Each day during Advent, the readings focus on the coming of the Messiah, a coming that promised to usher in among other things, peace. It is a peace that is anticipated by the prophets (c.f. Is 11:8), proclaimed by the angels who announce His birth (Lk 2:14), part of His endowment to the Apostles at the Last Supper (Jn 14:27) and the first gift given the Apostles celebrating His Resurrection (Jn 20:19). It is also a peace that, despite being part of our Christian inheritance, remains elusive for many of us. As we prepare to welcome the Prince of Peace, it is an opportune time to reflect on peace as the characteristic mark of Christians.
Definition of Peace
St. Augustine offers us the best definition of peace as “the tranquility of order.” It is an effect of having order in one’s life. As an effect, it is end in itself. While we all desire peace, no one desires it as a means to something else. It is simply part and parcel to a happy life.
Although we might struggle to come up with a definition as succinct as St. Augustine, we all intuitively know that peace has something to do with order. One of the main ways that people cope with anxiety is by seeking to manufacture order. For example, many people will clean when they are anxious in an attempt to create order in their environment. The disorder that is actually causing the anxiety will not actually go away, but they will find some semblance of peace in creating order where there was previously disorder, even if it is short-lived like most coping mechanisms.
Where Peace is Found
This definition of peace also helps us to more deeply understand a famous quote from Thomas Merton in which he says that, “we arenot 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.” Any attempt at socially engineering peace has the problem backwards, literally outside in. Peace cannot come from the outside but must come from within because the well-ordered society only comes about through the work of well-ordered men. It only comes about through the work of well-ordered Christian men, because only Christians have the capacity for true peace.
The narratives of the Old Testament orbit around man’s futile attempts to create peace for himself. It becomes obvious that it was a practical impossibility and that only a miraculous intervention by God could bring peace. As fallen creatures we find that there is a war within our members (Romans 7:23). In other words, we lack the internal order that creates tranquility. We find that the “flesh lusts against the spirit” (Gal 5:17)—our passions and our wills are constantly battling for control.
The path to order is paved by the moral virtues, those habitual dispositions that enable us to bridle our passions and ride them to the Good with intensity. But even that road is marked by sinkholes until we put on Christ and take our rightful share in His virtues. The Prince of Peace exercised all the virtues so that we might finally be empowered to be delivered from this handicap once and for all. In other words, by making peace with God, the Word Made Flesh also empowers us to make peace within ourselves.
First Obstacle: Sin
No amount of coping mechanisms can help us avoid the truth that we do not have peace because we have sin in our lives. When I say this, it is not so much the actual sins that cause the disorder, but the reason we commit them. In other words, the disorder is caused by our predominant fault, with our actual sins just being manifestations of this fault. It is not enough to recognize that I get irrationally angry at my family, but I must get to the root cause of my anger. Perhaps I do it because I crave comfort and do not want to be disturbed. Or, perhaps I do it because I am vain and do not want to suffer the embarrassment of being opposed. Or, perhaps in my pride I am attempting to control other people’s actions. It is the same sin, blowing up at my family, but its root cause can be vastly different—pride, vanity or sensuality. I may learn to control my anger, but until I attack the predominant fault of pride, vanity or sensuality, the disorder will remain. This is why we always use the principle of overcoming evil with good—we are habitual creatures. You can only overcome one habit (or vice) by replacing it with a new habit (virtue).
The Second Obstacle: Lack of Trust
Sin is not the only obstacle to peace. In order to see this, we must avoid the pitfall of assuming that the solution to a lack of peace is to be more “spiritual” by looking upon the world with indifference. Peace may not come from the outside, but the things that threaten our peace do. This is why peace is only found in those who have a radical trust in God. Life is full of difficulties and contradictions—in other words disorder. That is a reality that cannot be merely overlooked. But what is also real is that God uses those difficulties and contradictions to bring about what is good for us. God’s Providence is not merely universal, but personal.
Advent and peace go hand in hand. Advent is a time to “stay awake” so that we can hurry up and wait. It is a time to cultivate patience as we reflect on those things that threaten our peace and begin to see that God is at work in them. This is not something we will see all at once, but only grow in this conviction with repeated experience. He brought order out of chaos in creation and will do so in our re-creation in Christ. Peace is distinctly Christian because it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Like all fruit, not only does it have a certain sweetness to it, but it also is a sign of a mature tree. May this Advent be a time of maturity so that we may welcome the Prince of Peace into our hearts in a most profound way.