Happiness or Holiness (or both?)
“He began to teach them, saying: ‘Blessed are they …’ “
At the conclusion of the movie “Bride of Frankenstein,” the movie sequel based on Mary’s Shelly’s book, “Frankenstein,” Frankenstein’s monster is emotionally devastated at the repugnant rejection of him by his so called, “bride to be.”
With tears in its eyes, the heartbroken monster starts to throw a tantrum, when it inadvertently and unknowingly stumbles across a lever that, if moved in the wrong position, could set off a chain reaction and destroy the entire laboratory, and everything and everyone in it, including itself.
In anticipation of this potential disaster, the evil scientist sternly warns the monster “not to pull the lever” in the hopes the monster might react rationally, and avoid the impending calamity.
Of course, sternly warning a monster of its moral obligation not to do something rash and immoral, immediately following a personally devastating emotional and psychological heartbreak and public humiliation is almost like inviting it, in fact, to “pull the lever.” That’s why they’re monsters! They generally don’t listen very well, especially when you tell them to do something right or not do something wrong.
Consequently, the monster realizing that happiness is not possible in this life decides to forego any remote hint of moral obligation and with a certain satisfaction “pulls the lever,” destroying everyone and everything.
In today’s gospel from St. Matthew, we hear the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount begins in chapter five with the “Beatitudes,” which are promises of consummate blessing made by Jesus to His followers, who embrace His teaching, and which look to the arrival of the Kingdom of God and the fulfillment of eternal salvation. The Sermon on the Mount ends in chapter seven with the house built on a foundation of solid rock.
In the Sermon on the Mount, we have a summary of Gospel morality as it comes from the lips of Jesus Christ Himself. It is one of the chief documents used in catechesis in the early church, and stands out as a principal source for Christian moral teaching. Christian morality is, of course, how we act or behave in accord with what we believe in our Christian Faith. This seems to have been St. Matthew’s intention in writing this Gospel. St. Matthew clearly wished to gather together the moral teachings on the sort of justice that Jesus proposed to His listeners, which was supposed to be “higher than that of the Pharisees.” These moral teachings were to distinguish the conduct and behavior of His followers.
The Sermon on the Mount has been one of the chief sources of spiritual renewal known to the Church through the ages. There are few passages in Scripture that touch the Christian heart more surely and deeply, or have a greater appeal for nonbelievers. The Sermon on the Mount was one of Ghandi’s favorite texts; in fact, he reproached Christians for their neglect of it.
The Beatitudes are not simply an introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, as sometimes has been thought, but a sort of cornerstone or like a nucleus. The Beatitudes give us Christ’s answer to the primary human question about happiness, which is at the origin of the search for wisdom. Also, the Beatitudes are the principal part of the Sermon on the Mount, just as the question of happiness dominates philosophy and morality.
However, the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount has caused considerable difficulty in our modern society. The moral teaching contained in the Sermon on the Mount appears to be so sublime and so demanding that no one can follow it in practical reality, at least not the majority of people. Some are in the opinion that it is challenging us to impossible heights.
This is a serious objection to moral teachings that purposes to be addressed to everyone. If it’s impractical, then it falls short of its goal, which is to shape human action, and so it becomes useless.
In other words, does not the Sermon on the Mount preach impossible behavior, impossible, that is, for the people in general?
The teaching in the Sermon on the Mount has also been viewed as the expression of an ideal – unworkable no doubt, but still useful on the practical level, since we need to “raise the bar” in order to obtain even a little effort and progress from people. In other words, the impossible is proposed so as to spur each into doing as much as they can.
But if we perceive a moral teaching too far beyond us, we will eventually abandon it, and the teaching is rendered ineffective.
As a consequence, since the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, the obligatory-like Ten Commandments have become the primary moral standard. We have evolved into thinking that Christian morality means having to do things we would normally avoid doing, and conversely, not being allowed to do things we would find great pleasure in doing, if we had the choice.
St. Augustine, one of the greatest minds the Church has ever known, would say that morality begins with the question of happiness, and not with obligations – because if morality is only a matter of obligation, then it cannot possibly incorporate the Sermon on the Mount and especially the Beatitudes. The Lord’s teaching penetrates the depths of human nature far too intimately to be viewed as a body of strict commands imposed by an external law.
