Catholic Metanarrative

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Article: Humility: The First of the Lively Virtues


Humility is more, far more, than a curative for pride. It is itself a mighty power.

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, who didst rise in the morning? how art thou fallen to the earth, that didst wound the nations?
And thou saidst in thy heart: I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God, I will sit in the mountain of the covenant, in the sides of the north.
I will ascend above the height of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.
But yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, into the depth of the pit. (Is. 14:12-15)
When Thomas Aquinas asked how it was that Satan believed, in his pride, that he could be like God, he denied that even the devil could be so blind as actually to believe that he could be God.  For Satan understood by natural knowledge that that was impossible.  He could not create heaven and earth from nothing, as he well knew.  Besides, says Thomas, no creature desires its own demise, which must occur if it is to pass in essence from one grade of being to a higher grade.  Rather, Satan desired to be like God "because he desired, as the ultimate goal of beatitude, that which he could attain by the power of his own nature, turning his desire away from that beatitude beyond nature which is bestowed by the free gift of God" (S. T. I.63.4).  And this understanding of Satan's sin, Thomas adds, is in accord with the opinion of Anselm, who said that Satan "desired what he would have attained if he had but stood."
We see here why pride is the fundamental evil.  It arises from a lie about who God is, and what we are.  We desire a likeness to God that we ourselves, by our own powers, can secure; but that is to divorce God from love, and to reject His gifts of love.  We cannot become like the giver of all good things by means of ingratitude.  We cannot become like the God of love by assuming that we, as creatures, do not need that love.  Bonum diffusivum sui: the good, by nature, pours itself out, spreads itself abroad, gives freely of its being.  We cannot become good, then, by standing aloof, by saying, "I am alone and sufficient to myself," for God Himself, a community of Persons, sent forth His Spirit upon the waters, and made the world about us.
We want the gift, but we do not want it as given.  Dante illustrates the contradiction in three lines of stunning compression and power.  We are on the lowest terrace of Purgatory, where the vice of pride is punished, and we behold at our feet, like relief sculptures upon tombs set in a marble floor, examples of the fall of the proud.  The first, and paradigmatic, is that of Satan:
Mark, on this side, the one whom the Most High
created as the noblest of His creatures –
and see him fall like lightning from the sky.
  (Purg. 12.25-27)
Satan was the noblest of God's creatures; that is to say, he was a created being, and the glory of his being was God's gift to him.  To reject that gift is to "fall like lightning," and here we should recall the moment when our Lord Himself, in joyful praise, echoed that verse from Isaiah.  He had sent forth the seventy two disciples, granting them authority to teach and to heal, and they returned to Him and cried out in astonishment, "Lord, the devils also are subject to us in thy name!"  To which Jesus replied, "I saw Satan like lightning falling from heaven" (Lk. 10:17-18).  Then He advised them to rejoice not in the exercise of that power, but in gratitude, for their names were written in heaven.  And Jesus "rejoiced in the Holy Ghost, and said: I confess to thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hidden these things from the wise and the prudent, and hast revealed them to little ones" (Lk. 10:21).  Of course:  "For the foolishness of God is wiser than men" (1 Cor. 1:25).

