Edition Eighteen

Peace and Serenity: Twin Paths to Love

"SERENE, I fold my hands and wait, Nor care for wind, or tide, or sea; I rave no more 'gainst time or fate, For, lo! my own shall come to me."

"Waiting" by John Burroughs

The beautiful poem "Waiting" by John Burroughs describes a point of view which most of us would love to attain.

We read poems such as this in the midst of our own hustle and bustle and they soothe us, calm us and give us a taste of serenity and peace.

Often enough, though, we find that our lives are filled with the very opposite. Caught in the maelstrom of everyday living, we wonder, is it sensible to even think of seeking serenity?

I think it is, and I think there are a couple of different ways of going about it. But before we go there, let me share with you another sort of musing I have been doing lately about peace and serenity.

We generally think of peace and serenity as being synonymous. Yet there is something in me that is not quite comfortable with that. Peace, to me, is a quality of soul, that quality of being calm and tranquil within oneself. Serenity, I think, has more of a transitive quality about it. Peace does not require its opposite; serenity does. Peace is Mary, in the Gospel story, sitting at the feet of Jesus. Serenity would have been more Martha, had Martha not been so harried from her chores.

Let's work these musings further, and see if they can lead us to know better how to experience peace and serenity. First, what is peace? The standard Christian definition of peace comes from St. Augustine. "Peace," he wrote in The City of God, "is tranquility of order." When everything is seen according to divine order or plan, there is peace.

So peace is tranquility of order, but isn't that precisely our problem? Most of us don't experience very much order in our lives these days. Take it one step farther and look at the events going on in our world. Where's the order there, we wonder?

There are a couple of different ways of dealing with this problem. Some people will find one way more helpful than the other, and that's fine. In the end, each brings us back to the same place.

One approach is to take a metaphysical or ontological stance as to what is real and what is only apparently real. Since God is the Supreme Being, the argument goes, it follows that only order is real, since only order comes from God. Nothing can exist which is not maintained in the divine order. The appearance of disorder comes when we wrongly assume that the information we get from our senses and from ordinary human means of attaining knowledge is accurate. In this method, you come to order and peace through contemplating the essence of God and eternal ideas such as Beauty, Love, Goodness, Perfection, Truth and so on. Contemplating the eternal, you are enabled to discern apparent disorder and to allow divine order to heal it.

The second approach is less metaphysical and more experiential. Here, the emphasis is not so much upon the reality of order as maintaining tranquility in the midst of disorder. Here our disordered condition is seen as experientially real, and the question becomes: is it possible to allow these conditions to open the way to peace? I call this approach experiential, because it is rooted solidly in what we are experiencing – namely, that there is chaos and no peace. It is the method of the well-known Serenity Prayer: I can learn to accept the things I cannot change, to change the things I can, and to gain the wisdom that enables me to know the difference.

I think of peace as being the more self-contained, ontological quality. And I think of serenity as being the more experiential one, the one that thrives in the midst of its enemies. In religion, we make the distinction between the contemplative and the active life, and we say that both are paths to God. Peace, to me, has more of the contemplative about it; serenity, relates more to the active side of life.

I am suggesting, then, that on our way to God, we have a Path of Peace and a Path of Serenity. Each has a truth about it. Most likely we will find ourselves preferring one path to the other. St. Augustine, it seems, used a little of each; and if that suits us, so can we.

In the end, these two approaches to finding God are not opposed, but complementary. The metaphysical approach stresses that there can exist no situation that is outside the pale of God's love. The experiential approach highlights the truth that our painful situations can be doors that open us up to the power of that love.

The common element in both approaches is God's love. Whether we believe that divine love contradicts chaos or whether we believe that it appears to us in the midst of chaos, it is divine love that wins the day. Whether we experience it by knowing that it's there or whether we know that it's there by experiencing it, we know that peace and serenity find their ultimate ground and experience in the love that is God.

If you are perceptive, you will perhaps have noticed that in the poem quoted above, the poet has used the word "serene" where I would have used the word "peaceful." Never mind. If, like the poet, you find yourself calmly knowing that your own shall always come to you, rejoice. If, however, you find yourself unable to fold your hands and wait, do not despair. Accept the things you cannot change. Change the things you can. And learn to know the difference. Serenity, imaging for you the love of God, most certainly can be yours.

By Paul Keenan