On the Journey: Eudaimonia, Pears, and True Happiness

Augustine’s Confessions I.5-6

No one can part You from the things that You love, and safety is assured nowhere but in You.

What motivates our actions? I think it is safe to say that in almost all cases, human beings are driven to act by that which they see as good, that which will lead to happiness. Aristotle says “happiness depends on ourselves” and in a sense, I suppose that is true. In order to be happy, we must act, we must seek that which makes us happy. And what makes us happy? The good, true, and beautiful.

I remember when I first listened to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. It was at the recommendation of a dear friend and mentor, Fr. Paschal, God rest his soul. He gave me this advice before listening to it: “Don’t worry about anything else for an hour! Get a nice glass of wine, turn the music on, and just experience it!” Despite my busy academic schedule at the time, I did what he suggested, and it became a pivotal moment: the music moved me in a way that had never happened before. In that moment, I felt truly happy, allowing myself to be caught up in the movement of the work, to escape the worries of life, even if only for an hour. To borrow a literature term, it was truly a pastoral moment.

I was experiencing something that many of us encounter in our lives, in some fashion: there are things on this earth that make us truly happy and bring joy to our hearts. But while they make us happy, we must remember that the good, true, and beautiful leads to something else, something higher.  Augustine reminds us of this deep truth of human existence: we can find goodness in so many things of this world, such as beautiful objects, material things, friendship. For Aristotle, this quest for happiness was a quest for “eudaimonia“, pursuing health, wealth, and excellence to achieve the ultimate in human flourishing. Augustine, on the other hand, goes further: our quest for happiness must move to a much deeper, a much higher. level or we risk twisting even the good things in our lives into something that will bring us to ruin, rather than fulfillment.

What happens when this quest for happiness, or perhaps we can say now fulfillment, becomes twisted? This is where confusion and sin enter the picture. Sin, a turning in on oneself and away from God, is the disordered seeking of that which we think is good but in reality is not, or even seeking a good but through means that fracture our relationship with God and those around us. After all, even the worst atrocities in human history have been committed by people who thought they were doing good. We are wronged, so we commit revenge. We are envious, so we commit murder. We are lustful, so we commit adultery. At the center of these actions is a disordered desire to seek fulfillment: whether it is achieving some sort of excellence, wanting to battle what we perceive as an injustice, or seeking a relationship to fill an inner need to connect on an intimate level with another. In each of these situations, the individual is searching for what he or she thinks is good, but in the end, comes up empty.

In Augustine’s case, it was even worse! He steals a measly pear not because he needed it, or he thought it was better than the fruit he had. He stole it simply for the sheer desire of the sin:

For no sooner had I picked them than I threw them away, and tasted nothing in them but my own sin, which I relished and enjoyed. If any part of one of those pears passed my lips, it was the sin that gave its flavor.

PearBlossomsCalifornia

Pear blossoms from my native California. Who knew fruit could be so much trouble? Well, there was Eden…

Makes you feel a bit better, doesn’t it, knowing that even a Church Father, one of the greatest theologians and leaders in human history, was a lowly sinful person like the rest of us, huh?

St. Augustine was, in reality, seeking happiness, even if it was in a disordered way. This does not excuse the action, of course, don’t get me wrong, but he comes to the realization, praise God to the benefit of Western Civilization, that while the “soul defiles itself with unchaste love when it turns away” from God, it finds a true love “that is pure and unsullied” available only by returning back to the Lord.

We fall, we sin, we seek happiness in all the wrong places. As Augustine shows us, however, true happiness resides in keeping Him at the center of our lives, living the full meaning of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful; we just need to respond to His prompting and take that first step towards true happiness and lasting joy. Praise God, when we fall, His love still waits for us, ready to meet us, and draw us into something greater than we can possibly imagine, for even in the darkest moments, “there is no place whatever where man may hide away” from God and His love.

For reflection:

  1. How do you seek happiness?
  2. Does the way in which you seek happiness lead you towards, or away, from God?

Up Next Wednesday: Confessions I.7-12

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.

On the Journey: Encountering Mystery

Augustine’s Confessions I.2-4

For all things find in you their origin, their impulse, the center of their being.

What is God? Who is God? Where do we find God? Even Saint Augustine wrestles with these questions, questions that we continue to ask centuries later. Of course, if there was anyone in history that was capable of answering these questions, it was Saint Augustine! He would become one of the most prolific and lucid theologians of all time. So what does he say?

Detail of

Detail of “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Augustine tells us that God is merciful yet just. Never new, never old. Varied yet one. Never in need yet glad to gain. He is never covetous yet exacts a return for His gifts.

Still not helpful?

How about this: Augustine states it all in one short sentence, “For even those who are most gifted with speech cannot find words to describe you.”

From the very outset of his journey, Augustine unequivocally states that we cannot know Him. Sure, we may know some things about Him, but in the end, we are really quite clueless. You know what? That’s perfectly OK. That’s how it’s supposed to be. When we encounter Him, not only do we encounter Love, Mercy, and Hope, we also encounter Mystery.

We are always looking for answers. Especially in a society that is so focused on progress, science, technology, and the next “big thing,” not having the answers can be a difficult proposition to accept.

But to truly know God, we have to accept that we can never fully know Him in this life. Mystery.

In the search for God, when we encounter His mystery, we also encounter inexplicable beauty. Volumes have been written about this mystery and beauty, this Person for whom every human being seeks, but yet not all the books of the world would be able to contain Him (cf. John 21.25). We must learn to be at peace with this tension of not knowing and yet moving forward, of encountering the mystery while we allow the beauty of the Triune God penetrate our souls.

It’s OK to not know, to be a bit clueless, or a lot clueless. We all are on this journey together, from the most normal person to the brightest theologian.

