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Peace of Soul
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
In the spirit of the angels song on Christmas morning, promising peace to all who are of good will and on whom Gods favor rests, I thought we should say something about peace of soul. There are some blessings of human existence that people think about and talk about more than others. There are few things about which more is said and written, for which more effort is made and more prayers are offered, than peace.
This is not surprising given the facts of modern history and modern life. By whatever norm times are measured, the twentieth century is the most warlike period in the memory of man. Two world wars, involving forty nations and nine million killed and wounded in the First World War, involving eighty nations and a staggering figure of thirty million killed alone in the Second World War, has made peace among men the hope and the dream of the whole world. It was in the interests of this peace that Pope Paul VI spoke at the United Nationsthe first time in history that a Pope visited the United Statespleading with the leaders of countries, In Gods Name, let there be no more war.
On the personal level of each individual soul, the spectacle is not much different. Ours is the wealthiest society in the world. We have, by the worlds standards; all that human genius could devise to make mans life on earth a happy one: we live the longest; we have the most labor and timesaving devices; we have more forms of entertainment. And the money that other countries could support themselves on, we spend on other thingswe spend more money on cosmetics than some other large nations spend on their annual budget to support millions of their people.
Yet with all this material prosperity, we have the highest ratio of emotional disturbances. Between sixty and seventy million Americans manage some kind of peace of mind only through the use of tranquilizers. We have more people in mental institutions and more broken families, not only than any other country, but more than has ever been known in the history of man. No wonder, then, that everyone is talking about, and we are constantly urged to pray for, peace. God knows, we know, we need peace.
What is peace? Peace may be simply defined as harmony. When there is harmony between two people, we say they are at peacecall this social peace. When there is harmony between nations, we say they are at peacecall this international peace. When there is harmony between God and man, we say the person is at peacecall this religious peace. Our concern here is not with social peace nor with international peace but with the peace that exists or should exist between God and man, religious peace.
We might pause for just a moment, without dwelling on the subject, to mention that without religious peace there can be no peace between people or, for that matter, between nations. Those who are at peace with God will also be at peace with others. And here there is no escaping this divine law of peace. All disharmony between people is due to their disharmony with God. We are only as peaceable as we are peaceful. People get along with us and others and we get along with them only in the degree to which we and they are in agreement with God.
We want, then, to know something about this religious peace. I have coined the word religious, because in the language of all nations the word religious always has to do with God. Morality, the social life, have to do with people; what is religious has to do with God, and that is the kind of peace that we are talking about.
What does it mean to be at peace with God, to be at harmony with Him and, as a consequence, enjoy His peace? Peace we experience; harmony is what we have to do or achieve to get the experience. To be at peace with God means to do the Will of God. We are touching on a profound mystery, a mystery that we cannot fully explain; but we have to admit that our wills are not necessarily in agreement with the Will of God. Unlike the rest of creation that has no freedom, we who are free can be freely at variance with God.
We have desires and impulses that follow their own logic and that seek their own satisfaction, often, as we know, at variance with the Will of God. We desire to be healthy and strong, but we are ill or unhealthy and weak, and it is clearly Gods Will that we be ill or incapacitated. We desire to be accepted by other, to be respected by them, in fact, by everyone who enters our lives; yet, obviously, we are not getting the acceptance we desire or the respect we long for. So what do we do, make our lives miserable?
We desire to have our ideas or ways of doing things followed. We want people to listen to us when we speak. One of the hardest things to take is to have someone fall asleep while we are talkinghow well I know! Objections we would not mind, even strong, violent reactions, disagreementbut not sleep! We want people to be interested in what interests us, to show by their words and actions that we mean something in their lives.
But we have learned that we are often disappointed and as a result discouraged, because what we want it appears God does not always also want. Above all, we want to be loved by others, to be well-thought-of by them, to be well-spoken-of by them. Our heart is hungry for human affection and is thirsty for human kindness. Yet how often and in how many ways these deep felt desires are not satisfied. Not satisfied! Sometimes they are cruelly denied.
If we are to be at peace, as faith and reason itself tell us we have a right to expect, we must come to terms with these desires of ours. We must tell our desires in effect, Look here. I know what you want and I appreciate your urging me to get it. But if I am to be at peace, before I give in to what you are telling me to get because I like it, or to get rid of because I dislike it, I must first find out if this is the Will of the Lord. In a word, we must tell our desires to wait until we consult God. If God wants us to have something, then, after having consulted Him, we will seek it. If He wants us to dispose of something, after having consulted Him, we will be rid of it. Otherwiseand what a sad otherwisewe may get what we want or be rid of what we do not want, but we will not be at peace. And here no creature has a choice. Who has ever resisted your Will, O Lord, and been at peace? Asks the inspired writer. And he does not have to give us an answer to his own question, because we all know the answerNo one.
The promise of Christ. Christ our Lord promised us His peace. He told us not to be troubled nor to be afraid. This is a command! We are forbidden to be worried or anxious. It is a divine prohibition; we are commanded to be at peace, and by now we know a thousand reasons to be the contrary. You explain this onethere is some mysterious center in the human will whereby man will actually want what even though he knows perfectly well he will not be at peace.
But as the Savior was quick to point out, having forbidden us to worry or be troubled, having ordered us to be at peace, He then qualified: Not as the world gives do I give you my peace. What did He mean? He meant that we are to be at peacehave deep interior serenity, profound tranquility of soulbut on Gods terms; to have such peace as God wants His followers to enjoy in this life as a foretaste of the blessed peace of eternity. To attain this peace of soul and merit its possession we must be ready to accept whatever God wants in our lives.
And here I add an important observation. When Christ distinguished His peace from the worlds peace, He meant not only that we do not seek our own will, but that we do not even seek what the world around us tells us we should look for. And by now millions have been so brainwashed with desires and urges, positive needs, craving hungers, that what they must resist is not only what they want but what the mad world around them is telling them to desire and promising happiness if those desires are satisfied. In other words, it is also that we have learned to close our ears to the siren voice of the world around; otherwise, we are going to be drugged into wanting things that we shall never be satisfied with even if we get them.
We must, then, be ready to accept whatever God wants in our lives, not what we want, not what the world wants. And secondly, we must be ready to sacrifice whatever God wants us to give up in our lives. On no other conditions shall we enjoy His peace. As we know from the lives of the saints, this peace surpasses all understanding.
It is perhaps remarkable how often in the Eucharistic Liturgy we pray for peace, and the priest at the altar asks God to give His people peace. These prayers are meant to be answered. They will be, full measure and flowing over, provided we do our part and resign ourselves once and for all to accept the Will of God no matter how demanding on our wills. This single, total self-surrender is the surest way to peace. All you really have to do is to make the self-surrender total once. But make it, holding nothing back. The price may seem to be high, but it is worth it. After all, that is why God came into the world. As the heavenly hosts sang on the day of His birth, God came into the world to bring us peace. It is ours if only we are humble and wise enough to pay the cost. The cost is surrendering our wills to the Will of God.
Transcription of the Homily
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