How do we get through moments of turmoil and fear, while still maintaining confidence and surrender?
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In a stressful and violent world, where can we find peace? It is a desperate quest of the modern person: we cannot help but desire peace with all our soul, but we no longer believe in it. What is peace, though? The great Blaise Pascal was skeptical: “There is no peace here,” he wrote. St. Augustine wasn’t much more optimistic: “We are torn here below between the carnality that pulls us down and God who draws us up; body and soul will only be fully reconciled in heaven. So, is peace on earth impossible?”
St. Thomas Aquinas advises us to begin by getting ourselves and our relationships with others in order through exercising the virtues: strength, temperance, justice, prudence. But what a struggle! And yet, hasn’t peace now become a vital imperative? Not only for our own personal well-being, but for the world at large? After having spent a thousand days and nights on a rocky cliff in prayer, St. Seraphim of Sarov said: “Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find salvation.” Peace begins with oneself.
For the Christian, peace is not hidden in a long, quiet flow of a life with no ups and downs. Nor is it to be confused with the satisfaction of a spoiled child, an immediate psychological well-being, or reduced to a social order that provides effective safety. It cannot be acquired by relaxation techniques nor by some physical effort. “There is a false peace that is a lie, a blind spot in ourselves where, more or less consciously, we take shelter in a sealed off and comfortable, egotistical escape,” warns Carthusian monk Friar Aloïs, prior of Taizé. “On the contrary, we are talking about a kind of peace in the midst of suffering and struggle.” Unperturbed peace is, according to St. Seraphim of Sarov, the specific sign that the Holy Spirit is present. “With all our strength, we should strive to keep our peace of soul and not become indignant when others offend us,” he encourages. “We should abstain from all anger and protect our intelligence and heart from all offenses.”
It is in the concrete and sometimes painful reality of daily life, with its unexpected events and surprises, that we can try to maintain “our soul in peace before Our Lord,” as Father Francis Libermann (1802-1852), a converted Jew and founder of the Fathers of the Holy Spirit, expresses. It is a question of simplifying our lives around one single desire: to seek God’s will in everything and to trust Him fully. And then radiating out this peace because, in this respect, it is like violence: it spreads, saturates and feeds on those who embrace it. Here are 10 keys to achieving this peace of heart.
1Do not despair
“If we look at ourselves with even the slightest objectivity, we can only see our deficiencies, obsessions, and inconsistencies,” says Franciscan Éloi Leclerc, author of Wisdom of the poor one of Assisi. To find peace, we must see God and see ourselves only in God. “In recognizing our extreme misery and sinfulness we can then come to understand our essential need to have constant recourse to God’s mercy,” says Father Francis Libermann.
We need recourse to this God who is so generous in His mercy, His “commiseration” with our misery, our suffering. And deep within “the mountain of our miseries,” the hidden treasure of our inner being, modeled on the image of God, is there to be discovered. We must learn to love ourselves with God’s eyes, that are infinitely better—not fretting about our failures, not worrying about our misery or our apparent feebleness. “The awareness of our lack of ability and our emptiness should be a source of peace for us,” says Father Libermann. That is why God sent us his son Jesus, not to judge us, but to save us and give us back our lives. By purifying our heart, God makes us fit to do even greater works, full of love because his spirit, which makes us free, can at last operate in us. So let us not despair! It is the work of a lifetime.
2Ask for the grace of trust
“The reasons why we fall away from peace are always bad reasons,” explains Father Jacques Philippe, author of Searching for and maintaining peace: a small treatise on peace of heart. “The soul will find its strength, its richness and its full perfection in the Spirit of Our Lord, whenever it wishes to surrender itself to His guidance,” wrote Father Libermann. “But in disobeying it, and wanting to act on its own, it finds only the deepest anguish, misery and helplessness.”
