Shalom: Peace as Wholeness

By Hilda Cruz Gauiao, December/Advent 2020

I remember sitting in an Ethics class during graduate school where my professor unpacked the Hebrew word, shalom, as “wholeness”, and an important extended meaning as “peace,” which often is attributed to our overall understanding of the word. I often thought of the word “peace” as the absence of tension, violence, crisis or war. However, this revelation sparked a deeper understanding of what the meaning of “peace” can be: wholeness.

Wholeness includes the complexity of our human experience and that often times, our lives cannot be so cut and dry, black and white. It is a “both/and”: wholeness invites all experiences such as joy and pain, tension and peace. It is a practice of being with all of the complex emotions and thoughts that are present before us. It is possible to be able to hold sadness and joy, all at the same time. One moment I could be worried about a student and yet at the same time, I can be looking outside the window and notice the sun shining through the clouds.   

My current ministry work as a Mindfulness Educator with a nonprofit organization, Peace in Schools, in Portland, Oregon, was the first for-credit high school mindfulness course in the nation. Part of our curriculum is creating an “Environment of CARE”  as an acronym for what an authentic learning environment can look like. This Environment of CARE includes confidentiality, acceptance, reverence and empathy as the qualities of an authentic learning environment.

The quality that students, especially now in our divided country, struggle with is “acceptance.” What happens when someone in the online classroom does not necessarily agree with another student, especially when it comes to Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+ issues, and political views? Acceptance means acknowledging what we do not have control over yet not necessarily that we resign to what we cannot change but rather to respond with action.   

For today’s Gospel reading, it is a familiar story: Joseph as a “righteous man yet unwilling to expose her (Mary) to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.” We get a sense that there is a deep tension within Joseph: he being a devout Jew and “righteous” in a religious sense, following all the rules and regulations of his faith. He also did not want to shame her publicly: doing so would have gotten Mary in deep trouble, socially and culturally.

Joseph then has a dream where the Holy Spirit tells him to not be afraid to take Mary into his home. Emmanuel means “God with us.” To truly take in the meaning of Emmanuel, may we have the eyes to see and the hearts to feel God with us. Joseph knew he was in a difficult place of being betrothed to Mary while she is pregnant with a child that is not biologically his. Joseph knows the social demands of him as a devout Jew. He did not want to get scrutinized by his family and religious community, nor did he want Mary to be in harm’s way.

Emmanuel is present in this story: the Holy Spirit spoke to Joseph in his dream that all that is happening to him is meant to be. Joseph is not to worry about societal pressures and demands. This predicament feels like an inner crisis for Joseph yet it is God’s intention and will that he be the father of Jesus. Joseph knows he cannot control what his religious community and family will react to the news of Mary being pregnant and the consequences of his choice to accept God’s call. Yet in the face of scrutiny, Joseph listens to God and decides to go forward with marrying Mary, despite the consequences.  

So the question is: how can we be quiet enough to hear God’s call? I am sure many of us would love to have God’s voice as clear as it was for Joseph in his dream. If God is truly with us, as the name Emmanuel promises, how can we cultivate the eyes to see God and the heart to feel God’s presence? It is through the quieting of our heart and mind, the practice of being with all of our immediate experience, and making room for the complexity that is life.

The practice of being with all that is reminds us of our wholeness. If you notice resistance around allowing complicated emotions and thoughts to be present, can you simply accept that you are resistant, and that is ok? Advent is the season of slowing down, making room in our hearts and our lives for Emmanuel. Every moment is an invitation to make room for God in our lives. And if we hold space for the complexity of our experience, to be able to name what arises for us without shrinking away, maybe then can we hear God’s voice and gentle nudge to take our next action.

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