Sr. Mary Ann, O.P., holds a doctorate in systematic theology from the Catholic University of American and chairs the Religious Studies Department of Ohio Dominican College.
SUDDENLY there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying… ‘Peace on earth”‘ (Luke 2: 13-14). When Luke proclaims the birth of Jesus he has all of heaven cry out the meaning of this astonishing event: Jesus has come to bring peace to our world. More than nineteen hundred years later, as we celebrate the profound mystery of the Incarnation, the greeting closest to our own hearts is surely “peace.” Instead of war, to taste the depths of true peace reigning over all the earth; instead of bitterness and estrangement, to feel the warmth of contentment and the harmony of love embracing our hearts and our homes — is this not the longing which rises spontaneously to the consciousness of each one of us during this season?
For even as we dedicate ourselves to the task of peace on earth, a place deep within us knows that until the peace of God fills our own lives, we cannot hope that the peace of God will fill the world. The bitterness of our own personal wars teaches us that it is a far easier task to speak of the need for peace in the world than it is to gain it in our own souls. Yet this is the marvelous good news proclaimed with always new power during these days: the Son of God has brought to us in his own flesh, as sheer gift and grace, the very peace of God. To reflect on the mystery of peace within us is to open ourselves to the special grace of this season. In our reflections, we can draw particular insight from Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Merton, two Christians whose lives became sacraments of God’s peace in the world precisely because they nurtured this peace in their own souls.
FEAST OF PEACE
“I pray that you may feel… peace-bringing simplification.. during this Advent that culminates in the feast of peace.”(1) When Teilhard wrote these words in December of 1916 to his close friend and cousin, Marguerite, he was experiencing first-hand the brutality of World War I. Three months earlier he had seen the war claim one of his closest friends — a loss, he confessed, which had “shattered” him and brought him to the point of despair. “Instead of working to improve things in the world… would it not be better to abandon to its sort of suicide this ridiculous world that destroys its finest products?” yet the devastation of war convinced him even more profoundly that our lives are meaningful on earth only to the extent that we choose forgiveness, gentleness, peace, as the companions of our soul. Because the Incarnation of God the Son has “removed the barriers of hostility that divided us” (Eph 1:14), Christmas became, for Teilhard, the “feast of peace.” Surrounded by the chaos of war, he prayed for peace in the world around him, but even more he prayed for peace in the souls of those he loved.(2)
Teilhard knew the paradox of this season: with its increased exchanges of affection, of gifts, of love, Christmas can bring to our consciousness not only joy and peace but also a heightened sense of our personal unpeace, of our loneliness and estrangement from one another. In our still broken existence we can feel with more cutting force during this season not only the peace of God but also loneliness and the “barriers of hostility.” This festival of peace thus invites us to enter deep into our own hearts and there make the difficult decisions which alone can bring peace to our souls.
Thomas Merton suggests that many people whose lives seem to be full of inner war and discontent have prayed earnestly for peace of soul and have wondered why their prayer has gone unanswered. They did not realize that, indeed, God had given them what they had been asking for. When they prayed for “peace,” they meant not God’s peace — the peace which comes from abandonment to God — but the accomplishment of their own will. Their pleas were granted. “God left them with what they desired, for their idea of peace was only another form of war.”(3)
Merton observes that it is not the circumstances outside us but rather the desires within us that make our lives full of contentment and peace, or discontent and war. Peace, and its absence, is found in the secret place within us where our desires live. To live agitated and discontented is to want what we cannot have, and so to live at war with ourselves and those around us. At times like these it is not gratitude that we experience but rather anger and deprivation. Home, family, friends; love, acceptance, honor, esteem, success — these are the gifts that seem to be withheld from us and lavished instead on others.
And yet, although we know the inner war of agitation and discontent, we also know the contentment with which peace can enfold us. At times like these we experience, even momentarily, the truth that we have all that we could want or need. It is from these experiences so familiar to us that Thomas Aquinas himself draws his description of peace. When we do not have what we want, we become agitated, restless, and war rages within us. When we have what we want, however, and have it completely, peace reigns in our hearts. With all of our desires satisfied, nothing else attracts us; we are quieted and content.(4) The author of Psalm 131 describes this peace with the tender and familiar image of a child who is “quieted at its mother’s breasts.” Resting here, the infant wants nothing else, because at this moment he or she has all that is needed. So, too, peace comes to the heart that is not proud, that “desires not worthless things” (Ps 24:4), to the soul that is “calmed like a child quieted at its mother’s breast.” For the psalmist, peace is becoming such a little one in our inmost soul.
