Five Steps to Peace

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary - Johannes Vermeer
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary – Johannes Vermeer

I love this painting by the Vermeer. With his beautiful use of light, the 17th-century Dutch artist masterfully illuminates an intimate scene of encounter with Christ. The incident that he illustrates is recounted in the Gospel of Luke as follows:

He entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” – Luke 10:38-42

The Better Part

The Word of God is living and active, which means that it is directed to each of us just as much as it was to those who were the first to hear it. What Christ said to Martha was said with equal intention for our own well-being. It is written as “Martha, Martha”, but it could just as easily be “John, John” or “Jane, Jane” or whatever your name may be. God pronounced those words in the person of Jesus Christ with you in mind.

It is the only instance in all of the Gospels where Christ addresses20140418-112210.jpg someone by repeating the person’s name. When you read “Martha, Martha”, you can almost hear the calm tone of Christ’s voice as he lovingly calls her and tries to quiet her troubled soul.  Like so many of us, Martha is “anxious and worried about many things”: she is running hither and thither, frantically trying to hold things together and meet the unrealistic personal expectations that she has set for herself.

Mary, on the other hand, has chosen the “better part”; she has chosen the benefit that comes when your life is in order and focused on Christ: peace.

Peace is one of the major fruits of the Lenten exercise of self-denial. Between now and Easter, I would like to share with you some thoughts and reflections on finding this elusive gift.

“Distracted from distraction by distraction”

Peaceful moments are hard to come by in today’s world: there is always something to distract us and disrupt our inner equilibrium. “Distracted from distraction by distraction” is how T.S. Eliot described modern man in his poem Four Quartets. Henry David Thoreau was convinced that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation” as they struggle to satisfy their longing for happiness with empty pleasures.

Although these authors wrote in the 20th and 19th centuries respectively, how well do their words describe the 4392506632_a9a05202e0state of humanity in the 21st, and probably even more so than in their  own times. We often flutter from one event to the next, desperately seeking ever-elusive satisfaction but never quite getting it.

I am product of contemporary culture just like everyone else, and I have spent too much time and energy worrying about things that really don’t matter in the long run. I make absolutely no claims to having mastered peace, so please take these personal reflections for what they are worth.

Five Elements of Peace

From my conversations with spiritual experts and from my reading on the topic, I have found that there are at least five basic elements to finding peace.

  1. Trust completely in God’s Providence: As hard as it is, we have to learn to just let go and “let God be God”. When we finally let Him take over, the peace that comes is amazing.
  2. Keep your eyes on Heaven: Re-focusing on our final destination is essential to finding happiness and peace. Putting all of our stock in fleeting worldly things will only frustrate us.
  3. Make the best of your circumstances: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” As cliché as this adage may sound, it’s still great advice! Blooming where you are planted is one of the keys to finding peace.
  4. Live the present to the full: How much time and energy we waste worrying about what may happen or what has already happened! Peace is found when we leave both the future and the past in God’s hands.
  5. Do not “grasp”: We lose peace when we cling to things that we have or grasp for things that we lack. True peace comes when we content ourselves with what we have and free ourselves from the rest.

In my next five posts, I will deal with each step in-depth, but first we must ask,

What is peace?

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, “peace denotes the union ofimage appetites in one person”, or, more simply, “lack of interior conflict”.

We human beings have a problem: we are both spiritual and physical. Due to our spiritual nature, we are capable of an infinity of things, but due to our physical nature, we are limited and can only achieve one thing at a time. This means that we are often inwardly divided: while we desire many things and have the capacity to achieve them, in order to get one thing we always have to give up another.

Lack of peace occurs when we allow ourselves to be troubled by what we are not able to achieve. Peace comes when we focus all of our interior desires on the only things that can perfectly satisfy us: God and His Will for us.

I hope that you will follow the next five posts and join me on a Lenten journey towards peace.

