I am thinking about practicing virtues. I think about it often. My church family chooses a virtue every year to practice together. Last year it was joy. This year it’s peace. I am grateful to be a part of a community asking what it means to be people of peace in times that feel disorienting. A passage from Colossians 3 is framing our year-long adventure:
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:12-17)
The text guides me in peace; I am thankful. The wisdom of people in my community broadens me; I am grateful. How do I become a person of peace? Clothe myself daily with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love, and gratitude toward myself and others. Okay. Got it. Practice compassion, kindness, forgiveness, gratitude… sounds simple, right?
I keep getting snagged on challenges. I have been forced to spend some time around people. Frustrating people. Difficult people. I find it hard to access compassion, kindness, or gentleness. Instead, I feel anger, frustration, and sadness. Not peace.
Why is peace so hard? What about compassion and kindness?
Recently, I found comfort from Pema Chodron’s description of her own experience of cultivating love, kindness, compassion, and joy:
“Cultivating these four qualities, love, kindness, compassion, and joy, gives us insight into our current experience. It gives us understanding of the state of our mind and heart right now. We get to know the experience of love and compassion, of joy and kindness, and also of their opposites. We learn how it feels when one of the four qualities is stuck and how it feels when it is flowing freely. We never pretend that we feel anything we don’t. The practice depends on embracing our whole experience. By becoming intimate with how we close down and how we open up, we awaken our unlimited potential.
“It might feel like stretching into make-believe to say, ‘May this person who is driving me crazy enjoy happiness and be free of suffering.’ Probably what we genuinely feel is anger. This practice is like a workout that stretches the heart beyond its current capabilities. We can expect to encounter resistance. We discover that we have our limits: we can stay open to some people, but we remain closed to others. We see both our clarity and our confusion. We are learning firsthand what everyone who has ever set out on this path has learned: we are all a paradoxical bundle of rich potential that consists of both neurosis and wisdom.”
As I practice, I end up coming across my limitations, places where I need to grow and stretch my heart. Like physical exercise, these virtues take effort. When I am in familiar territory, around people I love and enjoy, I can access compassion, peace, and kindness. It comes naturally. However, when I decide to practice all day, every day, I encounter no shortage of opportunities to… well… practice. Even in times of frustration, those frustrations are opportunities for growth.
I am learning that a person of peace has to keep practicing. I need to practice with my spouse, with my children, with my church family, my coworkers, and my friends. It matters.
So, once again, it is time to go out into the world as a practitioner of peace still learning what it is to practice peace:
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved… let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.”