According to Father Jacques Philippe, a lack of peace comes from a lack of trust in God. Thecondition for it is “good will” or “purity of heart”: the stable and constant disposition of the person determined to love God above all else and to trust him even for the smallest things. “We must not be afraid of Him,” insisted Father Libermann. “This is a great offense, because He is good, sweet, kind and full of tenderness and mercy for us. One of the enemies of peace is environmental pessimism, tinged with cynicism, that we are saturated with every day. In fact, “pessimism seeps in deeply, destroys the desire to act for others, extinguishes even the restlessness of intelligence, and generates discouragement,” points out Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio.
3Make priorities a priority
In a culture of channel surfing and immediate gratification, whatever is happening at the moment (or is about to happen) tends to invade our field of consciousness. Don’t we tend to privilege “the most urgent” in our lives to the detriment of “the most important”? We all have overloaded schedules and saturated agendas, but the question arises: overloaded and saturated with what? There is no lack of priorities: personal, family, professional, friends, social or even community.
A common mistake is to favor only one, whether out of passion or degree of urgency, to the detriment of the others. For example, dedicating time to one child only when he or she is failing at school. We should periodically review our priorities and put things in order as we would a closet. Think about the advice Jesus gives to Martha, who gets irritated and “grumbles” because her sister Mary sits and listens to the word of the son of God: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:41-42).
4Make the option for the poor a priority
It is by having a clear conscience and a sense of peace that we become men and women of peace. A certain selfish satisfaction can give us that illusion. In one of his Lenten lectures, St. Thomas Aquinas shows that only charity can bring about perfect peace. Indeed, he says, “It happens that often one desires temporal things; but already possessing them, even then the spirit of the one who desires them does not rest; on the contrary, possessing one thing, he desires another. ‘But the heart of the wicked is like a stormy sea that cannot be stilled’ (Isaiah 57:20).”
How can we remain in peace today while more and more men and women are forced into the misery we are often unaware of because we do not know how to share? These realities cannot be ignored; it would be too easy, as the prophet Jeremiah affirms: “They offer superficial treatments for my people’s mortal wound. They give assurances of peace when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). “If you seek peace, go and meet the poor,” advised St. John Paul II, convinced that the extreme misery of the human masses engenders the explosive situations of our time. It is not so much a question of blaming oneself as of allowing oneself to be questioned. And if the cry of the poor were that of Christ? When one is rich, one does not like to talk about poverty. And it is better to recognize at the outset that most of us are “rich”. There is a great temptation to withdraw into our “little paradises,” especially when we feel overwhelmed and helpless. The Gospel always instigates us to find new ways. The image of the poor is only the mirror of the poverty of our heart. The only response to poverty is more love.
5Don’t lose sight of your life’s goal
“Whoever has a why to live can endure almost any how,” said Nietzsche. The Viennese psychiatrist Victor Frankl made the same observation in the hell of the concentration camps: those who got through had at least one thing to hope for. Basic well-being is first of the primordial needs that give meaning to our lives. And the higher the goal, the more meaning our life has and the more our being is realized and developed in the gift. When Mother Teresa cared for the poor, she cared for Christ himself. To do what we are supposed to do is good; to do it out of love is better, infinitely better! Especially when we try to weigh each decision in the light of God’s will and live according to “the option God would prioritize.”
6Forgive those who offend us
Arguments, disagreements, crises … make us all suffer. Sometimes they can lead to serious breakdowns. Sometimes we can feel painfully affected to the point of keeping a grudge and a persistent feeling of bitterness in a corner of our heart for a long time. Resentment and hatred are fearsome poisons. Forgiveness is the only effective antidote for getting back on the path of serenity. It is often a heroic act, the fruit of a long process. Indeed, depending on the seriousness, the effects, the perpetrators and the circumstances of the offense, the path that leads to forgiveness may require time. This is normal, since forgiveness means loving the enemy (indeed, we can be our own worst enemy). It is like a line on the horizon to be reached. “If, therefore, when you present your gift at the altar, you remember that your brother has a complaint against you, leave your gift at the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother, and only then present your gift again” (Matthew 5:23-24).
