Tranquility of Order or Disorder?
by Father Paul A. Keenan
It seems that everyone today is looking for peace. Peace
in the world. Peace in the home. Peace on the job.
Financial peace. Everyone is looking for peace, but is
anyone truly finding it? The more I think about it, the
more impressed I am by the truth of a statement my
friend Dr. Wayne Dyer made during one of our
conversations and in his book Real Magic:
"You never get enough of what you don’t
want." We want peace, by which we usually mean the
absence of conflict, yet increasingly conflict is what
we experience. A friend of mine reckoned recently that
in the past four months she had experienced a car
accident, several automotive breakdowns, the illness of
several family members, complications regarding the sale
of a house, and ongoing health problems of her own.
"There’s no end to it," she exclaimed.
"It’s just one thing after another."
Many of us can resonate with her plight. We seem to
get more than enough of what we don’t want. One day,
while standing on a crowded train, I could not help
hearing the young man standing next to me as he talked
– much more loudly than he should have – on his cell
phone. Within earshot of a dozen fellow passengers, this
young man made two life-changing phone calls. The first,
to an attorney friend, revealed that he was about to
quit his job (just before being fired). After several
minutes of that conversation, he phoned his wife, with
whom he conducted a long and heated discussion that
appeared to end in the breakup of his marriage. Clearly,
this young man had very little peace, and his getting so
much of what he didn’t want was ruining his life.
I’m sure if I had asked my erstwhile traveling
companion if he wanted peace, he would have said yes. I’ll
wager, however, that he would have expressed grave
doubts about his ever being able to have it. That’s
the problem with the idea of peace most of us have: we
think that peace is something that we will have on the
inside if and when our outer lives are satisfactory. If
they’re not, we have no peace. Add to this a related
tendency to think of peace in negative terms. One
dictionary I consulted gave as the first definition of
peace "the absence of conflict." Most of us,
if asked, would admit that peace is not an absence; but
the dictionary shows that we speak as it if were. We
think of peace in negative terms. If I had asked my
friend with the cell phone what peace would mean for
him, I think he would have told me that he would have
peace if his boss and his wife would just "get off
his back." Yet I saw the expression on his face
after making those two calls, and it was heartbreaking.
He had just eliminated both the employer and the spouse,
and still had no peace.
Indeed, we do think of peace as the absence of
conflict. But do we really need to have all of our ducks
in a row before experiencing peace? I have always loved
St. Augustine’s definition of peace –
"tranquility of order." Notice that in this
definition, Augustine is very shrewd. He does not say
that peace consists of living an ordered life. Rather,
he speaks of peace as "tranquility." Most of
us who have tried time management programs know that
just because we are efficient doesn’t mean we’re not
overbooked. Having our time well managed on the outside
does not necessarily mean that we’re peaceful on the
inside. But when the order in our lives brings
tranquility, well, that’s a different matter. Some of
the best time management programs teach us how to order
our time according to our own needs and priorities
rather than have us order it according to everybody else’s.
Then there’s a good chance that our order will bring
us peace and not exhaustion.
So I agree with Augustine – peace is something that
is internal to us, not merely external. However, I
wonder – can we have tranquility at times when we do
not have order? Perhaps my question has something to do
with having lived in the late twentieth century and
early twenty-first, I don’t know. But whatever the
reason, I can’t help but wonder – is it possible to
have the peace before you have the order? It’s a
modern question, one that comes from living at a time
when so many standards, certainties and established
institutions have been scrutinized, challenged and/or
overturned. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact
that, as I write this, we are at war. The question is
out there – can you have peace when what you seem to
have is chaos and disorder?
There is a line of thought that says you can. I have
heard it expressed both from the perspective of religion
and from that of spirituality. It maintains that the
chaos and disorder we so often see before us is an
illusion. It holds that if we were perceiving properly
– through the eyes of the soul instead of through the
senses – we would perceive that everything – no
matter how shattered and disordered it appears to be –
is really in divine order, really and truly perfect.
There is a great deal to this perspective – it has
profound metaphysical implications and roots – and it
is helpful to many people in times of crisis. It can be
very comforting, when things seem to be falling apart,
to know that the eyes of our soul can be opened to see
purpose and order and ultimate safety.
