By Father Jacques Philippe translated from Italian to English by Ven. Fr. Dom. Ugo-Maria
1. WITHOUT ME YOU CAN NOT DO ANYTHING
To understand how fundamental it is for the development of Christian life to strive to acquire and preserve peace of heart, the first thing we must be convinced of is that all the good we can do comes from God and from him alone. “for without me you can do nothing”, said Jesus. He did not say: “You cannot do great things”, but “You cannot do anything”. It is essential for us to be convinced of this truth. We will often need failures, humiliations and trials – permitted by God – because this truth cannot be grasped by our intelligence only, but become experiences for our whole being. God, if he could, would spare us all these tests, but they are necessary to make us discover our innate impossibility to do good alone. According to the testimony from the saints, it is indispensable to acquire the knowledge of our limits, because it is the suitable ground in which all the great things that the Lord will do in us with the power of his grace will flourish. This is why St. Theresa of the Child Jesus said that the greatest thing the Lord had done in her soul was to have shown her, was how small and powerless she really was. If we earnestly study the words in the Gospel of John, quoted above, then we begin to understand that the fundamental problem of our spiritual life becomes this: How to let Jesus act in us? How can we allow God’s grace to work freely in our lives?
We must not therefore force ourselves to do things according to our plans and our competencies, but we must try to find out what the dispositions of our soul allows us to act in us. You have not chosen me: but I have chosen you; and have appointed you, that you should go, and should bring forth fruit; and your fruit should remain. So to the question: “What can we do to allow God’s grace to act freely in our lives?” There is no single answer, for a recipe that suits everyone. To answer fully, we should write a treatise on spiritual life in which we speak of prayer, of the sacraments, of purification of the heart, of docility to the Holy Spirit and of all the ways through which God’s grace comes to flood within us. We do not really intend to do it, we simply want to treat one aspect of spiritual life, today too often forgotten. It is about this essential truth: to allow God’s grace to act and produce within us – of course with our cooperation – all these “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus in good works, which God hath prepared that we should walk in them”, it is extremely important that we strive to acquire and preserve inner peace, peace of heart.
For a better understanding, we will use an image (not to be taken too literally, like all comparisons). Consider the surface of a lake on which the sun shines: if this is calm and tranquil, the sun will reflect it almost perfectly and the more perfect the lake calmer it will be. Otherwise, the image of the sun would not be able to perfectly reflected upon it. The same thing happens with our soul, towards God: the more calm it is, the more God is reflected in it, his image improves in us and his grace acts through us. If instead our soul is agitated and troubled, the action of grace becomes considerably more difficult to perform. All the good we can do is a reflection of the higher Good that is God. The more our soul is calm and surrendered, the more this Good is communicated to us and through us, to others. “The Lord will give strength to his people: the Lord will bless his people with peace.”
Our God is the God of peace. He speaks and does not work unless in peace, not in disruption and disconcertment. Let us therefore recall the experience of the prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb: “the Lord is not in the wind, the Lord is not in the earthquake. The Lord is not in the fire, and after the fire a whistling of a gentle air.”
We often get agitated, we worry about trying to solve everything by ourselves, while it would be much more effective to remain calm, under the gaze of God, letting him act and work in us with his wisdom and his power, which is immeasurably far superior to ours. “For thus saith the Lord God the Holy One of Israel: If you return and be quiet, you shall be saved: in silence and in hope shall your strength be. And you would not.”
Of course, ours does not want to be, an invitation to laziness and inactivity; but an exhortation not to act, moved by a spirit of restlessness and excessive haste, but under the mild and peaceful impulse of the Spirit of God. St. Vincent de Paul, the least suspect of laziness, said: “The good that God works by himself, almost without anyone noticing it. We must be more passive than active; so that God alone will do, through you, what all men together could not do without him.”
2. INNER PEACE AND APOSTOLIC FRUITFULNESS.
This search for inner peace may seem to some, very selfish: why make this the main objective, while in the world there is so much suffering and so much misery? To this observation we must first of all respond that the peace in question is that of the Gospel. It has nothing to do with a sort of impassivity, of the death of sensibility, of cold indifference closed in upon itself, as with certain attitudes in yoga or certain statues of Buddha might suggest to us. On the contrary, as we shall see later, the peace we are talking about is the essential consequence of the heart of a true openness to the suffering of one’s neighbour and of genuine compassion. Since only this peace of heart is there for us, it increases our sensitivity to others and makes us available to others.
