Inspiration in War & Peace

Two minutes of silence

Chalice lighting
May the light of this flame bring peace to our hearts
Peace to our relationships
Peace to our communities
Peace to our nations
And Peace to our troubled world

From The Invocation to Kali, by May Sarton

There are times when
I think only of killing
The voracious animal
Who is my perpetual shame,
The violent one
Whose raging demands
Break down peace and shelter
Like a peacock’s scream.
There are times when
I think only of how to do away
With this brute power
That cannot be tamed.
I am the cage where poetry
Paces and roars. The beast
Is the god. How murder the god?
How live with the terrible god?
Anguish is always there, lurking at night,
Wakes us like a scourge, the creeping sweat
As rage is remembered, self-inflicted blight.
What is it in us we have not mastered yet?
What Hell have we made of the subtle weaving
Of nerve with brain, that all centers tear?
We live in a dark complex of rage and grieving.
The machine grates, grates, whatever we are.
The kingdom of Kali is within us deep.
The built-in destroyer, the savage goddess,
Wakes in the dark and takes away our sleep.
She moves through the blood to poison gentleness.
She keeps us from being what we long to be;
Tenderness withers under her iron laws.
We may hold her like a lunatic, but it is she
Held down, who bloodies with her claws.
She cannot be cast out (she is here for good)
Nor battled to the end. Who wins that war?
She cannot be forgotten, jailed, or killed.
Heaven must still be balanced against her.
Kali, be with us.
Violence, destruction, receive our homage.
Help us to bring darkness into the light,
To lift out the pain, the anger,
Where it can be seen for what it is—
The balance-wheel for our vulnerable, aching love.
Put the wild hunger where it belongs,
Within the act of creation,
Crude power that forges a balance
Between hate and love.
Help us to be the always hopeful
Gardeners of the spirit
Who know that without darkness
Nothing comes to birth
As without light
Nothing flowers.

Making Peace, by Denise Levertov

A voice from the dark called out,
“The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.”
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses. . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream
By Ed McCurdy

Last night I had the strangest dream
I ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war
I dreamed I saw a mighty room
The room was filled with men
And the paper they were signing said
They'd never fight again
And when the papers all were signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands and bowed their heads
And grateful prayers were prayed
And the people in the streets below
Were dancing round and round
And guns and swords and uniforms
Were scattered on the ground
Last night I had the strangest dream
I ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war


I grew up in the United States during the war in Vietnam. That war was a reality to me and my friends through the constant news of dead soldiers being returned home in coffins. It was constantly on our minds because of the ever-present protests that sought to end the war. And it was a harsh reality to us because of the draft. At 18, all young men were required to register to be drafted. At 19, we could be involuntarily conscripted to go and fight in a place half-way around the world in a war we believed to be senseless and wrong.

I was lucky. The draft ended in 1973 - two years before I would have needed to register and three years before I might have been drafted and sent off to fight in southeast Asia. As I and most of us look back on that war, we recognise it as a disaster. It was not worth fighting. It was not worth the toll in lives lost and destroyed on all sides. We kept at it for too long. We accomplished nothing.

To be honest though, at the age of 16, I cared a lot more about not being drafted than I did about the enemy my country was killing in Vietnam. Despite the images and stories in the media, Vietnam was far away. There was no war in America and maybe I even felt in my naivete that it was important for America to win that war. The indoctrination of my youth was that we were the all-powerful, righteous, just nation that fights only against evil and that we need never lose.

Today is a day set aside for remembrance of the members of the armed forces who have died in war. It is traditional to mark this day on the Sunday closest to Remembrance Day. Yesterday was 11/11 - the anniversary of the signing of the end of hostilities of the First World War. Fighting was meant to cease at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 - 99 years ago yesterday. Remembrance day is also a time for public dispute. It reappears every year. The conflict is best represented the paper poppies that many of us wear at this time of year. If you don’t wear a red poppy, you are at risk of being accused of failing to honour the dead.

If you wear a white poppy, you probably feel that red poppy wearing carries with it some sense of a justification of war. Now, you may wear that white poppy to signal that war is always wrong and always abhorrent. You may long for a world that only turns to peaceful approaches to resolving international disputes. You likely recoil at the senseless killing of all war and recognise peaceful coexistence as essential. And yet, some will see your white poppy  as a direct affront to the memory of those who died fighting for our country. For them, any sense that a war was not noble, purposeful, and necessary demeans the memory of the dead soldiers.

