Saturday, September 10, 2016
The Pursuit of Happiness
I've spent some time writing a homily for a mass celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of vows for a Franciscan friend, Sr. Ellen Byrnes, FSP. I hope you don't mind if I share it has my blog post for the week.
In the 1830s a French diplomat and political theorist named Alexis de Tocqueville travelled around the United States, and made some astute observations about the American temperament, cultural values and approach to life. One of his more insightful observations was that we Americans have a misleading idea in our founding documents: “the pursuit of happiness.” De Tocqueville believed that one cannot pursue happiness -- it doesn't work that way. So many of us spend our lives doggedly pursuing happiness, and frustrated that we can never get our fair share of it, which keeps us from being happy.
It’s now almost two hundred years after de Tocqueville's warning, and we’re more committed than ever to the the toxic notion that “the object of life is happiness,” and we become more convinced every day that the meaning of life is personal happiness. “Being happy” is the object of our lives, it's what we live for.
The consequences of this misguided idea are all around us. Here are just three: self-centeredness that is blind to the needs of others, mindless consumerism, and the heedless despoiling of our planet’s precious resources.
But if the pursuit of happiness is not what life is supposed to be about, then what’s the alternative? The three readings in today’s mass give us the one answer from different angles.
Let us look first at the Gospel Reading we just listened. Jesus asks us “What is it that you are worried about? Food? Clothes? Money?” He challenges his followers: Stop worrying about what you are to eat and what you are to wear!
At first glance, of course, this advice seems unwise to people who are responsible for putting bread on the family table and clothes on their children’s backs. But it contains an important insight. The verb “to worry” in the original Greek: merimnao, comes from the root merizo, “to divide, to separate.” The psychology of it is simple: when you worry, your mind is divided, you are no long concentrating on what you’re supposed to be thinking about -- you’re distracted.
This is why, after telling us “don’t worry about such things” Jesus immediately continues: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and all the rest will be given to you.” Don’t get distracted from the true goal of life, He is telling us, which is to enter “The Kingdom of God.”
But, another important insight about worrying comes from Saint Paul. He taught that there is a kind of anxiousness or worry that actually makes us better Christians. He writes to the Christians of Philippi, for example, that he hopes to send them Timothy, the only one who is concerned about [merimnaō] them the way Paul himself is (Ph 2:20). Then, in a list of his sufferings as an apostle, Paul proudly includes along with shipwrecks, floods, hunger and thirst, his “anxiety [merimna] for all the churches" (2 Cor 11:28). And in a powerful passage he uses the same word to indicate how we, as members of Christ’s body, should behave toward one another: “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care [merimnaō] for one another” (I Corinthians 12:24-25).
In Paul’s eyes, to be deeply concerned and even anxious about our brothers and sisters is, in fact, the way we ought to feel toward one another as Christians – worrying about others is the only way for us to get into the kingdom! It’s the secret to happiness.
If you want to be be happy, then stop worrying about your own happiness, cancel your subscription to “Self” magazine, and start worrying about your brothers and sisters who are starving, or victims of racism or war.
We get a different angle on the secret of happiness in the Second Reading, where John tells us that “God is love” -- God is relationship, God is family. And we are made in the image of this God who is relationship.
Here, then is the source of human happiness, and our goal in life: “Whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.” The object of life is not happiness but to serve God. Saint Basil the Great once wrote, “Man is a creature whose whole purpose is to become God.” God became human so that we humans can become divine. What a far cry from the pursuit of individual personal “happiness” as people understand it.
In our first reading today, Isaiah proclaimed the same message five hundred years before Christ: If you want to be truly happy, he says, then try
sharing your bread with the hungry,
bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: “Here I am!”
If you want to experience true happiness, then
lavish your food on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted;
Then your light shall rise in the darkness,
and your gloom shall become like midday;
Then the LORD will guide you always
and satisfy your thirst in parched places,
will give strength to your bones
And you shall be like a watered garden,
like a flowing spring whose waters never fail
This is the picture of the happiness that we all long for, but it is a gift from God, not a product of our own efforts.
Notice Isaiah’s image of the “watered garden”: You don’t attack a garden, grab it by the throat and force it to produce its fruits. You cooperate with God in nature by watering and weeding, but the produce of a garden is always a mysterious gift of God’s abundant life.
We began with the idea of “the pursuit of happiness,” and asked “What is it that your pursue in life? What are you worried about?”
Isaiah and St. Paul and St. John and Jesus himself all tell us the same thing: Give up the absurd idea that the meaning of life is personal happiness.
One of the great witnesses to this idea is Francis of Assisi, whose teaching is more necessary now than ever before. Francis refused to participate in his culture's crazy pursuit of happiness, and stripped off every trapping, every hint of that pursuit.
And instead he devoted his life to God in the person of the poor. The example of his life both encourages us and accuses us today. We can hear his voice scolding us to stop selfishly exploiting and mindlessly polluting Brother Wind and Brother Air, to stop poisoning Sister Water, and trashing Mother Earth as if they were created for us to abuse and defile and waste in the selfish pursuit of our personal happiness.
The Church needs people like Francis in every age to stand up and bear witness against this craziness. Thank God that we still have the daughters and sons of St. Francis to encourage us by their example, giving their entire lives not in pursuit of happiness but in the service of God in their brothers and sisters.
We celebrate today God’s faithfulness to Sister Ellen as she has faithfully lived that witness during the past fifty years. It fills our hearts with joy to see how God has kept smiling on this faithful daughter of Francis, and has kept the promise made to every faithful follower through the mouth of Isaiah in this morning’s reading:
I will guide you always
and give you plenty even on the parched land.,
I will renew your strength
And you shall be like a watered garden,
like a flowing spring whose waters never fail.
Sister Ellen, may our Brother Jesus continue to renew your strength, and let you continue being a watered garden for so many people, young and old, in your apostolic ministries, for the members of your loving family, for your sisters in your religious community.
May you produce the fruit of happiness among us for many years to come.
Ad multos annos!