Not too long ago, our culture had a solid moral common ground based on Judeo-Christian beliefs of which we were all aware. If we went morally wayward, we knew we were going astray, even if we chose to continue on the wrong path. I think it fair to say that now our culture is utterly un-tethered to any stable shore, and morally adrift. If you imagine our society as a ship, it is one without a moral compass, bereft of discipline or rules, and lacking a clear destination. The old morality of our ancestors is but a distant memory left behind the swells and lost beyond the horizon. We are like reckless buccaneers in a rudderless party ship. We pour ourselves drinks, we salute our so-called “freedom,” the band plays on, and no one asks if anyone is minding the ship. One can’t help wondering if this is not some kind of pleasure cruise to Hell, as our society pursues “happiness” above all things. The problem is that our culture has lost the understanding of what true happiness is.
Our modern understanding of happiness lacks objectivity. Our pop culture tells us, “If it feels good, do it!” The underlying belief is that vice will make us happy (such a lie, from the father of all lies). If responsibility cramps our style, we postpone growing up, getting married, and having children. Then, when we’re ready, we demand these things on our own terms and timing, because we believe that having it our way is the only way to make us happy. If folks move in together, if they have extra-marital affairs, if they decide to change their gender, if they become a Buddhist, or a stripper, or a porn star, if they divorce and remarry countless times, if they move in with a lover half their age, we say, “Well, that’s ok if it will make them happy.”
NO, IT’S NOT OK! With this kind of (non)thinking, marriage becomes irrelevant. Families become irrelevant. Church becomes irrelevant. Our very human nature becomes deniable, and reason can thus be easily rejected. The common good be damned. Our culture disintegrates. The oaths we used to swear and the vows we used to take are now dismissed as but trivialities. Only “myhappiness” is real and important! But let’s stop and ask ourselves…are we happy? If so, then why are we still obsessed with chasing after things to fill that void inside us that just won’t go away?
The Catholic understanding of happiness is different. It is grounded in the belief that there is a certain rationality to happiness. The Christian who seeks happiness is looking for something based upon a knowable goodness, not upon things. Our Church teaches us that real and lasting happiness is based in objective morality and the supernatural truth of God. It teaches us that we are pilgrims here on earth and that ultimately, the only kind of happiness that will truly satisfy our restless hearts is the blessedness of Heaven. That is the solid ground to which we point – and the distant shore to which we seek to travel.
Between here and there we can find a billion fleeting moments of happiness, many of which may also be very good, but if we have not the goal of that ultimate happiness, then all the other pleasures we enjoy are hollow and unsatisfying, and possibly even become the source of our eternal damnation. And if we only judge our lives by whether or not we’re happy “in this moment,” and then (neurotically) “in the next moment,” and then (exhaustingly) “in the next moment,” well, then what kind of life is that? Let’s face it. Not every day is filled with giddiness, and even our prayers acknowledge that this life is a vale of tears.
Our voyage of life includes its share of storms. If we are sad, we may have good reason to be sad. Sin saddens me. Loss saddens me. When someone leaves the Church, I am profoundly and undeniably saddened. But sadness and tears are a part of life as much as laughter is.
When I think of a joyful saint, I think of St. Francis. He was a celibate man. He wore the same clothes every day of the year. He fasted too much and when he did eat, he ate scraps begged from another’s table. He suffered from stigmata. He died young, penniless, and without children. And yet he was always singing. It was as if, in his inner most being, he chose joy. That filthy, skinny beggar was full of joy, and upon his death all of Europe knew he was a saint. Francis embodies the very essence of joy to us. But that doesn’t mean we all find joy in the same way. We are each called to different paths, but we pray all the paths are leading to the same end.
So in my experience, happiness is really a choice. I can choose to see the beauty and the wonder of life, and cherish each moment – or not. I can choose to serve others and put my wants and desires last – or not. This life can be joyful, and a holy person should have a certain joy evident for all to see. But pleasure is not the point of life. Goodness is. So as Catholics, we have a responsibility to act as a moral compass in our own day and age. We must be disciplined when everyone else has had too much rum. When all others yawn and turnabout at every change in current and wind, we need to trim our sails, batten down the hatches, and set a steady course, because in duty there is the promise of the ultimate happiness. And so, what will we choose: the ghost ship of the damned chasing after phantasms, or the holy barque of the Church pointed towards God?
Choose joy! Choose Christ.