In contrast to the external view of happiness in the previous post, the opposite view of happiness offered by Jesus Christ and the Christian Faith is totally different. It’s about self-giving and service in whatever the circumstances of one’s life. It sounds absurd to a worldly way of thinking. But it endures, and it is a path open to all men and women. Jesus’s way of happiness is counter-intuitive because it does not find its fulfillment in this world. Though, this is what makes it successful. As we have seen, the world’s path to happiness inevitably fails, so an other-worldly path must be the solution.
Pope Francis instructs us in the opposing view of happiness in describing how Jesus resists worldly success. He says,
- We think of Jesus in His Passion. His Prophet says: ‘As a sheep going to the slaughter.’ He does not cry out, not at all: humility. Humility and meekness. These are the weapons that the prince and spirit of this world does not tolerate, for his proposals are proposals for worldly power, proposals of vanity, proposals for ill-gotten riches. –Pope Francis
Jesus is not tempted by the worldly model of external happiness, which includes those offerings from “the prince of this world,” ie “power, vanity and riches”. Instead, he goes through his trials and torments for the sake of something higher, His Father, God and His vocation in the world and the purpose of His Incarnation. In short, He gives Himself.
Our Lord lives his life in service to the highest reality: God’s eternal goodness; and He teaches us how to live according to this same model in the Beatitudes. These seemingly contradictory statements sum up Jesus’s description of true happiness, which I will call beatific happiness. The Beatitudes take their name from the Latin “beatus” which means “happy” or “blessed.” In standard English translations, the word comes through as “blessed.” But it’s important to remember that it could also be rendered, “happy.”
Most of us are generally familiar with the Beatitudes from Matthew 5’s Sermon on the Mount. Here they are:
- Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
- Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.
These tell us to be “poor in spirit,” to “mourn,” to be “meek” and “pure in heart.” These are not the virtues of ambitious rat-racers who are willing to step on others to get ahead (of course, not all career seekers use their colleagues as stepping stones.)
Yet the Beatitudes are not virtues for the weak. They are virtues that look forward to another world. They transform us to look past the hassles and annoyances of everyday life to a goodness beyond the present.
For instance, meekness is about bridling one’s strength to use it for God’s purposes. The poor in spirit realize their reliance on God and are grateful for all that they receive. The pure of heart have a single-minded focus on God and therefore see His presence and His providence in all things. My (brief) discussion of a few of the Beatitudes is borrowed from Thomas Smith’s excellent series made available for free online for the Year of Faith from Ascension Press. Check it out to go deeper.
The Beatitudes put the things of the world in right order because they understand the world as temporary. When worldly triumphs and trials are temporary, they don’t define us. Thus, by accepting the beatific path to happiness offered by Jesus Christ, we escape the rat race’s treadmill with its milestones and trophies that claim to offer happiness. We escape by offering the world to others in giving instead of trying to grab it for ourselves.
In short, the beatific model of happiness offered by Jesus is a happiness about giving and being, being oriented to God and what truly matters. It is not a happiness that is characterized by having.
Citing Gaudium et Spes, John Paul II’s encyclical Centissimus Annus sums up the different types of happiness very simply:
- It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than “being”, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. (para. 36)
With beatific happiness, Jesus directs us to release “having” and gaining and contesting for ourselves and our reputation. He warns against the idea of happiness as enjoyment for its own sake. As we have seen, this state of perfect enjoyment simply never arrives.
Beatific happiness constructs a life centered on being a certain way: good and on giving goodness. On being good and directing oneself towards the good at whatever cost. And God is that good. We mourn for the evil in the world and for our sins, and there is rejoicing in Heaven for this repentance. We practice meekness to be open to God’s purposes, and the earth shall go to these saints. We are to be poor in spirit, depending on God, and because of this, all things can be recognized as gifts. When all things are gifts, we can give them away with even more joy.
In cultivating openness to God, to others and to love itself, beatific happiness cultivates a way of being that doesn’t focus on the self or on individual achievement and enjoyment. Instead, it seeks to pull us out of ourselves and focus our gifts on service, on God, on our neighbors. We are to be peacemakers and to hunger and thirst for righteousness. These are outside of ourselves. True happiness comes from loving and serving, not selfish gain. (Though as JP II pointed out, there is nothing wrong with wanting a better life, but the things of this world are not ends in themselves). We find ourselves in the gift-of-self to another. John Paul II clarified this for us, but he just explained Jesus’s teaching for our generation.
Beatific happiness can rejoice in the success and joy of others without jealousy precisely because it is other centered. Beatific happiness can rejoice even in severe and desperate circumstances because it knows the individuals role in God’s plan and praises God’s sovereignty.
“The Beatitudes respond to the natural desire for happiness. This desire is of divine origin: God has placed it in the human heart in order to draw man to the One who alone can fulfill it.” (CCC 1718)
We are truly made for God because we were made by him. There is a really natural desire for something more, something true, good and beautiful that only God really satisfies. This to me, is one of the most convincing aspects of the Faith. I know that I have always felt that there had to be something more than this world. C.S. Lewis felt it too, and I’m pretty sure most people do.
And it’s wildly ironic that only by looking to God, for the fulfillment of another world, are we able to live well in this world. We can live well in this world because we don’t have to be overly concerned about ourselves and about securing our piece of the precious pie. This enables us to look to others.
And the beatific model of happiness is truly open to everyone. People in dire situations can still serve others. I think of St. Maximillian Kolbe who traded his life for a Polish soldier’s and was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Though he has less than weeks to live and eventually starved to death, he ministered to the other prisoners, and after he died, he became a saint. I don’t have to describe the misery of his holding and circumstances, but he found a way to radiate the peace of God even still. This is true happiness. It is joy in loving service that the world cannot take away, no matter what.
Pope Francis extols this true joy of the Christian that goes beyond fun or enjoyment.
“A Christian is a man and a woman of joy. Jesus teaches us this…What is this joy? Is it having fun? No: it is not the same….Having fun is good. But joy is more, it is something else. It is something that does not come from short term economic reasons, from momentary reasons: it is something deeper. It is a gift. Fun, if we want to have fun all the time, in the end becomes shallow…Joy is another thing. Joy is a gift from God. It fills us from within.” –Pope Francis
[Note: I’m not saying that all Christians perfectly embody the Beatitudes; would that we did, but of course, we are imperfect sinners just as anyone else. Secondly, many non-Christians do follow an internal model of happiness that is based on “being” rather than “having.” This is a wonderful thing. Some of Jesus’s teaching clarifies truths about human nature, such as true happiness, that others sometimes discover on their own. I think we might find that we have a lot in common with these people. Of course, there are other revealed teachings such as the Trinity and the Atonement that make Christianity unique.]
Just like at Christmas, there is more joy in giving than in receiving.