Peace is a gift that comes from God. It is something that we receive. It is a gift that we cannot claim for ourselves; we cannot force it upon ourselves; we cannot demand it; we do not even merit it. It is a gift freely and simply given.
All goodness, love, knowledge, truth, power, and peace originates in God. God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), and omnibenevolent (all good). “He is not God of disorder, but of peace” (1 Cor 14:33). But if our God is a God of peace, does he grant his peace to those who believe in him? This natural question arises for those of us who are skeptical and not inclined to have peace. Yet, the gospel tells us yes: God promises to “guide our feet into the path of peace” (cf. Luke 1:79). Christ promised his peace when he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you” (John 14:27). So if the answer is yes – God gives his followers peace – then the next question becomes, “how does one receive it?”
When I was in high school, I read a book called the “The Tau of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff. At that point in my life, I wasn’t sure what I believed, and I was “searching.” I had been baptized as a Protestant a few years earlier, but decided I was no longer a believer in Christianity. Briefly, the book personifies the basic principles of Taosim in the person of Winnie the Pooh through his childlike simplicity and effortless responses to life and life’s challenges. I thought it was great, and by the end of the book, I decided I was a Taoist. However, within a very short time, I realized that, despite my best intentions, I could not make myself like Winnie the Pooh and respond to life as a peaceful Taoist. I concluded that it was a great philosophy, but I lacked a concrete pathway towards Taoist peace. So as quickly as I began my Taoist journey, I gave it up.
A few years later, after a period of deep crisis in my life, I came back to Christianity. And a few years after that, I entered the Catholic Church. And somewhere along the journey, I can say that I have experienced peace. Peace has not been something that I purposefully set out to attain; rather, it has been something that I receive as a gift given by God – as a result of walking with him. Certainly, peace is not something that I maintain all the time; in fact, I do not believe that any of us walk around like an angel floating around on the clouds. However, at times and moments unexpected, I experience a peace and joy that I know is not my own. I know it is from God. It doesn’t stay forever; it comes, and perhaps as quickly as it arrived, it leaves. Yet, it is peace.
So let’s talk a little about peace and our Franciscan experience with it. While everyone’s journey is different, and each person may arrive at peace in their own way under God’s guidance, we nevertheless share many parts of the journey in common. To begin with, I would say that the pathway to peace is what we have been constructing so far in the preceding talks/chapters. In fact, each preceding talk/chapter has been building on the pathway to peace.
We begin our journey to peace through obedience. Peace begins, first of all, with a rightly ordered relationship with God. As Christians, the first thing we do in the spiritual life is properly relate ourselves to God. “Know and fix in your heart, that the Lord is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and that there is no other” (Deuteronomy 4:39). This is another way of restating the first commandment: “YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD AND HIM ONLY SHALL YOU SERVE.” At the foundation of our faith and spiritual lives as Christians is our recognition of the primacy of God. We begin our spiritual lives when we realize that without God, our lives are aimless, pointless, meaningless. Scripture refers to this in other words by stating that the “beginning of wisdom is fear of God” (cf. Prov 1:7; 9:10; Psalm 111:10). This “fear of the Lord” is a reverential fear and respect for God due to his sovereignty as Creator of the heavens and the Earth. It is the bedrock of our faith. We must put God first – before everything in our lives.
In biblical language, whatever we put before God is referred to as idolatry. We can start with ourselves. When we put ourselves before God, referred to biblically as pride, we create problems. Whenever we try to run our own lives based on our own desires, wants, feelings, concerns, worries, etc., without considering what God wants to do in our lives, we run into trouble. Put another way – there is a God, and you’re not him. Only when we begin to properly order ourselves to God through obedience, humility, surrender, upright living can we begin to have the foundation for peace to develop in our lives.
