‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer’ (Rom 12:12).
Day for Life, the Day in the Church’s year dedicated to celebrating the dignity of life from conception to natural death this year reflects on what it means to live a full and happy life. It takes as its starting point the words of Pope Benedict during his recent visit to Britain, when he said: ‘Happiness is something we all want, but one of the great tragedies in this world is that so many people never find it, because they look for it in the wrong places. The key to it is very simple – true happiness is to be found in God. We need to have the courage to place our deepest hopes in God alone, not in money, in a career, in worldly success, or in our relationships with others, but in God. Only he can satisfy the deepest needs of our hearts’. (Pope Benedict XVI, The Big Assembly: Address to Young People, Twickenham, England, 17th September 2010).
What is happiness and what makes us happy? Is it the feeling of the sun on your face after a long winter? Is it how you feel in the morning or at the end of a good day? Does a bar of chocolate make you smile? Is it dependent on other people, or can you feel happy alone? Is it a surface feeling or does it go deeper?
It is, in fact, impossible not to want to be happy – we all yearn for happiness. Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘Serenity Prayer’ asks that ‘I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the Next’.
So what is it? How do we reach it? Well, happiness is a consequence, not an aim or end. Our aim or end in all things is to love. When our effort is in loving, we are happy. Happiness is often elusive. If you set out to catch it, if you do things with the aim of making yourself happy, happiness will elude you. We are happiest when we are serving, when we are giving ourselves wholeheartedly and forgetting our self.
True happiness involves surrender, self-sacrifice and being prepared to suffer – it involves a calling to love.
An ancient Persian Tradition tells the story of an egotistical young man who falls in love with a beautiful young woman. He decides to ask her to be his wife and full of confidence knocks at her door. Hearing the knock, she asks ‘Who is it?’ and expecting that she will recognise his voice, he says ‘It’s me’. But she replies ‘I don’t know you’. He comes back and knocks and she asks again, ‘Who is it?’ He confidently replies ‘it’s me,’ but her reply is ‘Sorry, I don’t know you’. He is deeply disturbed and goes away to the desert to fast and pray.
After a period of time, he returns from the desert and returns to the door of the one he loves, where she asks him, ‘Who is it?’ This time he whispers very softly ‘It’s you’ and the door opens. Through his own experience of suffering in the desert, the young man discovers that his heart’s deepest desire is to give joy to the one he loves.
It is a journey from selfishness to selflessness; from self-interest to self-forgetfulness. It’s about you, not me.
Can happiness be measured? The government seem to think so – it has invested two million pounds into research co-ordinated by the National Office for Statistics into what makes us happy and affects our general sense of wellbeing. Once completed, the ‘National Wellbeing Index’ will play an important role in future policy-making decisions.
Despite being a much wealthier nation, we are not necessarily any happier than we were five decades ago. It’s not wealth, health, physical attractiveness or a promotion which lead to lasting happiness. In the first reading for this year’s Day for Life, the Prophet Isaiah tells us very simply what we have to do to find true happiness and the fulfilment of our desires. We have simply to listen to the Lord and put our faith in his promise.
‘Listen, listen to me and you will have good things to eat
and rich food to enjoy.
come to me;
listen, and your soul will live.’ (Isaiah 55:2-3)
The Gospels are full of joy, Gaudium; in the Christmas scene, the angels announce exceedingly great joy; the shepherds were full of joy, the wise men came with exceedingly great joy, and why? Because they discovered our Lord! To find joy we must also discover that God is very close to us. Those wise men probably put themselves to a great deal of trouble to follow the star and at no small expense. Everything worthwhile is costly.
Suffering is the bowl which holds our joy. Saint Josemaria Escriva said that “happiness has its roots in the form of a cross”, in other words that it is the fruit of hard work; self-giving, self-denial and a desire to serve others in all things. Without the Cross there is no Resurrection, but the Cross is not the final word…. There IS the Resurrection; there is joy as a result of the sufferings of the Passion and Cross.
A priest from the West visiting Russia some years ago noticed a sad widow in Church. He spoke to her to listen to her and to encourage her, but he also said to her “you have to struggle against this sadness”. It may be costly to try to bring ourselves out of sadness or self-pity and sometimes life gives us hard knocks… but that is where we need to embrace the Cross – “…and your sorrow will turn into joy” Jn 16,20. In that effort we can encourage others. We can ask ourselves: Am I a source of joy for those who live or work with me? Does my daily presence among them draw them closer to God?
Let’s take ourselves a little less seriously, without trivialising anything that’s important, let’s try to see the lighter side of things. The greatest beauty secret of all time – and it’s free – is a smile! Smiles are contagious. But there’s an awful lot that goes behind a smile – it begins in the heart; it’s an attitude of gratitude and of grace. Some research has been carried out into what makes us smile: its results include being grateful, walking the dog, swimming with dolphins, and singing (a 2007 study of British choral singers found a direct link between singing and mental well-being).
Our time is precious, and for every minute we are angry, we lose sixty seconds of happiness! Everybody can be happy with God – forever and ever. Amen.
Day for Life Prayer
We thank you Lord for the gift of life.
Help us to appreciate the unique dignity of every person and the individual contribution they make to the world, in fulfilment of the task you give them.
Enable us by your grace to promote their well-being, serving you in one another in a spirit of generosity, through Christ Jesus Our Lord. Amen.’
And as a little addition for this special day and subject:
Help me to see the funny side, the lighter side of things, help me to be generous in giving my smile and happiness to all I meet today.
There will be special collection in parishes in England and Wales to assist the work of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre and other life-related activities supported by the Church. Please give generously.