The liberty of the children of God is the cause of another privilege of virtue, no less precious than itself – the interior peace and tranquility which the just enjoy.
To understand this more clearly, we must remember that there are three kinds of peace: peace with God, peace with our neighbor, and peace with ourselves.
Peace with God consists in the favor and friendship of God, and is one of the results of justification. The Apostle, speaking of this peace, says, “Being justified, therefore, by faith, let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).
Peace with our neighbor consists in a friendly union with our fellow men, which banishes from us all ill will towards men. David enjoyed this peace when he said, “With them that hated peace I was peaceable; when I spoke to them they fought against me without cause” (Ps. 119:7). To this peace St. Paul exhorted the Romans, “As much as is in you, have peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18).
Peace with ourselves is the tranquility arising from a good conscience, and the harmony existing between the spirit and the flesh when the latter has been reduced to submission to the laws of reason.
We will first consider the agitation and anxiety of the sinner, in order more keenly to appreciate the blessing of holy peace. The wicked hearken to the flesh, and, therefore, they are never free from the disturbance caused by the unceasing and insatiable demands of their passions. Deprived of God’s grace which can alone check their unruly appetites, they are a prey to innumerable desires. Some hunger for honors, titles, and dignities, others long for riches, honorable alliances, amusements, or sensual pleasures.
But none of them will ever be fully satisfied, for passion is as insatiable as the daughters of the horse-leech, which continually cry out for more and more (cf. Prov. 30:15). This leech is the gnawing desire of our hearts, and its daughters are necessity and concupiscence. The first is a real thirst, the second a fictitious thirst; but both are equally disturbing.
Therefore, it is evident that without virtue man cannot know peace, either in poverty or riches; for in the former, necessity allows him no ease, and in the latter, sensuality is continually demanding more. What rest, what peace, can one enjoy in the midst of ceaseless cries which he cannot satisfy? Could a mother know peace surrounded by children asking for bread which she could not give them?
This, then, is one of the greatest torments of the wicked. “They hunger and thirst,” says the prophet, “and their souls faint within them” (Ps. 106:5). Having placed their happiness in earthly things, they hunger and thirst for them as the object of all their hope.
The fulfillment of desire, says Solomon, is the tree of life (cf. Prov. 8:12). Consequently, there is nothing more torturing to the wicked than their unsatisfied desires. And the more their desires are thwarted, the stronger and more intense they become. Their lives, then, are passed in wretched anxiety, constant war raging within them. The prodigal is a forceful illustration of the unhappy lot of the wicked. Like him, they separate themselves from God and plunge into every vice.
They abuse and squander all that God has given them. They go into a far country where famine rages; and what is this country by the world, so far removed from God, where men hunger with desires which can never be satisfied, where, like ravenous wolves, they are constantly seeking more?
And how do such men understand the duties of life? They recognize no higher duty than that of feeding swine. To satisfy the animal within them, to feed their swinish appetites, is their only aim. If you would be convinced of this, study the life of a worldling. From morning until night, and from night until morning, what is the object of his pursuit?
Is it not the gratification of some pleasure of sense, either of sight, of hearing, of taste, or of touch? Does he not act as if he were a follower of Epicurus and not a disciple of Christ? Does he seem to be conscious that he possesses any faculty but those which he has in common with the beasts? For what does he live but to enjoy the grossest pleasures of the flesh? What is the end of all his revels, his feasts, his dances, his gallantry, his luxurious couches, his enervating music, his degrading spectacles, but to afford new delights to the flesh?
Give all this what name you will – fashion, refinement, elegance – in the language of God and the Gospel it is feeding swine. For as swine love to wallow in the mire, so these depraved hearts delight to wallow in the mire of sensual pleasures. But what is most deplorable in this condition is that a son of such noble origin, born to partake of the Bread of Angels at God’s own table, would feed upon husks which cannot even satisfy his hunger.
