"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.

On Seeking Greater Serenity

In Lent, a gift to seek is greater serenity. The word comes from the Latin serenus, meaning clear or unclouded (skies). By extension it thus means calm, without storm. Serenity has become more used in modern times with the advent of many 12-Step programs which use the serenity prayer as an important help to their work. Perhaps the closest Greek word to serenity is γαλήνη(galene) and it is used most specifically when Jesus stood in the boat, rebuked the storm and there was a great calm, a serenity (cf Matt 8:26). In this sense we can see how true serenity must come as a gift from God. For the storms of life can overwhelm and overpower us. So we need to seek serenity from God and receive it from him.

My own personal experience of serenity is that it is a calm and peaceful joy, an experience that everything is alright, everything is in God’s hands.

I would like to look at four sayings that are related to serenity. I am not exactly sure where I first got them. They were in a collection of old clippings I had from years ago. Recently I rediscovered them, along with other clippings. These sayings both describe serenity (often without using the word) and also describe its sources. Let’s look at them one by one, with a little commentary by yours truly.  The sayings take the form of the stories of the desert Fathers but I am quite sure they are modern reflections put in the older form.

1. The disciples ask the master, “Are there ways for gauging one’s  spiritual strength?” “Many,” said the master. “Give us one,” beseeched the disciples. And the master responded, “Find out how often you become disturbed in the course of a single day.”

For the normal Christian life is to be increasingly free from anger, anxiety and disturbance. This results from the increasing trust that faith begets. The closer our walk with God and our experience of his love for us, the more inconsequential is the hatred of the world, the insensitivity of others. We are increasingly untroubled that we are not praised or promoted, for God’s love is more and more enough for us, and is experienced as real. We are less obsessed with what others think of us. Our fears give way to a powerful experience of God’s loving providence and his capacity to make a way out of no way. Anger abates as we leave vengeance to God and are less prone to anger in the first place. This is because most anger is rooted in fear, and as fear gives way to trust, the cause of much of our anger is gone. Gratitude for the graces we have received makes jealousy and envy less possible. Disturbances diminish overall.

Yes, serenity is a true indicator of spiritual progress. The increasing lack of disturbances in our day is a sign of God’s work in our soul. Here is a gift to be sought.

2. Sometimes there would be a rush of noisy visitors and the silence of the monastery would be shattered. This would upset the disciples; not the Master, who seemed just as content with the noise as with the silence. To his protesting disciples he said one day, “Silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of self.”

For it often happens that even when we go to pray, and there is physical silence, yet our minds are filled with many concerns. But the deepest prayer is to be caught up in God, to be gifted with contemplative silence. This silence is within and cannot easily be disrupted by the physical noises of the world; for it is a deep, inner, spiritual serenity that envelopes the soul. It is a peace that the world did not give, and world cannot take away. Here too is a gift to seek from God: a deep an inner serenity.

In the Beatitudes the Lord speaks of those who are “blessed.” And the Greek word of that text is makarios which refers to a deep, serene happiness, a calm joy. The secular Greeks used this word to describe the “happiness of the gods,” whose happiness was unaffected by worldly events. For us too, we must ultimately discover that happiness, serenity, is an inside job, and the true gift of serenity is not from the world, but from God. Thus it does not depend on external realities for its existence and can be experienced even in the midst of difficult “externals.”

3. To a disciple who was forever complaining about others the Master said, “If it is peace you want, seek to change yourself, not other people. It is easier to protect your feet with slippers, than to carpet the whole of the earth.”

There is an old saying, “If I get better, others get better too.” The reform and transformation of the whole world begins with me. There is great serenity to be found in staying in our own lane and working our own issues.

Much anger is abated in a marriage when an aggrieved spouse says within, “My marriage is not perfect because I am in it.” Perfect marriages, perfect churches, perfect families, perfect workplaces do not exist because there are no perfect people to populate them. And the imperfection begins with me. There is serenity in realizing and accepting this.

Unrealistic expectations (e.g. that others should be perfect) are premeditated resentments. And resentments rob us of serenity.

It is true that we must engage in properly ordered fraternal correction. But fraternal correction has little impact without humility and the serenity that defuses the difficultly of the moment correction is administered.

I will only get what I sow.  If I want respect, then I must show respect. If I want compassion and understanding, then I must show them. If I want others to be better, then I must first get better. Scripture says,  Cast your bread on the water, it will come back to you after many days (Eccl 11:1).

4. “How can I be a great man like you?” “Why be a great man?” said the Master. “Being a man is a great enough achievement.”

For it often happens that we become imbued with unrealistic dreams for our self. It is not wrong to have dreams, but we must also come to accept that it is God who ultimately assigns us our place in his kingdom.

One of the great secrets of serenity is to gradually discover the man or woman God has created us to be. Simply becoming what we are and were made to be and respecting what God is doing, is a great source of serenity. God alone can give us this self knowledge of his plan for us.

Scripture says, LORD, my heart is not proud; nor are my eyes haughty. I do not busy myself with great matters, with things too sublime for me. Rather, I have stilled my soul, hushed it like a weaned child. Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, so is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:1-2)

There is a story about Rabbi Eliezer who said, I have often said to myself, “Eliezer, why are you not more like Moses? Moses was a great man!” But then it occurs to me that if I do that, God will one day say to me, “Eliezer, why were you not Eliezer?”

Yes, there is serenity in not trying to be others whom we think are greater. It is possible to imitate their virtues, which are common to us all. But as for our vocation and personal make-up, that belongs to God. God likes tall and short people, talkative and shy ones, skinny and fat ones, because he’s made a lot of them all.

Just a few thoughts on serenity. In the Scriptures Jesus brought serenity by calming the storm that night in the boat. But did you notice he slept right through most of it and had to be awakened by the frightened disciples that night?  Who was right, Jesus to be calm or the disciples to be panicked? You decide. There ARE real problems in life that need attention. But an awful lot of our anxieties are about things that are better simply to sleep on. It is also a likely fact that we self-generate the majority of our storms in life.  The gift of serenity comes as we gradually, by God’s grace, experience the self-inflicted storms abating. The four parables above offer insights into the internal dimensions of the gift of serenity.

Finally, most people have heard the Serenity Prayer. But the widely known part is only a part of slightly longer prayer. The Author of the prayer is disputed, but the full prayer is here:

  •  GOD, grant me the serenity to accept the things  I cannot change,
  • Courage to change the things I can,
  • and the wisdom to know the difference.
  • Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time;
  • Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
  • Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.
  • Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will;
  • That I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.
  • Amen

 This song says, When peace like a river attendeth by way, when sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, “It is well, it is well with my soul.”