Be Still and Know That I Am God
by Edwin Faust
October 18, 2012
Pascal once said most of the troubles in the world arise from the fact that few men are capable of sitting quietly in their own rooms. Of course, one might counter this observation by noting that Pascal himself failed to follow its counsel and spent much of the ebbing energies of his brief life in public argument with the Jesuits.
But the truth of a principle should never be measured by the ability of its enunciator to adhere to it. All of us fall short of our ideals, and our shortcomings do not invalidate the ideals. St. Paul acknowledges that we often do wrong, when we know better, and assigns the tendency to contradict conscience to “the mystery of iniquity”.
And the soundness of Pascal’s words is confirmed by experience. Little is ever gained by excited participation in the doings of the world, and much can be lost, most notably, peace of mind. And if the purpose of human life is to make us fit for Heaven, peace of mind would seem to rank high among the qualities to be sought in the here and now and carried into the hereafter.
How is one to achieve peace of mind? How can it be maintained? For answers to these questions, one must look to those saints who are styled “mystics”, such as the Spanish Carmelites, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. They were contemporaries and they both wrote a good deal, not about the great issues of their day (and they lived in extremely turbulent times), but about how to sit quietly in your own room.
The key to peace is indifference to the world. This indifference is not callousness; it is the discrimination between the eternal and the ephemeral. And such discrimination ironically is what uniquely makes one fit to rectify the world’s wrongs, even though one does not directly intend to do so.
St. Teresa won over her adversaries by the loving kindness that poured from her toward whomever she had to deal with, friend or foe. There is something about being in the presence of a soul at peace that has a calming effect upon us. We feel our own heart opening and see, if ever so dimly, that vision of unqualified love that is the vantage point of genuine holiness.
But when we qualify love, restrict it to those who share our viewpoint on this or that, who can help us in some cherished personal project, who feed our need for money or power or self-esteem, then we divide the world: there are those who are on our side, however we may define that, and those who oppose us. Life then becomes a series of contentious encounters, and animosity occupies a prominent place in our hearts and minds.
We can come to believe that our purpose in life is to achieve a set of circumstances in this world, politically or socially. And we can forget that nothing in this world lasts. The most glorious accomplishments are the creatures of an hour — even if that hour should last for centuries. Time erases everything, but how we spend that time shapes our souls, which transcend time.
St. John and St. Teresa lived in the 16th century, when Europe was convulsed by religious wars and Christendom was shattered by the Protestant revolt. In their native Spain, the controversies ripping apart Catholic Europe were compounded by the ever present threat of Islam. Yet, the figures that tower over the history of that epoch are not the great generals and kings, the movers and shakers of the world, but the barefoot Carmelite nun and priest who led lives of contemplation.
Public attention followed them. But that’s the point: it followed them. They never sought it, nor did they pay it any mind. They simply continued their mission: to guide souls to Christ through devoted contemplation. How could such a mission prove controversial in a supposedly Catholic society?
Because the positions of leadership in the Church often fall into the hands of those who are interested in politics and power, the Church then becomes an instrument of personal ambition. Anything and anyone who does not serve the ends of such ambition becomes, by default, an enemy to be vanquished. But how do you defeat an enemy who doesn’t want anything from you but the good of your own soul?
St. Teresa’s life was scrutinized; her visions called demonic. St. John was imprisoned. But the saints were not perturbed. What did it matter? They could love God as well in a prison cell as anywhere else, and did not everything happen as Providence decreed or permitted?
We appear to be nearing a situation in which it will become increasingly difficult to profess fully the Catholic Faith and find acceptance in the public square. And from within our own Church, among those who prize public acceptance over salvation, we can expect little help or guidance. We must be prepared for a kind of internal exile. We will have to learn how to be in the world, but not of the world, for the world simply will not find a place for us.
For the world operates on the illusion that there is no God, nor any Divinely fashioned law. Nations are now guided by men who think they are in charge of shaping history, as though creation belongs to them to do with as they think best.
It is, however, a world of ineluctable laws fashioned by a power greater than the human ego. And it is those who contemplate these laws who discover that they come from the hand of love. The history of our time may rest with men and women who sit quietly in their rooms, for there is no power greater than the power of love, and only those who love can wield it.
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