Pride makes a great show of strutting upon the face of the earth, glorying in its palaces and its power, but beneath all the blare and the garish pomp there lies, as it were, a shrunken thing, a cringing little emperor, afraid of the dark — afraid of the vast waters of love.  By contrast, humility is the most realistic of virtues.  I am a creature; well then, I acknowledge that I am a creature.  I cannot attain blessedness on my own; cannot, on my own, even make this world into a decent wayside station, let alone heaven.  Well then, I acknowledge what history and my own eyes will teach me.  I am a sinner; I survey the moonscape of my life and see it pitted with self-regard, stupidity, and spite.  Well then, I bend the neck and confess the sins.  In humility, literally, we bow down to the humus or the soil beneath us, and cry out, with the repentant psalmist, "My soul cleaves to the dust" (Ps. 118:25).  It is not that we make ourselves out to be less than what we are, but that we try for a change to stop making ourselves out to be more than what we are.  We try to look into the darkness of sin, and the more terrifying darkness of love.
It is not that we make ourselves out to be less than what we are, but that we try for a change to stop making ourselves out to be more than what we are.  We try to look into the darkness of sin, and the more terrifying darkness of love.
But humility is more, far more, than a curative for pride.  It is itself a mighty power — and here do the pagans ancient and modern stumble and fall.  "Take up my yoke upon you," says Jesus, "and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest for your souls" (Mt. 11:29).  The Lord Himself is humble, not despite His being one with the Father, but because He is one with the Father, for "the Son cannot do any thing of himself, but what he seeth the Father doing" (Jn. 5:19).  The lightning that scorches the earth is as a thing frozen in perpetual stasis as compared with the swiftness of the grace of God that comes down to us from on high.  Then why turn to that glint of a firefly, the lightning, when we can dwell in the brightness of Him who said, "Let there be light"?  Jesus wants us to be humble so that we will be as He is, seeing the love of the Father and bringing it to light by our deeds.  The angels can fly, says the witty Chesterton, because they take themselves lightly.  We are to take ourselves lightly too, like the little children that thronged about the Lord, "for the kingdom of heaven is for such" (Mt. 19:14).
With that grace comes true power, so that humility expands the heart, opening it up in brave freedom to the might of God, so that Saint Paul can say, not boasting, "I can do all things in him who strengtheneth me" (Phil. 4:13).  And who is this giver of strength but that Lord to whom Paul has just sung the great hymn, who "humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:8)?  What, then, can humility not attain?  The Bride of Christ is "bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array" (Sg. 6:9), because she is obedient to Him in all things.  The Church applies that verse also to describe the Virgin Mary — die Jungfrau Maria, as the happy German phrase puts it, the "young maiden Mary."  She whose prayers we believe are most effectual was no more than a maiden in a forgettable village called Nazareth.
Mary was not like Michal, the daughter of King Saul and wife of David.  When Michal saw David, whom Dante calls l'umile salmista, "the humble psalmist" (Purg. 10.64), dancing and reveling naked before the Ark of the Covenant, she "despised him in her heart" (2 Sam. 6:16), calling him a buffoon to expose himself so before the "handmaids of his servants" (6:20).  But David defied her, saying, "I will be little in my own eyes" (6:22), and therefore, says the sacred author, Michal the vainglorious daughter of Saul "had no child to the day of her death" (6:23).
Dante places the pride — and barrenness — of Michal beside the humility and the fruitfulness of Mary.  What can humility do?  It flings wide the portals of the heart, because once, in that little Nazareth, it flung wide the portals of heaven itself:
The angel who came down
with the decree that brought to earth the peace
for which men wept so many years, which freed
The gates of Heaven long prohibited,
to us appeared so true, engraven there
in sweet and courteous pose, he did not seem
A silent form.  You'd swear you heard him say
"Hail!" — for the one who opened Heaven's high love
was there in image, she who turned the key,
And in her pose was stamped the spoken word,
exactly as a seal in molten wax:
"Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord."  
(Purg. 10.34-45)

Anthony Esolen. "Humility: The First of the Lively Virtues." Crisis Magazine (April 17, 2012).
Reprinted with permission of Crisis Magazine.
Crisis Magazine is an educational apostolate that uses media and technology to bring the genius of Catholicism to business, politics, culture, and family life. Our approach is oriented toward the practical solutions our faith offers — in other words, actionable Catholicism.
Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College, where his classes are featured in the college's Western Civilization Core Curriculum. He is the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your ChildIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian LiteratureThe Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilizationand is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy:InfernoPurgatoryand Paradise. Anthony Esolen has published many scholarly articles and essays, including several on Renaissance literature. A graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina, Esolen is proficient in Latin, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, French, German and Greek. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife Debra and their two children. Anthony Esolen is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2012 Crisis Magazine

Article: Building Catholic Character: 5 Things Parents Can Do


What is "Catholic character," why does it matter, and what can we do as parents to develop it in our children?

