January 2007 - Volume 11, Issue 6
We long for happiness more than for anything else in life. We seek it down many different ways. Happiness is the ultimate motive of every human act. Acknowledging this, we are led to the assumption that everyone knows what happiness is. And yet the truth is that this question is somewhat elusive. Books have been written about attaining happiness, plans have been laid out, step by step programs have been offered and secrets have been divulged for attaining this goal. And yet, in the fact of all this, why do we have so many unhappy people in our midst.
Each of us has images of happiness that constantly play in our minds like a never ending movie. Look at the ads and commercials we are surrounded by; they are all implicit advertisements for happiness with their smiling facts promising, "This way to happiness."
But happiness, real happiness, isn't confined to the material side of life. Happiness has a spiritual dimension which has to do with our ability to be at peace with ourselves as well as with others, with our capacity to be grateful for life, with our willingness to acknowledge and depend upon our connection with God.
Perhaps in some distorted way the pursuit of happiness may seem vain and self-centered. And, yes, we must admit that it can become that at times. But the pursuit of happiness we are talking abut here is a Christian thing; it runs like a golden thread through the "good news" of the Gospels and right on through all of Christian tradition. We find it best expressed in the wisdom shown in the lives of the saints.
Unfortunately, the wisdom of the saints as handed down to us often seems to be unappealing and certainly out of our reach. And, as a result, we can begin to believe that Christianity has little relevance in answering the deepest yearnings of our hearts. But the more we learn about the saints the more we realize how very like ourselves they really were. They asked the same questions of life that we do: what is the meaning and purpose of life? Why do so many of our hopes and plans end in sadness and disappointment? Where can we find true peace? Where, in a word, can we find true happiness.
When the saints speak to our yearning what do they say? I think the saints tell us that happiness is neither a matter of subjective feelings or a result of blind luck. It isn't something that simply happens. They tell us that happiness is a certain objective condition as a health of the soul; happiness is that "life in abundance" Christ was always telling us about. In fact the great St. Augustine wrote: "Happiness is to rejoice in you and for you and because of you. This is true happiness and there is no other."
What St. Augustine is really saying is that happiness can only be found within yourself and not outside of yourself. We live in a consumer culture that constantly stimulates our senses and offer us consistently meaningless choices. We too often find that the path to happiness our culture maps out for us leads to nothing more than a dead end and leaves us starved for some deeper purposes in life. The opposite of happiness is not really sadness and sorrow but rather a feeling of deadness and emptiness. It is here where the saints seem to be at their best for they found ways to escape a world that defined happiness as the pursuit of power and pleasure. Some of them even went into the desert to discover their own true selves.
Unless we are looking for a cure for arthritis, going into the desert holds little or no appeal for us who live in the twenty-first century. But we, all of us, are spiritual seekers in one way or another and are searching for the path that leads to true happiness. And that is why the saints hold such fascination for us; their lives are maps that show us where true happiness will be found. From Anthony in his desert to Thomas Merton in her hermitage, to Edith Stein in her concentration camp, each in his or her own unique way offers us a path on which holiness and happiness converge. And what do these holy men and women tell us about attaining happiness in life?
I think they tell us this: the meaning of the journey toward holiness and happiness is found in all of the simple everyday activities and circumstances of our lives. Their lives confronted the petty frustrations as well as the serious pains of human existence. Suffering, they tell us, need not be an obstacle to happiness. Suffering, of course, enters our lives at one time or another; it comes in may shapes and forms. We ordinarily consider the suffering we must endure as an obstacle to the happiness we desire and seek. But the saints tell us it need not be this way at all; for there is meaning and truth at the very heart of life which suffering is powerless to destroy.
There is truly no place, no moment in our lives where God has forsaken us. God's love encompasses us like an ocean. God's love is always present to us, enlightening us, enriching us, supporting us. Suffering and pain is an inevitable part of life, but it need not destroy our capacity for happiness. The saints do not teach us how to avoid suffering; suffering is part of the human condition. But so is happiness. Our Christian tradition tells us that we have been created for happiness far greater than this life can offer. But there is a continuity between the happiness of this world and that of the next. St. Catherine of Siena said it well when she said: "All the way to heaven is heaven."
The greatest lesson the saints teach us is that holiness and happiness always go together. Happiness, true happiness, is never found outside ourselves, but always within. Holiness is really the path to happiness, a path that never ends until it reaches the heart of God where it rests forever. Holiness and happiness is a kind of direction rather than a destination. The path of happiness and holiness is a way that awakens us to God's presence in every moment of our lives. All the way to heaven is, indeed, heaven. Give us, Lord, the eyes to see.
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