During his long and illustrious career as a bishop and evangelist, Venerable Fulton Sheen wrote and preached frequently about peace. Once of his best-known books, from 1949, was Peace of Soul. The theme was constant in his writing and preaching as the post-war culture of personal anxiety and social turbulence deepened and expanded.
At one point, he used his syndicated newspaper column to ask a question: “Is Modern Man Far from Peace?” Sheen’s answer in that article was yes, indeed, modern humans are far from peace. The reason, he wrote, was that we have wrapped ourselves in a “confining straitjacket…of the self left to itself.” Think of how a straitjacket works: the person’s arms are wrapped around himself, unable to stretch out and engage with the world around.
Sheen argued that modern humans had inverted their own God-given faculties via intellectual and scientific fads. For example, elsewhere in his writing and preaching, he showed that psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud reduced problems that really are spiritual in nature to what was merely material and human. Having made the attempt to remove God from the question of the human psyche, Sheen taught, intellectual and quasi-scientific fads caused man to “take refuse within his own soul from the turmoil without.” Such movements could not possibly remove the straitjacket of self. Instead, they could only truncate the human spirit. Humanity needs something altogether different.
In the same article, Sheen made his proposal, the proposal that had been made by Jesus Christ and the saints throughout the ages. Following the teaching of Jesus, Sheen reminded his audience that the path to peace is quite other than what our egos seek, and what the world can give. “Those who search for pleasure, fame, and wealth are all seeking the Infinite, but the seekers are still on the outskirts of the Eternal City. Those with faith have penetrated to their real home within the Infinite and have found the ‘peace which the world cannot give.’”
Modern humans remain on the outskirts of that Heavenly Kingdom, they remain sick of soul, because they continue to focus on themselves, their egos, sensual pleasures, and earthly realities that ultimately aren’t most important. This is as true in the 2020s, if not more so, as it was in the 1950s. It takes something other than the merely material, or even the best that humanity had to offer, to lift man “above himself to the happiness for which he was made.” But, what could be within a human person that could lift him outside himself? What could untie the modern psychological straitjacket?
In another short article entitled “Ingratitude,” Sheen identified the first step in the solution. Gratitude, he wrote, is the means of “curing the sick soul,” of curing the soul that is far from peace. Gratitude, he reminded his audience, is only found in those who are truly humble. That is because gratitude takes a person out of himself or herself and causes him or her to be cognizant of “the Benefactor and of what He wants.” The bishop boldly proclaimed that we are cured of pride and all other spiritual ills simply “by recognizing that all good things come from Him and are tokens of His love.” Gratitude, led by humility, causes us to remember that we need this Divine Benefactor, and that everything we receive is a gift from His loving hand.
Still more to the point, Sheen reminded readers that gratitude was the elevator by which the soul would be lifted out of itself, above itself. This is precisely because the happiness for which we all have been made is not made up of wealth, pleasure, power, or honor. Rather, the happiness for which we are made consists in giving of self, even sacrificially, to others. Gratitude for the gifts of God causes us to act in sacrificial self-gift, and to put our focus on others.
Therefore, we must remember that we will find peace and fulfillment, which Jesus Christ wants to give us, only by acknowledging that we are created to be dependent on, and receive gifts from, God and others. We will find peace and fulfillment only by acting in self-gift toward others. Growing in gratitude, then, is the first step in allowing God to liberate us from the straitjacket of self, and to find the full and joyful life for which we have been created.
So, let’s bring goodness and beauty into the world by sharing the truth of gratitude with our families, friends, neighbors, and co-workers.