In yesterday’s Gospel the Lord made a promise to us of peace: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27) Now this promise is perhaps the hardest of promises for many Christians to realize. Anxiety seems deeply rooted in the human condition, at least the fallen version of it that we have inherited. Upon hearing the words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” many become downcast and even feel a failure at their incapacity to “snap out of it.” Exhortations and rational expectations seldom ease feelings. And being told to have courage or cheer up can sometimes seem almost cruel.
But is that what the Lord is really doing here? Is he merely exhorting us to do something out of our flesh power? No indeed. But He is leaving us a promise of a gift to increasingly receive and experience. It must however be his work, his peace. True inner peace and serenity cannot be something this world gives or that emerges from our own unregenerate flesh. It must be Christ’s peace.
What is inner peace? Like most of the deepest gifts of the Lord peace is hard to reduce to mere words. But generally speaking inner peace is the experience that everything is all right. I have underlined the word experience since the statement “everything is all right” is not just a postulate of the intellect, it is an experience of the whole person. It is deeper than knowledge, it is an experience that is present and very real. It is sometimes called “serenity” which comes from the Latin word serenus that referred to water that was clear because it was calm and untroubled.
The experience that everything is all right does not have to mean that everything is exactly the way we want it or that there are not issues that puzzle us as to their outcome. There may in fact be things that need attention and resolution but we are not vexed by this fact and do not ruminate endlessly as to their outcome. We may even have preferences as to certain outcomes but inner peace supplies the experience that, whatever happens it will be just fine.
The experience of true inner peace, though it can be given by God at any time is usually the fruit of long experience and deepening prayer. The gift of peace usually grows gently, almost imperceptibly in the person who is serious about prayer, reception of the Sacraments and growing in the faith through recourse to the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. One who is faithful in these matters becomes gradually aware that anxiety has largely departed and many things that used to vex and trouble them, no longer have the power to do so.
It is a true fact that some people are naturally less anxious than others. Further, most people are not anxious in the same way, but have a certain range of things that provoke worry and other things over which they are care-free. While these natural dispositions to being carefree are sometimes called peace, they are not to be confused with the Lord’s gift of inner peace which is a far deeper experience than a lack of worry. It is more than an absence of anxious thoughts, it is the positive presence of calm and the experience that everything is in God’s hands and hence, is just as it should be.
Perhaps it will be helpful to describe some of the signs of inner peace. They are fruits that emerge in the person who is increasingly experiencing God’s gift of inner peace:
1. A tendency to think and act deliberately, rather than from fears based on past experiences.– As fear and anxiety begin to dissipate we begin to be less reactive to life and more reflective and proactive. Fear tends to incite rash judgements. Serenity permits greater reflection and deliberation and we can act more from what we positively value than from what we fear. As trust grows we are less superstitious and we also see how bad experiences of the past are not necessarily predictive of the present circumstances. For example, a person may have grown up under a severe or domineering father. But that does not mean that every male authority figure is this way. As inner peace increases in us we begin to stop projecting bad experiences from childhood or the past on to persons or situations of the present.
2. An increasing ability to enjoy each moment and live in the moment – Rumination and worry about future matters rob from us an appreciation of the present moment and blinds us to the blessings of this moment. As peace increases and worries subside I am freed to be present to the blessings of the moment.
3. A loss of interest in conflict and aggressive behavior– As peace increases in us we become content with what God has given us. We are open to the invitation to “come up higher” but are also content to “sit at the lowest place.” As this takes place we are less aggressive in getting our needs met and less conflicted that there are some things we don’t have. We are not drawn into silly competitions with others as to place, position, reward, or credit. Happy with what we have, we do not need to fight to get things we don’t have. When necessary we will fight for what is right but not out of ego needs and the desire to “win.” But, rather, from a serene desire to usher in what is just and right. As peace increases in us fighting and aggressive behavior seem foreign and increasingly unnecessary.
4. A loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others– A rather large source of anxiety and unease in our lives are suspicious and cynical attitudes. We too easily observe the actions of others and rush to conclude often negative motivations. For example, “He’s trying to make me look bad.” Perhaps this true, perhaps there were other motives too. But as inner peace begins to increase in us we are less concerned with the motives of others. Inner peace helps us to be less concerned with the motivations. Cynicism and suspicion begin, little by little to seem foreign to us and we just loose interest in their voice.
5. An increasing loss of ability to worry – As inner peace increases, it is not just that worry goes away, but the actual ability to worry also wanes. People frequently try to get us to worry about stuff. There is a lot of fear mongering in our culture. It’s everything from the advertisers trying to get us to obsess about how we look or what others think of us to the doomsayers trying to work us into a frenzy over the impending doom of the planet. But as inner peace increases in us it is harder for others to get us to carry their fear. We have fewer buttons for them to push. Even if someone frantically warns of this or that, it is not enough to trigger worry in us. This is a miraculous sort of transformation as we begin to discover an increasing loss of even the ability to worry.
6. Frequent, overwhelming episodes of appreciation and joy – A fear begins to depart we are less distracted by its gnawing presence and freer to enjoy and appreciate things. Joy and gratitude begin to occupy the space fear once did.
7. Contented feelings of connectedness with others and nature and God. – As fear competitiveness, anger and suspicion begin to depart we are more compassionate and aware of the gifts and goodness of others. Since fear less distracts us we become better listeners and are more present to others, more connected. With distracting fear and rumination increasingly behind us we can also become more aware the world around us and appreciative of its beauty. As for God, as peace begins to grow, we often begin to experience the first beginning of contemplative prayer. This sort of prayer is described as a restful quiet in the presence of God beyond words, images or discourse. It is a simple, calm, serene and ever deeper grasp of God’s loving presence.
8. An increasing tendency to allow things to unfold, rather than resisting and manipulating the outcomes– As our experience that everything is alright grows we have less need to control and manipulate life. We make necessary plans and provisions but are more able to allow things to unfold differently than our plans insisted. Imperfect outcomes are not seen as failures necessarily. Perhaps they are opportunities to learn. Control is paradoxically an enemy of peace. For control is ultimately more illusion than reality. You may have plans for tomorrow but I cannot guarantee you that you will even finish this article before you die. Whatever things we do control are contingent on many more things that we do not control. As inner peace grows we are less insistent on controlling every detail and more content to allow things to unfold.
These 8 signs are adapted from the original material ©1984, Saskia Davis. The Bold principles are substantially hers but the plain text commentary for each is mine.
So there it is, the second hardest promise of the Lord: Peace. But what is the hardest promise of the Lord? you may ask. Perfection! Jesus promised it when he said, So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48) Don’t try to do it on your own. Only the Lord can do it in you. But it’s the hardest promise since it will surely wait until death and probably beyond in Purgatory. Perfection will come, but that’s another article.
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
– St. Teresa of Avila