“Seething Like the Sea”
Our Need for Peace With God
[From my book The Saints' Guide to Making Peace With God, Yourself and Others (Servant, 2001), © 2001 by Paul Thigpen]
For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him, provided that you continue in the faith …
St. Paul the Apostle, Epistle to the Colossians, 1:20-22
How many are your mercies, O God — mercies yesterday and today, and at every moment of my life, from before my birth, from before time itself began! I am plunged deep in mercies — I drown in them: they cover me, wrapping me around on every side.
Venerable Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916)
“Peace,” observed St. John Chrysostom, “is the mother of all good things.” Is it any wonder, then, that a prayer for peace whispers — at times even shouts — throughout sacred history? Shalom, the ancient Hebrew greeting of peace, echoes throughout the Old Testament, in the mouths of priests and prophets, kings and warriors, herdsmen and farmers. The psalmists especially cry out for peace, and urge us all to pray for its reign.
In the New Testament, the theme of peace continues: St. Zechariah prophesies that the Dawn from heaven will come to “guide our feet in the way of peace” (Lk 1:79); and when that Dawn arrives, angels announce his birth with a promise of peace on earth (see Lk 2:14). Later, as the Savior makes his way through a needy world, he repeatedly speaks peace to those who will listen and promises peace as his lasting gift (see Jn 14:27). Then after his death, resurrection, and ascension, his apostles repeat the blessing as they scatter across the face of the earth, bringing hope that peace can be found in him.
Yet to find peace, we have to know exactly what it is we’re seeking. Is peace simply the absence of conflict? Or is it something much more rich, full, and alive?
What Is Peace?
St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a brilliant bishop and Doctor of the Church, spent most of his early years as a spiritual wanderer, tossed by incessant interior storms, longing desperately for peace. After he found his rest at last in God, he gave considerable thought throughout his later years to the nature of peace. For St. Augustine, true peace is a kind of harmony, much like a sweet, vibrant musical chord composed of varying yet complementary tones. When differing elements — body and soul, parent and child, neighbor and neighbor, God and humanity — come together in concord, each in its appropriate role and place, the result is peace.
The peace of the human body consists in the function of its parts according to their proper arrangement. The peace of the lower part of the soul — our appetites — comes when these appetites rest in harmony; the peace of the higher part of the soul — our reason — depends on the harmony of our actions with what we know to be true. The peace of body and soul with each other is the well-ordered and harmonious life and health of the living creature.
Peace between man and God is the well-ordered obedience of faith to eternal law. Peace between man and man is well-ordered concord. Domestic peace is the well-ordered harmony between those of the family who rule and those who obey. Civil peace is a similar harmony among the citizens. The peace of the heavenly city — the city of God — is the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God, and of one another in God.
Order is the arrangement that sets things equal and unequal in their rightful places. The peace of all things, then, is the tranquillity resulting from such order.
The City of God, 19, 13
Sin Shatters Peace
If peace with God comes from living in harmony with his will, then sin can only shatter our peace. For sin is a deliberate turning away from God, a rebellion against his authority, a disordering of our relationship with him. Those who resist God thus make themselves the enemies of God. “‘There is no peace,’ says the Lord, ‘for the wicked’” (Is 48:22).
In his celebrated spiritual autobiography, The Confessions, St. Augustine told of his youth in rebellion against God. He observed how the torment of sin can force us to recognize that we are broken and disordered, pressing us to seek a restoration of the peace we so profoundly desire.
I was a poor fool, seething like the sea. Forsaking you, Lord, I followed the violent course of my own torrents. I rushed past all your lawful bounds, and I did not escape your scourges. For what mortal can escape them? But you were always beside me, mercifully angry, ruining all my illicit pleasures with bitter discontent — all to draw me on so that I might instead seek pleasures that were free from discontent. But where could I find such pleasures except in you, Lord? I could find them only in you, who teaches us by sorrow, and wounds us in order to heal us, and kills us so that we may not die apart from you. …
You humble the proud, who are like those wounded. Through my own bloated pride I was separated from you; yes, my face was so swollen that my eyes were shut and blinded. Yet even though you, Lord, are the same forever and ever, you do not remain angry with us forever. For you take pity on us, who are only dust and ashes. It was pleasing in your sight to transform what was deformed in me; and by inward stings you disturbed me, so that I would be dissatisfied until I could see you clearly with the eye of my soul. By the secret hand of your healing my swelling was relieved; and the disordered and darkened eye of my mind was day by day made whole by the stinging salve of a healthy sorrow.
