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Peace: A Spiritual Longing

June 1, 2011

The enduring formation traditions of humanity speak with one voice about the desire and need for peace as a condition for living a spiritual life.  They inspire us to pursue peace in the various articulations they present to our minds and hearts.  They remind us of our deepest longings, alluring us with the possibility of true and lasting peace in this life.

     Thich Nhat Hanh for example offers the following understanding of peace from his Buddhist spiritual tradition:

Peace is all around us –

in the world and in nature –

and within us –

in our bodies, and our spirits.

Once we learn to touch this peace,

we will be healed and transformed.

It is not a matter of faith;

It is a matter of practice.

For Hanh, peace is already there – or here! – in the world around us as well as within us.  We have only to reach out and touch it.  But it is up to us to do so.  The peace we long for is not an impossible quest.  By means of the right kind of practice we can attain peace and experience for ourselves that it is a source of healing and transformation.  To live in peace, our trust must be active.  We do not  achieve peace simply by believing in it.  Peace is practice.  The various elements in the lines of Hanh’s prayer inspire faith in the interconnectedness of reality.  In reality, peace is all-encompassing, suffusing all of life and available to us at all times. 

     In another representative formulation of peace, this one from the Catholic Christian tradition, Catherine of Genoa traces out for us “The Way of Peace.”  Catherine views peace as the culmination of a process of personal formation.  She lays out a series of stages along the way to peace, reminiscent of the stages of spiritual transformation.  Her prescriptions are therefore a guidance to souls.  God conducts the soul along an extraordinary road:

When the good God calls us in this world, he finds us full  of vices and sins, and his first work is to give us the instinct to practice virtue; then he incites us to desire perfection, and afterwards, by infused grace, he conducts us to the true self-naughting, and finally to the true transformation.

Peace increases in us as this process unfolds.  The soul that is “naughted” and transformed “no longer works, or speaks, or wills, or feels, or understands . . .”  In this state the soul begins to experience pure peace: “It seems to her that both soul and body are immersed in a sea of the profoundest peace . . .  the sweetest peace, of which she is so full, that if her flesh, her bones, her nerves were pressed, nothing would issue from them but peace.” 

     The transformation Catherine speaks of begins in this lifetime but is only completed in the next.  To grow in peace in this life we must overcome our inclination toward sin and spiritual isolation.  Purification in the first stage gradually gives way to simplification of desire, or what is often called purity of heart.  Our true spiritual identity emerges as we wean ourselves from ego-willing and learn to rest in God.  The restless heart more and more seeks peace and harmony in all dimensions of life. 

     Embodied peace is the goal in both of these traditions.  Body and soul, a person becomes peace.  Every fiber of our being craves and issues the gift of peace.  Transformed by peace we become the embodiment of peaceful presence.

     Our longing for peace is innate.  It is also an expression of the power of peaceful experiences in our lives and of their residues in our consciousness.  The longing for peace that tends to increase with the years is thus rooted in indelible experiences of profound inner and outer harmony and their consonant effects on our spirit.  St. Augustine’s insight about the essential restlessness of the human heart alerts us to our fundamental spiritual lack.  The awareness of restlessness, of dissonance, fuels our desire for peace.  It propels us to set out on the journey toward greater peace of mind.

     We desire peace as the alleviation of painful problems that torment us, and of conflicts beyond our means to solve or resolve.  We hope for the possibility of a peace that is stronger than pain and loss; the kind of peace which helps us to trust and to see that sorrow, cruelty and injustice do not have the last word in this life. 

     Transcendent peace, however, is not a species of invulnerability.  If we close ourselves off to the world, will we find peace – or merely isolation?  True peace is not the absence of conflict or difficulty.  It resides in the real world.  The peace of mind we long for can be established in the midst of the realities of our actual life.  We are called to find the way of peace amid the sufferings of the life we are now living.  This calling includes the ability to put a halt to the sufferings we unwittingly create and perpetuate.  By learning to bear life’s sufferings we will discover the promised peace beyond all telling, a flourishing of peace in inner calm, tranquility, self-possession, and courageous involvement in our present circumstances.

(To be continued)

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