The past few days, weeks, and months have seen these United States, the World at large, and the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox Churches) passing through an extraordinary share of wars, rumours of wars, acts of terrorism and mayhem, and general nastiness above the usual range of such annoyances. Against this unpleasant backdrop, individuals are living lives with their usual rounds of death, sickness, economic difficulties, and sundry heartburn-inducing inconveniences. How, amidst all of this, are we to find at least personal peace?
It is a hard question. Well do I remember an elderly gentleman asking me at Pasadena’s late lamented Miyako Japanese restaurant on New Year’s Eve 1999/2000, “What can we hope for from this new year, new decade, new century, and new millennium?” I was a little puzzled at why a nonagenarian I had never met before should ask me this question, but I responded, “um…ah…more of the same, only worse?” Disappointed in my answer, he then queried, “but can’t we at east hope for peace?” Still wondering at the situation, I replied, “Sure! Hope for whatever you like!” Not very satisfying, I’ll admit, but all I could think of – and, alas, time has proved me correct.
But certain things have made themselves clear to me since that night. One is that unless one is in the middle of actual fighting (in which case everyone sane yearns for it) peace is an older person’s concern. When one is young (unless suffering from ill health or horrific upbringing), one is not interested in peace, but in excitement, discovery, and advancement – of and in life and the world. It is only when there are more yesterdays than to-morrows that one really begins to ponder all the nonsense one has endured – and to entertain a hope that that nonsense might abate to some degree!
That having been said, however, the question remains – what is this peace that we seek? It is not merely a lack of conflict. Were that the case, it would be an impossible quest, for in this fallen world of sin and shadow, conflict waits around every corner – as unavoidable as an unwitting slight or an interior struggle over sin. According to UNESCO, “As defined by the United Nations, the Culture of Peace is a set of values, attitudes, modes of behaviour and ways of life that reject violence and prevent conflicts by tackling their root causes to solve problems through dialogue and negotiation among individuals, groups and nations.” Nice, I suppose, but the UN has yet to achieve it, and I am a tad skeptical about their chances of success. According to Benedict XVI, “…peace is not the mere absence of war, or the result of man’s actions to avoid conflict; it is, above all, a gift of God which must be implored with faith, and which has the way to its fulfillment in Jesus. True peace must be constructed day after day with compassion, solidarity, fraternity, and collaboration on everyone’s part.” This seems a bit more realistic.
The Pope was echoing the teachings of his predecessor, Pius XI, in his great encyclicals, Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio, and Quas primas. As Pius wrote in the latter document, “Oh, what happiness would be Ours if all men, individuals, families, and nations, would but let themselves be governed by Christ! ‘Then at length,’ to use the words addressed by our predecessor, Pope Leo XIII, twenty-five years ago to the bishops of the Universal Church, ‘then at length will many evils be cured; then will the law regain its former authority; peace with all its blessings be restored. Men will sheathe their swords and lay down their arms when all freely acknowledge and obey the authority of Christ, and every tongue confesses that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father.’”
All of which sounds quite nice, indeed. But we must leave the rulers of nations to be governed by Christ or not, as they will. Our purview lies within ourselves as families and especially as individuals – and it is that venue to which I’ll draw your attention. In a practical sense, how do we make Christ our King and so receive His peace? To start with (and this shall seem too obvious to many – but bear with me), if possible, daily Mass and weekly Confession. The Sacraments are our direct, real, and actual contact with the God whose company we seek for all eternity. They are objective and true, where all else about is dependent upon the moods of ourselves and others.
But our own subjective religious state is important, and we cannot be at Mass or in the Confessional constantly. So prayer and devotions are important. Eucharistic Adoration, the Rosary, and the Stations of the Cross bring us over and over again to the lives of Our Lord and Our Lady, and the more we pray before the Blessed Sacrament, recite the Mysteries and make the Stations, the more they become part of us. So too, prayers and devotions at home, in the car, or elsewhere in honour of the Kingship of Christ and Queenship of Mary, the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts, the Precious Blood, one or more favourite Saints, and the Holy Souls in Purgatory, shall – gradually and over time – instill in us that “peace which passeth understanding,” because they link us to what is real and eternal.