God by His Nature Is Merciful
If our sins have wrecked our peace with God, how is that peace to be restored? How can the enemies of God become his friends? We’re morally and spiritually bankrupt, in debt to him; and we’re too weakened by our disordered state to right the wrong. Only God himself, then, can forgive us the debt, heal the wounds of our relationship with him, and reconcile us to himself. But is he willing to do so?
The saints have answered that question with a thunderous “Yes!” God is “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4), insisted St. Paul (died c. 67). His desire is reconciliation.
St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938 ) has come to be known as “the Apostle of Divine Mercy.” A member of the Congregation of Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Poland, her life was consumed by a desire to convince the entire human race that God is eager to forgive us and bring us back into communion with himself. Her diary records what the Lord said to her.
Tell the whole world of my great mercy. … Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to my mercy. … Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God. All the works of my hands are crowned with mercy. …
Let no soul fear to draw near to me, even though its sins be as scarlet. My mercy is so great that no mind, be it of man or of angel, will be able to fathom it throughout all eternity. Everything that exists has come forth from the very depths of my most tender mercy. Every soul in its relation to me will contemplate my love and mercy throughout eternity.
You see what you are of yourself, but do not be frightened at this. If I were to reveal to you the whole misery that you are, you would die of terror. However, be aware of what you are. Because you are such great misery, I have revealed to you the whole ocean of my mercy. …
Speak to the world about my mercy; let all mankind recognize my unfathomable mercy. It is a sign for the end times; after it will come the day of justice. While there is still time, let them have recourse to the fount of my mercy; … I am giving mankind the last hope of salvation; that is, recourse to my mercy.
Divine Mercy in My Soul
God’s Offer of Peace: Jesus Christ
How does God extend his mercy to us? St. Paul proclaimed that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” his divine Son, having been “reconciled to God by [his] death” (Rom 5:1, 10). But how could this death and resurrection accomplish our “atonement” — which means literally, our “being made one” — with the God against whom we had rebelled? St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), bishop, missionary, and Doctor of the Church, he tells how Christ could be our mediator with God.
We must remember that for this very end our Redeemer came upon earth, that he might pardon sinners: “The Son of Man came to save that which was lost” (see Mt 18:11). … By dying, Jesus desired to regain for God all mankind who were lost. Oh, how great is the debt we owe to Jesus Christ!
If a criminal condemned to death were already standing at the gibbet with the rope around his neck, and a friend were to come and take the rope, and bind it round himself, and die in place of the guilty man, how great would be his obligation to love him! This is what Jesus Christ has done; he has been willing to die on the cross to deliver us from eternal death. …
Man, by reason of his sin, was a debtor to the divine justice, and an enemy of God; the Son of God came on earth and took man’s flesh; and thus, being God and man, he became a mediator between God and man, acting on behalf of both; and in order that he might bring about peace between them, and obtain for man the divine grace, he offered himself to pay with his blood and his death the debt due by man.
The Passion and Death of Jesus Christ
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-386) was an outstanding catechist who became bishop of the ancient city where Jesus died and was resurrected. In his series of lectures to those who sought entrance into the Church, he explored the theme of Christ’s sacrifice by explaining that our Lord solved what constituted a divine dilemma: How could God accomplish both justice and mercy on behalf of the sinful human race?
These things the Savior endured, and made peace through the blood of his cross, reconciling to himself all things, whether in heaven or on earth (see Col 1:20). For we were enemies of God through sin, and God had justly ordained that the sinner must die. So one of two things had to happen: Either God, being true to his word, had to destroy all men, or else in his mercy he had to cancel the sentence of death.
But behold the wisdom of God: He preserved both the justice of his sentence and the exercise of his mercy. Christ “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we by his death might die to sin, and live to righteousness” (see 1 Pt 2:24).
Of no small account was the One who died for us. He was not a literal sheep; he was not a mere man; he was more than an angel; he was God made Man. The great transgression of sinners could not match the even greater righteousness of the One who died for them. The great sin we committed could not match the even greater righteousness that was worked by the One who laid down his life for us — who laid it down when he pleased, and took it up again when he pleased.
St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), a reforming patriarch of the great city of Constantinople, he marvels at the great grace of peace with God that comes through Jesus Christ — a gift far beyond anything we could deserve or even understand.
“And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7). What does this mean? “The peace of God” that Christ has made possible toward men surpasses all our understanding.
For who could have expected, who could have hoped, that such good things would have come to us? What God has done exceeds, not just anything we could say, but even anything we could understand. For God’s enemies, for those who hated him, for those who determined to turn themselves away from him — for these, he refused nothing, not even to give up his only-begotten Son, so that he might make peace with us.
This is the peace, then, this is the reconciliation, this is the love of God, that will guard your hearts and your thoughts.