The best way to answer those questions is to begin with an even more basic one: What is the meaning of life? Scripture and the Church teach us that we have three divinely ordained purposes that give our lives meaning:
  1. Salvation — seeking to save our eternal souls and help save the souls of others (that salvation, the Church teaches, is God's free gift but requires our cooperation through faith in God, obedience to his commandments, and repentance of our grave sins).
  2. Service — using our God-given talents to build God's kingdom here on earth.
  3. Sanctity — growing in holiness.
The third of these life goals, sanctity, is central to building Catholic character. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says something that is stunning: "Be thou made perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). St. Gregory put it this way: "The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God."
Scripture tells us, "God is love" (1 Jn 4:16). If we want to be like God, our vocation is to love. The essence of love is to sacrifice for the sake of another, as Jesus did. Love is self-gift.
What, then, is our goal if we want to develop Catholic character in our children and ourselves? The character of Christ. A life of self-giving.
In short, the ultimate mission of every Catholic family, like the mission of the Church as a whole, is to turn us into little Christs. It is to foster, with the help of God's grace, the "transformation in Christ" that the Holy Spirit jump-starts in our baptism — a process that is meant to continue through our entire lives. 

What Virtues Should We Foster?
The high goal of Christ-like character builds on a base of what the Church calls "natural virtues." Among the natural virtues that families and schools should nurture are the four advanced by the ancient Greeks, named in Scripture (Wis 8:7), and adopted by the Church as "the cardinal virtues":
  1. prudence, which enables us to judge what we should do;
  2. justice, which enables us to respect the rights of others and give them what they are due;
  3. fortitude, which enables us to do what is right in the face of difficulties;
  4. temperance, which enables us to control our desires and avoid abuse of even legitimate pleasures.
First, realize that to prepare our kids to follow Christ is to prepare them to take the road less traveled. Living a life of Christian virtue has always been countercultural but never more so than in today's media-driven, materialistic, sexually decadent, and morally relativistic world.
These natural virtues are developed through effort and practice, aided by God's grace.
In order to develop Christ-like character, however, we need more than the natural virtues. We also need the three supernatural, or "theological," virtues:
  1. faith in God, which enables us to believe in God and the teachings of his church.
  2. hope in God, which leads us to view eternal life as our most important goal and to place total trust in God.
  3. love of God, which enables us to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.
The three theological virtues are considered supernatural because they come from God and have as their purpose our participation in God's divine life.
As the Catechism (1813) teaches, the theological virtues are not separate from the natural virtues; rather, they "are the foundation of Christian moral activity; they animate it and give it its special character."
The Catholic writer Peter Kreeft points out, "The Christian is prudent, just, courageous, and self-controlled out of faith in God, hope in God, and love of God." The supernatural virtues, like the natural virtues, grow stronger through our effort and practice, in cooperation with God's grace.
What can we do as parents to build Catholic character, both the natural and supernatural virtues?
First, realize that to prepare our kids to follow Christ is to prepare them to take the road less traveled. Living a life of Christian virtue has always been countercultural but never more so than in today's media-driven, materialistic, sexually decadent, and morally relativistic world.
With that in mind, here are five fundamentals of parenting for Catholic character.

1. Build a loving relationship
Time together. Kids will care about our values when they know we care about them. Emotionally intimate time is especially important for helping our children feel loved and for maximizing our influence on the kind of person they are becoming. The late Christian Barnard, originator of the heart transplant, remembers the times with his father:
Whenever we were ill, my father got up late at night to doctor us. I suffered from festering toenails that pained so much I would cry in bed. My father used to draw out the fester with a poultice made of milk and bread crumbs or Sunlight soap and sugar. And when I had a cold, he would rub my chest with Vicks and cover it with a red flannel cloth. Sunday afternoons we walked together to the top of the hill by the dam. Once there, we would sit on a rock and look down at the town below us. Then I would tell my problems to my father, and he would speak of his to me.
Emotionally intimate time is especially important for helping our children feel loved and for maximizing our influence on the kind of person they are becoming.
Love as communication. The quality of our love often comes down to the quality of our communication. To create quality dinner discussion, for example, try having a topic: "What was the best part of your day?" "What is a way you helped another person?" "Who has a problem the rest of the family might be able to help with?"
Love as sacrifice. Says one mother: "The most important thing parents can do for their children is to love each other and stay together." In a major shift from a generation ago, both secular and religious marriage counselors are now urging married couples having problems to do everything possible to work out their difficulties and save their marriage. Catholic parents can strengthen their marriages by drawing constantly on the graces of the Sacrament of Marriage through good times and bad. Research shows that the more a husband and wife each practice their faith, the better their relationship, and the more their children thrive.

