There is a false peace which comes merely from the feeling that we are in control and can explain everything that is happening. It is what Jesus called ‘peace as the world gives it’ and he distinguished it from his own peace which he bestows as gift. Like all gifts from a truly authentic source it is without conditions, regardless of whether the beneficiary – us – deserve it or not.
Peace as the world gives it breaks down and is easily dissolved leaving us confused, frightened and angry. What we had relied on is no longer there and its disappearance undermines our trust in the benevolence of the universe. We can no longer be sure we will be treated fairly by life. Any number of misfortunes may cause this breakdown of peace. It might be the loss of an epiphany of love that we had cautiously allowed ourselves to believe in and felt would last forever. It could be an unexpected medical diagnosis or a letter telling us we are made redundant. In a moment the peace which gave us a cushion, on which to ride out the small bumps of life with a smile, is gone in a puff. We land with a hard bump on an earth that has suddenly become hard and inhospitable.
Worse of all it makes no sense. Religious platitudes may give temporary relief: God works in mysterious ways. We have to take the rough with the smooth. Jesus suffered like this too. It is not that they are untrue but they remain tasteless platitudes, ungrounded and bloodless, until we have experienced their meaning. Once we have, we may use them, sparingly.
There is no explanation. At least none that takes account of the full range of human destiny including the comedy and the tragedy of life. Explanations seek harmony and present an orderly view of things. As in music, we relax into harmony and allow it to soothe us. Bach has many sections in his glorious harmonies where he tips this apple cart over and, for a while, lets the apples roll chaotically around the listening mind. These are the times when he deliberately introduces dissonance. It sounds as if things fall apart, just as they were taking beautiful shape. Why does he do this: is he really a secret cynic laughing at our gullibility for believing in ultimate harmonies? Or is revealing the dark secret that it will all end in chaos.
These explanations of why Bach sometimes denies us the harmony of explanation do not flow with the deep faith that pervades his music. His use of dissonance might be a statement that the inexplicable has to be accepted just as much as the predictable and all the orderly explanations we like to protect us. But none of these are complete or real unless they can co-exist with what is at times senseless and resists being given any reason. A mother who has lost two children in a car accident should not be told by a young priest eager to smooth away this fatal dissonance, ‘don’t worry, they are in a better place.’ There is no trustworthy explanation that does not respect the inexplicability of things.
Our Lenten disciplines are a sort of controlled dissonance that can teach us this in a small way. So does the ebb and flow of feeling in daily meditation over the years.