Giving Up the Pursuit of Happiness
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

For the past ten years I have heard nothing but good things about this parish, for example, the holy and faithful Dominican nuns that are here, the great quality preaching from faithful priests that you are continually exposed to, and of course the great choir that is here.

31 years ago I passed through Cincinnati. I was 17 years old at the time and I was hitchhiking to Nashville, Tennessee. I was Bluegrass banjo player, and I was heading to Nashville to try to make it in the world of Bluegrass music. I was on highway 71 just outside of Columbus when a Catholic priest stopped to give me a lift. I hadn’t seen the inside of a Catholic Church since grade 3, which is why I’d asked him what he did for a living—he told me later that he couldn’t have looked more like a priest that day if he wanted to; it was a very hot day and he was wearing all black. He thought to himself: “If this guy’s Catholic and he’s asking me what I do for a living, then obviously he hasn’t been to Church in a long while.”

Well, I used that time and pelted him with questions about God, faith, and Church, and the purpose of life, and he was the turning point in my life, probably the greatest influence in my life. What struck me was that here I was, 17 years old, young and free, no responsibilities and commitments, and here’s this priest sitting next to me who is burdened with responsibilities, he can’t get married, and yet clearly he’s happier than I am. He had such a powerful faith that he was able to make the invisible visible in his face. He was living in joy, and I could see it in his eyes. It was the joy of belonging to a world that I once knew, but had drifted away from, and from the depths of my subconscious mind, I knew I wanted to belong to that world again.

At one point he asked if my parents still go to Mass, and when I say no, he sounded so disappointed. I was shocked at his disappointment, and I remember asking him why we have to go to Mass—since one can pray anywhere. And I remember him yelling out the words: “To receive the body of Christ”. I hadn’t heard those words since the third grade, and I knew at that moment where to find the key to the joyous world that this priest lived out of. And so I’d decided right at that moment to get back to Mass.

Friendship with that priest was one of the greatest gifts that the Lord had given me. That was Monsignor Tom Wells of the Archdiocese of Washington D.C, and he was murdered on June 8th, 2000. Last week I was in Washington for the ordination of his nephew, Father David Wells, exactly 10 years after Monsignor Wells was murdered.

That visit was a tremendous inspiration to me and my friend Father Don Sanvido who came with me, and it was a testimony to the great dignity of the priesthood and the unutterable nobility of that calling. A very large percentage of the priests of that diocese are where they are precisely because of Monsignor Wells’ influence. And the one theme that keeps coming back when people talk about this priest was his very real joy.

There really is a difference between joy and happiness. None of us were created for happiness. We were created for joy. And I believe the difference is this: happiness is ‘in us’. We contain it, like a glass contains water. A container is always larger than what it contains, and so we are always larger than the happiness that is in us.

But joy is not in us. Rather, we are ‘in joy’. Joy is larger than us. In fact, God is joy, and God is larger than us.

Heaven is joy. At the end of time, Christ told us that he is going to say to those who were faithful: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.”

Another point about happiness is that the word itself comes from the old English ‘hap’, which means fortune or chance. Happiness depends on certain chance factors that are outside of our control, which is why those who are happy are not entirely at ease. They know deep within themselves that something could happen suddenly that will bring everything crashing down, which is why it is not the case that the more wealth a person possesses, the more generous he becomes. It’s often the reverse. The more possessive he seems to become; for he tries to secure the happiness that he possesses.

But we cannot possess joy. It possesses us. It has a hold on us. We are in it. And there are not many joyful people around, because many do not know where the key to joy can be found. But I will tell you. It is this: the key to a life of joy is to relinquish the pursuit of happiness.

That basic right enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the right to the pursuit of happiness, we have to give that up. That’s sort of an American translation of Jesus’ words: “He who loses his life for my sake will find it, but he who saves his life will lose it”. To give up your life is to give up the pursuit of happiness.

We have a natural propensity to seek our own happiness, and we have a right to do so, and it is not selfish to do so. But we were created for something higher. We were created for joy. We were created to be possessed by something forever larger than us, something uncontainable. We were created for God.

A synonym for joy is the word ecstasy, from the Greek ek-stasis, which means ‘exit of self’. This gives us another clue to the meaning of joy. It is in the Second Reading. To love your neighbour as yourself requires that we learn to ‘exit’ ourselves. Think about what it means to love your neighbour as yourself. How do we love ourselves? We naturally will the best for ourselves. If you are shopping for fruit, you look for the best, you don’t buy the rotten fruit, you buy the best and most wholesome looking fruit and vegetables, because you naturally will the best for yourselves. But you and I do not naturally will the best for others. That takes a lifetime to learn how to do. But to do that involves an exit of self. I have to love the other as another self, another me. That’s difficult to do, because we have an inclination to selfishness, the wound of Original Sin called concupiscence. And baptism does not do away with that wound. We have to do battle against that for the rest of our lives. But the more we advance in that battle, the greater will be our joy. And so the key is to love God with all your mind and all your heart and all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself. That’s the way to ecstasy, to joy, to exit ourselves in the love of Him who is larger than ourselves, and our neighbour who is outside of ourselves.

Live by the Spirit, Paul says, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. What Paul means here by the desires of the flesh is not necessarily the sins of the flesh. “Flesh” is a term that refers to the propensity to sin, and there are seven ways we can be inclined to sin, that is, seven capital sins. Some of those sins are sins of the flesh, like gluttony and lust, but the most serious ones are the sins of the spirit, like avarice, envy, and pride. The more spiritual the sin, the more freedom there is at the root of it, and thus the more serious they are.

What we have to do individually is to find our own battle ground where the Lord is calling us to fight against ourselves. That fight begins with a distrust of self. Without that distrust of self, we end up fighting someone else’s battle, and the result is we never grow up in the spiritual life.

What can happen is this. If we are not honest with ourselves and refuse, in the depths of our subconscious, to go to war against ourselves, but wish to be religious nonetheless, we identify sin with those sins we don’t struggle with. If I don’t struggle with lust, for example, what can happen is that I can reduce all sin to sexual sin, or sins of the flesh. That way I never have to acknowledge the envy and/or pride that I should be struggling against. On the other hand, if I don’t struggle with avarice but do struggle with sexual sin and I am not honest with myself, I can reduce all sin to avarice or social injustice, and become very liberal with sexual sin. In both cases, I get to feel righteous; I can look down my nose at others, feel one up on them, and never have to engage in the struggle against myself.

Christ calls us to relinquish the pursuit of our own happiness, to die to ourselves, to take up our own cross and follow him, to engage in our own battle, whatever that might be. If we ask the Lord, he will reveal it to us.

For the disciples in this gospel, James and John, that battle was their impatience and indignation: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus turned and rebuked them.

In a parish setting, there are those who, to use Paul’s expression from the Second Reading, “bite and devour one another.” They devour and bite one another because they have not engaged in the battle against themselves. And so they battle the pastor, write nasty and unsigned letters, or they talk about other parishioners constantly and without charity, out of jealousy and a desire to be at the center or be in the know, and that division all stems from those who refuse to engage in the battle against themselves.

The next person in the gospel who came to Jesus and said “I will follow you wherever you go”, Jesus saw into his soul that he was seeking his rest here, in this life, which is why he said: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”. If you are going to follow Jesus, do not do so because you expect to find happiness. If a person enters the priesthood, for example, because he wants to find happiness, he’ll never find it and he’ll eventually leave. But if he loses his life, relinquishes the pursuit of happiness, he’ll find something incomparably greater, namely the joy of heaven. And that is true for all of us.