God meant us to enjoy happiness even in this world, though it could not be the happiness which excludes all pain and suffering. Such complete happiness is reserved for the next life, when we are participating in the infinite happiness of God in heaven. As long as we are living in this world pain and suffering are inevitable, because of the fall of man and the general corruption of human nature that followed upon it. Nothing that men can devise will ever change that fact or bring us to an earthly garden of Eden. This has been attested in every stage of the world’s history and never more clearly than in these latter days of widespread misery, chaos and unrest.
If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily (Lk 9:23)
So it was that when Christ Our Lord came on this earth to redeem us and to show us by His own example how we must live if we wish to have happiness both now and hereafter, He said: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily,” and St Luke (9:23) prefaced the words, “He said to all.” It was to help and encourage us that He Himself took up His own Cross, an infinitely heavier one than any of us will be called upon to bear, so that because of His bitter Passion and Death He is known as “The Man of Sorrows”. But it would be a mistake to lay an undue or exclusive meaning on that title. Our Blessed Lord was in truth the happiest man that has ever lived on this earth: His human soul was the recipient of the greatest natural joys in His association with His Blessed Mother, with St Joseph His foster-father, with His relations and close friends. He found delight, too, in the world in which He lived, the beauties of nature, the hills, the fields, the flowers, in running water. Nothing of beauty escaped His sensitive gaze. He could find joy in the humble work of a carpenter, in all the trivial happenings of a peaceful home, in the simplicity of village life. Though He knew well the sufferings that were to befall Him, that terrible vision did not darken His life and leave Him ever fearful and depressed. For He had within His human soul the root of happiness – a complete union with His Father in heaven. His every activity in living wholly for God and in giving over His entire human will to the will of God ensured His happiness, a happiness that was not disturbed even when He hung on His Cross and suffered a death of the utmost anguish and pain.
The root of happiness
He wants us, too, to be happy even in this world but He knows that such limited happiness as this affords can only be attained by bearing our own cross and in facing courageously, in patience and without complaint, the ever-recurring trials of life. It is not enough to look upon Him crucified for us, but if His merits are to be productive of good in us we must shoulder our own crosses and find our happiness here below in so following Him.
Are happiness and pain really incompatible?
To many people it seems impossible that there can be happiness where there is pain. But a little reflection will show them their mistake. A mother will find happiness in suffering pain for the safety or life of her child. A brave soldier will be happy even when he is enduring hardships, privations, and perils to help his country’s cause. Many a man will undertake arduous work that puts a strain on his courage and is a cause of much present comfort, while at the same time he enjoys an inner happiness in the consciousness that he is attaining some great purpose. Again, to one who has been converted from a life of sin there is happiness in the thought that by bearing his sufferings, whether mental or physical, he is making reparation for the past [see also: Col.1:24] and gaining ever added merit [see also: Mt6:20]. Innocent and more spiritual souls, in whom there has been no serious sin in their lives, such as was the childlike Saint of Lisieux, will have joy in the knowledge that they become co-victims with Christ in the redemption of the world and in bringing others to God.
Lives of undisturbed calm
Pain is not in itself a good and is not something for itself naturally desirable, but in the inherited corruption of our human nature it can be recognised as a means of correction that redresses evil; and when so recognised adds to, rather than detracts from, that happiness that God would have us enjoy in this world. This is the explanation of the consolation and joy that the saints experienced even when subjected to multiplied suffering. A marked feature of their lives was their undisturbed calm and equanimity under the most distressing and painful earthly conditions. They forgot themselves in their love for God, and in so forgetting themselves they found the truth of His words – paradoxical as they may sound – “My yoke is sweet and my burden light.”
How to make one’s own hell for oneself
On the other hand, they who separate themselves from God and seek their happiness exclusively in this world, either in intellectual pursuits or, as is most commonly the case, in ministering to their passions and the demands of their lower nature, are sooner or later disillusioned and disappointed. Suffering and pain for them assume undue and exaggerated proportions. Their love of self brings its own nemesis and fills their lives with afflictions of soul they need never have known. They make their own hell, for the final result of living for self, when persisted in to the end, is the eternal loss of the One Supreme Good who alone can give us true happiness here and complete happiness hereafter.
My meat is to do the will of my Father (Jn 4:34)
Let us not forget, what has already been said, that the secret of happiness is what Our Blessed Lord by His own life and teaching disclosed to us. We must give ourselves entirely to God without reserve, even as He in His human nature gave Himself to His Father. “My meat” (that is, the very nourishment of His soul) “is to do the will of my Father” were His words (Jn 4:34).
Is it possible to bargain with God?
Even some substantially good Catholics make the mistake of thinking that they can make a sort of Concordat with God, conceding to Him the fulfilment of certain essential religious duties, such as hearing Mass and frequenting the Sacraments, but God in return is to secure their salvation, while they keep certain reserves for themselves, some inordinate attachments to persons and things in which God does not enter, attachments which, though not necessarily sinful, create a barrier between their Maker and themselves. Their religion thus becomes a wretched compromise, and as such precludes that happiness which a whole-hearyed acceptance of God’s rights over them would ensure
Complete surrender, complete union
Such persons fail to see that religion must enter into every single part of their lives, that it must be a duty to God not at certain times only of the day or the week but one that is interwoven with everything they think, say, or do at all times and at every moment of their lives. If they would know joy and happiness under every variable condition, whether of pleasure or of pain, God must be realised as the One Supreme Good whom with all the intensity of their intelligence and with all the energy of their will they embrace as wholly lovable and desirable to the exclusion of everyone and everything that threaten their complete union with Him.
“Not only for canonised saints”
Let it not be thought that only those who reach to the heroism of canonised saints can fashion their lives to this pattern. It is within the power of every fervent Catholic to do so. What holds back most is their inordinate fear of pain, their unwillingness to accept the Cross, their constant but futile endeavour to escape suffering whenever it rears its head. But of this they may be assured, that by earnest prayer and by the right use of the Sacraments, the grace of God, once their hearts are fully given to Him, will so transform them that they will realise and understand in their own lives the truth of the words in the Imitation:
Love is a great thing, yea in all ways a great good; for it alone maketh light all that is heavy and beareth with even mind every uneven fortune; for it carryeth a burden while counting it no burden, and maketh sweet and of good savour every bitter thing.
It is this love of God which, entwined with the Cross, gives a true conception of what religion means, and will enable all of us of goodwill, in spite of so much that is distressing and difficult in the world to-day, to possess even now happiness in our lives, while, still exiles on this earth, we look forward to the lasting union with Him “who will give us life without end in our fatherland” in Heaven.
– From: Lift Up Your Hearts, Christopher J. Wilmot, S.J., The Catholic Book Club, London, 1949