2. Use the power of good example
The example we set — especially when it is coupled with a loving relationship — is one of the most important ways we affect the character of our kids. Our example includes not only how we treat our children but how we treat each other as spouses and how we treat and talk about others (relatives, friends, neighbors, and teachers).
We increase the power of our own example when we expose our children to other positive role models. The Giraffe Heroes Project has developed a bank of more than 1,000 stories of everyday heroes of all ages who have shown compassion and courage by sticking out their necks for others.
William Kilpatrick's Books That Build Character offers hundreds of fictional stories whose admirable characters will live in a young person's heart and imagination.
The website catalogs hundreds of good films that offer positive role models and strong character themes.
And we should be sure to tap the rich resource provided by the lives of the saints (see Mary Reed Newland's book, The Saints and Our Children). "The saints had their eyes on God," says one Catholic mother. "They make very real what it means to follow Christ."

3. Teach directly
If we want our example to have maximum impact, our kids need to know the values and beliefs that lie behind it. We need to practice what we preach, but we also need to preach what we practice.
We should directly teach everyday manners: "Say please and thank you," "Don't interrupt," "Look at a person who's speaking to you."
We should make a list of the Catholic truths we want to teach our children. Says a Catholic mother, "I want my children to know how tremendously important the Sacraments are — how they give us the strength to get through life."
We should directly teach the fundamentals of our faith, starting with the three purposes of our lives (salvation, stewardship, and sanctity). We should make a list of the Catholic truths we want to teach our children. Says a Catholic mother, "I want my children to know how tremendously important the Sacraments are — how they give us the strength to get through life." Says a father: "I want my kids to understand that there is such a thing as truth, and that when the Pope teaches on faith and morals, he speaks with the voice of Christ."
Other Catholic truths we want to be sure to transmit:
  • Life is sacred, from conception until natural death.
  • We have a special duty to help Christ's "least ones" — the poor, homeless, disabled, sick, oppressed, and unborn.
  • Sex is the beautiful gift of a good God but reserved by God for the marriage of a husband and wife.
  • When we join our sufferings with the Cross of Christ, we become more like Jesus and participate in his work of saving souls.
  • The Mass is the single most important part of our faith, through which Jesus continues to redeem the world (and we are obligated to go to Sunday or Vigil Mass under pain of mortal sin).
  • A relationship with the Blessed Mother is a sure path to a relationship with her Son.

4. Exercise authority wisely
As parents, we must have a strong sense of our moral authority and then exercise it wisely in three ways. First, we must take strong stands that are consistent with our Catholic values. For example, what do we prohibit? Violent video games? TV shows and movies that contain sex, violence, or foul language? All forms of pornography? Music with profane, lewd, or denigrating lyrics? Immodest dress? Parties where there's drinking? Prom overnights?
Second, we must discipline wisely. Even small things — a mean remark to a sibling, for example — should be taken seriously. The most effective discipline gets kids to take responsibility: "What do you think is a fair consequence for what you did?" "What can you do to make up for it?" Getting kids in the habit of going to Confession — examining their conscience, telling God they're sorry for their sins, experiencing Christ's forgiveness, and resolving to do better (we, of course, must model this) — is another vital part of helping them take responsibility for their actions.
Third, we must practice vigilant supervision. The research report Building a Better Teenager ( finds that "hands-on" parents — those who know where there kids are, who they're with, what they're doing, including their use of media (do you know what's on their My Space page?) — have teens with the lowest rates of sexual activity and drug and alcohol abuse. As one writer puts it, in today's moral environment "we need to watch our children like a hawk."

