I was feeling grumpy and anti-American yesterday because it was a Friday in Lent, but also because sometimes I get exhausted with the whole grinning, plastic society that much of America has become.
I read a letter from someone in a Catholic leadership position who was saying something like, “We need to ask ourselves the question whether we have truly found what will make us truly happy.” What is that all about? Where on earth in the gospel is the idea that Jesus and the Catholic faith are supposed to make us happy?
This is Catholicism adapting to the American way which is all about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The problem is that Americans are so intent on the pursuit of happiness that they are now willing to sacrifice life and liberty in order to attain it.
Forgive me if I criticize this most venerable shibboleth of being American, but this phrase has now been taken out of its historical context and has come to mean something very different. Initially “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” meant that Americans were free to live and pursue their own happiness no longer enslaved to economic and political overlords. That’s fine. I understand this.
There was also a sense of priority in the three ideals. Life was first. Liberty was second. The pursuit of happiness was third. That means that the third is subservient to the second and the first and the second is subservient to the first. In other words, your pursuit of happiness is only possible because you have liberty and you only have liberty because you have life. Furthermore, your personal pursuit of happiness takes a back seat to your defense of liberty and your defense of life.
Here’s an example: if you have to defend your liberties and your country you might have to go to war and get wounded or killed which runs contrary to your personal pursuit of happiness. Likewise you may have to give up your pursuit of happiness or your liberty in order to preserve and defend human life.
Our perverse society in America has now reversed the order completely. Pursuit of happiness comes first, and this is not even pursuit of the classical definition of happiness which might mean the greatest good for the greatest number or even the kind of happiness attained by the Stoics or Epicureans in which happiness was only attained after a life of discipline and refinement. Instead ‘happiness’ means entertainment, licentiousness and general vulgarity–and liberty and life will serve whatever pleasures we think we want.
As this blog is called Standing on My Head, allow me to stand this American phrase on its head and say that perhaps as Lenten Christians we should stand instead for Death, Slavery and the Pursuit of Blessedness. In other words, to truly live the abundant life we must die to self. In order to attain true liberty and freedom we must become a slave to Christ, and this may not lead to happiness, but it will lead to blessedness–which is something far more eternal and profound.
Not a cheerful message perhaps–but this in Lent you know!