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Matthew describes a family coping with a crisis. In Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23, Joseph learns that Herod wants to destroy the new-born child, whom the king fears is a potential threat to his power. Quickly, Joseph takes “the child and his mother” and they flee during the night to Egypt.

This pattern is repeated over and over again as men of violence fight for power. Typically those who suffer the most in these conflicts are women and children. Presently, this struggle for power is taking place in the Central African Republic, in Southern Sudan and in Syria, the nations which Pope Francis prayed for on Christmas.

The causes of these conflicts are complex and yet there are enough patterns that we can consider conflicts in general as well, especially today, on Holy Family Sunday, conflicts within families, marriages and all our relationships. Thomas Aquinas’ considerations on “peace” may give us some insight.

Why are there conflicts in relationships? Thomas states what may be obvious and yet is generally overlooked: “Man’s heart is not at peace, so long as he has not what he wants, or if, having what he wants, there still remains something for him to want, and which he cannot have at this time” (2a2ae. 29, 1).[1]

A person believes that something is keeping him or her from having what he or she wants. Of course, no one has everything that he or she wants. However, conflicts within nations are often caused by long-standing deprivations of basic needs. A recent book on the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007-2008 is entitled, Out Turn to Eat, suggesting that some groups were fighting for what they should have. A starting point to resolving conflict is to listen to what the others are saying. What do they want? Are they reasonable requests?

According to Thomas, concord is when people agree on the same thing. When a person agrees because of force or fear, there really isn’t peace because “concord” isn’t really there (2a2ae. 29, 1 ad 1).[2] In some nations, a strong leader have been able to suppress dissention. Eventually the smoldering resentments have emerged because the genuine needs have not been addressed.

Any desire is implicitly a desire peace, to obtain what he or she desires without hindrance (2a2ae. 29, 2). Thomas points out that even people who start wars and dissensions want peace. They seek to break the existing stability because they consider it a fraudulent peace, that maintains the needs of others but not themselves (2a2ae. 29, 2 ad 2). Of course, this way of achieving “peace” lays the groundwork for future conflict because this “peace” serves their own needs while depriving others.

Thomas is well aware that what we might desire might not be a real good but an apparent good. An apparent good brings a false peace, which calms the appetite in some ways but still the appetite remains restless and disturbed because the apparent good is not our deepest desire. Thomas insists that true peace is only from seeking good things because only good things really satisfy us (2a2ae. 29, 2 ad 3).

Ultimately true peace comes when all our desires rest in that one object – the eternal good. Even now, our peace comes from resting in God, even though, as Thomas says, “certain things within and without disturb the peace” (2a2ae. 29, 2 ad 4).

Through charity or love, we find peace in ourselves when all our appetites are directed to one object, which is God: “in so far as man loves God with his whole heart, by referring all things to Him, so that all his desires tend to one object” (2a2ae. 29, 3).

Charity or love brings peace is “in so far as we love our neighbor as ourselves, the result being that we wish to fulfill our neighbor’s will as though it were ours” ( 2a2ae. 29, 3).

Wishing to fulfill our neighbor’s will as though it were ours might seem to be an impossible goal but it does connect with Thomas’ idea of knowing what our neighbor desires. What would our relationships be like if we were sensitive to each other’s needs?

Thomas acknowledges that peace does not require that we share the same opinions on every matter but only on what is essential: “nothing hinders those who have charity from holding different opinions” (2a2ae. 29, 3 ad 2).

Thomas thinks that peace is the fruit of justice indirectly because justice removes the obstacles to peace, but he thinks that peace is the fruit of charity directly since “charity, according to its very nature, causes peace” (2a2ae. 29, 3 ad 3). Thomas affirms “Charity causes peace precisely because it is love of God and of our neighbor” (2a2ae. 29, 4). Paul VI put it somewhat differently, in his Message for World Day of Peace, in 1972, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Wanting others to have what is justly theirs is also part of love.

Although much more could be added to these basic thoughts of Thomas, still trying to understand what the other person desires is a key to resolving conflict. To make their desires our own concretizes Jesus’ command to love our neighbors.

Thomas has similar thoughts in his commentary on the Letter to the Colossians, especially the selection that is the second reading in today’s liturgy. Thomas points out that Paul has instructed us to “clothe ourselves” or “put on” virtues. Thomas comments: “Paul says: If you have put on the new self, you should put on the parts of the new self, that is, the virtues: “Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:12). We put these on when our exterior actions are made pleasing by the virtues.”