A Time to Re-Focus on Heaven

2013-02-17 CES_Paseo_Greccio_164A couple of years ago, I accompanied a priest on a sick call. Since it was my first time visiting someone with a terminal illness, I was not quite sure what to expect or what to say. We entered the room and saw a thin old man lying in his hospital bed. After being greeted, he looked at us sadly, and with a raspy, gasping voice said, “Well…it’s all over!” I will never forget the priest’s reply: with a big smile, he looked at him and responded, “No. It’s all about to begin!”

As we tried to converse with the patient, I was having trouble thinking of what to say. The TV was on and a coach was being interviewed about the World Series, so I considered chatting about the championship, but it occurred to me how pointless that would be. This man was about to pass on to something greater: he was on the threshold of eternity – everything else was just fading background noise.

En route to Eternity

I really enjoy traveling, which is good because as a missionary I do it a lot. It has always struck me as interesting how life takes on a very different tone right before a big trip. As the departure approaches, everything else becomes less and less important; all thoughts and energy go towards preparing for the journey, and it becomes hard to focus on anything else. The life of a Christian is likewise an ongoing preparation for the final voyage – as we get closer and closer to embarking, everything else fades away in light of the ultimate destination.

The sun shining on an Umbrian valley.
The sun shining on an Umbrian valley.

Lent is about preparing for Heaven. It is not about making ourselves suffer with fasting and abstinence. Our Lenten sacrifices are motivated by something very profound: the expectation of eternal happiness. Through personal asceticism, we distance ourselves from certain goods because we want to be more centered on The Ultimate Good for which we are striving.

The Lenten exercise of self-denial is necessary for staying focused. If we do not periodically abstain from earthly pleasures, we run the risk of forgetting the heavenly ones for which we were made.  In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis puts it excellently:

…earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy [our longing for Heaven], but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.

I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.

A morning view from my dorm.
A morning view from my dorm.

Expectation of Heaven does not mean that we should go through life withholding from ourselves all that it has to offer. On the contrary, we should enjoy life, but we must do so realizing that each good thing is but a small foretaste of what is yet to come. Paradoxically, when we live this way, life becomes all the more enjoyable and fulfilling. Conversely, if we refuse to seek what is above and neglect to live for the joy of Heaven, we confine ourselves to the misery of shallow pleasures. As C.S. Lewis puts it elsewhere, when we limit ourselves to earthly happiness, “we are half-hearted creatures…like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea.”

An Eternal Weight of Glory

I love this quote from St. Paul:

Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-17

This verse resonates so much with me because not long ago I accompanied my mother on the final stretch of her earthly journey. Anyone who has accompanied a family member through a terminal illness knows that there are few sufferings as emotionally acute as watching a loved one physically “wasting away.” However, for Christians, this gradual debilitation is offset by what is at the other end. The illness and death, as painful as they are, are only “momentary light affliction” in comparison with the glory to come.

What can make terminal sickness seem like a “momentary light affliction”? Heaven.

We cannot imagine the beauty of Heaven, but the beauty of this620-667-I-G36 world foreshadows it. When we encounter beauty, like that of a gorgeous sunrise or a moving symphony, we are touched and our hearts are tugged; a desire for something more is aroused. Again, C.S. Lewis says it perfectly:

We do not merely want to see beauty…We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty that we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become a part of it…When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.

This is what Lent is all about: it is a time for reawakening in our souls the yearning that we have for the boundless joy that awaits us. It is a time to embrace a simpler lifestyle in order to enjoy the peace that comes with simplicity. It is a time for preparing to put on the “greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch”; for receiving the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”; it is a time to prepare for Heaven.

Silence in the City: Finding Peace in a Noisy World

times-square-photo-sunsetFor the past several years, I have always lived in or near major cities. I can genuinely say that I enjoy city-life; as one who likes to write, I enjoy observing people and the environments in which they live. I also enjoy the many opportunities that our modern metropolises have to offer, from art exhibits and musical performances to architectural masterpieces and museums. Cities are like magnets for skillful people: they attract and possess huge concentrations of amazing human talent and the marvels that come with it.