The images of war and peace remain in conflict even in peacetime. They are two opposing aspects of our culture and our nature. Now, I suspect that most of us would say almost reflexively that war is bad and peace is good. It’s not nearly that simple. Culturally, there is a great deal about war that we seem to like and honour. The stories we hear, the books we read, and the films we watch tell of war forging strong character. There are stories of camaraderie and of the development a sense of deep sibling-like relationship between soldiers. Perhaps there is a closeness and shared purpose and clarity that we envy. We think of soldiers displaying a kind of courage that feels unattainable for most of us. And there is a sense of duty and honour that touches us when we learn of soldiers who put their own lives at risk to save their comrades.

Of course, religious scriptures are full of stories of war and battles. In the bible, war is sanctioned by God. It may be a just war fought by our the good guys or God may use an enemy to punish our team. God encourages war and even chastises his people for not killing enough of the enemy. The Judaeo Christian tradition is not alone in its willingness to justify war. The language of war breaks out from the troops and war’s words and phrases from war pervades our language. With this conflict going on, I think I’m just going to keep my head down. I certainly don’t want to get caught in the cross-fire. This problem is a ticking bomb. Oh - wouldn’t do that - it’s a powder-keg. Oh, that new boyfriend turned out to be a dud? We might even talk about waging a war on drugs or poverty.

War is attractive in part because it feels decisive and active. It also feels like an effective way to deal with our fear. We all carry around a certain amount of fear and that fear burdens us and weighs us down. How wonderful would it be if we could dispel that fear with an assault, a bullet, or a bomb. Of course, this hope is an illusion.

Peace becomes the great vision in times of conflict. Peace shines before us like a beacon of hope when we are touched by violence and when it becomes a regular, frightening, presence in our lives. For those of us who have not lived through war, the horror is almost unimaginable. We have all had moments of terror, but we are fortunate enough for them to resolve quickly. In war, they never resolve. There is terror and life-threatening danger day in and day out. In war, one never knows if they will survive the day or if they have seen their partners or children for the very last time.

Peace, then, is a word that means much more than soldiers putting down their arms. Peace means an end to paralysing terror. It means the possibility of happiness. The possibility of pursuing all the things in life that we come to take for granted in peacetime. It is, as Denise Levertov reminds us, so much more than the absence of war. This peace, she says, is ‘a presence, an energy field more intense than war.’ In each of our own lives and in our hearts, I suspect we recognise that we are creatures of both peace and of war. When faced with conflict, there is the impulse to respond to others with compassion and the impulse to strike out. We don’t like to show the war-like side - the part of us that May Sarton describes as ‘The voracious animal who is my perpetual shame.’

And yet, within the depths of our complex beings, creation and destruction live side by side. The elephant of our deeper selves can be gentle and compassionate but can veer toward terrible violence. The conscious rider wants to be seen only as peaceful. May Sarton’s words speak of the Hindu goddess, Kali - a goddess identified with destruction but also with creation. Sarton says:
‘The kingdom of Kali is within us deep.
The built-in destroyer, the savage goddess,
Wakes in the dark and takes away our sleep.
She moves through the blood to poison gentleness.’

What is true in our personal depths is true also in the larger entities we build. In our communities and our nations, our inner destroyer plays out on a grand scale. And hate turns our communities and nations away from rehabilitation and toward punishment, away from compassion and toward judgement, away from reconciliation and toward vengeance, away from acceptance and toward intolerance, away from peace and toward war.

This violent presence within each of us can not be destroyed or removed like tumour. It is an intrinsic part of who we are. Our challenge is to avoid the destructive part of ourselves from ruling - to prevent the warrior from leading every time there is fear or danger. Instead, the warrior must be turned toward what builds up rather than what tears down. In Sarton’s words:
Put the wild hunger where it belongs, within the act of creation,
Crude power that forges a balance between hate and love.

When there is injustice, there is no shame in anger. When there is oppression, love alone does not suffice. When we are attacked, sometimes we must strike back. But in the end, enmity and death will never bring about the world we seek. To close, the final stanza of May Sarton’s poem:
Help us to be the always hopeful
Gardeners of the spirit
Who know that without darkness
Nothing comes to birth
As without light
Nothing flowers.

Closing Words
We live with aspects of our nature continually in conflict
There is peace and there is war in every heart
Let us strive to accept these parts of ourselves
And understand the way they underlie the actions of others
In the knowing is the potential for balance
In balance is the potential for justice, for acceptance, for peace.