Christ's Peace in the Soul and Society
Note: There was a problematic use of a Neoplatonic concept, Intellect, which has no place in Catholic spirituality. Thomas Renna’s paper was not properly attributed for the ideas in this essay, which are in large part his. Finally, the new order of mass’ sign of peace was treated unworthily in the original piece, a sacrilege. Apologies by the author for these things. They have been amended below.
Peace is given by Christ to His disciples three times after His resurrection, as depicted in the Gospel on Low Sunday. How does His peace work? How is it different from that of the world?
The peace of Christ is given to us in a way that seems to be linked to his presence. This is the first clue.
But the peace of the world is different. The kind of peace that we usually think of is completely untroubled while it lasts, but is always temporary. The stoic notion of apatheia, for instance, is rooted in resisting all passions that are contrary to reason by the use of philosophy. St. Augustine famously lampoons the stoic sage being utterly terrified on a ship.
For Augustine, Christian peace is given by the tranquility of order. According to Thomas Renna (The Idea of Peace in the Augustinian Tradition 400-1200) Augustinian peace has the following broad outline: there are many orders, that is cosmic, social, and internal orders. All of them are interdependent. Furthermore, the cosmos, society, and the individual all ought to be ordered toward God. Thomas Renna’s paper is summarized in the rest of this essay.
Ultimately, the tranquility of order is rooted in the creature’s return to its Creator. By returning to God, man can harmonize his thoughts with his actions, which is the peace of soul. The kingdom of God, in miniature, is reflected in this interior peace. The interior peace is the natural tendency of the rational soul towards its rational part, and ultimately towards God. It is an internal ordering of the lower appetites (feelings and desires) towards rational order, subdued under the gentle yoke of charity.
In the later Augustinian tradition, assimilated into the monastic life, there is an emphasis on ascetical practices and the monastic life leading to a foretaste of heaven in contemplation: “Once the physical senses slumber and temporal cares are thrust from the inner recesses of the heart, this is the sleep in which a holy soul reposes in the sweetness of the Lord” (St. Aelred of Rievaulx, Mirror of Charity I.23.67). Once we are not so worried about things of the world and flee from attachment to sensible pleasures, we rest in God.
Moreover, internal peace becomes identified with the yoke of Christ, and growth in the infused virtue of Charity: “The mind which the Lord’s very easy and tranquil yoke–I mean charity–holds in sway will transfer everything that happens to it into its state of tranquility, not permitting itself to be upset by any disturbing events, but forcing the very changes of events to contribute to the benefit of its progress.” Christ’s peace not only gives tranquility, but causes difficult things to become beneficial to the soul. Our Lord does this by giving us sufficient love for Him to suffer for His sake, and to gain merit thereby.
Finally, St. Aelred contrasts peace of soul with what results when we live according to another yoke, that of our own willfulness: “But if a mind is habituated to the very heavy yoke of self-centeredness, its lax restfulness disguises itself as the sweetness of the Lord’s yoke as long as there is no occasion for agitation. But as soon as some cause for indignation arises, the savage beast soon bursts from the recesses of the heart…. By the dreadful gnawing of the passions it tears and bloodies the poor soul, allowing it no time for peace or rest” (II.3.6) When we are self-centered, we are far from Christ’s peace, and thus when anyone displeases us or dishonors us, our passions flare up and destroy our composure.
Because of original sin, there is a constant disturbance of this peace from the lower appetites. We are self-centered, as above, and follow baser desires. According to Renna, monastic theology introduced a new emphasis on the longing for heaven giving peace to the holy soul; if we understand this, we can learn to seek Christ’s peace and not false peace.
Peace in this valley of tears is an anticipation of the union with God in the beatific vision. Peace of soul reflects heavenly concord and the life of the Trinity. The possession of perpetual rest awaits the faithful Christian in the city of Heaven. The bliss of Heaven is a triangle of love of self, others, and God. Once attained, the internal peace radiates outwards from individuals to society, and thence to the cosmos. So in other words, Christ’s peace is, for St. Augustine, a public and cosmic affair: if one can attain it, one will tilt the balance towards healing the cosmos.
In fact, Christ came to restore our likeness to God. By doing so He not only makes our lives less stressful, as contemporary purveyors of secular tranquility of mind demand, but ultimately heals the social order. That is, social peace is a consequence of internal peace, and it is not a purely political struggle. Peacemakers are ordered individuals, peaceful in soul. Internal peace is a gift given to others. In fact, it is a consequence of the struggle of the Church militant to return to God. Peace of soul is no private affair. It has cosmic consequences.
In other words, contemplation is not anything like the neo-Buddhist culture’s idea of solipsistic bliss, and it is not self-centered mindfulness. Contemplation leads to peace of soul, and union of one’s will to the Will of Christ. The order of Christ then enters into the soul, and the peace of Christ is given as a gift to others in society.
During the medieval mass, the peace of Christ (pax) was passed from the altar after the Agnus Dei, flowing forth from the sign of peace between the celebrant and the deacon. The pax was passed to the congregation using a special image called the pax-brede. This pax-brede went through all ranks of laity from the nobility to the peasants, being kissed in turn by all, in a ritual that enacted the spread of Christ’s peace throughout the whole social order. The harmony and reconciliation between all present, believed to result from the ritual, was very important to social harmony in the high middle ages.
We see from this ritual that Christ’s peace is something that heals society, heals souls, and heals a broken cosmos. This view of Christ’s peace is intrinsically hierarchical. Perhaps we need to give Christ more room in the social order to exercise His social kingship if we wish to see His peace manifest more readily in the world.