The Pursuit of Happiness

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June 11, 2017

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I love this about our country. We hold that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right, endowed by the Creator, protected under the law.

There are, however, dimensions to the truth about happiness which, while perhaps not self-evident, are real. One such truth is that while we are free to pursue happiness we are likely to find it very hard to come by in the places we are usually inclined to look.

An old friend of mine from Van Buren, a World War II bomber pilot named Zack Turner, was bear hunting in the Rockies. Zack tracked a big one down hill to the edge of a dense thicket. Just as he got there, he realized he had been had: the bear, who had been hunting him, was waiting for him, ready to pursue the happiness of eating Zack Turner for supper. Zack got out just in time. He would not have been the first person to pursue happiness into a thicket and be mauled by what he thought he wanted.

St. Augustine said that only a fool does not want to be happy. Sins, he said, are misguided choices, in the search for happiness.1 And he warned that it is our nature to make misguided choices time after time. When it comes to happiness, we suffer from astigmatism.

Even within our souls, we are conflicted about our happiness. Our hearts may point in one direction, our minds in another. They compete for the loyalty of our wills.

When I was eight, I was playing with plastic soldiers on the floor. Yankees were blue, rebels were gray. My mind was full of stories about the civil war, including my favorite one about my great-grandfather, Corporal Robert Calvert Murphy, aged 16, who single-handedly captured 32 Union troops, including an officer. He was wounded at Gettysburg and taken prisoner. Fed on such stories, I deeply loved the south.

But this was also 1963, in Mississippi, when justice was on the line and it took courage to be a liberal, and my parents were liberals. It was evident even to this eight-year-old boy that the old south would have to go. So I was playing with my soldiers, and an adult friend asked me who I wanted to win. I felt a struggle inside. "Well, I'm for the South, but I think the Yankees have the better cause."

This is "original sin". We struggle within concerning the pursuit of happiness. Our mind may see our happiness in one place, our hearts in another, they may either or both be quite mistaken, and whether or not they are, when we decide what we want to do, or believe we ought to do, we may find ourselves, in fact, doing quite the opposite.

St. Paul noticed this about himself:

“I cannot understand my own behavior. I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very things I hate...In my inmost self I dearly love God's Law, but I can see that my body follows a different law that battles against the law which my reason dictates...” (Romans 7:14-23, Jerusalem Bible)

That is our predicament as faithful people. We are citizens of a great and noble Republic and as such we are privileged to pursue our happiness under the protection of the law. But we are also, to borrow some lines from W.H. Auden, citizens of “the kingdom of anxiety,” dwellers in the “land of unlikeness.”

And now, here is the point. It is as dwellers in this land, with moral astigmatism, prone to make wrong decisions, inclined to fail to keep our best resolutions, that we meet God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit: the Trinity.

There is an ancient piece of teaching in the church called “the doctrine of the three ways.”  The three ways have been compared to levels in school, or even levels of play in athletics: such as high school, college and pro football. The game can be played well or badly within any level. 2

The “game” here, is not football. It is the pursuit of the happiness of knowing God who loves us. According to the doctrine of the three ways, the levels of our encounters with God are: Purgation, Illumination, and Union. A person may be spiritually healthy, or not, at any of the three levels. 3

Purgation means cleansing: being “purged” of impurities. The ancient doctors of the soul saw the disharmony between what we think, what we feel, and what we want to do as purgative when it is accepted faithfully.

In the early years of our marriage, Julie and I loved watching “Hill Street Blues.” The hero of the show was a good man, Captain Frank Furillo. In one episode, Captain Furillo was approached romantically and suggestively by an attractive lieutenant, but he declined the opportunity. He was separated, but not divorced, from his wife at the time. Patsy, the lieutenant, was surprised. “I thought I felt something,” she said. “You did,” he said, “but what I feel, and what I do about my feelings are two different things.” This did not immediately make Captain Furillo happier. In fact, the emotional sacrifice increased his pain. That is often the way it is on the way of purgation.

When Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane that God would “Take away this cup; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done,” he was meeting God on the purgative way. Baptism and Holy Communion are our way of participating in the mystery of his purgation on our behalf. Others benefited from Captain Fusillo’s restraint too. That is “purgation.”

The way of illumination is described in one of the loveliest images of the entire Bible. “Let the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,” wrote Paul to the Ephesians. Jesus’ promise to his disciples that he will send his “Counselor” to them after he has gone to the Father, is the promise of illumination from the Spirit:  “He will guide you into all truth.”

In our country, we are free for the pursuit of happiness. We might be happier, however, if we used our freedom in search of illumination instead.

Here is an instance of illumination from Hollywood, in the perennial Christmas movie, It's a Wonderful Life. George Bailey is about to accept a job offer from Potter, the richest and meanest man in town. The job will mean more money, the travel he has longed for since a child, and relief from the stress of running a marginal building and loan business he has never enjoyed. Happiness suddenly, unexpectedly seems in reach. “George Bailey, your ship has just come in,” says Potter.

Then comes illumination. George realizes that he is on the verge of selling his soul. He throws down his cigar and walks away. This, also, did not immediately make George Baily happy.

“When the Spirit of truth comes,” Jesus promised, “he will guide you into all truth.” That is illumination.

Purgation is meeting God while struggling in the dark. Illumination is meeting God while recognizing light upon your path. Union is participation in the love of God: for God, for one another, and even for ourselves.

To that last point, Bernard of Clairvaux named for steps on the path to spiritual perfection. At stage 1, “I love myself for my own sake.” This is the God-given, inborn instinct for survival. At stage 2, “I love God for my own sake.” This is the survival instinct plus religion. At stage 3, “I love God for God’s sake.” This is piety. But at stage 4, spiritual perfection according to Bernard, “I love myself for God’s sake.”

We are in wedding season now at Trinity—one almost every week through mid-July.

Marriage is intended to be an instance of such participation, and a sign of it for others. “It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.”  Marriage is by no means the only relationship in which two people may find union with God through participation in his love, but it ought to be the safest. If both are searching for the love of God in the way they love each other, it is less likely that either will be crucified.    

Our ancestors in the Christian faith did not talk as much about the pursuit of happiness as we do. Perhaps that is because on the terms we are apt to seek it—through good health, long life, lots of leisure and romance—happiness seemed more often out of reach to them. Happiness appears to be closer at hand for us. As for me, I'll take it whenever I can get it, and try to remember to be thankful for it.

Happiness, however, is an elusive prey: hard to catch, harder still to hold. Appearance can be deceptive. As we pursue happiness, we best do so with the words of Jesus in mind: words which are warning, promise, and invitation. “Seek first the kingdom of God.”




1: Martin Thornton, English Spirituality

2: Martin Thornton, The Heart of the Parish, p. 140

3: See Martin Thornton, The Heart of the Parish, for the distinction between spiritual health and spiritual growth, p. 138-139, approximately.