The Sound of Silence

Needless to say, just as much as they are full of human ingenuity and invention, cities are saturated with noise. As a naturally introverted individual, I find that to survive city-life, I need to get out on a regular basis. As much as cities attract me, I also feel drawn to quiet and desolate places where you hear nothing but silence.

When I was working in New York, I always looked forward to visiting my family in Utah. On one occasion, after traveling from a parish near Times Square to our home near Salt Lake City, I put on my hiking boots as soon as I could and climbed nearby Lewis Peak, relishing the solitude and silence that was all the more peaceful in contrast to the noisiness of Manhattan.

At Spiral Jetty
At Spiral Jetty

One of my favorite places in Utah is on the northern end of the Great Salt Lake, a remote place known as Promontory Point.  To get there, one has to drive miles and miles on a dirt road through treeless ranch land until you reach the saline-saturated shores of the Salt Lake. At Promontory Point, one finds Spiral Jetty, an earthwork created by artist Robert Smithson out of mud, rocks, water, and precipitated salt crystals.

Even though the location is not easy to reach, it still daily attracts at least a handful of curious people who want to see the earthwork. When I go there, I park the car near Spiral Jetty but then walk away from it along the shore until I find a lonely, out-of-sight spot where I sit and bask in the silence. There is something special about being alone in a place where there is no other sign of humanity: for me, it is a privileged time to listen to the Spirit, to forget the worries and distractions of the world, and to remember God’s personal love for me.

Whether we physically live in a city or not, we all live in a virtual city. Thanks to our gadgets, we are never far from the all that our urbanized world has to offer. With just a click of the mouse or a tap on the app, we can deluge ourselves with an infinite amount of words written about anything and everything. Having access to such a smorgasbord can be intellectually distracting, emotionally overwhelming, and spiritually paralyzing.

The Beauty of Silence

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Promontory Point

As spiritual beings, we are made for more: our hearts and minds tend towards Someone who made us for Himself, who has the capacity of satiating our every desire and giving us complete peace. The problem is that because He transcends us He is not immediately accessible to our reason, which is slowed down by its reliance on sensible information.

So, when given the choice either to reach out to our transcendent God or, say, to watch a movie or check Facebook, we tend to reach for the latter because it is easier to see and more immediately gratifying. However, if we take the time to discipline our senses a little and distance ourselves from the distractions of this info-saturated world that we inhabit, the experiences of God that result are indescribably so much more meaningful and beautiful.

Twitter and iPhones are great things, but sometimes it is healthy to take a break, in the way that a scientist closes himself in his laboratory or an artist retreats to his studio: to be truly creative and find personal fulfillment, we must find ways to distance ourselves from the constant hoopla and ballyhoo of the world that surrounds us. To be peaceful and happy, we must find silence in the city.

I think that Lent is all about taking this break. It is a beautiful opportunity to take a step back and focus on what is really important.

How to Find Silence and Peace This Lent

I recently read a blog post in which the author suggests somethingPraying Woman that he calls “input deprivation week”. The idea is to go a whole week without consuming unneeded information so as to focus on productivity. He challenges the reader to go seven entire days with no Facebook, no blogs, no books, no TV, no movies, no Reddit, no Twitter, and no talk radio. According to him, a week of dedicated input-deprivation is an amazing catalyst for creativity, so he advises that anyone doing it should always have a notebook handy to write down the numerous thoughts and inspirations that come.

I think that this suggestion is not only good for boosting personal productivity but also for improving one’s spiritual life. Every time we curb exterior stimuli, we create a calm and peaceful inner disposition that is conducive to listening to our Creator, to the only One who can give us total peace.