Equally problematic are all the external worldly things and vices we may put in front of God. Many of us wrestle with the other “deadly sins” such as lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy. I think that most people would recognize that a life rooted in sin and vice would surely take away from God’s peace. Where disordered living is prevalent, there can be no peace. Scripture says: “My son, forget not my teaching, keep in mind my commands; For many days, and years of life, and peace, will they bring you” (Prov 3:1-2). Paul says: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness… In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (vv. 19-23; Cf. also Eph 4:22-24; Rom 8:1-13).
Yet, even good things – when not properly ordered to God – can also take away from God’s peace. What if those of us who are deeply committed to our faith walk put our family – spouse, parents, or children – before God? It is clear that our human relationships are given to us as a gift from God to help us in our ultimate relationship with him, but if they supplant the primacy due God, our peace is taken away. Or what if we become so preoccupied with our service to our ministries that we neglect our relationship with God? Our ministries are a form of service that we do as a result of our relationship with God, never before. In essence, whatever we put before God – whether sinful or good – can become a form of idolatry. Whenever we are worshipping anything before God, we lose the peace that comes from God. Scripture refers to God is a jealous God (cf. Exodus 20:5). He wants us all to himself.
Thus, for peace to develop in our lives, we must first surrender our entire lives to God. This was certainly the experience of St. Francis. Underlying every aspect of the spiritual life of St. Francis is his obedience to God. It represents one of the three knots on his cord and around our TAU. There is a fresco in the upper basilica of St. Francis which depicts the moment in young Francis’s life just after he had stripped off his clothes in front of the bishop of Assisi, his father, and the townspeople, declaring that his father was no longer Pietro Bernardone, but his Father who art in Heaven. There is an often-overlooked detail in that fresco that is highly significant and symbolic of Francis’s obedience. Francis is standing toward the right side of the panel with the clerics and bishop behind him, while his father and the townspeople are depicted on the left side of the panel. Francis’s earthly father appears enraged, with his fist clenched and reared back as if he is attempting to strike Francis, while another man (perhaps Francis’s brother) holds his father’s hand to prevent the blow. Francis, apparently oblivious to the activity surrounding him, gazes heavenward with his hands clasped together in prayer. At the top of the fresco, directly above Francis’s earthly father, however, is another hand – the hand of God – which protrudes from the clouds in the traditional form of a blessing. Francis has just taken his obedience away from his earthly father – and all his earthly pursuits – and given it to his heavenly Father. And his Father blesses him for it, while his earthly father curses him.
After redirecting his entire life away from worldly desires and endeavors – becoming a knight, focusing on money as a merchant, dressing in fine clothes – Francis sought to do the will of God. And Francis does so by embracing a life of penance. We have already spoken of his penance in preceding talks/chapters. Francis’s penance was lived out by embracing poverty and giving away his belongings, serving and caring for lepers, prayer, his commitment to community and the Church. And this is how Francis converted his life: through a lifelong commitment to penance. Penances are any actions we take – whether voluntary or involuntary – in order to convert from the “old man” behind in order to embrace the “new man.” (cf. Romans 6:6; Ephesians 2:15; 4:22-24; and Colossians 3:9-11). A number of years ago, I had the honor of serving on a Parish Mission Team in the Archdiocese of New York led by a wonderful priest named Fr. Tom Devery. He used to say, “You begin with penance; then, after you remove two “N’s” which stand for “no-no’s” and “nonsense” what are you left with? Peace.”
When we recognize the primacy of God, convert from our sins, strive to live upright lives, and put God first in all our affairs, we begin to allow peace to take root in our lives. Yet, we are not an Old Testament people of the “law” alone. Righteousness and obedience to the commandments alone do not bring peace. Peace does come solely by behaving properly. We can strive to be obedient to the law and end up like the Pharisees and Saducees. We can do our utmost to avoid sin and vice and, in the process, end up trying to “earn” God’s love and salvation by believing that it comes as a result of our actions and not from God’s grace. The truth is that we can never be good enough for God. Scripture says, “There is no one just, not one” (Rom 3:10). Or worse, we can end up judging “sinners” and “non-believers” out there who are far from God.
