Shalom in Our Eyes
By Caroline Liberatore
There are days I find myself at my library desk entranced by recollections of years at university. During my senior year as an English major, I took a class on the transcendentalists of the 19th century. My professor was a man committed to experiencing the words we studied, in tandem with the spirit of these writers he adored. I took this attitude to heart and revelled in weeks where my responsibilities were to retreat to the woods in solitude for readings of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman. I would bask in days of dappled foliage and freshwater, accompanied by these gentle voices which traced both earthly and ethereal ideas. What I find myself longing for most, however, are the river-like whispers of the Lord’s supple presence, encircling my psyche as I—in the spirit of Thoreau—pondered the eternities.
As I studied this scope of writers, I became most compelled by the intentionality, individuality, and simplicity which marked their way of life. Consider Thoreau who, in his frustration with a progressively hurried and excessive society, built himself a home in the woods to instead “live deliberately.” His book Walden, which occupies a quintessential presence in American literature, germinated from this experience. In his time of solitude at Walden Pond, he studied the earth and reflected on its muttered sermons. For the transcendentalist, all natural things echoed conceptions of God—or were even godlike in and of themselves.
Although it is clear that the entire worldview of the transcendentalist is far from orthodox Christianity, I have still gleaned much from fragments of their philosophy, their historic examples of individualism, and their attention to the marvel of nature. A lifestyle seasoned with such deliberation, intellect, and beauty compliments a Christian posture.
As an English student at a public university, I came to love the insights of words from a variety of historical periods, worldviews, and cultural backgrounds. Being in an environment steeped with intellectual and artistic stimulation—which was sometimes Christian-adjacent at best—cultivated a vibrancy within my own inscapes, including my relationship with Christ. The rhythms of semesters and class workloads positioned me to experience tangible, rapid growth both academically and in my selfhood.
In my post-graduation life, I spend most of my days in a public library. In many ways, my vocation is just as scintillating as my time at university; I am surrounded by literature, the librarians I work alongside are sharp and generative, and I am provided with opportunity for intellectual and professional growth. As a modern institution, the library does not merely function to nurture literacy of the written word, but also technological aptitude, artistic innovation, and embodied community. It is not a workplace that is particularly conducive to stagnation.
Despite this, the daily rhythms of my work can still be sifted down to denser remnants—namely, as a space committed to propagating social equity and engagement. Each day, I am met with common faces of library patrons who have become oddly dear to me—but often this familiarity bears a plethora of difficulties: dealing with harassment, mastering deescalation, and fighting for empathy are perhaps the most stretching aspects of a librarian’s day-to-day work. Continually laboring for understanding and reconciliation can be gritty work, leaving me to crave the Thoreau-esque days of my education—days of solitude, immersion in natural beauty, and intellectual growth.
It is worth reflecting upon, however, that while Thoreau chose to distance himself from the arbitrary rhythms of modern society, he embodied remarkable and risky civil engagement. His tenacity towards activism and social responsibility is most potent in his essay entitled “Civil Disobedience”— a historically formative piece of literature written after he spent a night in jail for tax evasion. This offence was not mere neglect on his part, but an intentional act of defiance prompted by his opposition against the institution of slavery and America’s engagement in the Mexican-American War.
Although transcendentalists, such as Emerson, have been critiqued for their philosophical arrogance and its subsequent impracticality, Thoreau displayed no such lethargy. Convinced that mere ideological conviction was not sufficient, he was invigorated by individualism to demonstrate costly resistance against systems of injustice. Thoreau’s pursuit of beauty and insight did not sedate him from living an engaged life. Instead, his philosophy spurred him to embody goodwill and care for creation and people.
Thoreau’s example begs us to consider where we subconsciously position human dignity on the scale of beauty. Perhaps, if considering it cognitively, we would acknowledge it ought to be the very utmost manifestation of beauty. But what might our impulses and intuition divulge? Are our attitudes and actions—whether conscious or subconscious—independent of this conviction?
It seems that we find it easy to recognize the value of that which is more than us—natural beauty, theology—and less convinced that humanity is imprinted with both of these things. Our movements and conversations often imply that our vocations, communities, and human identity are completely estranged from the beauty of God. However, Christ’s thirty-three years of touching and speaking to those He would cosmically rescue indicate otherwise. There is, indeed, honor embedded in our sinew, and Christ beckons His Church to affirm this.
While there are infinite ways to reverberate this in individual interactions, God distinctly calls His people to integration with the cities and communities around us. In Jeremiah’s prophetic letter to those exiled in Babylon, God’s people are encouraged: “But seek the welfare (shalom) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare…” (Jeremiah 29:7, ESV). The Hebrew word shalom used here is indicative of deep, restorative peace and wholeness as realized in the reconciling work of Christ. This commission towards peace is substantiated by the infamous promise of Jeremiah 29:11, in which God assures that this moment of faithfulness is not for naught in the tapestry of redemption: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare (shalom) and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (ESV). To transpose this beckon of shalom, it may be helpful to consider: what infrastructures of our society can we participate in and improve in order to continually affirm and preserve the dignity of humanity, as deemed by Christ?
When I first began working at a library, I was startled and grieved to find how difficult it was to look certain people in the eye. They were those whom, otherwise, I was hardwired to avoid—wrongly perceiving them as inconvenient or outside of what I would have considered “normal.” This is, perhaps, one of our most natural and tragic inclinations; to dismiss those whose lives are little less straightforward and like our own. I suddenly found myself in a position where I would be invited to act against this instinct with authenticity and humility. With each patron who approaches my desk, I recognize that I have a choice: will I choose to move towards them as Christ would or retract into arrogance and anxiety?
Public libraries are distinct in that they are a space designated for all people. As an institution committed to offering services that meet a wide scope of needs, they are peopled with a cross-section of every socioeconomic and cultural background (which may be contingent on the diversity of a specific library’s surrounding community). However, no institution is flawless and immune to injustice; it is necessary for those redeemed by Christ to invigorate them with shalom.
In order to cultivate faithfulness towards this end, we must deem these daily unfoldings of redemption as a captivating beauty and good that we long to encounter. Often, we eclipse them with our yearnings for the future transcendence of our broken humanity and earth. We must not dishonor Christ’s commitment to us in the dirt realm, for this was the great crescendo of redemption: the dignification of a people once found destitute by sin and injustice.
Even the most dull days of usual tasks and small talk with patrons become drenched with meaning when I acknowledge that they subtly resonate the mystery of a Savior who looks us in the eye. When we partake in subtle gusts of the gospel—eye-contact, empathetic listening, attentive and practical care—we are appealing to the merciful and active hand of Christ. Our sincere and committed presence with each other is not merely happenstance, but an undiluted revelation of God's character and movement in us.
Let us live long, mundane, and distinctly human lives with the assurance that our infinite Savior did not deem it too far below Him. Let us be committed to seeing people and stories through to the end. This is the heartbeat of a Christ-haunted reality.
Perhaps this is what even Thoreau unintentionally encircled when he remarked: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look into another’s eyes for a moment?”