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Peace” by Henry Vaughan
My Soul, there is a country
Afar beyond the stars,
Where stands a winged 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 flow’r 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.

Henry Vaughan and his twin brother, Thomas, were born on April 17, 1621, in Wales. The Vaughans had a typical upper middle-class childhood. They received an excellent classical education at home, and in their late teens, they both went up to Oxford. Thomas pursued a degree, while Henry went to London where he studied law. Poetry was a favorite pursuit of his, and for many years he wrote typical “Cavalier” poems, in the footsteps of Ben Jonson.
The English Civil War marked a turning-point in Vaughan’s life. He was firmly on the side of the Royalists, even serving in the army at one point. When they were defeated, the consequences were severe: Vaughan lost his home. He also lost his freedom of worship: Anglican churches were shuttered and Anglican worship was forbidden.
In this context, Vaughan had a conversion—and so did his poetry. He attributed this conversion to the great Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert, whom Vaughan described as a “blessed man… whose holy life and verse gained many converts (of whom I am the least).”
Many of Vaughan’s poems from this period are filled with a tension between two worlds: between this world and the world to come; between childhood and maturity; between soul and body. The poem that Lisa read is no exception—it is filled with longing for heaven, while remaining firmly planted on earth. “Peace” dates to 1650. “My soul, there is a country / Afar beyond the stars,” is the reassuring beginning. In that beautiful place, the child “born in a manger” commands, and “sweet peace” is “crowned with smiles.” There alone “grows the flow’r of peace, / The rose that cannot wither.”
Even though the poem is called “Peace,” in some ways, this is a war poem. It is full of battle imagery. The peace of that far-off country is secured by “a winged sentry / all skillful in the wars” – an angel with fighting experience stands guard. Christ is referenced in his vulnerability—“the child born in the manger”—and yet he is described as a general, commanding “beauteous files”—troops of soldiers. To arrive in that country is to arrive in a “fortress” that can never be breached.  What is all this imagery doing in a poem about peace?
I think we get the answer to that question in the poem itself. At the exact midpoint of the poem, Vaughan writes about Christ, the “gracious friend” who “did in pure love descend, / To die here for thy sake.” The death of Jesus could be seen as the ultimate triumph of violence: God himself has been put to death. But we know that the cross is the opposite of that. The cross is the decisive answer to violence, the triumph of love.
In his dying and rising, Jesus shows us how the cycle of violence can be broken.
In the words of St. Oscar Romero, “The church believes in only one violence, that of Christ, who was nailed to the cross, taking upon himself all the violence of hatred and misunderstanding, so that we humans might forgive one another, love one another, and feel ourselves brothers and sisters.”
At Christmas time, the Scriptures we read and the carols we sing are filled with the same paradox that we encounter in Vaughan’s poem. The world we live in—like the world of Henry Vaughan—is filled with violence and injustice, and yet Jesus is born into this world, proclaiming “peace on earth to people of good will.” Christmas is not a time to forget, for a few short days of festivity, that violence and suffering exist in our world. Rather, Christmas is a time to be reminded that peace is possible, because Christ is our peace.



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Seattle, Washington  98104
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