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Achieving Peace of Mind
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
There is hardly much need telling ourselves or proving to others that ours is a restless age. Instability and insecurity are everywhere. There is uncertainty among the young who are worried about their future. These is uncertainty among parents who are concerned about their children. There is uncertainty among workers who are unsure of their jobs. There is uncertainty, it seems, at every age and social level and in almost every walk of life. Yet this is more a background to what I really wish to say which is how to cope with insecurity not only among people but within people, in a word, how does a person remain constant in a world of inconstancy and change?
We get some idea of the gravity of the situation once we realize that millions of Americans must be unhappy as seen in their preoccupation with sex, drugs and drink. They maintain some semblance of security by escaping from the realities of life into a world of fantasy created by the media and sustained by the advertising industry. As a Christian believer looks at all of this he asks himself, "Is this the way it should be? Or is there something wrong? And what can I do to achieve and maintain my own peace of mind?" The answer is yes. There is something radically wrong and there is plenty that I can do to be at peace and help others become peaceful too.
Two Kinds of Peace of Soul
Nothing should be clearer to a person who believes in Christ and the Church than that we are meant to be at peace not only between ourselves, which is external, but within ourselves, which is deeply interior. Shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, was built into all the messianic prophesies. And Jerusalem, the City of Peace, was the symbol of what the messianic kingdom was to be. Peace was the theme of the angels' song at Bethlehem. It was the theme of Christ's promise to His followers the night before He died. It was His first message to the apostles the day He rose from the dead. In the Eucharistic liturgy how often the Church has us pray for peace. And how earnestly we hope to obtain peace if we lack it, or retain it if we already have what must surely be counted man's single greatest possession on earth this side of the vision of God: to be at peace.
Interior peace is of two kinds: one in the heart or will and the other in the mind or intellect. They are closely connected but they are not the same. Peace of heart for the believing Christian is the absence of conflict between his will and that of others and ultimately between his will and the will of God. My heart is at peace when I want what God wants, when I desire only what He desires. It is in this sense that the inspired writer asks and does not have to answer his own question addressed to God, "Who has ever resisted Your will, O Lord, and been at peace?" There was no need for a reply. The answer is no one.
Peace of mind, on the other hand, for the believing Christian is the absence of conflict between his mind and the mind of others and ultimately between his mind and the infinite mind of God. My mind is at peace when I know what God knows insofar as a creature can participate in the ocean of divine wisdom. My mind is at peace when I assent because I want to do whatever God has revealed. Not because I understand what this means or can explain the mysteries of revelation, but because I trust in God's authority and submit my intellect to His. In a word, I have peace of mind when I have the truth; when my thoughts agree with God's thoughts, and my judgments correspond to His, I have the truth and I am at peace. Peace of mind, then, is the experience of the truth. It is the result of truth. It is the fruit of truth. I shall have only as much peace of mind as I am in possession of the truth which God has revealed and bids us to believe.
How, we now ask, are the two forms of peace heart and of mind related? They are related as cause and effect, where peace of mind is the cause and the condition for peace of heart. How can anyone want what God wants unless he first knows what God wants him to know and therefore should desire? God wants me to love Him, but I must first know Him. God wants me to love others as I love myself, but I must know that first. God wants me to be humble and prayerful and chaste, but I must first know that He wants humility and prayer and chastity and know also the means He has given me to grow in these virtues before I can efficaciously desire them or even less experience the peace that their faithful practice infallibly brings.
What are we saying? We are saying that if we wish to have peace of heart, which means tranquility of spirit in our affections, we must first have the truth in our minds. Otherwise we are pursuing shadows and running after the wind. Suppose I do not know because I do not believe that my first duty as a Christian is to seek the kingdom of God and His justice. I just do not know it because I do not believe it. And all belief is fundamentally in the mind. Suppose I do not believe that provided I seek God and His kingdom first all other things will be added unto me. Suppose I think the opposite, that I am to place creatures first and seek God if I seek Him at all last. That is untrue, but suppose I do not know, or worse, suppose I really think that what is a lie is the truth and I act on the lie. Can I on these premises have peace of heart? Absolutely not as by now myriads of human beings are finding out to their disillusionment and often to their despair. Truth in the mind, therefore, is peace of mind, and peace of mind is indispensable for peace of heart.
No doubt God is merciful in dealing with His sometimes not-so-rational creatures. In His goodness He often makes up for what we lack. In His mercy He may give more peace to a person who through no fault of his own knows less revealed truth than to another, say, who knows more. But having said that, God cannot contradict Himself. The truth, He told us, will make us free. Free from what? Free from fear. Free from insecurity. Free from worry. Free from anxiety. Of course, I must not only have the truth, but use it. I must act on what faith tells me is the truth and the peace that Christ promised will be mine.
