One of my favorite expressions is “Shalom Aleichem” : “Peace be with you,” or “Peace be on to you.” Even as I pronounce the Hebrew words, a strange tranquility comes over me. The word “Shalom” itself has so many rich meanings: peace, prosperity, welfare, tranquility, harmony, wholeness, completeness. It seems almost like an invitation to taste the wholeness and completeness of God Himself, a wishing of the good for the other person.
This expression has become more of a casual “Hi, how are you” in modern Israeli society. Saying “ Shalom” has become similar to saying “Aloha”: “Hi, bye.” And yet, I find such power in these words. A few years ago, after our interfaith Thanksgiving service at my parish in Bayside, NY, I found myself talking over cookies with the wise and gentle Rabbi Weitz. I told him about my upcoming trip to Israel the following week, and he told me that he was also going there then. We were both very excited about it. As we were leaving I dared to try out my little Hebrew and told him, “Shalom Aleichem”. In the holy environment of my church the expression seemed to have so much meaning. My eyes met his shining eyes, and it felt like we shared something beyond ourselves. When he smiled and answered “Aleichem Shalom (Unto you peace),”I felt I was truly being blessed by this man of God.
Every year I spend the Easter Triduum in retreat at the Passionist Spiritual Center in Jamaica, NY. I usually go there without any expectations. I always know it’s going to be great. But from the beginning of Holy Week I had been asking the Lord for much-needed peace. The Morning Prayer that I recite begins by asking the Lord for peace, wisdom, and strength. I usually get stuck at “peace,” trying to measure on a 1 to 10 scale how my state of peace is.
This week I was at a 4-5 level ! I was worried about all the jobs I had to do to help out during the retreat, especially with regard to this big cross that I had built. When would there be time to have the retreatants write their prayers on it? Would it be an imposition? Was there any room left on the cross to write on? Would anyone be interested in carrying it outside to pray the Stations of the Cross? Would anyone get splinters on their hands? Would it fall on somebody’s foot?
My lack of peace went a lot deeper than that. I was going through a senseless feeling of unworthiness. I had become a little worn out by the people I serve in my different ministries. There was a heaviness in my heart that I could not explain. And then, as soon as I had figured out where to put the big cross, and I was able to sit before the Lord at chapel, the most blissful sense of peace descended on me. Talk about a quick answer to a prayer!
Throughout the four days I just never worried about anything. All the retreat events unfolded before me in mysterious, delightful ways. Nothing and nobody bothered me. There was no need to assess whether my prayers, or the experiences, or presentations, were devout, inspiring, or spiritual enough. Everything just was. I usually had a smile on my face. My fellow retreatants were not like strangers; they were beloved children of God, good and gracious company. The peace of God enveloped us.
Dear readers, why am I writing about this? I guess I really want to share this peace with you. I want to sort of wish it, pray it upon you! Shalom Aleichem! In the Gospel (John 20: 19-31) for the Octave Sunday of Easter (also adequately named Divine Mercy Sunday), our Resurrected Lord appears before His fearful disciples (that’s us!), and tells them, “Shalom Aleichem.”
This is much more than just a “Hi, what’s up.” The Living God blesses us with the power of His love. The soothing breeze of His Holy Spirit is breathed upon us. We relish in His love. As we touch His wounds our wounds are touched and relieved. We are home. Our guilt over the times we have deserted Him is calmed. He invites us to stop retaining our sins, and through His power, to forgive ourselves for all those sins that He has already forgiven. And then He puts us back to work. He tells us, “so I send you!”
I hope that peace of His holds out within me. And even if it goes down to a 4 or 5 again, there is a bountiful storehouse of it in His heart within our hearts, just for the taking! We are His ministers, His agents in this troubled world. Like the psalm says: “Lord send down Your Spirit and renew the face of the Earth.” Shalom Aleichem!
By Orlando Hernandez