“People are looking for a little peace of mind.” A young man who came to talk to me years ago said this about himself and others. I have always remembered what he said.
St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) writes in his “Introduction to the Devout Life” about peace of heart: “We should tend to our worldly concerns with care and diligence, but not with solicitude, worry or anxiety. ... Undertake all your duties with a calm mind.”
Francis de Sales did not live in a peaceful time. The Reformation was on his doorstep in Calvinist Geneva. French Catholics differed strongly among themselves about how to respond to the Reformation. The dominant Militant Catholicism spoke of war on the Huguenots in addition to the war on sin in oneself.
De Sales’ more moderate view called for respect for Protestants and the need to convince them. He was quite successful in returning thousands of Huguenots to Catholicism by his persuasive writing and speaking. Then as now, such a gentle, peace-filled approach drew significant criticism, even though the approach was successful.
Similarly, our present environment calls for a deeper peace amid internal and external conflicts. The crisis in the contemporary Church calls not only for inner peace but for humility. And humbly giving our lives over to God more fully can lead to deeper inner tranquility.
There are certain devout Christians who radiate such a peace. It is unmistakable when you encounter them. When I am with them, it seems to transfer to me. It remains for a while. Occasionally I have prayed for and received such peace.
But, how can we foster it more intentionally in ourselves and, by extension, spread it into the world around us?
Growing in love
For Francis de Sales, all the virtues are manifestations of the central virtue of love. In his “Treatise on the Love of God,” he mentions four stages of loving. The first two are of particular interest here.
The first stage is that of conversion or deeper conversion to Christ. We not only give up sins, but we turn to doing the good, however imperfectly. We begin to love the good. Love is starting to cast out our fears. We begin to work our way through our humiliations, our denials, and the blind spots pointed out by others. As Francis de Sales might say, we are coming to accept our “abjections.” In weakness we find our strength. This strength is in becoming more like Jesus, who humbled himself unto death on a cross.
The second stage is one of attaining balance in loving the good. Here we realize that we may love some good things such as success, possessions, recognition and security too much. On the other hand, we may love other goods such as spiritual friendship, service to the poor, discernment, gentleness toward others and times of prayer too little. For example, at this stage of our spiritual journey we might choose to love a simpler life and give some of our possessions to the poor.
As we move toward balance in our lives, our inner peace becomes more manifest and can move outside of ourselves.
|Bringing our lives to prayer
Peace of heart arises out of our life of prayer. The tranquility that we seek is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Prayer is sometimes formalized, but at other times prayer is the personal dialogue we have with God.
God often speaks to us in our hearts, through the Scriptures, and through the words or example of others. I think it is wise to take some time each evening to notice how God was speaking to us that day.
How do we speak to God? Certainly, we offer prayers of petition or of praise. We offer words of thanks and gratitude. We review good things we have done or that have happened to us.
Less frequently I bring to this dialogue with Jesus my sins and offenses, especially those that are particularly embarrassing or humiliating. Some of these are subjects of sacramental confession, but I rarely spend time in prayer exploring them. My tendency and that of some people I know is that if we bring “negative things” up at all we want to get them over with quickly.
Yet we know from reading the Old Testament that with the prophets it was prayer with “no holds barred.” They brought up their anger with God and their infidelities as well as the good. They dialogued deeply with God about everything.
One of the keys to peace of heart is to bring everything into prayer. Everything!
Inner peace manifests itself in our communal living. In today’s world peace-building — rooted deeply in prayer — is necessary. Christians are seeking to build peace in war-torn parts of the world. In recent decades we have realized that peace-building requires ongoing effort rather than interventions when conflict is imminent.
Closer to home, we see that conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the United States have largely given way to efforts at mutual collaboration in building peaceful communities and in helping the needy. Much can be learned from the dialogues and collaborations that are taking place.
Today peace-building is needed internally within the Catholic Church. A daily Mass-going friend shared with me that years ago she advised her children that, when in difficulty, they could always turn to the Catholic Church. She says now, given what has been revealed in recent years, she could never give this advice to her grandchildren.
The image of the deacon, priest or bishop who could be of help in difficult times has given way to a certain reticence or even fear of the clergy. The positive narrative of the Church as a refuge for immigrants earned through generations of service has given way — significantly if not totally — to the narrative of a clergy governed by our own needs.
Learning from others
The example of the ecumenical movement shows that even centuries-long conflicts can be ameliorated or overcome over time. Since the beginning of the movement in 1910, much has been accomplished.
An initial lesson learned in this process is that progress is slow and thus patience and persistence are important. There are no quick fixes.
A second lesson is the importance of dialogue. Honest dialogue built on mutual respect with a commitment to listen with head and heart and try to love and understand one another is crucial. Mutual respect and sustained effort can lead to common understandings. Once some common understanding of the past and the present is achieved there is the possibility of the “healing of memories.”
For example, after years of effort, Lutherans and Catholics have reconciled with the Mennonites in very moving international ceremonies. The Mennonites had carried the wounds of persecution and killings by Catholics and Lutherans from the time of the Reformation to the present.
Honesty about what happened in the past enables all of us to move into the future. A new narrative has begun to emerge, and a common ecumenical future in peace-building lies ahead. These lessons from the ecumenical movement point to the possibilities of peace-building in the Church and in the world. The inner peace we seek is a gift that can heal our communities and our countries.
Father John Crossin is an oblate of Saint Francis de Sales. He writes from the Washington, D.C., area.