At the foot of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., a trio of sculpted goddesses called the Peace Monument poignantly conveys the age-old grief caused by war. Clio, the Greek muse of history, stands solemnly, her head bowed; huddled beside her is the allegorical figure of America, her hand over her face, weeping bitterly on Clio's shoulder. On the eastern side of the Peace Monument stands another woman. Though part of her right arm is missing, it is said that she once held aloft the olive branch of peace.
The feminine face of the Peace Monument is a woman's story set in stone. For just as these goddesses capture humankind's sorrow over war, so, too, have many women since September 11, 2001 wrestled within themselves about peace and war. Joining a chain of women stretching far back in time, they have asked, as they have asked for centuries, why humankind endlessly repeats the tragic cycle of violence and retribution. Once again, they have mourned lives needlessly sacrificed to bitter political and religious rivalries. And once again, much as their soul sisters before them have done in the past, women -- each in their own unique way, whether as healers or teachers, activists or artists -- have taken up the time-honored quest for peace. For if the life we are living is a spiritual journey, then the road we travel as pilgrims leads inevitably toward the ultimate goal of peace.
Yet it seems, sadly, that we appreciate peace only in its absence. Millions, for instance, mourned the simple ordinariness that had marked the day before the September 11 tragedies. Overnight, peace became as fleeting as the ruby and emerald leaves that, in the days after, floated through the air to the ground. Indeed, because lasting peace in any form, inner or outer, is so rare, it could be said to be the divine orient of the human condition, the vision that draws us onward along our evolutionary path. It is the highest ideal of all noble causes, the great opus humanity is continually striving to complete. It is the grail of knights, the island in the pearl mist, the castle shimmering in the air. Knowledge of it lingers in our consciousness like perfumed incense from a long-ago age -- each of us, it seems, is born with a memory of a paradise lost, a vanished era of innocent happiness we seek to reclaim in our own time. Because there is no abiding peace on earth, it is how we imagine heaven: a peaceable kingdom unmarred by anger, murder, revenge, or hatred, and where the lion lies down with the lamb.
MEDITATING ON PEACE
There can be no peace in the outer world unless greater numbers of people become inspired to make it a reality. Yet without an intimate experience of the serenity of peace, or without a vision of the radiant face of peace, we lack an ideal to beckon us forward in our quest. Because form follows thought, if we cannot imagine it, we cannot make peace on earth come true. For this reason, meditation, prayer, and visualization, while not the final step, are essential in beginning and maintaining the lifelong work of peace.
To meditate on peace, find a quiet place to spend a few moments in contemplation. To help focus your concentration, light a candle and incense; then, say a prayer, repeat a sacred phrase, or play a piece of sacred music. Imagine that, as you do this, the spirits of peace are drawing close to you. You may wish to repeat the Hebrew phrase "shalom" for peace, the Arabic word "ya salaam," or the Hindu phrase "shanti." Or, simply repeat the word "peace" silently on the inhalation and exhalation of your breath.
To go even more deeply into your meditation on peace, imagine a stormy lake with ruffled waves. Then, imagine that the lake is beginning to calm. Slowly, the wind dies down, and the surface of the lake, like the surface of your heart and mind, becomes as clear as a lucid diamond. Even the sky above the lake is cloudless. The trees on the shore stand motionless. A holy presence permeates this scene; your soul drinks it in like a heavenly draught of nectar. The sun begins to dip in the sky, sinking lower and lower into the horizon, and the stillness of dusk deepens.
Then, as the sun sinks below the horizon, something magical transpires: The twilight air above the lake begins to shimmer with expectancy, as if invisible curtains are about to part. Suddenly, a visionary landscape appears above the lake, hovering in the air. As your heart thrills at the sight, you recognize it as a place that you have glimpsed during a few rare and fleeting moments: it is Avalon, Camelot, Shangri-la, the heavenly city of Jerusalem -- that mystical heaven where all creatures, human and animal, coexist in loving harmony. Music fills the air and beauty is everywhere -- in the faces of the people, in the shape of the buildings, and in the absence of malice or envy. Angels and other evolved beings walk the streets, mingling in joyful companionship with their fellow humans. You see the Buddha, Christ, Mary, St. Francis, St. Claire, and others. Many are busy making art, singing, writing, or playing. Transported, you, too, participate in the life of this luminous city of peace, a visiting pilgrim, your soul drinks from the sacred well of serenity.
Ever so gently, the vision begins to fade from sight. The wind picks up, rustling the branches of the trees, whipping up the surface of the lake. The darkness of night falls, drawing a veil across the golden abode of peace. Slowly, you return to your life as it was. Still, you are different. Within your heart is a small and precious seed, a star of peace and light that you will follow for the rest of your life -- a vision of the heaven that might one day become a reality on earth.
So all-encompassing is the quality of peace that it could be said to be the very definition of what is sacred. The word itself emanates a feeling we equate with the ideals upheld by religion and spirituality. "Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond ... the passing flux of immediate things"; wrote the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, ". . . something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest."'
Indeed, no more "ultimate ideal" or "hopeless quest" exists than peace. The peace that surpasses the fray of everyday life is embodied in the beings of the great mystics, saints, and prophets: to imagine oneself in the presence of Jesus, Buddha, Mary, Mohammed, Moses, or Kuan Yin, for instance, is to feel immersed within a timeless space of profound transcendence. Likewise, the glow of an angel, an emerald forest glen, the starry cosmos, or the sacred chants of monks and nuns all convey a message to a world mired in suffering that despite the impossibility of peace, it yet exists, if only we will take up the search.
