This past week I had the total privilege of being the Anglican chaplain for the island of Wadjemup – or Rottnest. I went quite reluctantly, in a way – superficially, the weather forecast was bad and, more significantly, I’d not long ago watched a documentary about the history of the island. That film left me so conflicted about whether the white people should be making a playground of this giant unmarked grave that I didn’t know if I even had any right to step foot off the boat, but, our diocese has a commitment to always having a clergyperson resident there, and the opportunity came to me, so I went.
All my fears were real, and right, and mostly unmet and my heart really did find a new home there. It was a wonderful and blessed time and I know I’ll return often.
In my mental wranglings about whether I should or shouldn’t go I spoke to some of our aboriginal elders and some other people, who are wiser than I am. Uncle Ben said to me, ‘please go; go and stand at the water’s edge and throw sand into the sea and call up the spirits of those who went and never returned to their spiritual country’ and a wonderful companion encouraged me to stand at the edge of the most brutally sacred places and ask permission to enter and then listen for an answer. What wealth of advice!
I took a book with me called An Island Solution: Rottnest reveals our colonial secrets and each morning I read a few chapters, recounting the hideous, oppressive, violent and barbaric history of that beautiful place, and then I walked the island and saw the places I’d read about.
I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was really aware that it was white British men who led this fight for colonialism, and they are my grandfathers, so I said ‘sorry’ at the edge of the cemetery and at the vast burial site where 1 in 10 of the prisoners had ended up – through execution, murder or malnourishment. I kissed the walls of the reformatory and the chapel and the lighthouse – all built by our aboriginal ancestors for the benefit of the white man and his children. I had no idea what I was doing and I must have looked crazy, but over the 6 days I covered every section of the island, intentionally, and every step I took was meant as one of prayer and peace, of reconciliation and of love.
And last Sunday, I said mass in that tiny Anglican chapel – just me and one other – and the gospel reading was that famous one; love one another, as I have loved you, love one another – and I asked, and genuinely wondered, ‘what does loving one another look like here? What does it look like to love those who were brought here and never got to go home? And what does it look like to love those who did that to them?’ and I wasn’t sure.
And then today we hear those equally famous words; peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid. And I have the same sort of wonderings.
What does peace look like to an island, to a country, built on colonialism, domination and oppression? How do we find peace there, or here? What does peace look like the day after a general election where some people will be worse off for the result and others are rejoicing? What is that peace? Where can we find it?
And, the thing is, I had totally immersed myself in the stories of Wadjemup – of how it became Rottnest, then a prison, then a grave. I truly heard the cries of history and felt the deep wounds of its past and it was loud… and yet, beyond all that, above all that, was this unescapable, very tangible, sense of peace. Those walking trails, those incredible beaches, that chapel, that grave site, all of it is just steeped in peace, dripping with peace. And that, I think, is the very essence of what Jesus promises us here.
You see, peace is not simply the absence of war. It is not just silence or quiet. Peace is profound. It is counter cultural. It is the port in the storm, the centre of the tornado, the sense of calm when everything is falling down around us. It is the strength in the face of a diagnosis and the courage to get up in the morning when our dearest loved one has died. It is the sunrise and the sunset and the lapping waves on the island shores of Wadjemup. And I am certain that this is what Jesus was promising when he said ‘I do not give to you as the world gives’ because this sort of peace cannot be found in the world or by the world. It can only be received as gift, as grace, as entirely other.
We can try to chase peace or hunt it out. We can try to manufacture it or create it. And yet, we can’t manage it; not truly, not deeply. Oh, I think we can contribute to it or distract from it, but the deep seat of this peace is ours, in Christ, and is always coming to us, is always on its way.
It is left to us and is given to us and will lift us and carry us.
It is not the peace of the world – that peace will disappoint us, because it won’t last.
And it is ours to receive, if we want it. So, hold out your hands and lift up your heads. And do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid. Amen.