bare necessities of life. The little that he had housed a heart of movement, of giving, of a wisdom that matured through suffering and surviving, and emerging from his own experience of war as a messenger of good will, peace and compassion.
We parted ways that night, and I told him I would come down in the morning, Sunday morning, and bring him back to the retreat house for breakfast. When I came over to the retreat house on Sunday morning, he was already there, sitting in the parlor, drinking coffee out of a paper cup. We went back to the kitchen, picked up a few things for breakfast, and chatted again. He told me that he had to be on his way.
I came back to the retreat house a short while later—I had to go to a meeting with the other monks—and when I came back, Jerry had folded his tent, packed his trailer and was gone. He left me a little key chain and a note. The key chain is small and has a little string of plastic beads of different colors. The pamphlet attached to the beads reads that the colors are for different things—black for Good Friday, red for Pentecost, white for Christmas and Easter, blue for heaven and truth, green for the Trinity, yellow for divinity.
I felt sorry to see him go. I wanted to do more for him, perhaps to keep something of him here. He embodied a truth that I felt was real.
But it is a truth that needs movement for its realization, for its very life. A kind of truth on wheels. I told him the night before that I envied him and admired him. He smiled and asked me what this monastery is about—specifically why we have to stay put. I told him that it is the way we seek God, by simply being still. He thought about that and then said that he understood. “But,” he said, “if ever you want, you just get yourself a bike and you can ride with me.”
I hope to see him again. I told him he is always welcome here. He can pitch his tent and give his wheels a rest anytime.
What is peace?
I hesitate to define it, as if it is something we can settle with words and then go about getting it.
It is movement. It is listening and speaking, stopping here and there along the way, resting by a lake, chatting over a meal, then moving on.
It is like me here in this place of stillness, into which rides a man on a mission who needs a place for the night, to rest.
It is learning so slowly about the God who gave us colors and beauty and who came here, for a while, and who said that peace is here, and that it will come, but that there must be suffering first, because the world will not understand it or take readily to it. It is a kind of peace that disturbs. We may want to hold it for a while, but it has to move.
It has wheels, wheels spinning fast, of different colors.
I finger the beads on my little key chain—the colors I touch symbolize all the truth we need to know and live. The truth is within us, within each of us, at times still, at times moving, seeking rest by a lake.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery Web store at www.abbeystore.com.