In truth, the world cannot gratify its votaries. They are so numerous that, like swine grunting and fighting for acorns at the foot of an oak, they quarrel and wrest from one another the pleasures and gratifications for which they hunger. This is the miserable condition which David described when he said, “They wandered in a wilderness, in a place without water. They were hungry and thirsty; their soul fainted in them” (Ps. 106:4-5).
A terrible characteristic of this hunger is that it is increased by the gratifications which are meant to appease it. The poisoned cup of this world kindles in the hearts of the wicked a fire to which pleasures only add renewed heat. Is it strange that they are consumed by a burning thirst? Unhappy man! Whence is it that you thirst so cruelly, if it be not that you “have forsaken the fountain of living waters, and sought broken cisterns which can hold no water?” (Jer. 2:13).
You have mistaken the source of happiness. You wander in a wilderness, and, therefore, you faint with hunger and thirst. When Holoferens besieged Bethulia he cut off the aqueducts, leaving to the besieged but a few little streams which served only to moisten their lips. The besieged city is an image of your condition. You have cut yourselves off from the source of living waters, and you find in creatures the little springs which may moisten your lips, but, far from allaying your thirst, will only increase it.
The blindness and vehemence of our desires often make us long for what we cannot possibly obtain; and when, after violent efforts, the object of our pursuit eludes our grasp, anger is added to our disappointment, and both combine to throw us into a state of confusion. This gives rise to that internal warfare mentioned by St. James when he asks, “Whence are wars and contentions among you? Are they not from your concupiscences, which war in your members? You covet, and have not” (James 4:1-2).
Another lamentable feature of this condition is that very often when men have attained the summit of their wishes they are seized with a desire for some other worldly advantage, and if their caprice is not gratified, all they possess is powerless to comfort them. Their unsatisfied desire is a continual thorn. It poisons all their pleasure.
“There is also another evil,” says Solomon, “which I have seen under the sun, and which is frequent among men. A man to whom God hath given riches, and substance, and honor, and his souls wanteth nothing of all that he desireth; yet God doth not give him power to eat thereof, but a stranger shall eat it up. This is vanity and a great misery” (Eccles. 6:1-2).
Does not the Wise Man here clearly point out the wretched condition of one in the midst of abundance, and yet unhappy because of his unsatisfied desires? If such be the condition of those who possess the goods of the world, how miserable must be the lot of those who are in need of everything!
From the human heart in every state is alike subject to unruly appetites, is alike the theater of a most bitter warfare which rages among its opposing passions. When these importunate desires are unsatisfied at every point, the misery of their victim must be beyond description. The condition of the wicked which we have been considering will enable us by contrast to set a true value on the peace of the just. Knowing how to moderate their appetites and passions, they do not seek their happiness in the pleasures of this life, but in God alone.
The end of their labors is not to acquire the perishable goods of this word, but the enduring treasures of eternity. They wage unceasing war upon their sensual appetites, and thus keep them entirely subdued. They are resigned to God’s will in all the events of their lives, and, therefore, experience no rebellion of their will or appetites to disturb their interior peace.
This is one of the principal rewards which God has promised to virtue. “Much peace have they that love the law, and to them there is no stumbling block” (Ps. 118:165). “Oh! That thou hadst hearkened to my commandments; thy peace had been as a river, and thy justice as the waves of the sea” (Is. 48:18). Peace is here represented by the prophet under the figure of a river, because it extinguishes the fire of concupiscence, moderates the ardor of our desires, fertilizes the soil of our heart, and refreshes our soul.
Solomon no less clearly asserts this same truth: “When the ways of man shall please the Lord, he will convert even his enemies to peace” (Prov. 16:7). He will convert his enemies, the sensual appetites and passions, to peace, and by the power of grace and habit He will subject them to the spirit.
Virtue meets with much opposition in its first efforts against the passions, but as it begins to be perfected, this opposition ceases and its course becomes calm and peaceful. The truth of this is most keenly realized by the just in their practices of piety. They cannot but contrast their present peace with the restless fears and jealousies to which they were a prey when they served the world.