THE WAR WITHIN US
Merton suggests that to look within our own hearts is often to find there, so close beside our real self as to be indistinguishable from it, a false self. Peace comes from having our deepest needs satisfied, but some of our wants may be demands not of our true self but of its shadow. To try to satisfy these desires is to engage in unending war; our false self continually competes with the false selves of others — “they are important, successful, wealthy, renowned, affirmed, loved ….” To live this kind of life is to “trade in unrealities,” however, since true peace can come only to our true self, to the person we really are. This is the person who is unconditionally loved, honored, esteemed by God, the one who is beloved daughter or son, the one who belongs intimately and irrevocably to God’s own family. This is the person God knows. In contrast, our false self is only an “illusory person,” the one “that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about” him or her. “And,” comments Merton, “to be unknown by God is altogether too much privacy.”(5)
We enter upon the path to peace, Merton continues, not by gratifying the desires and demands of this false self, but by removing it entirely from competition with other false selves. “As long as you have to defend the imaginary self that you think is important, you lose your peace of heart.”(6) To open our hearts to peace, therefore, means the great relief of putting down the “heavy loads of judgment and censorship and criticism” of others which we think we have to carry in order to make ourselves seem important. But it also means, even more, to discover our true self in God, to see the truth that we are loved, honored, esteemed, and infinitely so.
This is why Aquinas stresses that true peace, peace that nothing can wrest from us, can be the fruit only of knowing ourselves to be loved by God. Anything other than God — power, prestige, wealth, success, pleasure, love — if sought outside of God’s inexhaustible good, cannot give us anything but momentary satisfaction. We experience this truth when we spend thousands of dollars on a new car or appliance, only to find ourselves looking enviously at an even newer model. Nothing finite can ever be enough for us. In contrast, since God’s love alone gives us what our deepest self most wants and needs — inexhaustible good — it completely calms our desires. Nothing else remains to allure us by the very fact of our not having it. In possessing God, we have all that our heart could possibly desire.(7)
Teilhard knew this, even as he saw that he would be passed over. In his 1916 Christmas letter to Marguerite he tells her that his writing has been rejected for publication and that he suspects no work of his will be formally published during his lifetime. His quiet response: “Our Lord will do as he sees best… if I die without ever having been heard, I feel confident that I shall have served my purpose.” His heart’s desire — he was, to the core of his being, a writer — he would never see fulfilled. This is the poignant context for his New Year’s Day prayer: [May you grow] “within the embrace of ‘the one thing necessary,’ there to find enduring peace.”(8)
Indeed, it was this peace which Teilhard found in the very failures and disappointments of his life. “Lord,” he writes, “I beg of you to bring me to a serene acceptance of that final phase of communion with you in which I shall attain to possession of you by diminishing within You. Grant that… I may recognize you under the appearances of every… hostile power that seems bent on destroying me.” Sickness, old age, a failing mind; rejection being overlooked, shunted aside… these are the disguises of God. “The more the future lies ahead of me like a dark tunnel. . . the more confident I can be. . . of being engulfed in you …. Blessed then be the disappointments which snatch the cup from our lips; blessed by the chains which force us to go where we would not.”(9)
SOLITUDE, THE BIRTHPLACE OF PEACE
Merton, too, learned to cling to the “one thing necessary.” It was for this reason that he stressed the need for the solitude which nurtures peace. Yet this solitude is not a lack of companionship, nor a shutting out of others. It is, rather, the emptiness and hunger in the very core of our self that cannot be satisfied with anything less than God.
Merton writes that letting ourselves feel the ache of this hunger cannot help causing us pain. This explains why we devour our lives with hectic busy-ness: we are running away from the emptiness within us, from the ache of our heart for God.(l0) The compulsive activity and buying characteristic of this season of peace is itself perhaps another symptom of our attempt to anesthetize the ache whose cause nothing created can cure.
