Let's ease into this, easy question. Maybe the easiest question you've ever been asked: Do you want to be happy? Assumptions are dangerous, but I’m going to go ahead and assume I know the answer to that one.
Can you tell me how?
It’s a big business. Go to the bookstore and find the self-help section. It’ll be a big section. There will be dozens of books explaining how to be happy. Some of the advice is achingly obvious. Some of it is very, very strange. There’s a long line of people ready to tell us their secret... read my book, follow my advice, and you’ll be happy!
If it’s so easy, then why are there so many unhappy people around?
A priest friend up in Chicago posted a question on social media just today: “Complete this sentence: ‘I will be happy when…’” It was a really interesting exercise! The first response was “I will be happy when our parochial school stays open.” One woman said “I will be happy when I retire.” Another, “I will be happy when I’m with God.” More than one said “I will be happy when the world is at peace.” Only two answers out of nineteen said they were currently happy. Of those two, one said their happiness came from knowing the Lord.
Almost completely drowned out by the endless parade of pop psychologists, entertainment therapy, and talk-show guests, we have the strangest advice of all. It comes from Jesus. They’re called the Beatitudes, and for the next few minutes, pretend they aren’t so familiar. Pretend you aren’t used to them. Let them really hit you.
They all begin with the Greek word μακάριος, which could translate “blessed,” “happy,” even “lucky.” So Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with this: “Blessed, happy, lucky are you who are poor in spirit!”
I remember one elderly woman told a priest friend of mine after a sermon, “nice sermon, Father, but I’ve been poor for a long time and I think it’s overrated.” It was a humorous way to put it, but her insight was a good one. Jesus isn’t simply glorifying poverty; if he did that he wouldn’t command us to help the poor so they don’t have to be poor anymore. So no, Jesus does not teach that wealth is evil... but he does teach that it’s dangerous. It presents a very serious temptation, it can capture our heart and become an obstacle between us and God. So whether you have any money or not, blessed are you if you are poor in spirit. I know people who make a great deal of money, but are poor in spirit. They aren’t attached to it. They are grateful to have the opportunity to help people. They consider it a grave responsibility to do so. And if it were all taken away, and they had to start over at minimum wage, these people wouldn’t be shaken. They’d be just as happy as they are now. Blessed are they! At the same time, I know poor people who are not poor in spirit. They’re greedy and money-obsessed and convinced that if they can get it, they’ll be happy. Guess what? They’re not happy and they never will be, no matter how much money they get.
It gets stranger. “Happy, lucky, blessed are they who mourn.” That sounds pretty close to a contradiction. Go to a really sad funeral, and look around at the people who are mourning, many in tears... would you say they are happy? Do they look lucky to you? Jesus says they are.
To understand why, imagine a life with no mourning. Imagine a life where you never wept at a goodbye or a death. What have you just imagined, but a life without love? To love is to open ourselves to grief, mourning, pain. Ask any husband or wife, any parent, any priest, any true friend. Those who mourn have opened their hearts to others... and that is happiness.
Blessed are the meek. This doesn’t mean be a doormat, it means don’t be full of yourself. Get over yourself. Do you know people who are obsessed with their social standing, or with recognition, or with their reputation? It’s a recipe for unhappiness. Be meek, humble. Getting over yourself is absolutely essential if you want to be happy. It also just might be one of the hardest things you could ever try to do… so maybe it’s no wonder so many of the self-help gurus only focus us inward. They idolize self-esteem, self-love, self this and self that. The Word made Flesh says forget about yourself and you just might find yourself being happy. How about that?
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Do you? You don’t get to say ‘yes’ just because you carry around a default preference for righteousness. Jesus is asking if you hunger. Do you ache for it? Take a good hard look inside and be honest: what is it that you hunger for? What do you ache for? What is your heart set on? And answer this question based on your actions and your thoughts. What consumes your thoughts through the day? What drive is behind the way you spend your time? If it’s righteousness, then blessed, happy, lucky are you.