5. Provide authentic experiences of the faith
Building Catholic character requires authentic personal experiences of the faith, within and beyond the family.
One Catholic father found that taking his self-centered 15-year-old son to see the city's soup kitchen for the hungry and homeless, where they subsequently volunteered together, got the son thinking less about the latest stuff he wanted and more about the needs of others.
One Catholic father found that taking his self-centered 15-year-old son to see the city's soup kitchen for the hungry and homeless, where they subsequently volunteered together, got the son thinking less about the latest stuff he wanted and more about the needs of others.
Another Catholic family had a tradition of a partial fast every Monday night (broth for the parents, a piece of fruit for the kids) and sending the money saved to Catholic Relief Services.
I know Catholic parents whose teenagers have been turned around by going to a Youth 2000 weekend (in some cases, more than one), where they experienced Masses, the Rosary, Eucharistic Adoration, and Confession (often for the first time since their initial reception of the Sacrament) and heard both adults and other kids talk about how they were changed when they let Jesus into their lives.
Our son Mark son and the oldest three (ages 13, 11, and 8) of his seven children were able to participate in Benedict XVI's Mass at Yankee Stadium in April 2008 and came home inspired by being with the Pope and thousands of devout fellow Catholics. World Youth Days have had similar effects on young people.
These intense spiritual experiences are especially important in the teen years, when religion can seem like "a bunch of rules" or just something your parents make you do.
A caveat: Even parents who do all the right things to build Catholic character can't control the outcome of those efforts. Not even God can make us be good. The final forming of our children's character lies in their own hands.

That said, our most important job as parents is to use the countless opportunities God gives us to help our children grow in goodness and holiness. For as the Church has always taught, the family is the first school of virtue.

Thomas Lickona. "Building Catholic Character: 5 Things Parents Can Do." Catholic Education Resource Center (April 18, 2012).
This article is reprinted with permission from the author, Thomas Lickona.
Thomas Lickona is a professor of education and the director of the Center for the 4th and 5th R's (Respect and Responsibility) at the State University of New York at Cortland. He is the author ofCharacter Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues and the Christopher Award-winning book Educating for Character. He has also written Raising Good Children and co-authored Sex, Love and You. Thomas Lickona is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2012 Thomas Lickona

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Homily: Gravitational fields in the spiritual life


The Fathers of the Church maintained that human beings stand at the point of intersection between two gravitational fields.

First, there is the force of gravity which pulls us down — towards selfishness, falsehood and evil; the gravity which diminishes us and distances us from the heights of God. On the other hand there is the gravitational force of God's love: the fact that we are loved by God and respond in love attracts us upwards. Man finds himself betwixt this twofold gravitational force; everything depends on our escaping the gravitational field of evil and becoming free to be attracted completely by the gravitational force of God, which makes us authentic, elevates us, and grants us true freedom ...

Of ourselves, we are too weak to lift up our hearts to the heights of God. We cannot do it. The very pride of thinking that we are able to do it on our own drags us down and estranges from God. God himself must draw us up, and this is what Christ began to do on the cross. He descended to the depths of our human existence in order to draw us up to himself, to the living God. He humbled himself ... Only in this way could our pride be vanquished: God's humility is the extreme form of his love, and this humble love draws us upwards...

All these means of "ascent" are effective only if we humbly acknowledge that we need to be lifted up; if we abandon the pride of wanting to become God. We need God: he draws us upwards; letting ourselves be upheld by his hands by faith, in other words sets us aright and gives us the inner strength that raises us on high. We need the humility of a faith which seeks the face of God and trusts in the truth of his love.


Pope Benedict XVI. "Gravitational fields in the spiritual life." from a homily for Palm Sunday (April 17, 2011).

Reprinted with permission of Liberia Editrice Vaticana.

All publication rights to this material belong to Liberia Editrice Vaticana and may not be reproduced without written permission from them.


Pope Benedict XVI is the author of Jesus of Nazareth, Vol II,Jesus of Nazareth, Vol I, Caritas in Veritate: Charity in Truth,Saved in Hope: Spe Salvi, God Is Love: Deus Caritas Est, The End of Time?: The Provocation of Talking about God, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, Salt of the Earth: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church at the End of the Millennium, God and the World: Believing and Living in Our Time, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, The Spirit of the Liturgy, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church,Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Introduction to Christianity, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977, Behold the Pierced One, and God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life.