Jesus fulfilled the law by preaching a Gospel that was not limited to behaving properly; instead, it was an invitation to mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. We see this very clearly in the story of the Prodigal Son. (cf. Luke 15:11-32). Whenever we have fallen short – whether through gross sins of commission or omission, or perhaps through mild venial infractions – we can always receive God’s mercy through Jesus Christ. Thus, peace comes not just from behaving properly; it comes from surrendering ourselves entirely to God, accepting his mercy, love, and forgiveness, and living in relationship with him that flows from the Incarnation and the Resurrection. In fact, the times I have experienced God’s grace and peace most strongly in my own life have been during moments of weakness. Precisely when I have recognized my own shortcomings, limitations, indeed sin, and have accepted God’s mercy and pardon, have I received the most abundant peace. “where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Romans 5:20).
I believe we can say that forgiveness is at the root of peace. God’s peace penetrates our lives when we accept his forgiveness through the cross. However, once we realize, experience, and accept God’s pardon, mercy, and forgiveness of our own sins, it follows that we will forgive those who have sinned against us. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). As we can all imagine how a person who commits serious sins cannot have peace in their lives until they repent and convert; in a very similar way, neither can the person who is the victim of such sin have peace in his life until he can forgive his trespasser. Yet, this is required of us as Christians. Especially if we want peace. In fact, Scripture states quite clearly that we cannot be forgiven of our own sins precisely until we forgive those who have sinned against us. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your father who is in heaven will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive you your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15; cf. also Mark 11:25-26 and Matthew 18:34-35). We cannot turn to God asking his forgiveness for our sins and then turn around and refuse to forgive someone who has sinned against us. Why do we have to forgive? To have peace. It is clear that wherever there is hatred, anger, resentment, jealousy – there can be no peace. To achieve true peace, a gift from God, we must walk the path of forgiveness.
When we realize and admit that we are sinners, we then understand that the person who wronged us is fundamentally no different from us. Aren’t we all sinners, and haven’t we all sinned. Once we admit our condition, then we can have empathy for others and we can forgive them. We are all sons of the same Father who is the only one who is good. “No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18; cf. also Luke 18:19). When we admit our own sinful condition and truly experience God’s grace and love in our lives, then we become gentler with ourselves. It follows that we will also become gentle with others. When we begin to see others as ourselves, as people who are probably trying to do the best they can, then we begin to see them with empathy. And we can forgive.
Yet, forgiveness can often times be painful and require a great sacrifice on our part – especially if we have been the victim of great evil. Yet, we must find a way to let go of the very natural desire to hate, punish, condemn, and judge. We must leave that to God. (cf. Romans 12:17-21). Instead, we surrender and offer goodness to the other person – even to the one who harmed us. A practical way to begin doing this is to pray for that person. Consider every good thing you want for yourself in your life – good health for you and your loved ones, blessings, graces, financial well-being, etc., and ask it instead for the person who wronged you. Do this every day for several weeks. You will likely find that your anger and resentments have been greatly reduced or outright vanished. You will know that you have truly forgiven the person who harmed you when you are no longer concerned with the hurt that they caused you, but instead are concerned for the hurt they caused God and for the danger they did to their own soul.
Why do we forgive? Because we want peace and we want to be free. We want the gift of peace. In fact, this peace is not a result of something being taken away. That is, we do not pray that God take away our anger, hurt, resentments, sense of victimization. The reality is that they might indeed not go away. Instead, we pray that – despite our hurts and anger – we may become like Christ, and that God will do something positive for the one who harmed us. And, in the process, we receive a gift in the midst of our hurts: peace.
What about ourselves. Have we ever had a difficult time forgiving ourselves? Have we been trying and striving to make ourselves “good enough”? Do we suffer from a sense of guilt or shame that we never measure up? Do we feel there is something flawed about ourselves? Do we believe that God does not love us exactly as we are? Or, can we allow ourselves to be the people we were created by God to be without feeling that we should be something or someone different? Certainly there can be no peace when we have not learned to be loving and compassionate and forgiving towards our own selves? In fact, in the reconciliation process when we accept God’s forgiveness for our own sins and then, in turn, forgive those who have sinned against us, we must also forgive ourselves. We must learn to love ourselves. Not in an egotistical and self-serving manner, but in a way that is gentle, respectful and kind toward ourselves.