Blessed are the merciful. You can’t be happy while you’re holding a grudge. “But but but, she…” ... no. Let it go. Be merciful. Everyone you know is a sinner. Everyone you become close to, if you give them enough time, will let you down. Turns out we’re all human after all. And here’s the catch: “The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” So if you want to be happy, you’d better drop that stone because we’re all sinners here. We have exactly two options: either we all drop our rocks, or we all go down. And the day we figure this out, the day we realize that mercy is our only hope, then we can start finding true joy in the relationships we have. You can’t be happy while being unmerciful.
Blessed are the pure of heart. This is a hard one, and closely tied up with all the others. Does God have all of our hearts, or is something competing with him? Many of us are not single of heart, we’re torn in all kinds of different directions. We have goals and desires that contradict each other, and spin us around, and keep us permanently unsettled and fractured. Blessed are they who let go of all of that, who just let it go, and find simplicity, purity, singleness of heart. But you can only have simplicity and purity and singleness of heart if you put God at the center of everything… because there is nothing else that can hold that place. When love of God orders our whole lives, in simplicity, in purity, then we become truly happy.
Blessed are the peacemakers. That sounds nice, but have you ever tried it? It’s incredibly frustrating and difficult to bring peace to anything or anyone. Blessed, happy are you if you don’t give up. Be a person of peace and reconciliation among your friends, among your family... even if it’s been years or decades of stubborn conflict, even if no one appreciates it... be a peacemaker. Don’t give up. There are a lot more pretend peacemakers than real ones. These fakers are always ready to point to somebody else who’s the problem. They’re always willing to call out the villains - whose crime is often simply disagreeing with them - and say ‘see, those are the people who stand between us and our perfect peaceful world. They are what’s wrong with the Church. They are what’s wrong with America. They are what’s wrong with the world.’ That’s war, ugly as ever, only with the added ugliness of hypocrisy, the added guilt of flying the false flag of peace. Be a real peacemaker. Forsake the false happiness of self-righteously condemning others, forsake the big circle of like-minded people patting each other on the back for being so right about everything, and try to increase understanding between people who don’t understand each other. That kind of peacemaking is hard. You rarely get to feel like you’ve won much of a victory. But to stay in that arena, to keep trying, that’s happiness.
And, finally, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.” Notice the word “falsely” there - if they’re mad at you for good reason, it doesn’t count! But if you encounter opposition solely for your faith in God, solely for your love of the Church, solely for your correct moral choices, blessed are you. As he will say elsewhere, “if the world hates you, remember it hated me first.” Here Christ is calling us away from perhaps the greatest temptation of all: wanting to be liked more than we want to be faithful. I want people to like me, and I think we all do. I want everybody to be happy when they see me coming, to be comfortable around me, to say nice things about me when I’m not around. Well, that isn’t going to happen if I’m following Christ. Not always.
This is tricky. Just because someone doesn’t like you doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a saint. They might dislike you because you’re being a jerk. And it can be very hard, when we have trouble with people, it can be very hard to discern whether we’re just being faithful and should stand our ground, or whether we’re being jerks and should apologize. But if persecution truly does come to us because of Christ, that is a great happiness.
The Beatitudes are familiar to anybody who’s read the Gospels or learned the rudiments of the Faith. They are stirring, they affect us… something inside us responds to these words and tells us they sound profound and important. It’s very easy, and I think very common, to let that feeling pass and move on with our lives, taking the Beatitudes as a bit of deep-sounding poetry. What if instead we took them as a set of simple instructions, as actual rules for making choices, as the most practical and concrete advice we could ever be given?
Jesus has just turned the self-help section completely upside-down. These words were subversive and revolutionary when he first spoke them, and they are subversive and revolutionary today. Happiness is to take up your Cross and follow Christ. And if your life looks like his, Cross and all, that, Christians, is happiness. Now and forever. Which brings us back to where we started and to what might, on second thought, be the toughest question you've ever been asked: Do you want to be happy?