Other than prayer, personal peace requires the cultivation of a particular emotion: Gratitude. If we are grateful to God for our parents and ancestors, for the lands that produced us and the one in which we were born, for our families and friends, for our pleasures and pursuits, our talents and treasures – in sum, for all the joys in our lives – in time that gratitude shall outweigh the sorrows and losses that agitate us. If we do not, we shall be overcome by them. Gratitude allows us to have joy in the blessings we have been given, and reduces the pains we all encounter.
One of the distressing things about life is necessarily its fleeting nature, which one becomes ever more aware of as he sees the elderly die off, the middle-ages take their places as seniors, and the young beget families, and the newborn rapidly become adults. Celebration and enjoyment of the Liturgical Year and, to a lesser extent, the civil holidays are all important in making the passage of time a source of joy rather than grief. Make each Christmas and Easter, Halloween and Thanksgiving, birthday and graduation as pleasant as you possibly can, and you shall look forward with anticipation rather than apprehension to the next holiday – and this holiday next year.
Study history carefully. You shall soon realise that past generations (at different times0 have had it worse than us, and yet persevered and left their descendants. Still other generations had better times, apparently, and so give us something to try to live up to. Genealogy makes it all more personal by making specific what your forbears went through in order for you to appear on the World’s stage – and perhaps inspire you to give an example the next generation, or the one following, or others remoter still may wish to follow. Seek out your local museums, historic house, and historical societies to learn what made the place in which you dwell, however far removed from your place of birth it may be – its story is now part of yours.
Literature and poetry too can play their part in strengthening you for the daily fray while keeping peace in your soul. Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Longfellow and hundreds more in a thousand ways can shed light on reality through their fictions – some of them dark, and some light. So too with music, and especially folk music and ballads – whatever is occurring in the outer world, they shed light on the eternal moods and struggles of Mankind, and in so doing, tame them.
Another way to instill peace is oneself is the contemplation of the beautiful natural world in which God has placed us, be it wilderness or the most formal of gardens. That nature can come into our homes and hearts as well, be it through pets, gardening, or cuisine – the enjoyment of the latter of which can sustain us through many trials. As Brillat-Savarin noted, “The pleasures of the table belong to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries and to every day; they can be associated with all the other pleasures and remain the last to console us for the loss of the rest.” Moreover, in his Physiology of Taste, that great philosopher of food pointed out that Fast is as necessary as Feast to truly enjoy cuisine.
Nor ought we to sell short the usefulness of nostalgia in proper season. Whatever ills beset you now, there were pleasanter times you knew once. Whatever recaptures them for the moment can well give you temporary relief from the unpleasantries of to-day. “Old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read” is in itself an old saying, and a true one. With the miracle of the internet, you can listen to the music or watch the TV that once entertained you, and bring back for a short time those days that pleased you. Does your nostalgia extend back before your birth? Well, go to a military reenactment, an Art Deco Society outing, a Renaissance Faire, an Open-Air Museum, or a Society for Creative Anachronism battle – whatever period you please. These may well bear little resemblance to the reality they attempt to depict; but then, so often the same is true of the past we do remember. Never mind: the point of it all is to lighten the Present.
The point in all of this is no more to escape our surroundings than a retreat is (although, as Tolkien observed, “it is easy to debunk escapism – but notice that the ones who do so are generally the gaolers!”). Rather, in the midst of all that sweeps around us in the external world, and attempts to carry us off in despair at the seeming impossibility of Good triumphing, all of these things serve to remind us that the things that worry us so are as passing and impermanent as the life whose eventual loss is used by the world, the flesh, and the devil to make us cowards. Reagan’s motto of “Peace through Strength” is quite as true of our interior lives as ever it was of a bygone political situation. St. Paul makes this clear in Ephesians: “Put you on the armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places. Therefore take unto you the armour of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and to stand in all things perfect. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of justice, And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace: In all things taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one. And take unto you the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit (which is the word of God).” Apart from, and in addition to these, God has given each of us whole arsenals of weapons to defend our own peace and carry the war to the enemy, if we shall just explore our own lives in a spirit of obedience to His Will, and gratitude for all that He has bestowed upon us.
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