The Path to Peace in Four Little Words
St. Augustine on peace
BY Donald DeMarco
Nov. 3-16, 2013 Issue | Posted 11/10/13 at 7:28 AM
We have all heard the familiar refrain, either directly or portrayed in popular culture: "If only the phone would stop ringing, and the kids would stop fighting, and my husband/wife would stop pestering me, maybe then I would get some peace around here."
Many of us can relate to this, in one way or another; but apart from the general grouchiness, there is something wrong with this perspective on a fundamental level. Yes, we all desire peace, but we often fall into the fallacy of believing that peace will prosper with the mere removal of its obstacles.
At the same time, we all know that the mere removal of weeds does not cause roses to grow. We must plant the roses if we want them to appear. When all the obstacles to peace have been removed, what is usually left is a void — and one that is soon filled with boredom.
Peace is elusive because we view it in terms of what it is not: Peace is the end of war, the absence of turmoil, the resolution of conflict, the cessation of noise and so on.
But once these barriers have been taken away, will peace blossom spontaneously? What, then, is peace in a positive sense?
St. Augustine’s definition of peace as "the tranquility of order" is positive as well as enlightening. It is also both edifying and profound.
In his treatise Explaining the Psalms (143), the bishop of Hippo urges us to "acknowledge order; seek peace" ("agnosce ordinem; quare pacem"). Yes, one might say, but that is not very clear. It is a mandate without a blueprint.
But Augustine does not abandon us to vagaries. He then gives us directions in four little words: "Tu Deo; tibi caro" (You belong to God; your flesh belongs to you). According to the classical translation, "Be thou subject to God and thy flesh subject to thee."
St. Augustine outlines how one order fits into another order. The first order (tibi caro) that he mentions second means that your flesh should be ordered to your spirit. Another way of putting this is to say that reason should be in charge so that it orders or directs the passions in a way that is good for the whole person. The great doctor of the Church is not identifying spirit with reason, but indicating that reason is the faculty that orders the passions so that they serve the good of the spirit. When the passions are in charge, reason goes on a holiday, and the integrity of the person is lost.
The order of flesh to spirit is then ordered to the second order (tu Deo), so that the whole person (the spirit together with the passions, properly subordinated) is ordered to God. This double ordering of flesh to spirit and then whole person to God is the basis for that "tranquility of order" that St. Augustine promises.
We get a sense of the peace that order can convey in poetry and in music. Poetry is simply the right words in the right order. In music, the word "melody" comes from two Greek words which, taken together, mean "beautiful road." The melody in music is made up of the right notes in the right order.
Robert Browning’s little poem Pippa’s Song, which, as a "song," has music of its own (it is an octave), beautifully conveys the glow of peace that comes with the right ordering of things:
The year ’s at the spring,
And day ’s at the morn;
Morning ’s at seven
The hill-side ’s dew-pearl’d;
The lark ’s on the wing;
The snail ’s on the thorn;
God ’s in His heaven —
All ’s right with the world!
There is good reason why life is often referred to as a journey or a path and why we are called pilgrims or wayfarers. We cannot reach our goals or attain our destinies unless we order our lives to suit those ends. And we cannot order the steps we must take in our life journeys unless we first get ourselves in order by subjecting our flesh to the spirit and our being to God.
This ordering brings peace. Anxiety occurs when our life is disordered, when we cannot make sense of it, when we do not know where we are going and when things are "out of joint." It is said that we live in an "Age of Anxiety." If this is the case, then we also live in an age of restlessness.
St. Augustine’s great personal revelation, Confessions, is about his pilgrimage, thanks to God’s grace, from restlessness (inquietum) to peace (pacem).
He is assuring each one of us that if we put our own lives in order and trust in God, we too can pass from the burden of anxiety to the blessing of peace.
is a senior fellow of Human
Life International. He is professor emeritus at
St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada,
an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles
College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut,
and a regular columnist for
St. Austin Review. Some of his recent
writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth &
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