7Don’t let yourself be ruled by fear
According to Andrea Riccardi, fear is a disease of our time “that we dress up to look more honorable.” We are afraid of not having enough, afraid of losing what we have or not being able to get more. We fear the future, we fear death, and we fear suffering. We are afraid of not being good enough. We are afraid of what others will think of us. Our fears affect all the areas of our lives and often paralyze us.
Moreover, fear leads to sin (suffice it to reread the book of Genesis). We have reason to be afraid because we will never be 100% sure of anything. Living in peace means stopping the steam engine of our imagination that pulls the wagons of our worries at great speed. “Don’t be afraid!” They say that this command appears three hundred and sixty-five times in the Bible. That is, once a day. This was the first word that St. John Paul II threw into our troubled times. “Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? (Matthew 6:27) How can we preserve our inner peace? By placing our past in God’s mercy (through forgiveness) and the future in Providence (through surrender). And by living only for today. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34).
8Surrender unconditionally to God
Hardships, trials and tribulations are inevitable. Reality does not always conform to our “holy” will. Trusting in God helps us to humbly accept events, to face them for better or worse, to see in them paths to holiness and peace. Father Jacques Philippe, taking up the words of St. Paul, describes Christian life as a spiritual combat (Ephesians 6:10-17). We need to put on the armor of God: faith, the Word of God, prayer, the sacraments. “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me,” says the Apostle, who transmits to us the divine promise: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power triumphs over weakness.”
The important thing, says St. Francis de Sales, is not “to keep our heart in peace, but to work for it.” It is a path that has to be laid out anew every day: don’t get discouraged; start by taking small steps and try to keep going; persevere in prayer to put yourself constantly under Jesus’ gaze. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
9Leave aside the spirit of rivalry and comparison
Comparison is one of the worst poisons for peace of heart. Being the most beautiful, the strongest, the most powerful, is always done to the detriment of others. The culture of“who’s boss” is malicious and pernicious. The spirit of rivalry arouses “warlike” feelings: envy, jealousy and pride that ultimately end up in sadness. The critical spirit also comes from the same conviction that “we are the champions”: we judge others by what we are, what we possess, what we experience. Contrary to common thought, there is no need to be in competition to develop our talents and good qualities. To love is to wish the other well, without necessarily playing the role of victim or – even worse – that ofcondescending “charitable soul.” Love is not one-way! We must also be willing to receive it. And whoever wants to be a “champion” should put himself in the shoes of the one who loses!
10Learn to live in the moment, in the here and now
“You don’t need to change your place, but rather your mind,” said the wise Seneca. Peace is not hidden on a desert island or at a monastery. A simple key to acquiring this serenity that predisposes us to peace is to welcome life at every moment that passes as a gift from God: the colors of autumn, snow, the first blossoms of spring, a child playing by our side, a good meal with friends, a visit to an unknown region, and so on. Welcoming them and marveling at them.
A simple joy is sometimes hidden in the conscious savoring of the “little” joys of everyday life, as described so well by writer Philippe Delherm. It is not surprising that Dr. Vittoz (the great Swiss therapist famous for his method of re-education) stresses the importance of receiving the outside world through our senses and being aware of the present moment for psychic balance. Fascination leads to praise and worship. Because through that fascination with creation we find the signature of the Creator. And we become like a child, filled with trust in this tender God.
“Be docile and flexible in God’s hands,” recommends Father Libermann. “You already know what it takes: to be at peace and completely calm; not disturbed and not upset about anything; to forget the past; to live as if the future did not exist; to live for Jesus in the present moment, that is, to live as if you did not have a life of your own, but to let Jesus live as He sees fit.”
Loïc Joncheray and Luc Adrian
How to stay peaceful in an upside down world