Finding Peace in Our Purpose

Even though it happens every year, I still marvel at the changing of the seasons. I think many people do. We celebrate the first signs of spring—noticeably warmer weather, the first few blossoms, the animal world waking up again. We bask in the summer sunshine and revisit seasonal icons like barbecues and lemonade. We admire the unique beauty of the changing leaves in fall, donning scarves, boots, and anticipation for the holiday season.

November came quickly for me this year. It’s already starting to feel like winter (or what I’m used to referring to as “winter”) here in Massachusetts. The days are cold and the nights are colder. The colorful leaves are starting to fade and fall to the ground. The animals know winter is coming, too; every day, I see the squirrels scurrying up and down the trees, gathering nuts to sustain them through the long, cold months ahead.

I’m somewhat in awe of how animals instinctively know what their function is. They rise every day, go about their work without delay or complaint, settle down to rest at night, and do it all over again the next day, and the next day, and so on until they die. There is a peace and a comfort in observing nature’s continual, persistent work: the work of nature being nature. It is reliable, like the changing seasons. Poet Wendell Berry speaks of the solace of nature in his poem “The Peace of Wild Things:”

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Sometimes I envy the seemingly peaceful existence of animals and the natural world. The squirrel rises each day and only ever does what it is that squirrels are designed to do. I wish that I could wake up every day and set about my God-given work, the work that defines what it is to be me, without struggle or procrastination or only giving a partial effort. But we humans are fallen creatures, afflicted by sin, and even the everyday work of our daily lives is a struggle to commit to and complete.
Berry’s poem reminds me of Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
Isn’t that just what Berry seems to be longing for in his poem—something to restore his soul that has been made weary by the toils and worries of human life? The words of Psalm 23 remind us that we will find true peace, true rest for our souls, in Christ. Our purpose as human beings—our telos, if you will—is found in a life lived for Christ, in which we seek fellowship with him, trust him, and follow him. That is the true work of humanity, and the ultimate, most fulfilling vocation. Such work includes activities that realign us spiritually and foster a relationship with God: praying, studying Scripture, loving fellow children of God, and caring for His creation. Psalm 23 continues:
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou annointest my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Christ leads us in paths of righteousness, the paths that lead to peace and restoration because they bring us closer to him.
We’ve all heard the exhortation to “follow your heart;” it’s a common trope in our culture, propagated by countless Disney movies and pop songs. Some would have us believe that the ultimate and most noble aim of any person’s life is to do just that: follow your heart. Be true to yourself.
But what if our hearts aren’t always right? What if we can’t always trust our thoughts or our feelings?
I came across this quote from St. Mark the Ascetic, a student of St. John Chrysostom, that speaks to this:
Until you have eradicated evil, do not obey your heart; for it will seek more of what it already contains within itself.
If our hearts are not filled with the things of God, we cannot fully trust them. I like to frequent the blog GraceLaced for the author’s uplifting words and honest insights about her daily struggles and joys as a Christian wife and mother. She recently wrote about the need to sometimes remind our souls of what is true, how to feel, and what to do, because they’re not always right the first time. As she demonstrates, the Psalms provide examples of this, such as Psalm 43:5:
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
Instead of being true to ourselves, we ought to strive to be true to God. We must work to fill our hearts, our minds, and our entire lives with love, forgiveness, prayer, humility, and other Christian virtues. Only then will we be set on the right path and able to find rest and peace in our existence: our inherent and divine state of being as children and followers of God.