In addition we will say that only the man who enjoys this inner peace can effectively help a brother. Can you, in fact, give peace to others if you do not first possess it? Can there be peace in families, in society, among the people, if there is no peace in their hearts to begin with?
“Acquire a peaceful spirit, and thousands around you will be saved,” said St. Seraphim of Sarov, a great and holy eighteenth-century Russian saint. To acquire this inner peace, he made an effort to live in ceaseless prayer. After sixteen years of monastic life and twenty-five of eremitic life, he was attacked by a gang of thieves, he never resisted, they beat him mercilessly with the handle of his own ax, leaving him for dead; leaving Seraphim with a hunched back for the rest of his life. He spent 5 months recovering and then Seraphim spent 1,000 successive nights on a rock in continuous prayer with his arms raised to the sky, a Herculean feat of asceticism, especially considering the pain from his injuries. He then remained another sixteen years as a recluse in a cell. He had begun to radiate in a visible way what had been done within his soul, after only forty-eight years of contemplative life. But with what fruits! He became immensely sought-after due to his powers of healing and gift of prophecy. His ability to answer his guests’ questions before they could ask. Thousands of pilgrims went to him and left, comforted, freed from doubts and anxieties, enlightened as to their vocation, healed in body and soul.
The exhortation of Saint Seraphim does nothing but bear witness to his personal experience, identical to that of many other saints. The attainment and perpetuation of inner peace, impossible without prayer, should be considered a priority, especially for those who claim to want to do good to others. Otherwise, we would often talk to those who are in difficulty with our own anxieties only.
3. PEACE AND SPIRITUAL STRUGGLE
It is now necessary to dwell on yet another truth, which is no less important: Christian life is a struggle, a war without respite. Saint Paul invites us, in his letter to the Ephesians, to cover ourselves in the armour of God to fight “Finally, brethren, be strengthened in the Lord, and in the might of his power. Put you on the armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places. Therefore take unto you the armour of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and to stand in all things perfect. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of justice, And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace: In all things taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one. And take unto you the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit (which is the word of God).” He describes the components in detail, all the pieces of armour that we must wear and why.
Every Christian must be convinced that his spiritual life cannot under any circumstances be reduced to a quiet flow of days without history, but has to be in a place of constant struggle (against evil, temptations, discouragement), sometimes it can be painful and which will end only at our death. This inescapable struggle must be interpreted as an extremely positive actuality. Since we “make war that we may live in peace,”  there can be no victory without a struggle. This conflict is precisely the locus of our purification and spiritual growth, with this approach we learn to know ourselves, our weaknesses and God in his infinite mercy. It is, ultimately, the way chosen by God for our metamorphoses and our glorification.
Notwithstanding the spiritual battle of the Christian, although sometimes tough, it is never the despairing war of those who fight in solitude, blindly, without any certitude regarding the outcome of the confrontation. It is the struggle of those who fight with absolute certainty, that victory is already assured, because the Lord has risen: “And one of the ancients said to me: Weep not; behold the lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, hath prevailed….” Thus, let us not fight alone with our strength, but with the Lord who tells us: “My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me,” our main weapon is not our habitual firmness of character nor our human abilities, but our faith, this total adhesion to Christ, that permits us, even at our worst moments, to abandon with blind faith to the one who will not abandon. “I can do all these things in him who strengtheneth me.” And again: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the protector of my life: of whom shall I be afraid?”
The Christian therefore battles with energy, called to resist “For you have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.” But he does so with a calm heart and his struggle is all the more effective the more his heart dwells in peace. Since it is this inner peace that allows him to fight not with his own strength – which would be less – but with that of God.
4. PEACE: THE COMMON GOAL OF SPIRITUAL STRUGGLE.
We have already said that the believer in all of his battles, whatever the violence, will endeavour to preserve peace of heart to let the God of the host fight in him. Aptly, he must be cognisant of the fact that: inner peace is not only a condition of spiritual struggle, it is – very often – the end. It is quite frequent that the spiritual battle consists precisely of this: defending interior peace from our enemies who’s impetus is to steal it away.
