Excerpted from The Saints' Guide to Happiness with permission of North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Many theologians, preachers, and artists have imagined the happiness of the saints in heaven. Relatively little attention, by contrast, has focused on the happiness of the saints on earth. In fact some have questioned whether true happiness in this life is an attainable or even a desirable goal.
Many Catholics, though ever fewer, can still recite from memory the opening lines of the Baltimore Catechism:
Who made you? God made me.
Why did God make you? To know, love, and serve
Him in this world so as to be happy with Him forever
in the next.
If the traditional catechism ignored the possibility of being happy in this world, that was no casual oversight. It reflected a longstanding tendency to regard the present life as merely instrumental, a means to attain a greater goal. That goal, "eternal happiness," was by definition beyond the reach of mortal beings.
In the Summa Theologica St. Thomas Aquinas devoted considerable attention to this question, largely to show why happiness, in its ultimate sense, can refer to "nothing else than the vision of the Divine essence." After reviewing in turn such ephemeral goods as wealth, honor, fame, power, health, and pleasure, he showed how vain it was to suppose that any of these could provide perfect happiness. Indeed, in setting forth his proofs, Aquinas kept his eye so resolutely trained on "perfect" happiness as to imply that anything short of that goal was hardly worth the name.
But in thus focusing on our future goal, Aquinas was heir to a long tradition. Our life on earth, according to this perspective, is conceived as a state of "lonely exile" from our true country. In the words of the "Salve Regina," a medieval hymn in honor of the Virgin, we are "poor, banished children of Eve, weeping and mourning in this vale of tears." The effort to be happy in this life is not only vain but positively harmful to the extent that it causes us to forget who we are and where we are headed.
According to St. Augustine, everything serves a good and valuable purpose to the extent that it helps us attain our final destination. But too much happiness in this life poses the risk that we will become fixated on the "means" and lose sight of our true goal. "Suppose we were wanderers who could not live in blessedness except at home, miserable in our wandering and desiring to end it and to return to our native country. We would need vehicles for land and sea that could be used to help us to reach our homeland .... But if the amenities of the journey and the motion of the vehicle itself delighted us, and we were led to enjoy those things that we should use, we should not wish to end our journey quickly, and, entangled in a perverse sweetness, we should be alienated from our country, whose sweetness would make us blessed."
Doubtless there is merit to Augustine's caution. It is true that in this life we have no abiding home, and we should therefore live with a view to what is ultimately important. And for those who need persuading that "perfect happiness" is unattainable on earth, Augustine and Aquinas bear a cogent warning. But is this the only important warning? Is it the one we most need to hear?
In the midst of pain and hardship it may be encouraging to place our hopes in a future life in which every sorrow will be comforted, every tear wiped dry. But there is good reason to be suspicious of spiritual prescriptions that dismiss all the blessings of this life, "the amenities of the journey," in favor of some ideal paradise to come. At best such attitudes may foster indifference and passivity; at worst, a cold fanaticism. At the very least, they smack of ingratitude.
Even writing from a prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer resisted this temptation. "I believe we ought so to love and trust God in our lives and in all the good things that he sends us, that when the time comes (but not before) we may go to him with love, trust, and joy. But, to put it plainly, for a man in his wife's arms to be hankering after the other world is, in mild terms, a piece of bad taste, and not God's will."
Though heaven may represent the perfection of our happiness, it is not by way of death but by way of holiness that we get there. So the saints have taught. What does this mean? That we prepare for heaven by a life of steady acclimation to the love and goodness of God; that the way to heaven begins where we are standing .... And if this is so, we must acknowledge that life on Earth is not simply a vale of tears. There is also a true sweetness to this life that, if we could only see and acknowledge it, might make us happy and blessed.
Some saints have emphasized the deep chasm separating the perfect happiness of heaven from its shadowy counterparts in our everyday lives.
But many others have acknowledged the lines of continuity. As even Aquinas conceded, "Men esteem that there is some kind of happiness to be had in this life, on account of a certain likeness to true Happiness. And thus they do not fail altogether in their estimate."
For Aquinas the connecting link was contemplation, by which we draw ever closer to the essence of God. On the other hand, for St. Brigid of Ireland, a sixth-century abbess who embodied a somewhat earthier brand of holiness, the link lay in the practice of hospitality. She envisioned heaven as a large family gathered around a lake of beer. Two different saints, two different paths. Regardless of the differences, in the lives of many saints there have been moments of insight when that seeming chasm between "here" and "hereafter" evaporated, when it became clear, as St. Catherine of
Siena wrote, that "all the way to Heaven is Heaven."