Thursday, October 8, 2015

Why Can't I Be Happy?

If you read the sidebar on my blog, you will see the point in my life at which I realized:  “I’m not happy.”  I think everyone feels that way at some point --- but that point DOES pass.  Fortunately for me, I reached my bottom at a point when I felt God calling to me, and I strongly felt that He was the answer to overcoming my sadness.
I perceive that this “God calling” doesn’t happen to most people, but when they come to perceive the depths of their sadness, they feel alone.  If that describes you right now, have faith; there IS hope.
This past week I read not one but two books and each touched upon a definition of happiness that I found helpful.  The definition of “happiness” may seem obvious to you (I thought so too), but as I read these books I realized that I, at one point, had defined my state of un-happiness, but had never really stopped to define what “happiness” meant --- because I thought I knew.  It turns out I didn’t, and I suspect you don’t either.
Think about it for a moment:  how can you want happiness if you really don’t know what it is?  It’s kind of like you saying: “I want some monkey-flavored ice cream.”  “What the heck does that taste like,” you may ask.  I don’t know either --- so how could say you want it?
Raniero Cantalamessa, in his book titled Serving The Word quotes the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who said there are three categories of greatness (a measure of success and happiness).  These categories were: 1) material goods, 2) genius and intelligence, and 3) holiness.  The first one can come about through hard work, or athletic prowess, or even good looks.  It also can just be inherited.  The second level of greatness/happiness includes poets, artists, scientists, and even philosophers.  These people are usually not rich-happy in the same manner as the first category, yet most people would say this level of greatness/happiness is more profound.  These people can be remembered through many generations, like Socrates ---- but, for example, how many rich men of the Roman Empire can you name?
Pascal said the third category of greatness/happiness, holiness, is a more noble and satisfying one, than that of the first two, for three reasons:  “First, because it is a greatness that does not end in this life; second, because it is a greatness in the eyes of God who is the measure of any greatness; and third, because it is a greatness that values what is most noble in a human being:  freedom.  It does not depend on whether we are good-looking or ugly, rich or poor, highly intelligent or less so.  Instead what depends on us is being honest or dishonest, being good or bad people.”  Cantalamessa notes that: “the good news about these categories of greatness is that faith in Christ does not obligate us to choose only one of these categories and renounce the others.  A young person can try to earn money and be committed to an artistic or literary career --- even becoming an actor or an actress --- but at the same time aspire to holiness.”
In Robert Spitzer’s book, Finding True Happiness, he defines four levels of happiness:  External-Pleasure-Material, Ego-Comparative, Contributive-Empathetic, and Transcendent.  He makes the case that Pascal’s Holiness category can be split into Love of Neighbor --- contributing to society or particular people, and Love of God --- a relationship with God, a vibrant prayer life.
Spitzer, since his book is focused on happiness, also looks at the problems of focused happiness in some detail.  He notes that the unhappiness often found in youth arises out of concerns over levels one and two, which are often more acutely focused on in early life.  He notes that many young people tend to define their happiness by comparing themselves to others:  who is richer, has nicer clothes, is prettier, is more popular, etc.  When they were very young, they valued what their parents thought of them; when older they valued what others thought of them.  (Only in levels 3 and 4 will they discover the greater importance of what they think of themselves, and of what God thinks of them.)   Even among the very rich or very intelligent, young or old, comparisons to others’ greatness can be a problem, for there is always someone perceived to be better.  Many “winners” in the comparison game become full-blown narcissists, trapped in behaviors designed to get more status from others.
Both Spitzer and Cantalamessa (and Pascal) point to the fact --- they reference studies --- that there is an inner longing in man for transcendence.  We want our life to have a greater meaning than that of just our own fleeting earthly happiness --- witness the suicide rate among rich people, the Hollywood crowd, sports figures, or that latest “pursuing-their-own-happiness” crowd:  those with sex-change operations.  Their pursuit of happiness for themselves can reach deep depressing levels: “I can’t win; I can’t be happy” feelings.  We innately long for more than earthly, temporary things.  I know at one point --- and I remember it well --- I realized I did.
The answer to fulfilling this greater longing, this greater happiness, a really deep happiness, lies (strangely, I know) in not focusing our efforts on OUR happiness, but on the happiness of others.  Holding the hand of a dying person; serving food to a hungry, homeless person, or just playing catch with your son when you have lots of work to do:  these are all examples of holiness --- of caring for others more than yourself.  This level of greatness, of happiness, can’t be bought or analyzed with the greatest of intelligence.  But we can choose it.  And if while in prayer you should suddenly perceive the presence of God and His love for you, this the greatest level of happiness possible --- at least on this earth.
The answer to that question of “Why can’t I be happy?” lies in the foolishness of thinking we can make ourselves happy.  Focusing all of our efforts on ourselves is, in a way, limiting ourselves.  If we broaden our focus beyond ourselves, there is much more happiness to be felt in greater numbers of people --- and in greater Persons:  God.
When I finally decided to stop trying to make myself happy is when I finally began to appreciate happiness more; I found giving happiness to be much more satisfying than pursuing happiness.
I liked that I had read these two books so close to each other, so that I could see their well-expressed definition of happiness, and the levels of happiness --- and how to achieve them.  I think they give me food for discussion with others on this topic, especially with the young who are trapped in levels 1 and 2 of happiness.   