Copyright © 2012 Liberia Editrice Vaticana

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Article: In the beginning


Human imagination cannot conceive the power and pressure that held all the essential elements of the universe together in a piece of matter about the size of a pinhead when the world began.

Physicists tend now to date the explosion of that particle to about sixteen billion years ago. Their job is to consider how it happened, not why it happened. The Creator Himself explained the "why" of the beginning in the Book of the Beginning. The Bible begins: "Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve'et ha'arets. — In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). There was a sound and then light.

That sound was the Word — the Logos — the divine power that is the logic of all that is. "En arche en ho Logos — In the beginning was the Word" (John 1:1). This stretches the imagination as much as it does basic physics. Thomas Jefferson knew his Greek and quoted John 1 in a letter to John Adams on April 11, 1823. But his mind was not agile enough to interpret this revelation as anything other than a form of polytheism, or "tritheism" as he dismissed the Holy Trinity. Back then, his physics was as primitive as his metaphysics, but even if he could not conceive of the Creation, he was one with all of us in having been conceived. Like the first particle of the universe at the "Big Bang," all 46 unique chromosomes containing our essential human identity were encoded in us when we began as a single-cell zygote.

When the Holy Spirit, the bond of love between the Father and the Son, "overshadowed" the Virgin Mary, the Eternal Logos "was made flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). In the Annunciation, the young woman conceived "the true light, which enlightens everyone" (John 1:9).

This mystery is recited in Latin at the end of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, "In principio erat Verbum." The Eucharist ends with the beginning, for by communion with Christ, human beings become moral agents of their Creator: "To those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation, nor by human choice, nor by a man's decision, but of God" (John 1:12-13).

Bereshit, En arche, In Principio, In the Beginning . . . whatever the language, there is a beginning with a purpose. That is the source of happiness. When the Logos took a human nature, He also sensed the human emotion of joy. There is one explicit reference to that, when Jesus "rejoiced in the Holy Spirit" and spoke to the Father of hashamayim ve'et ha'arets: "I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike" (Luke 10:21).


Father George William Rutler. "In the beginning." From the Pastor (March 25, 2012).

Reprinted with permission of Father George W. Rutler.


Father Rutler received priestly ordination in 1981. Born in 1945 and reared in the Episcopal tradition, Father Rutler was an Episcopal priest for nine years. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1979 and was sent to the North American College in Rome for seminary studies. Father Rutler graduated from Dartmouth, where he was a Rufus Choate Scholar, and took advanced degrees at the Johns Hopkins University and the General Theological Seminary. He holds several degrees from the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities in Rome, including the Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology, and studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In England, in 1988, the University of Oxford awarded him the degree Master of Studies. From 1987 to 1989 he was regular preacher to the students, faculty, and townspeople of Oxford. Cardinal Egan appointed him Pastor of theChurch of Our Saviour, effective September 17, 2001.

Since 1988 his weekly television program has been broadcast worldwide on EWTN. Father Rutler has published 17 books, including: Cloud of Witnesses - Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, A Crisis of Saints: Essays on People and Principles, Brightest and Best, Saint John Vianney: The Cure D'Ars Today, Crisis in Culture, and Adam Danced: The Cross and the Seven Deadly Sins.

Copyright © 2012 Father George W. Rutler

Article: Happiness: Ancient and Modern Concepts of Happiness


My topic today is Jesus' concept of happiness. And we must begin with the dullest and most necessary preliminary: defining our term.

Ancient and Modern Concepts of Happiness

My topic today is Jesus' concept of happiness. And we must begin with the dullest and most necessary preliminary: defining our term. Nearly everyone, from Aristotle to Freud, agrees that we all seek happiness, and that we seek it as an end, not as a means. No one seeks happiness for any other reason. We argue about other things, but not about happiness. We may say, "What good are riches if they don't make you happy?" But we don't say, "What good is happiness if it doesn't make you rich?" This is clear, to both ancients like Aristotle and moderns like Freud.