Fourteenth Homily on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians
No Sin Is Too Great
So God the Father offers us peace through forgiveness in his Son. But what if we have serious sins in our past? Will God still forgive us and welcome us? Is his mercy great enough to pardon even the worst of crimes?
St. Augustine answers these questions pointedly: If God could pardon even the murderers of his own beloved Son, is there any sin he can’t forgive?
The Apostle’s Creed says, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” … Let no one say, “I’ve committed this or that sin: maybe it won’t be forgiven me.” Just what sin have you committed? Just how great a sin was it? Name any heinous crime you’ve committed — heavy, horrible, which you shudder just to think about — whatever sin you choose. But tell me: Have you killed Christ?
No deed could be any worse, because no one could be better than Christ. What a dreadful thing it would be to kill him! Yet the Jews killed him, and afterward many believed on him and drank his blood in the Eucharist. So even they were forgiven the sin they had committed.
On the Creed: A Homily to the Catechumens
Recognizing Our Need for Forgiveness
While some of us hesitate to seek God’s forgiveness because we think our transgressions are too great, others of us have the opposite problem: We fail to recognize the sins we have, thinking we have no need to seek peace with God. St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373) was a fearless mystic and visionary whom God often used to rebuke sinners in high places who failed to recognize their sinfulness. When she visited the royal court in Naples in 1372, she daringly spoke Christ’s words in the first person — a sharp prophetic warning that severely rebuked the sins of those at court, yet offered them forgiveness.
O my enemies, why do you so boldly commit sins and do other things contrary to my will? Why have you neglected my passion? Why don’t you pay attention in your hearts to how I was stretched out naked on the cross and cried out, full of wounds and clothed in blood?
But your eyes and hearts forget and neglect all these things. And so you behave like prostitutes, who love the pleasures of the flesh, but not its offspring. For when they feel a living infant in their womb, at once they procure an abortion so that without losing their fleshly pleasure, they may always engage in their foul intercourse.
You behave in just the same way! For I, God, your Creator and Redeemer, visit everyone with my grace, knocking at your hearts, because I love all of you. But when you feel at the door of your hearts any knocking of my Spirit, or any compunction, or when through hearing my words you conceive any good intention, at once you procure a spiritual abortion. You excuse your sins and delight in them; you’re even willing to persevere in them until you’re damned! For that reason, you do the devil’s will, contemptibly taking him into your hearts while throwing me out.
But this is the greatness of my mercy: None of my enemies is so complete or so great a sinner that I would deny him my forgiveness if he were to ask for it humbly and wholeheartedly.
If we doubt our need for deliverance from sin, and our desire for the peace that such deliverance gives, we need only look into our hearts, says St. Augustine, and witness the disorder of our passions fighting against our conscience. What we find will press us to seek God’s forgiveness.
Everyone who feels within himself his fleshly desires rebelling against the right inclinations of conscience — who feels the habit of sin, with unrestrained violence, dragging him into captivity — should recall to mind as much as he can what kind of peace he has lost by sinning. Then he will cry out like the apostle Paul, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ” (see Rom 7:24-25).
In this way, when he cries out that he is wretched, in the very act of lamenting his sins, he begs the help of a Comforter. And he has made no small progress toward blessedness when he has come to know his own wretchedness; that is why Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt 5:4).
On the Sermon on the Mount
If we need a further incentive to seek God’s forgiveness, St. Augustine suggests we should consider the alternative: Hell, after all, is the final, logical outcome of sin, the horrifying state achieved by souls when grace no longer sets any limits to their disorder.
If war is the opposite of peace, as misery is the opposite of happiness, and life is the opposite of death, it’s reasonable to ask what kind of unending war will be the fate of the wicked corresponding to the everlasting peace that, as we have noted, is the destiny of the righteous. The person who raises this question has only to observe what it is in war that is hurtful and destructive — I mean, of course, nothing else than the conflict of things mutually opposed.
Can we conceive a more grievous and bitter war than one in which a person’s will is so opposed to his passions, and his passions to his will, that their hostility can never be terminated by the victory of either? A war in which the violence of pain is in such conflict with bodily nature, that neither one yields to the other? For in this life, when this conflict has arisen, either pain conquers and death brings the sensation of pain to an end, or else nature conquers, and health brings an end to the suffering. But in the world to come, the pain continues so that it torments, and the nature endures so that it feels the pain; and neither one ceases to exist — lest punishment should also cease.
The City of God
To spurn God’s forgiveness, then, is to propel ourselves toward that nightmare of everlasting chaos awaiting the damned, a never-ending disintegration in which the human personality dissolves into countless warring lusts — the utter negation of peace.
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