Yet that line of thought can sometimes be a very
tough sell. My friend on the train who was ending his
job and his marriage would have a hard time buying it, I
would imagine. So would my friends who lost loved ones
on September 11, 2001. So would parents grieving the
loss of a child, for example. The pain of their losses
is very real, and it does not help them very much to
hear the aphorism that nothing real can ever be lost.
They are not ready to hear about tranquility of order
when they experience little but disorder. Is there any
peace for them?
Is it absurd to say that one can experience
tranquility in the face of disorder? There are several
ways in which I think this can occur. One way to find
peace in disorder is by distraction. Even – and
especially – when life is bearing down upon us, it is
important to have a reserve of people, things and
activities that lifts us up. These may include a walk in
nature, pursuing a hobby or an interest, talking to a
friend, taking time to help someone, seizing a moment to
"smell the roses." It’s important to choose
distractions that are engaging and close to the heart,
rather than just "vegging out." Staring
mindlessly at the television night after night is less
helpful toward pursuing peace than engaging in more
soulful activities such as drawing, listening to music,
or participating in a favorite sport or activity.
The reason that our soulful distractions lead us to
peace in muddled times is that they enable us to draw
upon the larger sources of energy and inspiration
available in the universe. When an area or areas of life
are disabled or blocked, drawing on other areas can
dissolve the blocks, restore the flow of energy and
guide us to new ideas and directions.
Another way to find peace in the midst of disorder is
prayer and meditation. This connects us with God, the
divine source of ideas, energy and love. There is an
almost infinite variety of ways to do this, including
journaling; oral, written or mental dialogue with God;
various methods of guided meditation; the practice of
silence; the reading of Scripture; and so on. Direct
prayer of petition and talking the situation over with
God are important methods of prayer, too; but they carry
a caveat. If we’re not careful, they can leave us
focused on the very situation we’re trying to
alleviate. We can become discouraged when our
circumstances do not seem to improve, or at least not
right away. For that reason, prayers of petition should
be made in tandem with other forms of prayer, so that we
can maintain our focus on God and not just on the
problem. The basic law of the mind is that what we pay
attention to multiplies. When we focus exclusively on
the problem, we tend to experience it as lingering or
becoming worse. Problems tend to narrow our focus, and
we need to keep ourselves spiritually attuned to as many
of the myriad avenues of inspiration and of the divine
presence as we can.
Peace can be ours both when we experience order in
our lives and when we do not. We do not, thankfully,
have to wait until our lives are all together in order
to have peace. We can establish routines of peace in our
everyday lives – special prayers, quiet places,
favorite books or poems, approachable friends – which
gift us with peace even in highly stressful times. By
creating little pockets of peace for ourselves every
day, we assure that peace is never a stranger to us and
that we can always find, inside ourselves, a corner of
© Copyright 2003 Father Paul A. Keenan. All Rights Reserved.
Father Paul A. Keenan: Popular speaker, author and
radio co-host of WABC Radio’s "Religion on the
Line," Father Paul Keenan likes to talk and write
about the issues that matter to people. Widely
experienced as a national and local television and
radio news commentator, he is the author of Good
News for Bad Days, Stages of the Soul and Heartstorming.
As Director of Radio Ministry of the Archdiocese
of New York, he supervises, produces and writes for
various radio and television programs. In addition, he
serves as a parish priest in New York City.
Father Paul Keenan, came to his
now-ten-year-old career in New York broadcasting after
having been a college teacher and administrator and a
parish priest for many years. He hails from Kansas City,
where he graduated from Rockhurst University and
completed an M.A. in Moral and Pastoral Theology at
Saint Louis University. He was ordained to the
priesthood in 1977, and went on to complete an M.A. in
Philosophy at Fordham University.
Father Paul is also known for
his work on the Web. He hosts his own website (www.fatherpaul.com)
and contributes regular articles to various other sites.
He is a regular columnist for the monthly newspaper,
"Catholic New York." His other talents and
interests include reading, cooking and being humble
servant to his three cats, Teddy, Lionel and Midnight.