But there is a very significant difference between the typically ancient and the typically modern meaning of happiness. Ancient words for happiness, like eudaimonia, or makarios in Greek or beatitudo in Latin, mean true, real blessedness, while the modern English word happiness usually means merely subjective satisfaction, or contentment, so that in modern English, if you feel happy, you're happy. It makes no sense, in modern English, to tell someone, "You think you're happy, but you're not."

But that is precisely the main point of the most famous book in the history of philosophy, Plato's Republic: that justice, the all-inclusive virtue, is always profitable, that is, 'happifying'. And injustice never is. Thus, that the just man, even if like Socrates, he has nothing else, is happy. And the unjust man is not, even if he has everything else, like Gyges, or Gollum, with his ring of power and invisibility. Thus, we should distinguish the ancient concept, which is really blessedness, from the modern, which is really contentment. I shall be talking about blessedness here.

Blessedness differs from contentment in four ways, all of which can be seen by analyzing the Greek word eudaimonia. First, it begins with the prefix eu, meaning good, thus implying that you have to be good, morally good, to be happy.

Second, daimon means spirit, thus implying that happiness is a matter of the soul, not the body and its external goods of fortune. The word happiness, by contrast, comes from the Old English word hap, meaning precisely fortune, luck or chance, which was the one Pagan thought category Christianity subtracted. In all other cases, Christianity added to Paganism. As Chesterton said, summing up all spiritual history in three sentences: "Paganism was the biggest thing in the world. Christianity was bigger, and everything since has been comparatively small." If blessedness is spiritual, it is free. You are responsible for youreudaimonia, but happiness just happens.

Third, eudaimonia ends in ia, which means a lasting state, something permanent. Contentment is for a moment, blessedness for a lifetime. So much so that Aristotle in theNicomachean Ethics could not make up his mind whether to agree or disagree with the saying "call no man happy 'til he is dead." That is, wait for the end of the story to judge it.

Blessedness differs from contentment in four ways, all of which can be seen by analyzing the Greek word eudaimonia.

Fourth, and most important of all, the state of eudaimoniais objective, whereas contentment is subjective. When we say happiness, we usually confuse these two meanings, the ancient and the modern. And that is not wholly unwise, because within the ancient concept of happiness, in a secondary way, there is also present the modern one: the need for some contentment, peace of mind, pleasure and at least a modicum of the gift of fortune. While within the modern concept of happiness, that is, within subjective contentment, there is also present, in a secondary way, a feeling for the need of something of the typically ancient ingredient, the need for at least some virtue and the feeling that the happiness, to be deep and lasting, ought to be real and earned and true happiness, whatever that may be.

We are about to explore Christ's concept of happiness. It is typically ancient (blessedness) but it also includes the above ambiguity or doubleness of meaning: subjective satisfaction as well as objective perfection.

Our Concept of Happiness

Let's look first at our concept of happiness. When I speak of our concept, who is us? I mean our culture, the mental landscape we all inhabit, even when we feel like aliens here, most generally the modern, post-Christian West, but most specifically contemporary America, as it would appear on opinion polls.

If an opinion poll were to ask Americans to list the nine most important ingredients in the happy life, they would probably give an answer pretty much like the following: First, the most obvious, though not the profoundest ingredient, is probably wealth. If you notice your friend has a big smile on his face today, you most likely would say to him, "What happened to you? Did you just win the lottery?" If that's what you'd say, it must be because that's what would put the biggest smile on your face. And let's face it; money can buy everything money can buy, which is a lot of stuff.

Second might be our culture's most notable success, the conquest of nature and fortune by science and technology, allowing each of us to be an Alexander the Great, conqueror of the world. Third would probably be freedom from pain. I think few of us would disagree that the single most valuable invention in the entire history of technology has been anesthetics.

Fourth would probably be self-esteem, the greatest good, according to nearly all of our culture's new class of prophets, the secular psychologists — and secular psychologists are among the most secular of all classes in our society. Fifth might be justice, securing one's rights. Justice and peace summarize the social ideals of most Americans, the ideals they want for themselves and for the rest of the world.