Thomas asks “which virtues should we put on?” He affirms that we should put on the virtues that reflect who we are: we are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved. Thomas instructs us that God’s choice of us is a “gift of grace.” He reminds us that both the Old and New Testament witness to this sanctification: “But you were washed, you were sanctified” (1 Cor 6:11); “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2).

Thomas informs us that because we have been chosen, holy and loved, we must have “compassion springing from love.” Thomas explains: “We must show kindness to all. Kindness is like a good fire. For fire melts and thaws what is moist, and if there is a good fire in you it will melt and thaw what is moist.” Ultimately, the love we give to others comes from the Holy Spirit: “It is the Holy Spirit who does this.”

Thomas observes that some virtues are needed for difficult times. The first of these is patience: “patience keeps the soul from giving up the love of God and what is right because of difficulties: ‘You will save your souls by patience’ (Lk 21:19).”

Sometimes a person is disturbed by the behaviors of others and needs patience, as Paul writes to the Romans: ““We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Rm 15:1).

We need to forgive, as Thomas notes: “One forgives an injury when he does not hold a grudge against the person who did it to him, and does not injure him in return.” Thomas grants there are times when punishment is needed. This may seem to contradict what Thomas has just said but even the church has suffered the results of ineffective discipline.

According to Thomas, we forgive because we have been forgiven: ““Does a man harbor anger against another, and yet seek for healing from the Lord?” (Sir 28:3); “1 forgave you all that debt because you besought me” (Mt 18:32), and then he continues, “and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”

Over all the virtues, we need love and wisdom as Thomas explains: “Paul urges them to practice the principal virtues, which perfect the others. Among the virtues, the love of charity holds first place; while among the gifts, wisdom is first. For love is the soul of all the virtues, while wisdom directs them. First, he leads them to the practice of love, and secondly to wisdom.”

Thomas continues:

Paul says, above all these put on love, which is greater than all the virtues mentioned above, as we find stated in 1 Corinthians (13:13). Above all these, that is, more than all the others, because love is the end of all the virtues: “The end of the commandment is love” (1 Tim 1:5). Or we could say, above all these we should have love, because it is above all the rest: “I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31). Love is above all the rest because without it the others are of no value. This love is the seamless tunic mentioned by John (19:23). The reason we need this love is because it binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Thomas asserts that Paul urges his readers to “acts of love.” Peace is related to the acts of love, as Paul says: “Let the peace of Christ reign in your hearts.” Thomas comments: “An immediate effect of the love of charity is peace… the love of charity is peace, which is, as Augustine comments, that composure or calmness of order produced in a person by God. Love does this, because when one loves another he harmonizes his will with the other.”

Thomas points out that this peace is the peace of Christ:

He says, the peace of Christ, the peace Christ established between God and man. Jesus affirmed this peace: “Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them: Peace to you” (Lk 24:36). And you should have this peace, because it is the peace ... to which indeed you were called. “God has called us to peace” (1 Cor 7:15). He adds, in the one body, that is, that you may be in one body.

Paul urges the people to have wisdom. Thomas adds that if we want “true wisdom” we must find it at its source. Paul says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Thomas reflects: “Therefore you should draw wisdom from the word of Christ… “He was made our wisdom” (1 Cor 1:30).”

Wisdom directs us:

It instructs us in two ways: first, to know what is true; and so Paul says, as you teach. He is saying, in effect: this wisdom dwells in you so richly that it can teach you all things: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Secondly, this wisdom instructs us to know what is good, and so Paul says, and admonish one another, that is, encourage yourselves to do good things: “To arouse you by way of reminder” (2 Pet 1:1).

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

The translations from the Commentary on the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Colossians were done by Fabian Larcher, O.P. The full text is available on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/

[1] References to the Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, followed by the number of the question and then the article in the question. This passage is from the Secunda Secundae (Second part of the Second). The second part of the Summa, which deals with our way to God, is divided into two parts, the first and the second. The question is Question 29, “On Peace” and this is the first article of the question.

[2] When a reference to the Summa contains the Latin preposition “ad”, Thomas is replying to an objection that he raised at the beginning of the article.