The world is saturated with anxiety and uncertainty and for many, the reasonable response is fear. We can thank God that our hope is not built on reason alone. Christians know that happiness is an empty pursuit. Happiness is based on happenings, but peace is the joyous realization that all is well, regardless of circumstance. The Bible says in Philippians 4:6-7 “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
In his beautiful poem “Peace”, Henry Vaughan wrote
My Soul, there is a country,
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a wingéd sentry
All skillful in the wars.
There above noise and danger
Sweet peace sits crown’d with smiles,
And one born in a manger
Commands the beauteous files.
He is thy gracious friend
And (O my Soul awake!)
Did in pure love descend
To die here for thy sake.
If thou canst get but thither,
There grows the flower of peace,
The rose that cannot wither,
Thy fortress and thy ease.
Leave then thy foolish ranges;
For none can thee secure,
But one who never changes,
Thy God, thy life, thy cure.
The Incarnation of God the Word in the Infant of Bethlehem sets in motion a sequence of events that leads to the Crucifixion and, beyond it, to the opening up of a new possibility for human life, the heavenly life characterized by peace, love, and constancy. In this poem, Henry Vaughan paints a vision of a country guarded by “beauteous files” of angels, under the command of the one born in a manger, who risked all for love of human beings.
Born in Wales of a Welsh family and probably bilingual, Henry Vaughan wrote his poetry primarily in English. He was a layman and a physician but well educated in matters of theology, perhaps partly through having a brother who was a priest in the Church of England. Much of Vaughan’s poetry was written during the Commonwealth, when the Book of Common Prayer and other aspects of Anglican observance (e.g., Christmas) were suppressed; and he was very hostile to the then-dominant Puritanism. But his great model was George Herbert, and Herbert’s example helped prevent polemics from taking central place in Vaughan’s poetry. Like Herbert, he is one of the great masters of English verse.
In George Herbert’s “The Sacrifice” the O Vos Omnes hymn is developed with Christ drawing a contrast between himself and Barabbas: “And a seditious murderer he was: / But I the Prince of Peace; peace that doth passe / All understanding, more than heav’n doth glasse” (117-19; cf. Ruskin, Unto This Last, chap. 3). Herbert’s poem “Peace” makes the point that the “Prince of Peace” himself had no peace: “He sweetly liv’d; yet sweetnesse did not save / His life from foes” (25-26), and that he won peace for others at the expense of his own struggle and death (cf. A Priest to the Temple, chap. 34). In Vaughan’s “Peace” the poet speaks of a peace which is not to be found in this life, but in “a Countrie / Far beyond the stars,” sentiments echoed in an early 20th-cent. American sonnet by Joyce Kilmer, written while the author was soldiering in France during World War I (“The Peacemaker”). Aldous Huxley thinks hints of such peace can be derived from art: “Even from the perfection of minor masterpieces—certain sonnets of Mallarmé, for instance, certain Chinese ceramics—we can derive illuminating hints about the ‘something far more deeply interfused,’ about ‘the peace of God that passeth understanding’“ (Ends and Means, chap. 14; cf. Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey,” 96). In Black Boy Richard Wright tells of an unsuccessful application of the traditional interpretation in the home of his grandmother: “Granny bore the standard for God, but she was always fighting. The peace that passes understanding never dwelt with us.” Recalling the prophetic promise that in the days of the Messiah peace shall flow “as a river” (Isa. 48:18; 53:5), Margaret Avison writes that “Word has arrived that / peace will brim up, will come / ‘like a river and the / glory … like a flowing stream’“—an unprecedented, unimagined grace (“Stone’s Secret,” 20-22).
See also this from Francis Greenwood Peabody, “The Peace-Makers,” The Harvard Theological Review XII, no. 1 (1919): 51–52.
When the momentous news of an armistice in the world-war stirred vociferous multitudes to turbulent rejoicing, they were thrilled by the one overwhelming thought that peace, at last, had come. The war was at an end, and it must be the last of wars. A huge wave of grateful surprise surged up from the common level of national life and broke into a foam of high emotion. The thought of millions flashed across the sea by the wireless telegraphy of the spirit to those who on land and water and in the air had borne the part of America in the great adventure; and this message of thanksgiving could find no better words than the ancient Beatitude: “Blessed are the Peace-Makers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
As the tumult and the shouting die, however, one is led to ask himself whether there was not something premature in this unmeasured self-congratulation. Was the war over when the fighting was done? Was the cessation of bloodshed, however longed-for and welcome, the assurance of an epoch of peace? Were there not enemies still left to meet, and battles to win, as threatening as on the plains of Flanders or the mountains of Italy? Should not one recall Milton’s great words in his sonnet to Cromwell:
To conquer still; Peace hath her victories
No less renowned than war; new foes arise,
Threatening to bind our souls”?
Sources & Resources
Art: Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks (1834)
Trained as a sign, coach, and ornamental painter, Hicks painted over a hundred versions of his now-famous Peaceable Kingdom between 1820 and his death. His artistic endeavors provided modest support for his activities as a Quaker preacher in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The theme of this painting, drawn from chapter 11 of Isaiah, was undoubtedly attractive to Hicks and fellow Quakers not only for its appealing imagery but also for its message of peace: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” Into many versions, including the Worcester painting, Hicks incorporated a vignette of William Penn’s treaty with the Indians, an image he adapted from a popular painting by Benjamin West (q.v.). Hicks may have viewed parallels in the two parts of the composition, inasmuch as Penn, who had introduced Quakerism into Pennsylvania, had also brought about a measure of the peaceable kingdom on earth.
Literature: Peace by Henry Vaughan: The Complete Poems. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.
Eisenbeis, W. Die Wurzel ŠLM im Altes Testaments (BZAW 113 ); Hammer, P. L. Shalom in the New Testament (1973); Harris, D. J. Shalom! The Biblical Concept of Peace (1970); Macquarrie, John H. The Concept of Peace (1973); Montefiore, C. G., and H. Loewe, eds. Rabbinic Anthology (rpt. 1974), 530-38; White, H. C. Shalom in the Old Testament (1973); Wiseman, D. J. “Shalom.” VT 32 (1982), 311-26.