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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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July 8, 2003 
Vol. 1, No. 15

  Proceeding in the ways of peace means meeting those we fear, those we hate
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

I've spent a lifetime as a Benedictine, but I just learned something about being peaceful that my novice mistress never told me. I learned it from two groups of women: one Israeli, one Palestinian.

Day after day, year after year, Benedictines pray an antiphon that reads, "Enlighten our minds, O God, and lead us in the way of peace." You would think this was a simple enough message to be able to get in a round or two. But we keep repeating these things on the principle that wisdom dribbles into the soul slowly. At least for some of us. This month, I came to understand the process better. If enlightenment comes in bits and pieces, as the spiritual masters indicate, rather than in one fell swoop, I got another little piece of it this week.

Up until two weeks ago, "Lead us in the way of peace" always meant to me "Give me peace. Make me peaceful. Let me not be irritable or frustrated or agitated or upset." It was a totally passive bidding prayer that asked for some kind of personal spiritual masseuse to give me serenity in the midst of chaos. I'm not quite able to pray that prayer like that anymore.

It isn't that I didn't need that. It's that I see the prayer in a new light since attending the meeting of Palestinian and Israeli women in Oslo that I've been telling you about these last two weeks (The common cry: Let my people go and Unleashing a power such as the world has never seen). Watching them, I learned to pray that prayer differently, perhaps, as it is meant to be prayed.

I learned that "lead us in the way of peace" instead of meaning "lead me to where life is soft and warm and furry" may really mean "lead us to understand the ways of peacemaking." I saw women making peace in ways that transcend the limits of official documents.

The difference between the way women hold political meetings and the way governments hold political meetings may lie more in what happens between the people there than in what finally shows up in the resolutions. It has to do with personal relationships rather than in behind-the-scenes deal making.

Plenty of resolutions came from the Oslo meeting, of course: to meet again, to plan activities together, to engage the women of the world in a common cry for peace, to develop integrated peacemaking programs for children so that the next generation feels differently about one another than this one does, and so on. But what happened after the meetings, between the delegates themselves, may hold the best promise for the success of this enterprise.

Let me give you just two examples of "the ways of peace" that I learned there.

In one of the public sessions, Palestinians talked about being displaced, losing their lands and having their identities submerged. "Who am I?" a young Palestinian challenged the group. "My papers say that I am 'a citizen of Jordan residing in Jerusalem' but my family has lived on this land for 2,000 years. We have lost everything." But an Israeli woman answered back in another session, "You talk about losing your land -- but you are still there. My family and I were driven off land everywhere in the world. We not only had no land, we had no families left."

It was a hot and honest session. In the end, the Palestinian said she supported the Israeli's right to an independent state. In the end, the Israeli said that she supported the Palestinian right to resources, political integrity and freedom to live in the land. It was a significant political moment.

Nevertheless, what happened after the conference adjourned may, in the end, prove to be far more significant still.

On the last night of the assembly, one of these women went to the other and asked to continue the discussion about what had been lost and what must be gained if the two peoples are ever to live together well. They went out for coffee together. I don't know what was said. I only know that the conversation went on until after midnight. When it came time to leave, the Israeli woman -- old enough to be the Palestinian's mother -- decided she would walk the young woman to her hotel. But then the young Palestinian realized how far the older woman would have to walk alone back to her own place of residence and insisted that she walk her half-way back again.

"I've had a wonderful night," the Israeli woman said as they parted. "This time with you was itself worth the conference."

The young Palestinian woman went silent for a moment. "I'm glad for you," she said, "but I'm confused."

The Israeli woman winced inside. "But what went wrong?" she asked.

"Oh, nothing is 'wrong,' " the younger woman said. "I'm just confused. I don't know what to do now that my enemy has become my friend."

In the second incident, the next day in the Tel Aviv airport, the Israeli women whisked through customs and baggage claim. The Palestinian women did not. When the Israeli women realized that the Palestinians had all been detained, they turned around, went back and refused to leave the customs hall themselves until the Palestinians were all released.

That, I learned, is what it means to proceed in the "ways of peace." It means having the courage to make human connections with those we fear, with those we hate, with those who think differently than we do. It means refusing to leave the other behind as we go. It means reaching out to the unknown other even when they seem remote, hostile, unforgiving. Then, we find the pain that makes the hostility possible. Then we have an opportunity to heal it.

From where I stand, that's the missing dimension in peacemaking as we have come to expect it on the national level. All the resolutions in the world won't make peace until, like these brave women, we reach out to this generation so that the next generation is made safe, not by force but by faith in the essential humanity of all humanity. "Lead us in the way of peace" is more than coming to a sense of internal serenity. It has something to do with being open to peacemaking itself. That doesn't come easy. That doesn't come with Humvees or "shock and awe." This kind of peacemaking takes real courage. No wonder the ancients taught us to pray for it so long, so hard, so often.

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