Saturday, October 3, 2015

What Is Pope Francis' Agenda?

It seems I have heard that subject question raised on many a talk show in recent days, and on a goodly number of them even heard the answer --- they think they know what is in the pope’s mind!  I, for one, do not make such presumption --- but I do believe I know what is in His heart.
The Bible study group this week focused on the many calls of Jesus to the apostles, to the disciples, and to strangers who walked up to Him.  He said:  Follow me.  He asked them for a commitment, a change in their lives, but I also noticed that, in almost all the cases we looked at, He first spoke with them:  they had a conversation.
That point struck me as a key one, and my mind wandered to the political affairs in Washington and to the cancer there which also seems to inhabit the minds of the general public:  people don’t converse anymore.  Maybe it started with the breakdown of the family, or perhaps it was the breakdown of faith.  People may have felt they no family they could trust, or perhaps no God they could trust, and so they decided they could only trust themselves.  No conversation with others was needed.
It seems that much of what does pass as conversation on complex matters these days is really not conversation --- a back and forth discussion --- but rather it is like the “discussions” we see in Congress, where person after person walks up to the microphone and gives a speech:  “Hear me!  Did you hear what I said?  Are you convinced yet?”
That is not conversation.  And as Jesus and the Gospels demonstrate, conversion --- a changing of minds and hearts --- is not something that is dictated, but rather it is something which begins with conversation.  From conversation can flow trust, and from trust reasoned (together) truth, and from truth the gift of faith --- and it IS a gift.  Conversion and faith are not something we can force upon someone else.
What is Pope Francis’ agenda?  Well, if he indeed does have one, some master plan HE devised to convert people to his way of thinking, well then I strongly suspect he will fail.  Jesus demonstrated that conversion and faith is a gift.  Even the pope can’t compel people’s conversion through some master plan of his.  The pope is a man with a job.  Like any other man he has opinions and deep beliefs, many formed by his upbringing, and many formed in answer to his prayers.  He knows his job and what it entails, and He prays that God will help him do it well.  But as for his plan for success, I strongly suggest and believe that He asks God to lead, according to His plan:  “Not my will, but Thy will be done in me, O Lord.”
And then the pope follows God’s inspirations and example.  And certainly the pope is aware of Jesus’ example of not dictating doctrine or conversion.  He didn’t order Caesar to feed the poor.  He didn’t create shelves of bread in every home so no one would starve.  He didn’t even demand everyone listen to Him.  What He did was go to them, wherever they were, and began a conversation.
If many people want to talk about global warming, I think Pope Francis will talk to them.  If they want to talk about the rich or the poor, he will talk to them.  He will go to talk to them, whether in Congress or the United Nations.  And from his conversations may flow other things …
Is this part of his well-thought-out “agenda”?  I think not.  I am not at all sure he has some complex detailed plan of action.  This answer, however, almost begs another question:  Well then, does GOD have some master plan?  Here I am much more confident that, yes, there is a plan, although surely it is beyond my reasoning ability to fathom its depths.  I think the pope believes this also, and he goes forth without having to see the end destination of his efforts in sight.  He trusts.
And so I will trust.  Jesus didn’t concern Himself with telling Caesar what to do, so neither will I concern myself with telling the pope what to do.
And I will give to him what is proper and due, without criticism or implication that: “I know better.”