The first step is embracing the mystery, taking a leap of faith. Let us open our hearts, allow ourselves to be drawn to Him. Let us encounter the beauty and mystery of God, and be at peace.

For reflection:

  1. What are some unanswered questions you have about God?
  2. Where do you encounter beauty and mystery?

Up next week: Confessions Book 1, Sections 5-6

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.

Please note: this post was written prior to the attacks in Paris, which I spoke about earlier. I decided to delay it from when it was schedule because it didn’t seem appropriate to post the new installment first thing the morning following that horrific tragedy. Please keep the French people in your prayers. May peace, mercy, and justice triumph over all.

Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us. St. Joan of Arc, pray for us.

On the Journey: Restless Hearts

Confessions I.1

You have made us for Yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.

About twelve years ago, I was driving around one rainy evening, not following any particular route. The music was playing loud (I don’t remember what), and I was ruminating over recent events in my life. I had just been hired at a new job working with at-risk youth, and was doing well in school, which had not always been the case. But something was missing. I was restless.

West Virginia Winding Country Road - ForestWalker.com. Licensed under Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

West Virginia Winding Country Road – ForestWalker.com. CC BY-SA 3.0

My grandmother had recently passed away and I had attended her funeral Mass with the rest of my family. I was not Catholic yet, but I recognized something in that moment – even though we were grieving her loss, there was also a sense of expectation and joy. She had lived a faithful life and was loved by her family and her community. A pillar of the town she lived in, she was known for her generosity and, especially to us grandkids, her love and good humor. At her funeral Mass, even though our family grieved, I also vividly remembered words of hope spoken by the priest, hope that she would join the Father, a hope that was available to all of us, a hope that invited our hearts to rest in Him. It was at this time in my life that I had started to wonder, “Is there more? Why am I restless? What am I seeking?”

Here among St. Augustine’s first words in the Confessions, he seeks to find how this hope works, how a person comes to faith in the Lord. Does he pray and discover the Lord, or does the Lord make Himself known to the person, drawing the individual to prayer? In the end, Augustine exclaims, “It is my faith that calls to you Lord, the faith which you gave me.” We will not find rest until we reach out to Him, but He invites us, draws us into that same rest which we seek. In other words, we have to respond, but He always starts the conversation.

The important question today, for all of us, is thus: where do we seek our rest? Where is our hope? To be quite frank, my friends, our hope and rest comes from only one place, one Person: our Lord. For some, those may be hard words to hear. For others, they may make perfect sense. At one point in my life, I thought they were sheer lunacy. The more I have studied, prayed, and searched in my life, however, I have found that this is the only answer: our hearts will only find rest when they rest in the Father, guided by the Spirit, redeemed through the Son.

We can all get distracted, seeking rest in things of this world. Some of these things are even very good too! Some of them, well, are not so good. Do we seek rest in all the wrong places? And if we do, how do we find the way back?

I believe this is the walk we will take with our first companion on the journey, St. Augustine: to discover how to still our restless hearts. No person, no thing, no matter how good, will satisfy this ultimate longing that resides in the depths of the human heart. Only until our hearts rest in His heart will they be at peace. May we all seek Him with open hearts, may we find the One who waits for us, who has been waiting for us all along…

Pax.

Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and rest. -Mark 6.31

For reflection:

1. Where do you seek rest?

2. Is your heart still restless?

Part of an ongoing series, Companions on the Journey

Up next: Confessions Book I, Sections 2-4

Companions On the Journey: Introduction

In the annals of history, there are many spiritual masters who can guide us in the Christian life, and we need the guidance! After all, being a Christian is not easy! We must remember, however, that there have been countless travelers before us, some who have followed similar paths, and others who have followed vastly different paths, but all with experiences that can benefit our spiritual growth.

We are not on this journey alone.

Keeping this in mind, I have decided to start a new series called called “Companions On the Journey.” Praise God, we have many saints to look to for guidance in the Christian life, so from time to time, I will pick a new saint to read and follow as I seek to grow in Christ in my own life. From these readings, I hope to develop reflections for posting here on the blog. It may work, or it may not, but let’s try it out and see how we do. Expect these particular posts to come out once or twice a week. They may deal solely with the text, make connections with other authors I have recently read, or even external happenings around here and back home. The nice thing about the nature of this sort of project is that I can work on it at my own pace and then post-date the entries for later publishing, which should make things a bit easier.

Portrait of St. Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Which brings me to Saint Augustine, our first companion in the journey. As a convert myself, I have always felt a deep connection to his writing, especially his Confessions, so this is where we will start. I will personally be going through the entire Confessions, but I may choose to omit certain reflections from the blog for various and sundry reasons. For these reflections, I will be utilizing R. S. Pine-Coffins’s translation of the Confessions, available in the Penguin Classics series (ISBN 978-0-14-044114-7). If you would like to pick up a copy yourself, I suggest calling Easter’s Books and Gifts (full disclosure: one of their former employees is my Godmother). As far as how long it will take to get through Augustine’s Confessions I am not sure, but I figure we will be journeying with him for a while. Even though I will be reading the entire book, that doesn’t mean that everything in the book will be reflected upon on the blog (we would be here for a very long time). To that end, I will note at the end of each reflection which chapter(s) the next post will focus upon.

If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment, get in touch via Facebook, or fill out the contact form in the “About” section. The first post based on St. Augustine’s Confessions will go live on Saturday morning, beginning with Book I, Chapter 1.

Until then, pax.


 

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey, which travels along with a particular companion in the spiritual life, one of the great saints, in order discover how some of their writings might be applicable to our everyday lives. Currently, we are traveling with Augustine of Hippo through his work, Confessions. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.