Readings: Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37
The official arrival of autumn this Wednesday unfortunately heralds the arrival of the cold and flu season. And as we know so well from past years, a cold or flu is something difficult to keep to oneself and it is almost inevitable that we will infect others without even knowing it. A similar spiritual, psychological and emotional contagion adheres to a spiritually diseased, conflicted, disturbed and agitated heart. This contagion is extremely difficult to quarantine and all too often spontaneously overflows our hearts contaminating and negatively impacting those we encounter. Accordingly, Saint James can ask somewhat rhetorically, where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war on your members? The peaceful heart, of course, cannot be quarantined either, but it often seems that the conflicted heart is more adept at spreading conflict and agitation than the peaceful heart its peace and tranquility.
Sad to say, the present state of our world suggests that there are significantly more conflicted and agitated hearts than peaceful and gentle ones. This is further compounded by the fact that conflicted and divided hearts have no qualms about aggressively pouring out their inner unhappiness, agitation and violence on others, whereas the nature of the truly peaceful heart is to invite others into its peace and wholeness. Furthermore, this invitation into peace and wholeness is not simply an offer to receive those highly desirable gifts for they are received at a price. This is to assert that the invitation of peace and wholeness is simultaneously an invitation to do battle and drive out enemies of peace who dwell within–what Saint James calls the passions.
Ideally, baptism initiates this battle in a heart that is still divided and not yet under the serene reign of the Prince of Peace. Typically, this is less a battle and more of an extended campaign that requires stubborn perseverance and unyielding courage and determination–something that the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert bears ample witness to. In practical terms, if this campaign is to be waged with any hope of victory, it presumes that we are finding the time to seriously attend to our inner lives through deepening prayer as well as resorting to the strengthening power of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. It likewise presumes that we are, as it were, regularly conducting reconnaissance missions into the enemy territory within and growing in that self-knowledge that uncovers the hidden locations of the enemy deep within our hearts.
And like most military campaigns there are victories and defeats, advances as well as retreats, but there can be no surrender! We draw courage from our belief that we do not fight alone but have Christ beside us in every battle. And with his help our perseverance will result in increasing regions of our heart being won over to Christ, thereby steadily augmenting our experience of the peace and joy of his reign. And so, although victory and peace are not acquired in a day or even in a month but rather in years and even decades to those who persevere, there is a gradual deepening of peace and a growing freedom from inner turmoil and restlessness.
And so, whereas perhaps in the past peace and tranquility were more often than not the exception and inner turmoil and disquiet the norm, gradually peace becomes our more natural inner state and turmoil and agitation the exception. And as peace gradually penetrates our hearts, hope for final victory increases. Reflecting this transformation and the hope it engenders, Origen tells us that those who hope do not maintain the same hope they had in the beginning. Rather when they make progress as God wants, they thus grow in hope, and the more their love is expanded the stronger their hope as well. And with this strengthening hope can readily join Saint Augustine in praying that while deploring my unfinished state, my hope is that you will bring your merciful dealings in me to perfection, until I attain utter peace which all that is within me and all my outward being will enjoy with you.
Yet, even before this final perfecting has occurred, our presence and our very being are becoming ever more adept at sowing peace and decreasingly prone to spreading conflict and division. In the words of Saint James, we find ourselves steadily shedding jealousy and selfish ambition. We find questions like, who is the greatest?–that occupied the minds of the disciples–are less and less important to us. Instead we begin to detect those wondrous fruits of inner transformation and inner peace, and in the words of the Apostle, find ourselves becoming ever more peaceable, gentle, compliant and full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And with unshakeable inner peace we happily embrace Christ’s instruction and are content to be the last of all and the servant of all and to recognize in this, true greatness.
This wondrous promise, together with the foretaste we have already had of the peace that the world cannot give, must strengthen our resolve to persevere in the daily battle that is waged in our hearts and whose victory is assured to those who do not surrender. And so, once more, we can pray with Saint Augustine: Lord, let me not waver from my course before you have gathered all that I am, my whole disintegrated and deformed self, into that dearly loved Mother’s peace, [that heavenly Jerusalem] where are lodged the first-fruits of my spirit, and whence I draw my present certainty, that you may reshape me to new form, new firmness, for eternity, O my God, my mercy.