There’s so much anger and hate around at the moment that five minutes on line can leave you feeling limp with despair. All those fierce words, the complete lack of any understanding between people holding differing views, even sometimes on the most trivial of subjects—and that’s before you get to the really serious differences, the anti-Semitism, the branding of all Muslims as terrorists. It seems as if no one can open their mouth, or dash off an opinion, without being driven by rage or hatred.
For that reason I’m going to share a deeply personal experience, which shows how very powerful the right words can be, and how much good they can do.
Many years ago I was living through a very bad time, because of difficult family circumstances. I was a long way from home and finding it desperately hard to keep going, at a time when I needed to show a positive face to the world. One Sunday morning, full of despair, I slipped into the back of a church at the time of the early morning communion service. I’d never been inside that church before and no one there knew me. I was a stranger, taking a seat at the back, well away from the small congregation, hoping not to be noticed, yet longing to find some sort of comfort.
The service reached the Peace—for those of you in the know, this is the moment many traditional Anglicans find teeth-grittingly embarrassing, when you’re supposed to go and ‘share the peace’—ie shake the hands of your fellow worshippers, or at least those you can easily reach. Since I was several pews behind everyone else, I thought I was safe from any contact.
I was wrong. A woman turned round and came towards me. She clasped my hands in hers.
‘Peace be with you, honey.’
Only five words, spoken with a warm West Indian lilt, but they went straight to my heart. Did she guess how I was feeling, or was this simply how she spoke to everyone? I don’t know; I shall never know. What I do know is their effect on me. I cannot begin to describe the consolation I felt at that moment, the sense of being enfolded in love and peace; of knowing that somehow everything was going to be all right, whatever happened.
We can never know for sure what is in the hearts of the people we meet, even sometimes of those closest to us, but this tiny incident brought home to me how the smallest of our interractions with others can have consequences for good or ill, far more deep and lasting than we can ever imagine.
I’m not sure precisely what I’m saying here, what lesson there might be for the world we’re in. All I do know is that even today, more than a decade later, I continue to hear those words as clearly as if they were being spoken now, at this very moment, and they still bring back that sense of being enfolded in love. ‘Peace be with you, honey.’