Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
As you read this, I will be heading out with the Fambly and friends to our Hidden Island Redoubt deep in the wilds of Western Washington. Thanks to the miracle of modern communications technology, I can speak to you over this elaborate device called the Interweb. I wrote this piece on Wednesday, uploaded it and told it to publish at midnight on Friday morning. So the machine does the work while I get to go goof off and take a ferry (did I say “ferry”? I’ve said too much already!) to our Hidden Island Redoubt.
I’ve always suspected that a vast amount of our experience of Heaven is mediated to us through playtime rather than Serious Grownup Adult Work time. I came from a family where the notion that work should be fulfilling or enjoyable was rejected with a rather heavy sense of contempt. My dad’s standard retort to people who had enjoyable jobs was “Beats working.” To aspire to happiness was always associated, in some vague way, with going on the dole or other forms of narcissistic unrealism. Growing up meant, not merely embracing suffering and sacrifice as hard things to be endured for the sake of happiness, but as ends in themselves. Happiness was the temporary distraction. A life of quiet desperation was the Main Event.
Of course, my dad knew how to have a good time. He enjoyed a beer and a smoke and a fishing trip like any red-blooded man of his generation. But the main event, the point of it all, was work. And work was for putting bread on the table and a roof over your head and meeting your obligations and preparing to widow your wife. It was not for fulfillment and the notion of finding fulfilment, whether through work or something else was, well, unrealistic and an excuse for goldbricking. All that Quest for Fulfillment stuff was what hippies blathered about.
My dad, make no mistake, was a great man. A child of divorce who listened to his parents scream at each other all night long, he became a man determined to have a loving marriage—and he did it for 38 years. I never heard my parents raise their voice to one another and I do remember the continual affection they showed one another. He was the child of an alcoholic who had ditched the family when he was young and he grew up to be a man who swore to avoide those pitfalls and who raised three happy sons while having a beautiful marriage. He survived the Depression, a tour of duty in WWII and went on to an honorable career in the Air Force and private industry. He knew life was tough and that a father did his sons no favors by teaching them to be self-absorbed narcissists who whine because the world doesn’t go their way. He knew the way to survive in this world was to be tough. So the “Beats Working” philosophy had a lot to recommend it. It made you willing to do the damn job and not kvetch continually about you and your precious little needs.
And yet, I think my dad was mistaken—and that something inside him knew it but didn’t know what to do with the knowledge. Happiness is not the distraction from the Main Event. Happiness is the Main Event and its not wrong to hope for it. We are made for happiness in God. Vacations are not aberrations from real life. They are foretastes of the Real Life who is God. That doesn’t mean that life in this world is supposed to be roses and sunshine all the time. Jesus’ story ends, after all, with crucifixion and his life was no picnic. But Scripture tells us that the reason Jesus went through all that was not out of a Stoic sense of duty, but out of the burning desire for joy. It was “for the joy set before him” that he endured the cross. Our call, as Christians, is not to diminish our hopes to “sensible” proportions or bracket them for the ocassional vacation, but to let them grow to outlandish dimensions. We are, after all, promised a New Heaven and New Earth! Our pleasure in the Old Earth is a savoring of what God has already given and a rejoicing in what he will yet do. My hope is that Dad, who was robbed of any contact with a Catholic upbringing by various accidents of sin, came at long last to know this and rest in God when he died. He’s been the subject of my prayers ever since. If I can do half as well as a father as he was to me, it will be twice as much as anybody can expect of a schlub like me. Thanks, Dad, for all you did for us. Eternal light shine on you and may you at long last find the happiness you were made for in Christ!
Meanwhile, I bid you adieu till next week!