How to Achieve Peace of Mind
If the peace of mind means the possession of God's truth, it naturally follows that everything depends on our having this truth and all we have to do is use the means required for getting the truth. At this point I wish to briefly state and then explain how to go about getting the truth, which is another way of saying how to go about attaining peace of mind. I would capsulize my recommendations in these words: seek and protect and live the truth, and peace of mind is attained.
Seek the Truth
Seek the truth. It may strike us as a bit odd for Christ to more than once insist on His followers searching for what evidently God wants to give us. Is this a game? He tells us to search and seek and look for only if we do the searching or seeking shall we find; and He gave us a whole parable on the woman looking for the lost coin. The point is that if we are to come into the possession of the truth that God has revealed we must go out to find it. The truth forces itself on no one's mind. This means a variety of things. It most obviously means that I must go out of my laziness and complacency and exercise at least my instinct of curiosity to learn what God has taught mankind, with at least as much eagerness as worldly people show in their insatiable hunger for secular knowledge. Our universities are bulging with millions of students hungering for knowledge and information. About what? About how to make a better living or make more money or just to satisfy the natural craving to better understand the universe of space and time and people and events of past and present history. But by comparison how few are all that interested in learning about God and His dealings with man.
It is not enough however only to wish to find the truth and to take the trouble of learning. We must also know where it is to be found. It is not so easy, not as easy as it seems, nor even as easy as it used to be. Time was when you could look at the cover of a book and read the book with security that you were getting the truth. But in case you have not heard, no more. I am speaking of religious truth and specifically of revealed truth. Too many once trustworthy sources of religious truth have either become dried up or so polluted that sometimes it makes a Catholic feel like the Greek Diogenes who went in search of an honest man with a lamp and he would cry out if he found one, "Eureka!"
Let me suggest three simple norms for discovering religious truth in today's miasma of very sophisticated and very learned confusion. Ask yourself three questions.
Question one: does what I am hearing or reading correspond to what the Church has always held to be true? If it does you can trust it. If it does not, distrust it. The Church has always held that Christ is bodily present in the Eucharist; that the Pope is infallible in teaching the universal Church; that marriage is indissoluble by any human authority, civil or ecclesiastical; that adultery and fornication and homosexuality are mortal sins that deprive those who die thus estranged from God of the vision of God; that the priesthood is reserved for men; that personal auricular confession is necessary to obtain sacramental absolution; that the Mass is a sacrifice and not just an elaborate liturgical meal; that direct abortion is murder; that obedience to rightful authority is a divine law; that religious life is part of divine revelation; that celibacy is pleasing to God; that contraception, no matter what the intention, is a grave sin; that prayer is necessary for salvation; and that angels are sent by God to minister to our human and especially our spiritual needs. All of these, and I could go on, are truths the Church has always held. Anyone who contradicts or casts doubt on what has been the heritage of historic Christianity, no matter how articulate or learned or highly placed he or she may be, is not telling the truth.
Second question: does what I am hearing or reading conform to the present teaching of the Roman Catholic Church as expressed by the Vicar of Christ? If it does you can trust it. If it does not, distrust it no matter how otherwise pious or scholarly the opinion or theory may be. That is all it is, an opinion or theory, and it should be treated accordingly.
Third question: what kind of a person morally, is the one who is teaching or writing what I hear or read? We did not used to have to ask these questions. We do now. Is he or she humble and prayerful and charitable and patient and chaste, or the opposite? More than once the Savior used this norm and He wants us to use it too to explain why His critics who finally crucified Him, the scribes and Pharisees, were not teaching the truth. Their pride and envy, among other vices, as He said, disqualified them from being taken seriously.
One more question, a kind of addendum, but it should be asked, "What are the consequences of the ideas I am raising or hearing?" Again the Savior is our Master in applying this precious norm when He tells us that by their fruits you shall know them. Ideas have consequences. True ideas have good consequences. False ideas have bad consequences. There is no escaping the logic of this divinely ordained law of spiritual fertility: the truth always begets goodness, falsehood always begets evil.
A good checklist of the procreative power of truth and the corresponding power of falsehood to beget evil is given by St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians. His study in contrast between the progeny of error and truth is worth quoting in full. What is the offspring of error?
