Troubled Hearts: First Meditation

Peace in the Eyes of St. Paul

  • A Core Value for St. Paul
  • A Core Value for Jesus
  • The “Ara Pacis”
  • Conclusion & Reflections

A Core Value for St. Paul

For St. Paul, author of a large portion of the New Testament, peace is a core value of the Gospel. In fact, he begins every single one of his New Testament Letters by invoking the peace of God on those he is writing to.
He writes: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7; cf 1 Corinthians 1:3, 2 Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:3, Ephesians 1:2, Philippians 1:2, Colossians 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2 Thessalonians 1:2, 1 Timothy 1:2, 2 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:4, Philemon v3).
To greet someone by wishing them peace — the Hebrew word “Shalom” and the Greek word “Eirene” — was a common thing among Jews of St. Paul’s time, but just because it was common does not imply it was meaningless.
In fact, we know for certain that St. Paul meant what he said — he wasn’t just saying it because that’s what everybody said at the beginning of letters. How do we know this? Because he always, in every single one of those Letters, links the word “peace” with the word “grace,” and that was not common.
And then he always goes on to specifically describe what kind of grace and peace he is invoking: the special, absolutely unique kind that comes only from “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace and peace, then, for St. Paul, are a summary of the entire Gospel.
Grace — the Greek word is “charis” — referred to the beautiful and absolutely unconditional love of God, which comes to us in Jesus as a saving gift. Grace, in other words, is salvation itself, the redemption from sin that God offers us freely in Christ. And in St. Paul’s mind, that grace, that overflowing and redeeming love that God has for each one of us, is always linked to peace.

In the Old Testament tradition, peace — shalom — meant much more than simply the absence of turmoil. It also implied the presence of everything that would permit prosperity, growth, flourishing, blossoming, and fulfillment. It was the summary of all good things, all things that bring joy and meaning and happiness to the human heart.
That’s what “peace” means in the Bible. And that peace, in the mind of St. Paul, is the direct result of grace. In other words, when we receive the gift of grace, it brings peace — wholeness, vitality, hope, joy, meaning — to our hearts. Grace is the soil of the Christian life, and peace is the fruit. This is why St. Paul begins every single one of his New Testament Letters by invoking God’s grace and peace on his readers.

 

A Core Value for Jesus

St. Paul wasn’t just making this up. Peace was a core value for him, because it was a core value for Jesus. One of the titles given to the promised Messiah in the Old Testament was, “Prince of Peace.” And on the night of Christ’s birth, when the host of angels appeared to the shepherds, what was their song? “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). “Peace” and “favor,” another way of saying, “grace and peace.” And Jesus himself emphasized the peace he wants to give us, the interior fullness of meaning and purpose and joy that makes life truly worth living, over and over again.
He often ended his encounters with people whose faith obtained miracles of healing and forgiveness with the phrase: “Go in peace” (John 4:50, Luke 7:50, Mark 5:34).
When he gave instructions to his disciples about how they should spread the Gospel, he instructed them to begin their ministry by telling people, “Peace be with you.” And after his Resurrection, when he appeared to his frightened, discouraged, and confused Apostles, he said to them, repeatedly, “Peace be with you” (John 20: 19, 21, 26).
The peace that Jesus wants to give us was so central, in fact, that the Holy Spirit firmly embedded it right smack in the middle of the holiest moment in the life of the Church.
Every single time we celebrate Holy Communion, right before we come up to receive the Eucharist, we hear the priest remind us of this inheritance of peace that Jesus bestows on us, repeating the words Our Lord spoke at the Last Supper as he says:
Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles: Peace I leave you, my peace I give you; look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will.
And this is where we find the answer to our question: How is it that Jesus can command us to not let our hearts be troubled?
Only because with the gift of his grace — of his redeeming and transforming love, of his forgiveness, of his loving presence, with the gift, in short, of himself — he gives us everything we need to experience always and everywhere the peace of his eternal Kingdom.
He is the Prince of Peace; he is the Lord of life and history; his Kingdom will have no end. We can’t keep our hearts from being troubled by leaning on our own strength and self-control, but we can conquer the trouble in our hearts by leaning on Jesus.
As St. Richard of Chichester put it, the more clearly we know him, the more dearly we love him, the more nearly we follow him, the more fully his peace will fill and overflow from our hearts.

The “Ara Pacis”

If you happened to be a tourist visiting Rome, and if you had a particularly good tour guide, you might take a short walk from your hotel to visit a little known but truly remarkable remnant of the ancient world,
a monument that has a curious relevance for our meditation on Christ’s peace.
This marble monument is known as the “Ara Pacis Augustae”, the “Altar of Augustine’s Peace.” It was erected by the Roman Senate in 9 BC in honor of Augustus Caesar, immediately after the end of the wars in Gaul and Spain. It was a symbol of the famed “Pax Romana”, the “Roman Peace.”

