"Been in the storm so long Children…." On the need to cultivate serenity in the midst of a culture war
There is little doubt that the that a kind of cultural war is being waged on many different fronts: abortion, euthanasia, the family, marriage, rampant divorce, cohabitation & fornication, homosexual activity, gay “marriage,” militant secularism and atheism, religious liberty, and so on.
While some may not like the image of war, the conflicts are so deep and intense, the tensions so live and the sides so clearly marked that we can little avoid the term.
In the midst of such a war however, we Christians and cultural warriors can too easily acquire an acerbic, hostile and cynical attitude, even with each other. We become too argumentative, debating every point, even when it is not necessary, and reasonable people may differ. Too easily we can insist on narrowly defining terms and priorities, and we become unnecessarily cynical if others embrace a broader (though still Catholic) set of concerns.
In some sense, many of us have “been in the storm so long children…..” that we ourselves become stormy and develop a kind of trigger finger, even among friends.
The Internet, with it is virtual (though impersonal) relationships does not help. Frankly it is just a lot easier to be nasty to people we have not personally met. Further we cannot always appreciate tones of voice, and other nuances in the written word, as well as we do in more personal interactions. Too easily we loose venom on the faceless people in the combox, with whom we might enjoy friendlier relations in a more personal setting.
In the fog of war, cultural war, we need to cultivate the serenity and joy that comes from knowing the Lord, rejoicing in the beauty of truth, and remembering that, though the battle is sometimes fierce, the final victory of the Lord and his Body, the Church, is assured, indeed, already won.
The paradox of winning this war, is discovering inner peace. Merely sharpening our apologetical weapons, (good and important thought that is), or taking our battle for liberty to the courts (necessary though that is), may win a certain debate or battle. But from a long-term, evangelical point of view, we will only win “the war” by a credible and paradoxical witness of serene peace that comes from having met the Lord. Otherwise, we too easily descend into the hostility that is unbecoming of Christians, and become more desirous of winning an argument than souls.
The words of the theologian Jacques Philippe come to mind, from his book, Searching for and Maintaining Peace
It is of the greatest importance that we strive to acquire and maintain an interior peace, the peace of our hearts. In order to understand this, we can use an image…. Consider the surface of a lake, above which the sun is shining. If the surface of the lake is peaceful and tranquil, the sun will be reflected in this lake; and the more peaceful the lake, the more perfectly will it be reflected. If, on the contrary, the surface of the lake is agitated, undulating, then the image of the sun can not be reflected in it.
The more our soul is peaceful and tranquil, the more God is reflected in it, the more His image expresses itself in us, the more His grace acts through us. On the other hand, if our soul is agitated and troubled, the grace of God is able to act only with much greater difficulty.
Philippe then goes on to articulate the need to cultivate this peace, this serenity, in prayer.
Acquiring and maintaining interior peace, which is impossible without prayer, should consequently be considered a priority for everybody….Otherwise, more often than not they would simply be communicating their own restlessness and distress. Often, we cause ourselves to become agitated and disturbed by trying to resolve everything by ourselves, when it would be more efficacious to remain peacefully before the gaze of God and to allow Him to act and work in us with His wisdom and power, which are infinitely superior to ours. For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: By waiting and by calm you shall be saved; in quiet and in trust your strength lies, but you would have none of it (Isaiah 30:15)….
He then clarifies that interior peace is not a mere quietism:
Interior peace has nothing to do with any type of impassivity, extinction of sensitivity, cold indifference or being wrapped up in oneself….Saint Vincent de Paul, the last person anyone would ever suspect of being lazy, used to say: “The good that God does is done by God Himself, almost without our being aware of it. It is necessary that we be more inactive than active.”….Only one who possesses this interior peace can efficaciously help his neighbor. How can I communicate this peace to others, if I myself do not have it?
Then comes the crux of the issue for us here, namely, that we should avoid fighting the wrong battle, and that inner peace is the paradoxical requirement for a true and effective Christian warrior, who battles not only a cultural war, but also his own inner war against temptation and sin:
The Christian life is a combat, a war, the scene of a constant and sometimes painful battle, which will not end until death — a struggle against evil, temptation and sin…. Saint Catherine of Siena says, “without war there is no peace”; without combat there is no victory.
But if the spiritual combat of a Christian is sometimes rough, it is by no means the hopeless struggle of somebody who battles in blindness and solitude, without any certitude as to the result of this confrontation. The victory is already won. The Christian fights, with a peaceful heart. It is exactly this interior peace which permits him to fight, not with his own strength, which would be quickly exhausted, but with the strength of God.
[Hence] interior peace is not only a condition for spiritual combat, but is quite often the goal itself. Very frequently, spiritual combat consists precisely in this: defending one’s peace of heart against the enemy who attempts to steal it from us.
Avoid fighting the wrong battle…., The first goal of spiritual combat, that toward which our efforts must above all else be directed, is not to always obtain a victory….it is to learn to maintain peace of heart under all circumstances, even in the case of defeat.
Perhaps a personal illustration will help. When I was a young priest, just 28 years old, I had the boldness that is not uncommon for a young man. I preached strong sermons and, even today, would not quibble with the content of those early sermons. I also tangled with some of my parishioners over certain liturgical abuses that were common at the time.
I took my concerns and frustrations about the liturgical abuses to my spiritual director who asked me if I loved my people. I was angry at his question. “Of course I love them!” “Nah…” he said, “Don’t give me the boilerplate answer, give me an honest answer.” I eventually admitted that, while I tolerated and served them, I probably couldn’t say I really loved them. “Alright,” he said, and then went on to say, in effect:
Now beg God for the grace to really love them, and you’re going to find a kind of serenity envelops you as your love for them grows. And you’ll correct the things you need to, and overlook, for now, the things that can wait, and you’ll know the difference. And when you do correct them you’ll be loving and serene. And as for your homilies, you’ll still be bold, but you’ll learn that there’s a big difference between speaking the truth in love, and just trying to win an argument. When people know you love them, you can tell them almost anything and they’ll listen. But they know the difference between someone who loves them and someone who’s merely trying to win an argument. And if you love them, you’ll preach with clarity, but you’ll be patient, confident and serene. And believe me, people know and can tell the difference.“
I pray I learned that lesson. And over the years, a kind of serene joy has come to fill me wen I preach and teach. Only rarely now, do I loose that serenity in pastoral settings.
Peace is the paradoxical requirement for the Christian warrior. Without that peace, too often we end up fighting the wrong battle. All of us do well to be alert to the “Been in the storm so long….” syndrome. It can happen to the best of us, and we turn on those we love and lose our peace, and see our love diminish. And how can we give what we no longer have? That same song gives an important solution to our inner struggle for peace: I’ve been in the storm so long Children…..Oh give me (a) little time to pray.