But what if we carry pain within? What if our families were “dysfunctional”? Do we still have pain we may have received many years ago as children impact us today? What if our parents wounded us – even if unconsciously – when we were children? Did they divorce? Did one of them have an addiction to alcohol, pills, or work? Did they neglect us? Were they so focused on their own problems, challenges, health, jobs, or something else that we were ignored? Were we unwanted? Were we aware of the pain it caused us? There are so many people today who go through their lives as adults with a deep pain within. Many are not even aware of it. They get jobs, get married, and have children. Many of them, however, have never looked squarely at their own wounded hearts; many do not even perhaps know they are wounded. They have carefully protected their hearts from further wounds through their own addictions including workaholism, pills and alcohol, negative attitudes, anxieties and depressions. Sometimes something happens to trigger the wounds – like a death of a loved one, the loss of job or work, divorce, etc. And then they are left to deal with what has always been on the inside. Obviously, there can be no peace until one’s own inner pain is courageously looked at and confronted. And when people become ready, God is there with arms wide open ready to heal the wounds. And when that pain is acknowledged and healed by God, peace comes.
Finally, what about God? Have you ever been mad at God? If you have, or are now, it is okay. God is big enough to handle your anger. He created you (along with the heavens and the earth.) He is big enough to take it. It is okay to be angry at God – for a time. Eventually, however, when you are ready, you can let go of your anger. The book of Job – one of the most ancient books in the Bible – describes well the problem of suffering and one’s relationship to God. The story is well known. Job, a pious and upright man, is suddenly plagued with total loss of fortune: his property, animals, children, and health. Finally, he succumbs to what is probably a clinical depression, and he curses the day he was born (Job 3:1-13). Nevertheless, Job never blasphemes God, which was the hope of the devil from the beginning. Just the same, Job does not understand why he is being afflicted so. And he defends his innocence against those who accuse him of wrongdoing, which, they believe, is God’s punishment for his sins. Just the same, Job feels indignant, anguished, and frustrated and demands an audience and an explanation from God himself. Then God actually shows up and challenges Job with questions of his own in chapters 38 and 39. This is what he says:
"Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size? Surely you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid its cornerstone, While the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" (Job 38:4-7)
The text continues and continues to emphasize how God’s ways are above earthly understanding. God does not justify or explain his actions; rather, he affirms his omniscience to Job. Job realizes that in the face of God’s almighty power, majesty, knowledge, and goodness, God’s ways are unsearchable. What right did Job have to question God? He realizes that he, the creature, can never know the mind of God, the Creator. Job is finally able to accept his situation, and he reclaims his peace of mind. We, too, may not understand the plans of God, or know the reasons for our misfortunes, trials, tribulations, or losses. Yet, in the mind of God, in a way that may always remain mysterious, they can have their place. In hope and trust, we can surrender our sufferings and frustrations – even our anger – and trust “that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).
Once I heard that we are all given a pile of bricks. We can use our bricks to build walls or bridges. Our pains can cause us to protect our sensitive hearts by building walls with our bricks; or else our hurts can be the catalyst that teach us how to use our bricks to build bridges. Bridges to others who will at first nurture and heal us, and, once we are healed, we use our bridge to become a healer of others. We become – in the words of Henri Nouwen – a wounded healer. In effect, the bridge is to God. Our pain may never totally go away; but we can use it to help others. Then we have peace.
Ultimately, peace is a gift of the Holy Spirit. At some point along our journey, we encounter peace – we receive peace. Peace is not something that we necessarily set out to embrace; it is a gift received. And when we receive this gift, we can face the world with all its challenges, problems, ills, and sin. Because the peace we have does not come from the world. It is beyond the world, which, therefore, we can face serenely and peacefully. “I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).