If truth be told, one of the usual strategies used by the devil to drive back soul from God and thus, delaying the spiritual process, is to try to make you lose your inner peace, this is what Lorenzo Scupoli, one of the greatest spiritual masters of the sixteenth century says on the subject: “The devil does his utmost to banish peace from one’s heart, because he knows that God abides in peace and it is in peace that He accomplishes great things.” It will be very useful to remember this because often, in the daily conduct of our Christian life, it happens that we are wrong to fight – if we can say so – that we misguide our efforts. We fight on a terrain where the devil drags us subtly and on which he can win, instead of fighting on the real battlefield where, with God’s grace, we are always sure to win. This is one of the great secrets of spiritual struggle: not to fight, to discern, despite the cunning of the adversary, against what we must really fight and where to direct our efforts.
It is wrong to believe that in order to restore victory in the spiritual struggle, it is necessary to overcome all our faults, never succumb to temptation, to have no more weaknesses or shortcomings. On this terrain we will inevitably be defeated! Which one of us can claim they have never fallen? This is most certainly not what God requires from us, “For he knoweth our frame. He remembereth that we are dust.” On the contrary, the real spiritual struggle, more than pursuing an invincibility and an absolute infallibility that is out of our reach, consists mainly in learning not to get upset when we happen to be miserable and to know how to take advantage of our falls so as to rise higher. Which is always possible, provided you do not lose heart and keep calm.
One could therefore rightly profess this principle: the first objective of the spiritual struggle, to which our efforts must be inclined, is not to always obtain a victory (over our temptations, over our weaknesses, etc.), it is rather, to learn to safeguard one’s own heart in peace under all circumstances, even on the instance of a defeat. Only by doing so can we reach the other goal which is the gradual eradication of all our imperfections.
We must therefore aim for this complete victory over our faults and desire it, but remaining aware that our own forces are not enough, and not expect to obtain it immediately. Moreover, only the grace of God who will give us the victory, his action will be all the more powerful and swift if we keep our soul in peace and abandon ourselves with trust into the hands of the Father.
5. THE REASONS AS TO WHY WE LOSE PEACE ARE ALWAYS WICKED REASONS
One of the dominant aspects of spiritual struggle is the struggle on the level of thoughts. Often it consists in opposing thoughts that come from our spirit, or from the mentality that surrounds us, or from the enemy that disturb us, frighten us or discourage us, thoughts that can comfort us and restore peace in us. In anticipation of this struggle, “Blessed is the man that hath filled the desire with them; he shall not be confounded when he shall speak to his enemies in the gate” the weapons, which are good thoughts, namely those solid convictions based on faith, which nourish the intelligence and strengthen the heart at the moment of trial. Among these weapons in the hero’s hand, one of the statements that must remain close at hand is that, all the reasons that make us stray from peace, are always bad reasons.
This conviction certainly cannot be based on human considerations, but it is a certainty of faith, founded on the word of God. It does not hinge on global the reasons; Jesus told us quite clearly: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, do I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be afraid.” If we seek peace as the world gives it, that is, if we expect a peace according to the criteria of life that make the inner state depend on the good performance of external things, the absence of contradictions, the realisation of all our desires, etc. ., surely we will never be at peace, or our peace will be extremely fragile and short-lived.
For us believers, the essential reason for which we can always remain in peace does not come from the world: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would certainly strive that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now my kingdom is not from hence,” says Jesus; It comes from our trust in the promise of the Lord. When He proclaims to give us peace, to leave us peace, this is the divine word and has the same creative force as that which began the cycle of the earth to rise from nothing; it is the same power as the one that calmed the tempest or healed the sick, the same that resurrected the dead. Because Jesus said – twice! – that he gives us His peace and we believe we have His peace and that it is never withdrawn: “For the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance.” We are the ones who do not know how to accept and preserve them, because very often, we lack faith.
