Peace is not merely the absence of war…
Peace is “the tranquillity of order.”
—Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2304
EVEN now, even as time spins faster and faster and the pace of life demands more; even now as tensions between spouses and families increase; even now as cordial dialogue between individuals disintegrates and nations careen toward war… even now we can find true peace.
But we must first understand what “true peace” is. French theologian, Fr. Léonce de Grandmaison (d. 1927), put it quite beautifully:
The peace that the world offers us consists in the absence of physical suffering and in pleasures of various sorts. The peace that Jesus promises and gives to his friends is of another stamp. It consists not in an absence of suffering and anxiety but in the absence of interior discord, in the oneness of our spirit in relation to God, to ourselves, and to others. —We and the Holy Spirit: Talks to Laymen, The Spiritual Writings of Léonce de Grandmaison (Fides Publishers); cf. Magnificat, January 2018, p. 293
It is interior disorder that robs the soul of true peace. And this disorder is the fruit of an unchecked will and uncontrolled appetites. This is why the wealthiest nations on earth have the most unhappy and restless inhabitants: many have everything, but yet, have nothing. True peace is not measured in what you possess, but in what possesses you.
Neither is it a matter of simply not having things. For as St. John of the Cross explains, “this lack will not divest the soul if it [still] craves for all these objects.” Rather, it is a matter of the denudation or stripping of the soul’s appetites and those gratifications that leave it insatiated and even more restless.
Since the things of the world cannot enter the soul, they are not in themselves an encumbrance or harm to it; rather, it is the will and appetite dwelling within that cause the damage when set on these things. —The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book One, Chapter 4, n. 4; The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, p. 123; Tranlated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Redriguez
But if one has these things, what then? The question, rather, is why do you have them in the first place? Do you drink several cups of coffee every day to wake up, or to comfort yourself? Do you eat to live, or live to eat? Do you make love to your spouse in a way that fosters communion or that merely takes gratification? God does not damn that which He has created nor does He condemn pleasure. What God has forbidden in the form of a commandment is turning pleasure or creatures into a god, into a little idol.
You shall not have other gods beside me. You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them. (Exodus 20:3-4)
The Lord who created us out of love knows that He alone is the fulfillment of all desire. Everything He made is, at best, just a reflection of His goodness that points back to the Source. So to crave an object or another creature is to miss the goal and to become a slave to them.
For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. (Gal 5:1)
It is our appetites, and the restlessness they produce, that steal away true peace.
…freedom cannot abide in a heart dominated by desires, in a slave’s heart. It abides in a liberated heart, in a child’s heart. —St. John of the Cross, Ibid. n.6, p. 126
If you truly want (and who doesn’t?) that “peace which surpasses all understanding,” it is necessary to smash these idols, to make them subservient to your will—not the other way around. This is what Jesus means when He says:
…whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:33)
Jesus is demanding, because He wishes our genuine happiness. —POPE JOHN PAUL II, World Youth Day Message for 2005, Vatican City, Aug. 27th, 2004, Zenit.org
To enter into this self-denial is like a “dark night”, says John of the Cross, because one is depriving the senses of the “light” of touch, taste, seeing, etc. “Self-will”, wrote Servant of God Catherine Doherty, “is the obstacle that eternally stands between me and God.” Poustinia, p. 142 So, to deny oneself is like entering into a night where it is no longer the senses that lead one by the nose, but now, one’s faith in God’s Word. In this “night of faith”, the soul is having to adopt a childlike trust that God will be its true contentment—even as the flesh cries out otherwise. But in exchange for the sensible light of creatures, one is preparing the heart for the insensible Light of Christ, who is our true rest and peace.
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. (Matt 11:28-30)
At first, this seems really impossible. “I like my wine! I like my food! I like my cigarettes! I like my sex! I like my movies!….” We protest because we are afraid—like the rich man who went away from Jesus sad because he was afraid to lose his possessions. But Catherine writes that just the opposite is true of the one who renounces his disordered appetites:
Where there is kenosis [self-emptying] there is no fear. —Servant of God Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Poustinia, p. 143
There is no fear because the soul is no longer letting its appetites reduce it to a miserable slave. Suddenly, it feels a dignity that it never had before because the soul is shedding the false self and all the lies that it incarnated. In place of fear is, instead, love—if only the first seeds of authentic love. For in truth, is not the constant craving for pleasure, if not uncontrollable craving, the real source of our unhappiness?
Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? (James 4:1)
We are never satisfied by our cravings precisely because that which is material can never satisfy that which is spiritual. Rather, “My food,” Jesus said, “is to do the will of the one who sent me.” John 4:34 To become a “slave” of Christ, to take the yoke of obedience to His Word, is to embark on the path of true freedom.
Any other burden oppresses and crushes you, but Christ’s actually takes weight off you. Any other burden weighs down, but Christ’s give you wings. If you take a bird’s wings away, you might seem to be taking weight off it, but the more weight you take off, the more you tied it down to the earth. There it is on the ground, and you wanted to relieve it of a weight; give it back the weight of its wings and you will see how it flies. —St. Augustine, Sermons, n. 126
When Jesus asks you to “pick up your cross”, to “love one another”, to “renounce all”, it seems that He is placing a burden on you that would rob you of pleasure. But it is precisely in obedience to him that “you will find rest for yourselves.”
That you will find true peace.
All you who go about tormented, afflicted, and weighed down by your cares and appetites, depart from them, come to me and I will refresh you; and you will find the rest for your souls that the desires take away from you. —St. John of the Cross, Ibid. Ch. 7, n.4, p. 134
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