“In His will, our peace.” – Dante Alighieri.
Perhaps one of life’s most paradoxical aspects is the natural inclination for peace. Paradoxical because despite this human desire for peace, we inhabit a world filled with anger, hatred, and violence.
In order to understand the reason for this incongruity between the desire for peace and a world riddled with discord, I will examine and contrast the two types of peace, one worldly and the other Godly. I will conclude by showing why worldly peace is inadequate and inferior to the peace afforded by God.
Worldly (secular) peace is the one we are most familiar with. The absence of conflict, tranquility, and harmonious relationships characterizes this kind of peace. It is also the peace of family members who do not speak to one another so as to avoid a fight. Unfortunately, secular peace is frequently not true peace, for it is marked by separation and mistrust. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King expressed this type of peace as a “negative” peace. “A negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Nevertheless, in a world where nations and individuals are often at odds with one another, this type of peace is undoubtedly attractive and often even necessary.
Doctor King’s comments highlight a significant difference between worldly and Godly peace. Worldly peace seeks to placate and separate. Godly peace, on the other hand, seeks justice and unification.
From a Catholic perspective, this dichotomy between worldly peace and Godly peace is articulated by Christ’s own words, “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). What makes Godly peace different from the peace that the world offers? To answer that question, it is helpful to study the effects of Godly peace before looking at why Godly peace differs from worldly peace.
The first point to note is that, unlike secular peace, God’s peace is not contingent upon circumstances. When we are not arguing with anyone, when our lives are calm, when our country is not at war, we experience worldly peace. However, as soon as any of those circumstances change, we are upset.
In contrast to the contingent nature of secular peace, God’s peace endures regardless of our external circumstances. There are two ways in which the peace provided by God can be understood. In the first way, it is the recognition that sin is the foundation for conflict and upheaval. Owing to the effects of original sin, human beings not only became subject to death but also developed an increasing antipathy between each person and God and between each person and others. One need not make much effort to see the consequences wrought by original sin in our world today. From wars among nations to domestic abuse, strife is ubiquitous.
This leads to the second way to understand Godly peace: as a three-level unifying force. At the first level, one obtains peace with himself. At the second level, one is at peace with others. Finally, one is at peace with God. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton articulated this three-fold peace this way, “We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.”
In a real sense, peace begins at the level of the individual. Since Godly peace entails a kind of unification, peace at the level of the individual means a proper ordering of the body (passions and emotions) to the soul (rationality and spirituality). Second, one is at peace with other people. While this type of peace is frequently the most problematic, it is predicated upon the love of God. For to love God is to love what God loves, and God loves His creation. Finally, the integrated person must order himself to God.
How can this ordering – and the attendant peace – be obtained? Like our salvation, it cannot be achieved by human effort alone. So, the first step in attaining Godly peace requires God’s Grace. Since Grace is an unmerited favor, one can only pray for it. The second step requires subordinating the body to the soul. Said differently, it is placing reason above the passions. Traditionally, this involves the practice of mortification. Finally, one must be in right relationship with God. This requires partaking of the sacraments, in particular, baptism, confession, and communion.
In his seminal work, “City of God,” Saint Augustine argues that the peace that only God can give is the highest good to obtain. Since peace is ultimately gained by union with God, and since this union is a result of love (caritas), peace – the peace of God – must be our goal in this life.