“These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you shall have distress: but have confidence, I have overcome the world.” In Jesus we can always continue in peace, because he has conquered the world, he has conquered every evil and sin, because he has risen from the dead. With his death he triumphed over death, he repealed the sentence and conviction that oppressed us and thereby expressing God’s benevolence toward us. ”What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who is against us?” … “Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ?”
From this unshakeable foundation of faith, we will examine further on, some situations in which we often happen to lose more or less peace of heart, trying to overcome the light of the Gospel teaching. But first we need to understand what it is, on our part, the fundamental condition for being able to receive the peace promised by Jesus.
6. GOODWILL, A NECESSARY CONDITION FOR PEACE
The inner peace we are dealing with depends fundamentally on our attitude towards God. Inner peace is a gift of God, the man who opposes him, who more or less consciously avoiding or evading his appeals or his needs, cannot enjoy true peace. Despite that, let us note that: when someone is close to God, loves him and wants to serve him, he will be open to receive the gift of peace; the ordinary strategy, put in place by the devil, will consist in trying to make him lose this peace of heart, while God, on the contrary, comes to his help and renders it to him. The factors of this covenant are reversed for a person whose heart is far from God and who lives in evil and in indifference: the devil will try to reassure them, to keep them in a false peace; while alternatively the Lord, who’s impulse is to give salvation and convert him, it will disturb and agitate his conscience to try to lead him to repentance. The peace of a man cannot be absolute and permanent, if he is far from God, if his deepest will is not entirely directed towards him: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
A necessary condition for inner peace is therefore what we could call goodwill. It could also be called purity of heart. It is the constant and stable state of mind of man decided to love God more than anything else, sincerely desirous of placing all circumstances of God ’s will to his. It may happen – will definitely happen – that in life all the days his behaviour is not in keeping with this purpose. Many imperfections will add up in the realisation of this desire, but he will suffer, they may ask the Lord for forgiveness and try to correct themselves. After any loss, we will strive to return to say yes to God in everything, without exception.
Observe what ‘goodwill’ is. It is not perfect, since it may well coexist with reluctance, imperfections, with mistakes, but it is a way towards it, why is this normal heart available (based on virtues such as faith, hope, charity), which empowers it with the grace of God and will lead us gradually, toward perfection.
This goodwill, this habitual determination to always say yes to God in both large and small things, is a “conditio sine qua non” of inner peace. Until we have acquired this determination, a certain uneasiness and a certain sadness will continue to remain in us: the restlessness of not loving God as much as he invites us to love him, the sadness of not having yet given him everything. Because the man who has given his will to God, is secure in the belief that he has already given him everything. As long as our heart has not found its harmony, we cannot be truly at peace. It will not be unified in the moment when all our desires will be subordinated to the desire of loving God, to please him and to do his will. This implies, of course, the determination to detach us from everything that would be contrary to God.
7. GOODWILL, AN ADEQUATE CONDITION FOR PEACE
We can also proclaim that this goodwill is enough to keep one’s heart in peace, even if, despite this, we still have many imperfections and shortcomings: “gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis”. In fact, what does God ask us, if not this goodwill? What more could he expect, he who is a good and compassionate Father, when he sees that his son wants to love him above all things, suffers from not loving him enough and is willing (even if he considers himself unable to do so with his own strength) to break away from everything that would be against it? Is it not for God to intervene personally so as to bring fruition to these desires which man, left to his own competences, is not able to perceive?
To support of what has just been said – goodwill is enough to make us pleasing to God and therefore to be at peace – here is an episode of the life of Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus, told by her sister Celina: “In a situation in which Sister Teresa had shown me all my faults, I was sad and a little disoriented.” Here I am so far from virtue – I thought – I really wished to possess it, I would love to be sweet, patient, humble, charitable… Ah, I will never succeed. “However, in the evening, during prayer, I read that to St. Geltrude, who had expressed the same desire, our Lord had replied:” In all things and above all, have goodwill; this single provision will give your soul the splendour and special merit of all the virtues. Anyone who has good will, sincere desire to work for my glory, give me thanks, share in my sufferings, love me and serve me as much as creatures together, will undoubtedly receive rewards worthy of my generosity and his desire will sometimes be more beneficial than not for others, their good works. “Very happy for this good word – continues Sister Celina – all to my advantage, I informed our dear little teacher (Teresa) that the dose increased and added: “You read what is written in the life of Father Surin? He performed an exorcism; the demons said to him: “We manage to overwhelm everything, it is not that this bitch of good will to which we can never resist!” Well, unless you have virtue, at least you have a dog that will save you from all dangers; console yourself, it will take you to heaven! Ah, what is a soul that does not wish to possess virtue! It is the most common route! But how many little are the souls agree to fall and to be weak, who are happy to see each other on the ground and that others will seize the act!” As evidenced by this text, the concept that Teresa had attained perfection is not perhaps what we would automatically think.