The Pax Romana was an achievement unmatched before or since: a state of world order in which the entire Mediterranean basin, the entire western world at the time, was experiencing universal peace and prosperity. War had been banished, poverty and chaos had been overcome, and everyone attributed it to the great work of Augustus Caesar.
For this they began to call him “Salvator Mundi”, the “Savior of the World”, and “Filius Dei”, the “Son of God”. And once a year, on the Ara Pacis, this altar of peace, Rome’s High Priest presided over a colossal procession and liturgy centered on a sacrifice offered in order to perpetuate this universal peace and prosperity.
The marble altar itself is located at the top of a marble staircase and surrounded by a roofless enclosure with elaborate marble sculptures. If you were a tourist visiting this site, the tour guide would certainly point out that these sculptures include artistic motifs that dominated art in the Roman Empire for centuries afterwards.
Take for instance the ubiquitous vines and interwoven plants — these powerfully symbolized the peace and prosperity of the Pax Romana, to the perpetuation of which this altar bore its yearly sacrifice.
Or take as another example the wreaths that decorate the figures and the marble facing itself – these signified the victory that Augustan had won over all of Rome’s enemies, and the everlasting nature of that victory. Then there are the figures themselves, the scenes sculpted into the marble enclosure.
In them we see depicted both the pagan liturgical procession — like a triumphal parade showcasing the spoils of war and the fruits of peace — and the pagan sacrifice, and also Augustan himself and his achievements which led to the Universal Peace of the “Pax Romana.”
Even the shape of the monument has deep symbolic meaning. It is a block, open to the air and to its surroundings, unlike the typical pagan temples of the time, which led their worshippers through a maze of imposing columns into a dark, mysterious cavern where the deity dwelt. Here there is no separation between the earthly and heavenly realms.
Why the difference? At the time, the ancient Romans believed that with Augustus the reign of divine
peace had finally come to earth — no more fear and confusion, no more darkness and cowering: all light, openness, hope, completion. All of that you would see and learn, if you were a tourist in Rome.
But if you were a pilgrim in Rome, and you visited this ancient monument, you would see much, much more. You would see a cosmic, providential irony.
Because Augustus was not the “Savior of the World,” nor the “Son of God.” And the Pax Romana was not the universal and everlasting peace and prosperity — the Roman Empire came crashing down, as all earthly empires eventually do.
Yet, 5 years after the Ara Pacis was dedicated, the true Savior of the World and Son of God DID come to
earth. His name was Jesus Christ; and he DID establish his Kingdom of everlasting peace and prosperity. It is a Kingdom that Jesus planted here on earth like a mustard seed (cf. Matthew 13:31-32) with the foundation of the Catholic Church, and it is a Kingdom that will continue growing until it reaches its fullness in eternity.
This Kingdom has been giving the world hope, light, forgiveness, and the healing power of an uninterrupted flow of saints for twenty centuries, while earthly kingdoms like the Roman Empire continue to rise and fall, to come and go.
So the pagan world erected an altar to the coming
of a Savior they did not yet know, at the very time
when that Savior was coming into the world. And the irony continues. It was this style of art that the first Christians in Rome knew and loved. And so these very symbols and motifs, the very ones used to express a vain hope in the Pax Romana, were adopted and baptized by the first Christians to express their true hope.
They took the vines and wreaths and interwoven plants and inserted them into the mosaics that adorn the earliest basilicas. They carved the triumphal procession and the scenes of victory into their tombstones, the pillars of the churches, and their altars, where the true sacrifice was offered.

They decorated their shrines with scenes of liturgical processions honoring saints and depicting the definitive Christian victory over the sinful world. And when
the time came for Christians to erect their first public places of worship, they too disdained the closed, intimidating, dark, foreboding forms of ancient temples, and created spaces filled with light and hope and glory and revelation and the presence of a living God.
The ancient pagans understood the value of peace, and longed for it, and recognized that true, lasting peace could only come from a divine source. The Ara Pacis was their expression of this longing. But the altar in your parish church, where Jesus comes down from heaven at every Mass, and the altar of your heart, where he comes to reign every time you receive the Eucharist, is the place of its true fulfillment.

 

Conclusion & Further Reflection

Peace is a core value for St. Paul and for Jesus — and Jesus can command us not to let our hearts be troubled precisely because he truly is the Savior of the World and the Son of God — the everlasting Prince of Peace.
He wants us to experience the interior peace that comes from receiving the gift of his grace. He wants us to experience it more, and more, and more, until we learn how to “not let our hearts be troubled.” Take some time now to thank God for his gifts of grace and peace, and to stir up your desire to receive more fully these gifts, and to let God’s love calm the troubles of your heart.
The following questions and Bible verses may help your meditation:
Questions for Personal Reflection or Group Discussion
1 When have I experienced God’s peace in my soul most profoundly? Remember what it felt like and thank God for that gift.
2 How deeply do I desire to live this peace of Christ more fully and more constantly?
3 Would I say that, in my mind, Christ’s peace occupies as central a place as it did in the writings of St. Paul? Why or why not?
4 How much does my devotion to the Eucharist, expressed especially through adoration and Holy Communion, help bring peace to my heart?

Biblical Passages to Help Your Meditation

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
– Romans 14:17

In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
– Galatians 5:22-23

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off
have become near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace… He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
– Ephesians 4:13-14, 17-18

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.
– Colossians 3:12-15

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.
– James 3:17-18

The LORD bless you and keep you! The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!
– Numbers 6:24-26

Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.
– Psalm 34:15

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