Editor’s Note: This is the second of a series of articles on being at home in the world and living at peace inspired by St. Benedict’s Rule and Christopher Derrick’s The Rule of Peace.
After a person learns to be at peace with his environment, his neighborhood, and Mother Nature’s laws and ways, he must advance to learning the art of living at peace with one’s neighbor—family members, colleagues, and friends.
Like monks in a monastery and members of a family, all persons struggle to maintain harmony in social relationships or professional associations.
No one can predetermine or carefully select the members of certain groups that inevitably include the entire spectrum of human nature with its many temperaments, idiosyncrasies, habits, and tendencies.
Living in Peace with One Another
In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales the pilgrims who comprise the merry company traveling together toward a common destination represent the variety often called “God’s plenty.”
The bold, brazen Wife of Bath is the antithesis of the genteel, refined Prioress whose delicate sensibility cannot tolerate the sight of a mouse caught in a trap.
The worldly Monk who prefers hunting to prayer shares little in common with the holy Parson committed to his vows and to an imitation of Christ.
The scholarly Cleric with a sense of vocation to study in no way resembles the Physician’s view of his profession who regards medicine as an opportunity to pursue his love of gold.
Whatever the major differences that pose conflicts in human relationships, the art of living demands, in St. Paul’s word, that all people, inasmuch as possible, live in peace with one another. This skill requires not only virtues such as patience, forbearance, and affability extended to all people but also the self control to avoid unnecessary, unproductive arguments over minor matters.
As C.S. Lewis shows in The Screwtape Letters, a clever tactic of the Devil (Screwtape) relies on the temptation of foolish arguments, conflicts instigated by the smallest matters called “daily pinpricks” (“tones of voice and expressions of face which are unendurably irritating to the other”).
Screwtape tempts his victims’ pride to take immediate offense and to overreact with hypersensitivity even when an innocent question is asked: “I simply ask her when time dinner will be and she flies into a temper.”
Patience Against Irritability
The exercise of patience, forbearance, and affability conquer the temptation of irritability that robs all relationships of harmony and cheerfulness. Patience curbs the tendency of murmuring, fault-finding, and caviling that looks for beams in another person’s eye but overlooks the log in one’s own.
The irritable Israelites murmuring in the desert about starving in the wilderness after crossing the Red Sea of course caused dissension among the members of the Chosen People and their relationship with God.
Patience, while it does not accept violations of manners or morals, extends tolerance to a person with faults with the understanding that all human beings owe forbearance to others because they too need forbearance for their own imperfections. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The Magic of Courtesy
Affability also contributes to the harmony of all human relationships. As Shakespeare demonstrates in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the virtue of courtesy has a sociable aspect of cheerfulness and good will in addition to its honorable nature of keeping one’s word and a kind quality of responding to the needs of others.
While the Fairies who fly dwell in their ethereal world of magic at night have no common interests with the Rude Mechanicals who labor by day with their hands, they do not ignore each other or find it impossible to be friendly when they meet in the forest.
The Fairies greet Bottom with hospitality (“Be kind and courteous to this gentleman”), and Bottom brings mirth to the occasion (“I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good Master Cobweb”).
When at the end of the play all the quarrels between the lovers have ended and all the three social classes are at peace at the celebration of a wedding, Duke asks, “How comes this gentle concord in the world?”
It is the magic of courtesy.
Ruled by Meekness
St. Francis de Sales explains that all human relationships flourish and conduce to peace when people practice “those little virtues whose conquest our Savior has set forth as the end of our care and labor.”
By these little virtues he mentions, in addition to patience, meekness, humility, and obedience, urging “tenderness toward our neighbors, bearing with their imperfections.”
Humility requires a person to apologize and admit any wronging he has committed and not seek recourse in excuses or scapegoats. When unjustly accused, a person has an obligation to truth to deny the charge.
If the truth does not absolve a person, “don’t be disturbed, and don’t try to make them accept your explanation.” These altercations do not justify bitterness, resentment, or revenge.
In such situations de Sales advises a person not to surrender to animosity or wrath but to accept the sufferings “without murmuring, complaining, or exaggerating them.”
Peace depends on the extent to which patience and meekness rule persons: “The truly patient man neither complains of his hard lot nor desires to be pitied by others.”
The Uncontrollable Tongue
Cultivating peace with family and good will among friends and associates depend on the control of the tongue. While the Rule of St. Benedict teaches the custom of guarding the tongue as the norm for cordial relations among monks (“we always condemn and ban all small talk and jokes; no disciples shall speak such things”), this same command applies also to all human relationships.
As Christopher Derrick explains in The Rule of Peace, “When family peace is endangered, this is very often because somebody has said something which never really needed to be said, and which gave offence on lines not consciously intended but perhaps not wholly unintended either.”
Spiritual classics such as The Imitation of Christ warn of incessant talk as a danger to spiritual life: “But why is it that we are so ready to chatter and gossip with each other, when we so seldom return to silence without some injury to our conscience?”
The uncontrollable tongue easily exaggerates, misrepresents, babbles, flatters, slanders, or makes invidious comparisons that unjustly attack a person’s reputation and spread lies.
Humility & Obedience Reign
Also harmony in all human relationships grows when humility and obedience reign. Humility tames a person’s willfulness in insisting on his views, ideas, suggestions, and wishes as absolute—“my will be done.”
To insist on one’s wishes against the consensus of the wise or the common good initiates quarrels and tension easily avoided by deference and the willingness to please others first instead of gratifying one’s pleasures.
As one of the vows of a Benedictine monk teaches, the improvement of one’s own character (conversio morum) contributes immensely to the atmosphere of cordiality and good will.
Obedience to tradition, propriety, and authority likewise cultivate amiable relations among many groups of people. “Ceremony is the friend of peace, and of civilisation too,” Derrick writes. To dress properly for the occasion, to respect the formality or solemnity of the event, and to conduct oneself according to the expected standards of the ceremony always promotes harmony or happiness.
Not to dance at a ball, not to converse at social events, not to be convivial at festivities, not to pray at church, not to be studious in a classroom, or not to be quiet when silence is golden spoils the decorum designed to instill order, harmony, and peace for all people in attendance.
Ceremony is indeed a powerful ally of peace because of the many ways it instills love of neighbor and thoughtfulness on behalf of others.
Derrick observes, “It’s the well-mannered families, the courteous and even mildly ceremonious families, which are the happy and peaceful ones.”