So, the question of how the precepts in the Sermon could possibly be carried out, St. Augustine would answer in the words of Jesus: “For men this is impossible; for God everything is possible.” In other words, grace operating through the action of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, which we receive in the Sacrament of Confirmation, functioning through the Beatitudes. Thus we could say that the main lesson of the Sermon on the Mount is about the works the Holy Spirit wishes to accomplish in us through the power of His grace, with of course, our humble and docile cooperation, as described in the Beatitudes.
The relationship of the Beatitudes to the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, which, by the way, we receive when we receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, leads us to remove the separation between morality and spirituality, it reconciles how we act and what we believe, in order to give morality a truly spiritual dimension, as “life in the Spirit.” In other words, with the Sacrament of Confirmation, it becomes possible to be happy and holy!!! Through the reception of Sacrament of Confirmation, it becomes possible to achieve happiness and holiness (repeat)! That’s the whole point and reason for the sacrament! The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, which, by the way, a minority of Catholics have received because only about 50% have been Confirmed, are far more important for Christian living than all the charisms we hear so much about in the Church today.
How can we expect Catholics to view morality as a means to achieve happiness, instead of an obligation, if they don’t even possess the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are absolutely necessary to live in harmony with the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount in the first place. It’s like asking someone to drive a car with no oil in their engine – eventually they will burn out.
And, there must also be a link between personal prayer and liturgical prayer and morality. There must be a connection between prayer and good behavior. One cannot teach or learn the Faith adequately without prayer, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The principle underlying all this is “Do not try to understand in order to believe, rather believe in order to understand. (repeat)” And to take that one step further, “Pray that you may believe.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, there has been a movement in many states and municipalities of late to display the Ten Commandments in all schools and public buildings.
Suppose for a moment, though, that, instead of the “Thou shalt nots …” of the Ten Commandments, we displayed the nine “Blesseds” of the Beatitudes in our schools and public buildings.
Suppose, for instance, the words “Blessed are the merciful” were etched into every courthouse, or Jesus’ words “Blessed are the peacemakers” marked every military installation. Imagine if legislators and counselors met under the sign “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness” or every bill and public policy embraced the blessedness of the “clean of heart,” seeking God and the way of God in all things.
Let social service agencies and food kitchens have signs assuring comfort to the grieving; let every establishment welcome the poor in spirit and the meek; let advocacy groups and organizations honor those who suffer for the sake of what is right and just.
If nothing else, imagine the church we would become if the ninth beatitude became our mission statement: “Blessed are you when you are insulted and persecuted because of me . . . Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”
The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount must once again become a text and primary source of moral theology, ahead of the Ten Commandments, or norms established by logic and reason.
Because, if we remain duty-driven, compelled by obligations and commands, then we are faced with a dilemma: we either conform to being good and give up the idea of being happy, or like the Frankenstein monster, we seek happiness and abandon morality. The choice is crucial. The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount and the Sacrament of Confirmation makes it possible for us to be happy and holy, as opposed to viewing happiness simply as a license to think and do whatever we want, which ultimately always leads to unhappiness and slavery to sin!
So on this 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, I would like to leave you with these few thoughts: first please encourage anyone who is Catholic, especially our young people, to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation so they may have the possibility of being happy and holy; and secondly, this week, if you do something for someone else for no other reason than to bring joy to their lives, blessed are you!
If you find yourself feeling the loss of a friend or loved one and, in missing them, you realize that you experienced the love of God in their love for you, blessed are you!
This week, if you put yourself second for the needs of another, blessed are you!
If you do the “right” thing when the conventional wisdom is to do the “smart” thing, blessed are you!
This week, if you forgive someone or if someone forgives you, blessed are you!
Sometime in the next few days, if you stop, unplug your electronics and spend even just a moment thinking about all the good in your life and find yourself embraced by a sense of gratitude, blessed are you!
This week, if you can diffuse someone’s anger, if you can bridge the chasm between you and another, if you bring a positive perspective to an otherwise negative situation, blessed are you!
And if you risk being laughed at or misunderstood or if you endure a “funny look” from someone because you took a stand based on what was morally and ethically right, blessed are you, for you have good reason to be happy, because your reward in heaven will be great!.
Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us