It is "fornication, gross indecency and sexual irresponsibility, idolatry and sorcery; feuds and wrangling, jealously, bad temper and quarrels; disagreements, factions, envy; drunkenness, orgies and similar things." What is the offspring of truth? It is the very opposite: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, truthfulness, gentleness and self-control." Here we have a divinely revealed, and easily applied rule for discernment of spirits. If the untruth is active, the moral effects of false ideas are invariably bad. If the Spirit of truth is at work, the moral results are correspondingly, and infallibly, good.
Protect the Truth
Protect the truth. Discovering God's truth, however, and acquiring it is only the beginning. We must also preserve it. Otherwise the peace that depends on the possession of truth may be lost. If we are not only to achieve peace of mind but retain it, we must protect the truth we already have. Otherwise, as Christ explained in the parable of the seed, the enemy of human nature will steal it away.
Let us listen for a moment to the context in which the Savior gave the parable. He was talking about a man going out to sow his seed, but the seed fell on different kinds of ground and the results were predictable. For our purpose, only the first four kinds of ground concerns us here. The seeds, which Christ said are the Word of God's truth falling on the edge of the path, did not produce fruit. Why? Because the birds came and ate them up. When Christ later explained the meaning to the disciples, He said, "When anyone hears the Word of the kingdom without understanding, the evil one comes and carries off what was sown in his heart."
The lesson should be clear. In order to protect the truth of God's Word in our mind we must as far as humanly possible make it our own, appropriate it, assimilate it, in a word, we must come to understand what we believe. And there is no more assured way of obtaining this necessary understanding of God's truth than by meditating on it. This is a one word reason, the fundamental reason, for meditation: to understand God's truth. Everything else depends on that. Christ said so. Daily reflection on the mysteries of faith is indispensable to keep the faith, which means to keep the truth. There is no substitute. Such meditation will preserve the believer from the tragedy that has befallen so many once-believing Catholics, including not a few priests and religious. Let us never suppose the devil is not interested in those who believe revealed truth. He is so interested that he uses his shrewdest strategy to dislodge the faith-security of the firmest believers. Be sure of this: the more firmly you believe, the more strongly the devil is trying to steal away the seed of God's Word sown in your mind.
Recall the first time the devil appears in the pages of Sacred Scripture right after the creation of the world and the creation of Adam and Eve. Recall what the devil did. How did he get our first parents to fall? He began by tempting Eve, who in turn was supposed to tempt Adam. The devil's first recorded words are a question: "Did God really say you are not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?" Notice the demonic technique. He raised a question in order to raise a doubt in the mind of Eve and the rest is a matter of salvation history.
In order to protect the truth we believe, we must look at this truth in God's presence, think about it, relish it, in a word, come to love it through frequent prayerful meditation. Otherwise we run the risk of having the devil raise doubts in our minds and once we begin to doubt we are likely to end denying even the most fundamental truths of our faith. This is my recommendation it is not even just a recommendation it is a requirement taught by Christ as a condition for remaining true to the truth that He became man to reveal, that is, to sow in our minds.
Live the Truth
Live the truth. Finding the truth and even preserving it by prayerful reading, study and reflection are not enough. We are also to practice the truth. Achieving peace is a state of spiritual perfection in which every Christian believer should grow and with God's grace improve as he goes through life.
We must, therefore, live the truth we believe if we are to expect to acquire the kind of peace that God has in store for those who believe in His name. The whole thing is beautifully outlined by Jesus in His sermon at the Last Supper. He tells us, "If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love. I have told you this that my joy may be in you and your joy be complete." What is Christ telling us? He is telling us not only to believe what He reveals, but to do it. Not only to assent with our minds, but practice it in our lives. Let us make sure we know what He means. What He means is that the truths of revelation are mysteries indeed that are to be accepted on faith and believed in without fully being understood. But they are not mental puzzles, or riddles, as it were. They are demands on our will. That is why Christ calls them "commandments."
We seldom identify two words mystery and commandment but notice what follows. Provided we submit our wills to divine truth and act on what we believe, something wonderful happens in our lives we attain not only peace of soul, but spiritual joy as our reward already in this life and long before eternity. This joy, the kind that Christ calls "my joy," He shares with no one except the person who lives out the truth that He, Incarnate Truth, had revealed. The degree of this joy and its depth are in proportion to our generosity in doing what we think, that is, in being what we subscribe to on faith. No wonder the saints were such happy persons whose assimilation to Christ crucified was ironically so great. They learned what all of us should know: that we have fully achieved peace of mind, which is deep interior joy, when we behave as we believe. This means that we have come to share in the cross of Jesus Christ.
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