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.
It’s a profound question really. Indeed, you could argue that it’s the central question of the Gospel.
Chesterton’s Innocent Smith has, of course, his own peculiar style for trying to get us to think about that vital question:
But since Innocent’s methods are of dubious utility and legality in our rather jittery culture, I think other approaches might work better in this space.
One thing that many Catholics get confused about is the reality that happiness is, in fact, the point of our lives. Many Catholics (especially those of a more grumpily reactionary bent) often tend to react to the claim that the point of the Faith is Happiness by dismissing that claim as post-Vatican II touchy feely Kumbaya Catholicism. They confuse happiness with mere pleasure and so insist that we need to forget about happiness and instead embrace self-denial. The key word upon which their misunderstanding turns is “instead.” What lies behind this is the false opposition of happiness and self-denial. For in fact, precisely the reason self-denial is commanded by our Lord is in order that we might gain our happiness. We are called lose our life in order to gain it. Christianity is, in fact, all about gaining our heavenly reward, which is happiness.
That’s not me or some Oprahfied prosperity Gospel preacher talking. That’s St. Thomas, who tells us flatly that “all men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness.” Indeed, St. Thomas insists that we are not only made to seek happiness, but that we can’t *not* seek happiness! It’s the way we come from the factory. We are hard-wired for it. The only thing we can do is attempt to gain our happiness in rightly or wrongly ordered ways. The one who seeks his happiness in a rightly ordered way is what we call a “saint.” The one who persists in seeking his happiness in wrongly ordered ways is what we call a “sinner.” So, for instance, one attempting suicide does what he does in pursuit of happiness. The suicide ends it all in the pursuit of “peace”: that is, happiness. Even the most monstrous murderer is after something he thinks will make him happy: a thrill, vengeance, the pleasures of anger, a feeling of power. Yes, even Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin spent their lives seeking happiness—in monstrously disordered ways.
It’s easy to recognize when a monstrous sinner does some radically disordered thing. It’s less easy to see when we do something disordered because what is often present to our minds is the good thing we think will bring happiness, not the bad thing we are doing to get it. Sometimes that can be due to ignorance, but often it’s due to the fact that we have the mysterious ability to ignore our conscience and even to sear it so that we radically suppress it when it whispers, speaks, shouts and even screams at us to stop doing what we are doing. A well-formed conscience (which is to say, a conscience which has learned to listen to the Voice of the Spirit speaking through the teaching of the Church) is one of the most precious possessions a human being can have. But the purpose of that conscience will never be to tell you that you are dirt and that you don’t deserve to be happy. Rather, it’s function is to help you find the path to happiness, which is found, in the end, in the heart of God and in communion with Christ and all the saints.
Your unhappiness here on earth—your “divine discontent”—is intended to spur you on to seek your happiness in the only place it can ultimately be found:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8:19-24)
So: are you happy? It’s a question you could fill an entire Lent with.