God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Reinhold Niebuhr's prayer, now commonly associated with the spirituality of recovery, is commonly known as the "serenity prayer." Its popularity lies no doubt in its profound insight-it could just as accurately be called the "discernment prayer" or the "wisdom prayer"-but also in its link to a most common stereotype about spirituality: that spirituality has to do with peace. In the fourth chapter of Philippians, Paul speaks of a peace "which passes understanding," and in Galatians he lists peace as the third Fruit of the Spirit, behind only love and joy. Jesus, meanwhile, has throughout Christian history been identified as the "Prince of Peace" spoken of by the prophet Isaiah (Is. 9:6); and he promised his disciples that he would leave his peace with them (Jn. 14:27).
But if spirituality is all about peace, what does this mean? Is all peace the same?
At least one observer of the contemplative life, Anglican theologian Kenneth Leech, sees "peace" as taking at least two different forms. In Spirituality and Pastoral Care (Cowley Publications, 1989), Leech writes:
The spiritual life, and the experience of prayer which is its heart, is often assumed to be, at least ideally, a condition marked by peace and interior calm. There is a sense in which this is so. The Christian person, the person in whom Christ lives, should be characterized by a certain inner depth of peacefulness, and should radiate that peace to others. But there is a false peace which comes not from rootedness in God but from a kind of analgesic spirituality which seeks to removes the pains and conflicts both of the world and of the heart by dulling the consciousness. Marx correctly identified much religion as the opium of the people: today it would be more correct to see much spirituality as the religious equivalent of Librium and Valium.
I'm familiar enough with Leech's body of work to know that he would not simplistically suggest that all experiences of peace could be dualistically categorized as either "true" or "false" peace. The experience of inner serenity, like any other meaningful state of awareness or emotion, will always be nuanced, messy, and imperfect. Still, Leech's insight that there is a fundamental difference between peace rooted in God and a kind of ersatz peace that is mostly driven by conflict avoidance is well worth considering.
"Each tree is known by its own fruit," Jesus taught. Presumably this applies to the inner experience of spirituality as much as to anything else. If we find peace and serenity in our spiritual search, what fruit will such a discovery yield? Will our "peace" lead us to a place of inner comfort and calm that is also firm in its disregard for the suffering of others? Do we retreat behind the walls of doctrine and dogma, assuming that those who lack the peace we enjoy are probably somehow deserving of their inner turmoil? Or is our peace simply anchored in a kind of naïve ignorance that relies on the privilege of an affluent lifestyle to serve as a kind of firewall separating us from those who have no peace because, frankly, they can't afford it?
Ironically, when we discern that the peace we enjoy is rooted not in God, but in privilege or in avoiding conflict, such discerning insight is likely to cause us to feel like our "peace" is suddenly lost. Indeed, I suspect one reason why so many people-including many sincere and devout Christians-work hard to ignore or avoid the overwhelming reality of economic and social injustice, environmental degradation, and other types of conflict in our world, may simply be because of how painful it is to face such issues, especially when doing so causes us to question our "analgesic" sense of serenity. Once that questioning takes root in our soul, the "false peace" quickly loses its power to lull us into its false sense of comfort.
That may seem lamentable, but it also can be seen as a profound and beautiful invitation: an invitation to trade the false peace of social privilege and conflict avoidance for the more profound peace of God, the peace that passes understanding. This peace, which Leech describes as arising from "rootedness in God," is less about sweet calm feelings and is more about an equipoise that finds inner reliance on God. Such reliance knows God to be a rock that enables us to place our trust in God, enabling us to be present even in the midst of the pain and suffering that seems so overwhelming. Being rooted in God doesn't make pain, suffering, dread, anger, and other powerful feelings and states of mind go away. But it does offer a new perspective, a higher vantage point that can enable us to remember that even the fiercest suffering and most egregious injustice is never the final word.
"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer," proclaimed Albert Camus. His insight, within the language of contemplative Christianity, might look like this: in the midst of conflict and suffering, I remained rooted in a deeper and higher source of love, joy, and peace, even a peace that passes all understanding." What might Paul have meant by that phrase: that such a peace defies logic? Seems absurd by the standards of worldly practicality and expedience? It's a peace that doesn't seem to make sense, but nevertheless it is there, offering hope and guidance even in the most horrific of circumstances.
Niebuhr's prayer reminds us that serenity, while essential to the spiritual life, is really only about a third of what we are called to do and to be. Our serenity must be leavened with courage (to fight for what is right) and wisdom (to help us pick our battles with discernment and care). The peace of God does not remove us from conflict and courage, discernment and wisdom. Paradoxically, the more Godly the peace may be, the more it immerses us right in the midst of conflict and suffering. For that's the best place to be if we want to share that peace with others.