But Merton urges us to resist running away, and instead to “stay still.” “Then, as peace settles upon the soul and we accept what we are and what we are not, we begin to realize that this great poverty is our greatest fortune.” As we learn not to panic when we feel the ache, but rather to stay still, we gradually begin to experience God’s own peace flowing like a river in the depths of our soul and carrying us in its flood tides. For those who have learned to ride and swim with the strong current of this stream, “life becomes simple and easy.”(11)
Teilhard himself found that not only did his life become simple in the midst of failures and disappointments, but they even gave him a strange “sense of plenitude.” “The moment we find ourselves dominated and tossed about by a power that nothing can master, I have an almost physical sensation of God catching me up and clasping me more closely.” With few people to comfort us, and “with the road ahead disappearing,” it is as if “then only God were ahead and around, — thickening (if I may use the word) as we advance.”(12)
Teilhard comments that, paradoxically, this peace which comes from inner solitude is the same peace which comes from love. A certain co-penetration takes place; like a pebble in the ocean depths, gently surrounded and engulfed by God’s own love, we are able now to carry the whole world into the abyss within us. (13) For “it is not in the midst of division, but in the union of hearts that the Spirit of peace dwells.”(14) Merton adds that this love which joins us to one another will always cause us pain, “because [it] is the resetting of a Body of broken bones.”(15) But it is also true, as Teilhard stresses, that by immersing ourselves in God’s own peace, we find that “all things, purified and concentrated, meet and are found again in God’s innermost self.”(16)
THE HOLY SPIRIT, THE PEACE OF GOD IN PERSON
During Advent of 1915, Teilhard wrote to Marguerite that he longed for the Lord himself to utter these healing words to the depths of her soul: “Peace be with you. (17) These, surely, are the words which Jesus also speaks during this season to each of our hearts. But as the author of John stresses, the peace of God is impossible without the Spirit of God: “Peace be with you. . . When he had said this, he breathed on them…’Receive the Holy Spirit”‘ (Jn. 20:21, 22). Indeed, the peace which radiates from Jesus’ risen flesh is so inseparable from the Holy Spirit that for some mystics, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, the Holy Spirit is not only the undivided love of Father and Son, but also their very peace in person. (18) The peace which Jesus brings us, therefore, is not an illusory dream, nor even a passing feeling, but the very person of God the Holy Spirit, the Spirit given to us by Jesus to dwell irrevocably in the depths of our hearts.
Christmas thus is a feast of gift-giving not only because Jesus is God’s gift to us, but also because from his flesh we receive the final gift beyond which there is no other — the Holy Spirit, the peace of God in person. What we begin to celebrate in the Incarnation, therefore, is nothing less than Pentecost: “The Word was made a bearer of the flesh [sarkophoros] in order that we might become bearers of the Spirit [pneumatophoroi].”(19) Through the Incarnation, God the Son become for us not simply a model of love and peace, but “the principle of a new life” by which our inmost beings are flooded by the love and peace at the very heart of God. (20)
Yves Congar tells the story of the eastern saint, Seraphim of Sarov, and his friend, Motovilov, who envied the profound contentment he saw on Seraphim’s face. Motovilov yearned to have this peace flood his own heart. As they talked, Seraphim’s face and whole body became brilliant with light. “But what do you feel at this moment?” Seraphim asked his friend. “An infinite sense of well-being,” Motovilov replied. “But what kind of well-being? What exactly?” “I feel such calm;” answered Motovilov, “such peace in my soul that I cannot find words to express it.” “My friend,” Seraphim quietly responded, “this is the peace of which the Lord was speaking when he said to his disciples, My peace I give you, the peace that the world cannot give… the peace that passes all understanding.” (21) In this way Motovilov realized that the very peace of God, the Holy Spirit, dwells intimately in the heart of each one of us through baptism. If we yearn for the peace of God in our lives, we need not engage in a desperate search outside us; the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21; Vulgate).
This is the paradox of God’s peace. The Holy Spirit, inmost heart of God, is also the unrestrained impulse of God’s love lavished outward on us. In the same way, God’s peace is both our inmost treasure and also the gift that through us can be poured out upon the whole world. The peace which the world cannot give, the peace of God, is lavished on us in Jesus. This is the peace which can and must embrace our world. This is the peace on which we — as persons, as families, as communities, as nations — are invited to feast together and in our inmost soul during this sacred season.
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier-Priest, 1914-1919 (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), pp. 148-49.
- Ibid., 123, 122.
- New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1972), p. 122.
- Summa Theologiae II-II, 29,1; 19, 2.
- New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 34.
- Ibid., p. 57.
- Summa Theologiae II-II, 19, 2 ad 3; 29, 3 ad 3.
- The Making of a Mind, 269.
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), p. 117.
- New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 81, 83.
- Ibid., pp. 263, 266.
- The Making of a Mind, p. 207.
- Ibid., p. 112.
- John Chrysostom, De Perfectione Caritatis; PG 56, p. 281.
- New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 72.
- The Making of a Mind, p. 112.
- Ibid., pp. 81 303.
- Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, 8.2; Vol. II of The Works of Bernard of Clairvaux, Trans. Kilian Walsh, OCSO (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1981), p. 46.
- Athanasius, De Incarnatione et Contra Arianos, p. 8.
- Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God, ed. John H. Erickson and Thomas E. Bird (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), p. 59.
- Yves M.-J. Congar, O.P., I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Vol. II, Trans. David Smith (New York: Seabury, 1983), p. 71.