For like the grit of sand in the oyster shell that transforms into a pearl, it is the painful divisiveness and heartfelt suffering of everyday life that propels the spiritual search. Like the young Gautama Buddha, whose shock at discovering illness, old age, and death caused him to embark upon a journey for that which is eternal, the turbulence of life itself is the spur that cultivates desire for both inner and outer peace. I vividly remember the time when, as a young girl struggling to keep my sanity in a family riven by my father's alcoholism, I first discovered the ageless wisdom in the contemplative writings of the Christian mystic Thomas Merton, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the Sufi poets. These discoveries were like a raft that served to keep me afloat during the emotional storms of my youth, transporting my soul toward safe harbor on the inner shores of consciousness.
ATTAINING THE BALANCE
Ysaye Barnwell, who has been a vocalist with the African American female a capella quintet Sweet Honey in the Rock, has taught workshops at Omega Institute throughout the United States and in several other countries integrating creative arts with community and social activism. Music, she says, is a beautiful metaphor for how we live our lives in relationship to others and for the values upon which we build community. Drawing on the African tradition in which music is a cooperative activity, Ysaye teaches musical techniques that help cultivate listening. For example, she leads participants in polyrhythmic exercises in order to show how different rhythms fit together to make something larger -- a musical expression of the way community, too, has the potential to be polyrhythmic, noncompetitive, and cooperative. Through such exercises, she says, "People begin to realize that in order to be in a relationship, they must constantly make minute modifications in how they respond to a person, rhythm, or organization. Music, like relationship, is figuring out the give and take -- like a musical call and response."
In her workshops, Ysaye also teaches participants about the importance of "movement songs" in building community. The Civil Rights movement of the sixties, for instance, says Ysaye, "was rooted in music that was used to galvanize people at mass meetings. A huge body of music was created that was used during marches and demonstrations. " Songs such as "Eyes on the Prize, " and "We Shall Overcome, " says Ysaye, who grew up in the black church in New York, were derived from spirituals originally created by slaves who sang about freedom.
As more women tell their stories and take their place on the stage of history, a growing number are emerging as peace heroines in their own right: There is Burmese pro-democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi; the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the mothers of the disappeared during Argentina's "dirty war"; Madame Irene Laure, a fighter in the French resistance who initiated reconciliation with the Germans after World War II; and American Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks, among others. And, of course, there are the ordinary stories of women who day after day weave the thread of peace into the fabric of daily life.
Like my friend Susan Roberts, a therapist and school counselor, they are practicing peacemaking in the public sphere. Like so many these days, Susan had felt a need to do something to enhance the cause of peace -- especially in a city that had been a terrorist target. In addition to helping to organize a vigil and counseling students, she invited another longtime friend of mine, the storyteller and dancer Zuleikha, to perform at an international school in Washington, D.C., where she worked. As I sat among the students that afternoon, I reveled in the cultural differences of the students who surrounded me, as well as in their playful, youthful spirit. As Zuleikha, exotically dressed in an Indian costume with bells on her ankles, danced stories and myths taken from the world's treasure chest of myths and traditions, I felt a spirit of universality arise out of the rich mosaic of that scene. Here was what the goddess movement upheld as the pluralism and inclusivity of humankind -- a joyous and dynamic event that revealed the variety innate within the human condition.
In Zuleikha's final piece, she donned a bell-shaped white robe and whirled soundlessly like the dervishes of the ancient Sufi tradition. Watching her whirl as I simultaneously watched my friend "Miss Roberts" calm the middle-school students from acting out, I sensed the presence of something larger. Peace in the balanced, energetic movements of a dancer. Peace in the kids who misbehaved and the teacher who lovingly corrected them. There was tension in the room, but there was also a subtle harmonizing of parts, a coming together of fragments into a magical whole -- the hidden pattern of peace taking shape, a hint of what might one day come to pass in humankind's next stage of evolutionary unfoldment.
Following her performance, Zuleikha and I decided to visit Arlington National Cemetery. Wandering along the paths set among the tombstones that marked the graves of soldiers who fought in wars, we visited the memorial to women who had fought as soldiers. There we happened upon a woman setting up a table for a party. She was preparing to celebrate her retirement from more than twenty years of service in the U.S. Army, she told us proudly. I felt proud of that woman's military success, too, despite my own inclination toward nonviolence. As my friend and peace educator Corinne McLaughlin reminded me, we would not even be having a discussion on peace if it were not for those who fought and died during World War II. "Sometimes the sacrifice of life is necessary in order to prevent the enslavement of the human spirit," she said. "The Nazis had to be stopped and that required tremendous sacrifice and courage." Yet another activist friend, Ruth Berlin, pointed out that the warrior is "as necessary as the compassionate heart. For without the warrior we could be overtaken by evil." But balance, too, is necessary, said Ruth, as "the masculine hero in both sexes offers us the ability to strategize, while the feminine provides us with the empathy necessary to understand the other's experience and begin the process of negotiation."
This article is excerpted from:
Soul Sisters: The Five Sacred Qualities of a Woman's Soul
by Pythia Peay.
About the Author
A noted journalist on spiritual topics, PYTHIA PEAY has written for Utne Reader, Washingtonian, Common Boundary, and other publications. As a contributor to Religion News Service, she has been published in newspapers around the country. She studied meditation with the Sufi teacher Pit Vilayat Inayat Khan, and collaborated with him on his book Awakening . Peay lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
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