Let us see how the believer of goodwill can, in the light of faith, overcome all the circumstances in which he tried to lose this peace.
Nota Bene: This translation was made for some of the Novices of the Hermits of Saint Bruno and was not intended for external use. In referencing this article the Ven. Fr. Dom. Ugo-Maria ESB (csr) in translation, he used the Douay-Rheims 1899 version of the Bible in all instances but one when the Biblia Sacra Vulgata was used. Dom. Ugo-Maria was not sure which version of the Bible Father Jacques Philippe had used and therefore a slight discrepancy appeared in this articles version of Romans 11:29 (Please see reference no. 22 below). Furthermore, Dom. Ugo-Maria has expanded on some of the referencing which was not present in the original Italian text to enable the reader of the English translation, to have more clarity. Dom. Ugo-Maria is not a linguist (although his native tongue is Italian and German, his tertiary education was completed in England. He therefore apologises for any inaccuracies in translation as they are not intentional.
1. John 15:5.
2. John 15:16.
3. Ephesians 2:10.
4. Psalms 28:10.
5. 1 Kings 19:11-12.
6. Isaiah 30:15.
7. Saint Seraphim of Sarov (Серафим Саровский) (30 July [O.S. 19 July] 1754 (or 1759) – 14 January [O.S. 2 January] 1833), born Prokhor Moshnin (Прохор Мошнин), is one of the most renowned Russian saints in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
10. Translated from the letters of Saint Catherine of Siena; III to the provost of Casole and to Giacomo of Mancio from the said place, she states “e della grande guerra fece la grandissima pace” and the great war made great peace.
11. The Tribe of Judah (שֵׁבֶטיְהוּדָה, Shevet Yehudah, “Praise”) was one of the twelve Tribes of Israel.
12. Revelations 5:5.
13. 2 Corinthians 12:9.
14. Philippians 4:13.
15. Psalms 26:1.
16. Hebrews 12:4.
17. Lorenzo Scupoli (Laurentius Scupulus), c. 1530 – 28 November 1610, author of “Il combattimento spirituale” (The Spiritual Combat), one of the classical works on Catholic spirituality.
18. Psalms 102:14.
19. Psalms 126:5.
20. John 14:27.
21. John 18:36.
22. Translators explanation of Romans 11:29; N.B. “are without repentance”; that is, they are immutable and unalterable; God never revokes them, or calls them in again, or takes them away from the persons to whom he has made such a previous donation. The Scriptures in Hebrew state “that the holy blessed God, after שנתןהמתנה, “that he hath given a gift”, לאיקחנההמקבל, “never takes it away from the receiver”; and this is the “Gemara”, or doctrine of the Rabbins דמיהביהבימשקללאשקלי, “that giving they give, but taking away they do not take away”; the gloss upon it is,בתרדיהבי, “after it is given.”
23. John 16:33.
24. Romans 8:31.
25. Romans 8:35.
27. An indispensable and essential action, condition, or ingredient. Originally a Latin legal term for “[a condition] without which it could not be”, or “but for…” or “without which [there is] nothing”. Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.
28. Lucas 2:14 Biblia Sacra Vulgata; Translation: “Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.”
29. Consigli e ricordi” It was composed by Celina, sister of Saint Therese de Lisieux, drawing on her personal diary – partly written when the saint was still alive -, at her own depositions prepared for the Canonical Processes and some memories. Ideal completion of the “Story of a Soul”, is a collection of anecdotes that portrays Saint Teresa de Lisieux (1873-1897), just twenty years old, in her commitment as a novice teacher, a commitment that will follow until her death.