So here’s an idea for your Lent (which starts next WednesdayWoman-reading-a-book-on-sofa): deprive yourself of input! Do a personal input-deprivation week, or perhaps choose to limit your use of one or two forms of input until Easter. For example, you could give up TV and spend evenings reading instead, perhaps choosing books from among the classics of Western literature (check out Amazon’s 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime to get some ideas). Another idea: instead of turning on the radio every time you get into the car or popping in your earphones whenever you go out, try going around in silence. You will be amazed by how much God will take advantage of the quiet in your soul.

My Personal Commitment

imageLately, I have been feeling the Spirit moving me to simplify my life so that I can better listen to Him. This Lent, I have decided to translate this general movement of my soul into concrete action: I am going to go on input deprivation for the entire Lenten season. This may be a little ambitious, but I am going to give it a shot!

Since I am in the middle of studies, obviously I will have to keep reading the prescribed texts, but outside of that, I am going to commit myself to the following:

  • No extra-curricular books
  • No radio/no podcasts
  • No YouTube
  • No Facebook and no Instagram
  • No movies
  • No documentaries
  • No magazines or newspapers

So, what will I do with all of the extra time on my hands? I am going to leave that up to the Holy Spirit, but I am sure He has some adventures in store, as He always does. I will keep you posted!

 

The Statue of Responsibility

Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl

In Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the most influential books of the 20th century, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl makes the following observation and recommendation:

Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.

Honoring Freedom

For Americans, this quote may seem a little perplexing. In the US and many other Western nations, freedom is practically an absolute value, an end in itself. It is something worth dying for; it is something worthy of being enshrined in monuments and of being cherished above all else. To hear someone say that it is “only half of the truth” or “the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon” can be disconcerting.

Nevertheless, it is true. Freedom is a necessary condition, but it isimage not an end in itself. If you think about it, we actually honor freedom more for the good that it enables us to achieve than for the value it has in itself. We value freedom because it allows us to achieve the goods of a peace and equal opportunity. We honor those who have died protecting our freedom because in so doing they protected the well-being of our country, for which liberty is an indispensable condition.

A movie came out last summer called The Purge: Anarchy. It is about a future United States in which one night a year, nothing is illegal. That night, absolute freedom is allowed. I have not watched the movie, but I find the premise intriguing. What would happen if absolute freedom were allowed? Knowing human nature, probably not much good, as the movie portrays.

Guiding Freedom

Freedom must be tempered and guided; it must be limited. G.K. Chesterton illustrates this fact in Orthodoxy with the following analogy:

G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton

We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.

When the children’s freedom of movement was limited by the wall, they were free to play and have fun. But when the wall was torn down and they were allowed absolute freedom of movement, their games ended.

Higher Freedom

Gary Lee Price working on a model of the Statue of Responsibility.
Gary Lee Price working on a model of the Statue of Responsibility.

We have to limit our freedom to achieve higher freedom. Fr. Robert Barron uses an interesting example to explain this in his book Catholicism. No one was more free on the basketball court than Michael Jordan. He could do whatever he wanted with the ball. But that freedom of movement would not have been possible if he did not first limit himself to the rules of basketball. Similarly, no one was freer and more creative with the English language than William Shakespeare, but to achieve his literary freedom, he too had to subject himself to the rules of grammar.

Our moral life is the same. If we wish to achieve peace and happiness, we must limit and condition our freedom through virtue. Virtue may limit the options open to us, but it allows us to achieve a freedom that is better than absolute freedom: moral freedom, i.e. freedom to achieve the good. Virtue frees us from our passions and vices that incline us to evil; virtue enables us to do and achieve that which makes us truly happy.

And so, Viktor Frankl’s proposal actually makes a lot of sense. We have honored freedom with the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, why not honor virtue with a Statue of Responsibility in San Francisco Bay?


There is a movement to erect a Statue of Responsibility. To learn more about this project, visit statueofresponsibility.com.