Love and the Levels of Happiness
Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect...

Doug McManaman
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reproduced with Permission

The other day I was thinking about how poor my memory has become. I began to notice my deteriorating memory in my early 40s, and it has only gotten worse and it will continue to do so. I used to have a very good memory as well as a great sense of direction. Not so much anymore. I tell my students that it will their turn in due time; from the age of 21 onwards, we lose 10,000 brain cells every day. By the time you are 40, you begin to experience the effects. A friend of mine puts a positive spin on this; he says it makes life much simpler. Of course, that is true.

But think back to last year. How much do we really remember? I can recall the last time that I was here, but I don't remember what I preached on, I don't remember the readings, I don't recall specific details, only vague generalities. One thing I do recall more vividly is the time when Pope Francis was elected to office. We had Mass here in the evening with a few of you, and I did the first reading without any shoes on, just my socks. I do recall it was a peaceful time. But, I have to say that even the most joyful moments in the past have less reality than a real puff of smoke. In fact, a good smoke of a cigar in the present moment has more reality and is more enjoyable than a memory of the most pleasant moments in the past.

So we have to wonder: why live for future moments of this world, when the future will enter into the present, and will soon recede into the past, to vanish like smoke? Our gradually failing memory should make us realize that it is irrational to live for the goods of this world, for the joys of this world. We should not be living for moments that will recede into the past, no matter how intensely enjoyable that moment is, but we should be living for a moment that will last forever, that will be eternal. Eternal life is an eternal moment, it is a present that endures but does not recede into the past.

This life is about preparing for that moment. And we prepare for that moment not by seeking our own happiness, but learning to concern ourselves with the happiness of others. When the Lord says be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect, he means perfect charity, perfect agape.

There are four Greek words for love: eros, storge, philia, and agape. Eros is the passionate attraction between the sexes, or romantic love, the experience of falling in love. Storge is a feeling of affection. Philia is friendship love, but agape is the word that Jesus uses when he commands us to love. Agape is the love of another, willing and seeking his good, not for what he does for us, but for his sake.

We naturally love ourselves and will the best for ourselves; we don't naturally love others, however. We don't naturally will the best for them. That is something we have to choose to do; to will the best for the other just as we will the best for ourselves. Agape means loving the other as if he were another me. That's what we are commanded to do. And the reason is very simple: there is no happiness without it. The problem with this world is that people love themselves too much; people are far too preoccupied with their own happiness, and that is why happiness evades them.

The ancient Hindus and Greeks understood that there are different kinds or levels of happiness. There is 1) the happiness that comes from the experience of physical pleasure, like the happiness you experience when you are enjoying a good meal. That's the lowest level of happiness. It is a real happiness, it is good, but it is the lowest. Then there is 2) the happiness one experiences through a sense of achievement. This has been called the happiness of comparative advantage: i.e., the happiness of winning a gold medal, the happiness we experience after getting a great mark on an exam, or taking pride in an accomplishment of some kind.

A higher level of happiness is 3) natural beatitude. This involves seeing the good in others and actually doing good for them. The two previous levels of happiness are rooted in a love of self; this one, however, is rooted in a genuine love of the other, for the other's sake (agape). It is not the highest level, but it is a level that few seem to find. When we finally decide to make the happiness of others our main focus in life, it is only then that we will discover the happiness we have always been looking for.

The highest level of happiness is called 4) sublime or supernatural beatitude. This is so lofty that it cannot be described; it involves a losing of oneself in the supernatural love of God. It is mystical, and only God can elevate us to this.

Happiness is something that evades most people, and the reason is that human beings insist on level 1 and/or 2 happiness; levels 3 and 4 are neglected. In fact, many think level 3 is for the government: "Let the government take care of the needs of others while I pursue my dreams and eat at the finest restaurants". It's very hard to free ourselves from the clutches of levels 1 and 2 and to place ourselves habitually in level 3, because the happiness of level 3 is the result of choosing to live a life governed by agape.

To live in apage is to live an expanded existence; for I choose to love others as another me, as another self, and so I become more than what I without ceasing to be what I am. The more people I love like that, the larger I become, and the happier I become, for the happiness of the other has become my own. That is why heaven is unimaginably joyful; the happiness of the blessed is also our own happiness, not to mention the happiness of God. This happiness is an ecstasy, an exit of self or a complete loss of self in the supernatural charity of God. Those who have chosen to love only themselves cannot understand this, because they just don't know the joy of an expanded existence; all they know is the happiness of level 1 and 2. But everyone wants the highest level of happiness, it is just that many people are their own worst enemies and they will not permit themselves to achieve it; for they have chosen to make themselves the center of their universe.

We often hear people say: "I wish this moment could last forever". It is a wish that can come true, because eternity is an eternal moment that will never recede into the distant past. To those who have never loved, that moment will be an eternal torment and shame; to those who are committed to self-expansion through love, it will be an eternal and inconceivable joy.