Sixth, if we are candid, we have to include sex. To most Americans, this is the closest thing to heaven on Earth, that is ecstasy, mystical transcending of the ego — unless they're surfers. Seventh, we love to win, whether at war, at sports, at games of chance, in business, or even in our fantasies. Our positive self-esteem requires the belief that we are winners, not losers. We want to be successful, not failures.

But it is even harder to believe that anyone would believe his utterly shattering paradoxes about happiness.

Eighth, we want honor. We want to be honored, accepted, loved, and understood. In our modern egalitarian society, we are honored, not for being superior, but for being one of the crowd. In most ancient societies, one was honored for being different, better, superior, excellent. But we still crave to be honored. Some even want to be famous. All want to be accepted.

Ninth, we want life, a long life and a healthy life. Thomas Hobbes is surely right in saying that fear of violent death, especially painful and early death, is very, very powerful. Your life is not happy if it's taken from you, obviously.

This all seems so obvious and so reasonable as to be beyond argument. Higher ideals than these are arguable. Some of us seek them and some of us do not. But these nine would seem to be firm and impregnable, universal and necessary. Whoever would deny that they form a part of happiness would be a fool. Whoever would affirm that happiness consisted in their opposites would be insane.

Christ's Concept of Happiness

Let us now perform a fantastic thought experiment. Let us suppose that there was once a preacher who did teach precisely that insanity, point for point, deliberately and specifically. Perhaps you cannot stretch your imagination quite that far, but I'm going to ask you to stretch it even one step farther. Imagine this man becoming the most famous, beloved, revered, respected, and believed teacher in the history of the world. Imagine nearly everyone in the world, even those who did not classify themselves as his disciples, at least praising his wisdom, especially his moral wisdom, especially the single most famous and beloved sermon he ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, the summary of his moral wisdom, which begins with his 180 degree reversal of these truisms.

Perhaps you find this far too incredible to be imaginable. It would be a miracle harder to believe than God becoming a man. It is hard enough to believe that anyone would believe the strange Christian notion that a certain man who began his life as a baby, who had to learn to talk, and ended it as an executed criminal, who bled to death on a cross, and in between got tired and hungry and sorrowful, is God, eternal, beginningless, immortal, infinitely perfect, all-wise, all-powerful, the Creator.

But it is even harder to believe that anyone would believe his utterly shattering paradoxes about happiness. Perhaps we do not really believe them after all. Perhaps we only believe we believe them. Perhaps we have faith in our faith rather than faith in his teachings.

For, of course, I am referring to Christ's eight beatitudes which opened his Sermon on the Mount, the most famous sermon ever preached, and the one part of the New Testament that is still held up as central and valid and true and good and beautiful even by dissenters, heretics, revisionists, demythologizers, skeptics, modernists, theological liberals, and anyone else who cannot bring himself to believe all the other claims in the New Testament or the teachings of the Church. These people strain at the gnats but swallow the camel. So let's look at the camel that they swallow. Perhaps they only seem to swallow it. Perhaps they swallow only their own swallowing, gollumping like Gollum.

To our desire for wealth, Christ says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." To our desire for painlessness, he says, "Blessed are those who mourn." To our desire for conquest, he says, "Blessed are the meek." To our desire for contentment with ourselves, he says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." To our desire for justice, he says, "Blessed are the merciful." To our desire for sex, he says, "Blessed are the pure in heart." To our desire for conquest, he says, "Blessed are the peacemakers." To our desire for acceptance, he says, "Blessed are the persecuted." And to our desire for more life, he offers the Cross. And now this man carrying his cross to Calvary even dares to tell us, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Part 1 "Happiness: Ancient and Modern Concepts of Happiness"
Part 2 of this talk here.
Part 3 of this talk here.
Part 4 of this talk here.
Part 5 of this talk here.
Part 6 of this talk here.


Peter Kreeft. "Happiness: Ancient and Modern Concepts of Happiness" a talk by Peter Kreeft given in various places at various times. .

This article is reprinted with permission from Peter Kreeft.


Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.

He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death,Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2012 Peter Kreeft