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Jesus Christ: Man of La Mancha

It was sheer luck that I noticed the musical, Man of La Mancha, was being put on by a local theater group.  Told by a friend not to expect too much, I was greatly surprised --- yet again --- by the beautiful singing and plot of this play.  The local group did it well, and my friend went with me to see it again, and agreed with my joyful assessment of the production.
I had seen this play many times in my more youthful days, but now in my elder years I saw and heard the spirit of the play, and its spirit spoke loudly and beautifully to me in many deeply meaningful phrases.
The plot of Man of La Mancha has a playwright thrown in jail by the Inquisition.  He proceeds to entertain the rogues in the dungeon there with a play (within this play).  His play is a story about a man who decides to live his life as a knight, a warrior who would “fight for the right without question or pause.”  Obviously most around him thought him insane, but it didn’t matter to him.
One of the early “battles” the knight fights is with an ogre with four whirling arms, a great evil.  Only everyone else saw it as a windmill, but he fought it anyway, and lost, to its whirling blades.  (Looking at this story spiritually, he saw an evil and fought it, regardless of whether others agreed it was an evil or not.  I thought about the evils in our world today, which so many say really are goods --- like that of a woman’s right to choose to kill her baby.  And I thought:  “We need more knights today, fighting these battles.”)
When the knight and his friend, his squire, reach a roadside inn, they meet ruffians and whores.  While others said to pass it by, the knight spoke to the “guests of the castle” and offered to fight battles for them.  He treated them with respect --- respect others said they didn’t deserve, and these others were confused at his actions.  (And I was reminded of Jesus going among the tax collectors and other sinners.)
The knight tells one particular whore that he “sees her virtue and beauty.”  She thinks him nuts at first, but his persistent respect causes her to question:  “Why do you do these things you do?”  And when he calls her a virgin she says: “Why does he live in a world that can’t be?”  And “No one can be what he wants me to be.”
(And again, I thought of Jesus, the respect He has for all men and the challenges He issues to us, and the challenges which He wishes us to issue to the world.  Because Jesus, like the knight, despite all odds and sensibilities and trials also said:  “Virtue will triumph.”)
“Why does he give when it’s natural to take?”
“Why does he see all the good he can see?”
“Doesn’t he know he’ll be laughed at wherever he’ll go?”
(All those questions of the whore in the play are the questions that we Christians face today.)
At a certain point in the play the whore sides with the knight and his squire and they defeat the ruffians in a fight.  “Victory!” they shout.  And they celebrate, but it is short-lived, for when the ruffians recover, they grab the whore --- and have their own brand of victory.
(And so we see from the play that while there will be victories in life, for us who fight the Christian battles, there will also be defeats --- and with the defeats perhaps deep humiliations.  And these will be times when we are tempted to give up to the ways of the world.)
And then comes what seems to be the knight’s final defeat.  His friends trick him, and he is forced to see himself as they see him, as one who is delusional.  He agrees with them --- even as many Christians come to accept the critics of God and faith and accept the ways of the world.  It seems a sad ending, but it is one which the players of this play-within-a-play --- those back in the dungeon --- don’t accept.  So another ending is quickly devised.
The once-knight is seen to lie dying among his friends and family, and his once-squire.  Then the whore from the inn breaks into the bedroom scene and pleads with the dying man to recall the knight he had once tried to be and the battles he fought for virtue and right --- no matter the cost.  And then he does remember, and once more he rises and together they sing of fighting for the right, no matter the cost, to the death.  And then, suddenly, the knight dies.
There is a lamenting at his death, but then one line is said, a most critical line which can be missed if you are not paying attention.  It is the last line of the play.  In it the whore assumes a new name, the one earlier given to her by the knight.  (This alludes to all the times in the Bible where people had their name changed by God, when they had changed their ways to God’s ways:  Abram to Abraham, Simon to Peter, etc.)
The knight had died, but in death he was victorious, because one soul had changed her life --- and name.  Virtue had triumphed!
I really liked this play, for all the good music, the excellent parables describing the life we are to lead, and of the victory we may not even live to see, but will be there if we trust and persist.  This play gives me hope.
If you ever have the opportunity to see it, you should.  I think I shall see it one more time, perhaps the last time ever for me, before it closes this weekend.  As I look at the sad state of this world, I can always use another shot of hope.
To Dream The Impossible Dream
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell for a heavenly cause

And I know if I'll only be true to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I'm laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell for a heavenly cause

And I know if I'll only be true to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I'm laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Review: God or Nothing

