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Father Paul Keenan

Peace: 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."

Heart Storming by Father Paul Keenan

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.

Good News for Bad Days: Living a Soulful Life by Father Paul Keenan

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?

Stages of the Soul by Father Paul Keenan

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 home.

© Copyright 2003 Father Paul A. Keenan.  All Rights Reserved.

Father Paul Keenan
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.





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