September 11, 2011

On Sunday afternoon, September 11, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, was principal celebrant and homilist at a Mass of Thanksgiving on the occasion of Fr. James Wiseman’s election three months earlier as the fifth abbot of St. Anselm’s Abbey. The Mass was held in the Abbey School’s Devine Theatre and was attended by several hundred persons, including many of the abbey’s Oblates, other friends of the abbey, a number of faculty and alumni from the Abbey School, and professors from The Catholic University of America, where Abbot James had taught since the fall semester of 1985. After Communion, Abbot James gave some reflections about the Benedictine motto, peace, which are reproduced below.


Remarks at Mass of Thanksgiving, Sept. 11, 2011
by Abbot James Wiseman

A single Latin word, inscribed above the entrance to many Benedictine monasteries throughout the world, says a lot about what our way of life should be. That word is pax, “peace,” which has been the motto of the worldwide Benedictine Confederation for centuries. The motto is well chosen indeed, for the word figures prominently in the Rule of St. Benedict. Already in his prologue, Benedict quotes a verse from Psalm 34: “Let peace be your quest and aim.” Then, with an allusion to something St. Paul once wrote, Benedict says in his chapter on “The Tools for Good Works”: “If you have a dispute with someone, make peace with him before the sun goes down.” In a later chapter, on the distribution of goods according to each monk’s need, he writes: “Whoever needs less should thank God and not be distressed, but whoever needs more should feel humble because of his weakness, not self-important because of the kindness shown him. In this way all the members will be at peace.” And in his inspiring chapter on the way guests should be received, Benedict stipulates that once a guest has been announced, “the superior and the brothers are to meet him with all the courtesy of love. First of all, they are to pray together and thus be united in peace.”

The theme of peace likewise appears in every celebration of the Eucharist, when right before Communion we hear the priest pray this beautiful prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles, ‘I leave you peace, my peace I give you.’ Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your church, and grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom.” And just a few days ago, on the feast of Mary’s nativity, the Opening Prayer at Mass concluded with the words: “May this celebration of her birthday bring us closer to lasting peace.”

All of that would sound inspiring in any part of the world and at any time, but there is a special need to ponder such lines in our own country and at the present time. You may have read a thought-provoking front-page article in the Washington Post this past Monday, September 5. The author, Greg Jaffe, wrote that unlike previous decades, when both the military and the American public viewed war as an aberration and peace as the norm, nowadays, ten years after the attacks of 9/11, we seem to be living in what the Pentagon’s most recent assessment of global security called “a period of perpetual conflict,” and this has led some to view our wars as unending and to consider any talk of peace as “quixotic and naïve.” The article went on to note that earlier this year the House of Representatives came close to denying all funding for the congressionally funded United States Institute of Peace, leading the institute’s president to conclude that the very word “peace” in its name was partly to blame for this problem and that it might make sense to change the name to “The United States Institute for Conflict Management.” “Peace,” he said, just “doesn’t reflect the world we are dealing with.”

Now no one, I suppose, could be opposed to conflict management, but as a Benedictine and as a Christian I found that entire article very sad. It’s not just a matter of seeing my order’s very motto obliquely coming under fire. More importantly, what does all this say to those of us who try to live according to Jesus’s Beatitudes, including the seventh: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”? What does it say about the ongoing efforts of someone like Paul Chappell, himself a captain in the United States Army, who in his various books has been trying to change our entire way of thinking about war, for he argues that war is not inevitable and that there are specific things we can all do to promote peace and mutual understanding among the peoples of the world? Certainly perpetrators of terrorist violence should be tracked down, certainly our civil leaders should continue to do all they can to keep our people as safe as possible, but let us never conclude that working for a more peaceful world is “quixotic or naïve,” or that our Benedictine motto has somehow become antiquated. As I noted at the beginning of these remarks, St. Benedict wisely quoted the Psalmist: “Let peace be your quest and aim.” May we keep those words in our minds and hearts throughout the weeks, months, and years to come.