I had never heard of Robert Cardinal Sarah before I purchased this book.  Perhaps that was God’s plan; He waited until He saw me troubled, and then He gave me a measure of comfort and hope.
The first three chapters of God or Nothing explain Cardinal Sarah’s upbringing in a small village in Guinea, Africa.  There he dealt with torture and the tyrants who regularly confronted the Church, and hardened his faith.  There, faith and family were everything, and enabled survival.  The rest of the book tells you, in his own words, who this man is now -- and how he, and other African cardinals, are a great hope for the Catholic Church, and the world.
I searched for but could not find words to adequately sum up my thoughts on this book, and Cardinal Sarah.  There is so much here, so much complexity, and yet so much simplicity.  And so I find that my review here is largely excerpts from his book --- but there is so much more here  than words could convey. 
I have absolute confidence in the faith of the African
people, and I am sure Africa will save the family.  Africa
saved the Holy Family (during the Flight to Egypt);
and in these modern times, Africa will also save the human family.
-- Robert Cardinal Sarah, August 19, 2015
As the youngest bishop in the Church, he saw how governments seek to tear down the family.  “Generally speaking, the most important measures taken by revolutionary governments always affect the family.  During the first five years of my episcopate, my pastoral letters were all dedicated to the defense of the Christian family.”  His battles pre-figure the ones now being waged in Europe and the Americas.  And he sees why the West is particularly vulnerable at this time:  “Man’s rupture with God obscures his way of looking at creation.  Blinded by his technological successes, his world view disfigures the world:  things no longer possess ontological truth or goodness but, rather, are neutral, and man is the one who must give them meaning. … Man intends to dominate nature.  Technology gives him the impression that he is master of the world.”  The title of this book lays down the lines of the battle we face.
I found Cardinal Sarah’s views on poverty to express what I myself could not adequately put into words:
  “I remember being disgusted when I heard the advertising slogan of a Catholic charitable organization: ‘Let us fight for zero poverty.’  Not one saint ever dared to speak that way about poverty and poor people.  Jesus Himself had no pretention of this sort.  … The Church must not fight against poverty, but rather wage a battle against destitution, especially material and spiritual destitution.  It is critical to make a commitment so that all men might have the minimum they require in order to live. … We do not have the right to confuse destitution and poverty, because in doing so we would seriously be going against the Gospel.  … Those who want to eradicate poverty make the Son of God a liar.  They are mistaken and lying.  … Christ chose poverty. … Mankind has never been so rich, yet it reaches astounding heights of moral and spiritual destitution because of the poverty of our interpersonal relationships and the globalization of indifference.  In the fight against destitution, there is one fundamental dimension, which consists in restoring to man his vocation as a child of God and his joy in belonging to the family of God.”
The Son of God loves the poor; others intend to eradicate them.  What a lying, unrealistic, almost tyrannical utopia!”  Wow!  Cardinal Sarah does not mince words, and he does know their meaning.
I saw that Cardinal Sarah liberally quoted (my favorites) Guardini, Augustine, Camus, St. Thomas, and Solzhenitsyn to convey his own thoughts:  “You are engaged in a formidable battle, and you behave as though it were a ping pong match.”  Like Solzhenitsyn, Cardinal Sarah knows what repression and true liberty are, and the seriousness of the battle we face.  And he touches me deeply when he speaks on another yet topic particularly dear to my heart:
“In Africa, an important place is reserved for the elderly; the respect due to old people is one of the cornerstones of African society.  I think that Europeans do not realize how shocked the peoples of Africa are by how little attention is paid to the elderly in Western countries.  This tendency to hide old age and marginalize it is a sign of a worrisome selfishness, heartlessness, or, more accurately, hard-heartedness.  To be sure, old people have all the comfort and the physical care they need.  But they lack the warmth, closeness, and human affection of their relatives and friends.” 
Cardinal Sarah looks at the confidence of our enemy, and sees a path to his eventual downfall:  “It is necessary to return to the foundations of Christian hope and to declare that life on this earth is only part of our existence, which will be prolonged and completed in eternity.  The Church must recall that life cannot be summed up in terms of the satisfaction of material pleasures, without moral rules.  At the end of a journey without God there is only the unhappiness of a child deprived of his parents.  Yes, hope abides in God alone!”
Having read this book, I must conclude that this man (or perhaps others like him from the African continent) would make a great pope.  He is prepared for battle:
I know that the African family still has magnificent prospects
ahead of it.  I wish I could be sure that such opportunities
existed for European, American, Asian and Oceanic families, too.
The battle to preserve the roots of mankind is perhaps the greatest
challenge that our world has faced since its origins.