A couple times a week I run along a small bay that neighbors my house. In the early mornings, if I’m able to get out at that time, I’m always struck by the stillness of that stretch of mirrored silver. The bay’s anchored tranquility brings me a sense of peace if I only take a moment or two to look at it. It’s an image that in some way sooths my soul.
In Father Jacques Philippe modest little book, Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart, he calls to mind this metaphor for the soul:
“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.”
It’s a deeply simple, yet profound stroke of insight—our souls can only reflect God’s love and grace if they are calm and delicately moored. The peace promised to us by Jesus Christ two millennia ago only flowers in the soil of a serene heart.
What makes Philippe’s humble treatise so illuminating is its insistence that our highest priority when it comes to the spiritual life must be acquiring and cultivating this state of peace. If we don’t, though we may still do good works, we will be harried by the warring emotions and worries within us that keep us from experiencing God’s love. In other words, we won’t have the peace that God desires for us. There is a difference between serving and suffering accompanied with the balm of God’s peace, and doing so left to our own human—and tragically inadequate—devices.
When I was a little kid, I had this absurd fear that if I forgot to mention a certain family member in my prayers they would be left without the benefit of God’s grace. It’s funny now to look back on that, and though I’ve matured from such a grossly limited view of God these many years later, there is still a streak of that mindset tangled within my own spirituality. At times, I’ll still feel an overwhelming sense of obligation—an iced interior command—to do something, one spurred by fear, worry or pride. And even though such an action may be good and well intentioned, it will cause me to lose something of immeasurable value—my peace.
What a premium we place on peace. We can easily spot a deep thirsting for peace within our culture—a desire to unplug from its charged pace—through the popularity of all types of activities with peace as their aim: meditation, mindfulness, yoga, tailored Spotify playlists, breathing exercises and so on. As the human person yearns for food, sleep, affection and purpose, it also yearns for peace. Speaking strictly of the body, we need time for peace and quiet—sleep, healthy exercise, and leisurely activities. But the same is true for our spiritual lives. The soul yearns for the respite that only comes from submersion into the cooling water of God’s grace. Jesus spoke about the soul’s desire for peace and fulfillment that exceeds the needs of the corporeal. After Jesus multiplied the loaves for the five thousand, the crowds sought him with unwavering determination. When they finally found him, Jesus addressed them in this way:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” – Jn. 6: 26-27
When we look at our own pleas for God to work in our lives—to gift us and our loved ones with good health, success, love, meaningful employment, etc.—when we’re honest, we don’t do it because we want simply the object of our intention. If we pray to be healthy, and God miraculously heals us, we soon find that it wasn’t enough. Not even close. The sign in and of itself is never enough. We don’t want miracles, we want fulfillment. We want to know complete love, peace and union with the one who understands us perfectly, the one who created us for such an end.
And so this spiritual food—God’s love and peace—can only come from a commitment to following Christ and aligning our wills to God. In doing this, we acquire the peace of a clear conscience—a pure heart. Father Philippe highlights the necessity of our goodwill in order to experience God’s peace for our souls. He clarifies what he means by “goodwill” with encouraging language:
“[Goodwill] is not perfection, nor sainthood achieved, because it could well coexist with hesitations, imperfections and even faults…it is the this habitual disposition of heart which permits the grace of God to carry us, little by little, toward perfection.”
A desire to love and know God is enough (despite our continued faults and weaknesses). It’s this desire that is necessary—something that must originate with God himself—for us to even have recourse to the peace Jesus promises.
We know, however, once we have allowed God into our lives and are taking seriously the spiritual journey, maintaining our peace is still difficult, especially in the face of suffering and temptation. But that is often the very goal of the battle—to keep our peace no matter our circumstances.
Therefore, maintaining this peace should be the priority of the spiritual life, more so than eliminating our faults and weaknesses. Obviously, we are to strive to eliminate these things as they keep us from loving God and others, though we should do so with a peaceful resolve that acknowledges we will not reach perfection in this life. Peace comes from knowing God loves us. And not just saying we know it, but knowing it in our flesh and bones.
“On the contrary, the real spiritual battle, rather than the pursuit of invincibility or some other absolute infallibility beyond our capacity, consists principally in learning, without becoming too discouraged, to accept falling occasionally and not to lose our peace of heart if we should happen to do so lamentably, not to become excessively sad regarding our defeats and to know how to rebound from our falls to an even higher level.”
If I’m honest, this idea was a major paradigm shift—a shattering realization. What if when we sinned, instead of allowing the spirit of unhealthy discouragement, vague despair and gnawing worthlessness grab hold of us, we immediately sought to regain Christ’s peace by asking for forgiveness, accepting it with humility and doing the best we can to do better next time? What if we didn’t do things for God because we felt we had to, or that we should in order to avoid punishment, or because our ego and the devil demand it, but because the peace of God dwelling within us desires nothing more than to serve others and God? Whereas fear coerces us to love, peace inspires us to.
“Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.” – Saint Francis de Sales
Let us not forget that Martha, the one who diligently labored for Christ, was told she had opted for the “lesser” part. Mary, the one sitting serenely at the feet of Christ, was extolled.
If we acquire peace, then we find that all the good we do pours out, even in the face of great suffering or hardship. The saints aren’t saints because they never sinned; they are saints because they harbored a peace laced with the understanding that they were loved infinitely by God—despite their own sins, sufferings, and temptations. When we accept our smallness with humility, we receive the light of his peace and presence.
We will still fail at times to maintain our peace. The lashes of suffering, trial, and hardship will jar us. But the battle won’t be over, and with grace, we will once again find peace. And as we do this more and more throughout our lives, like the thousands of saints before us, our peace will intensify and won’t be plucked from us as easily.
“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.” – Jn. 14:27