On festive occasions people of most cultures wish each other happiness. We have just come through the ‘Happy Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year’ season and will soon be wishing the same for Chinese New Year and on birthdays and anniversaries throughout the year. This practice reflects the fact that the deepest longing in every human heart is a hunger for happiness. The important question is where and how do we find real happiness?
The great St Augustine spent his youth looking for happiness in success, fame and pleasure, much to the disappointment of his mother St Monica. He joined a heretical religious group, became famous as a writer and lecturer, and for years gave himself over to sexual immorality. Gradually he came to realise that this lifestyle could never bring him the real and lasting happiness he longed for, but at first he lacked the will power to change.
Eventually at the age of 32 he converted to the Christian faith, gave up his old ways, distributed his wealth among the poor and devoted his life to serving God in the priesthood. He later became a bishop and was one of the Church’s greatest ever teachers. He was also famous for his kindness and charity, and for his life of great humility and simplicity. Looking back on the wild days of his youth he wrote in his famous Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts can never be at rest until they rest in you”.
At the start of another year we are reminded of the relentless passage of time; another year gone, another year ahead, as we continue to search for meaning and happiness in our lives. St Augustine deeply regretted his lost misguided years and cried out, “O Beauty ever ancient, O Beauty ever new, too late have I known you, too late have I loved you”. The New Year is an occasion for us to look honestly into our hearts and to review our own search for happiness.
We are not, like Augustine, called to give up our possessions for there is nothing wrong with enjoying the legitimate comforts and pleasures of life. The gospels show that Jesus himself was no ‘spoil sport’. He enjoyed the wedding feast at Cana and shared meals with friends such as Martha and Mary, Zacchaeus the tax collector and Simon the leper. In fact his enemies complained that “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Lk 15:2).
Our danger is getting our priorities wrong, imagining that wealth, fame or pleasure alone can bring us the deep and lasting peace we long for. A bigger bank account, house or car may give us temporary and limited satisfaction but we are made for much more than that. A bird was not created for a cage or a fish for a tank! Real happiness, in so far as it is possible in this world, comes from our union with God, our fidelity to the Lord’s teaching and our love and service of others.
St Paul tells us of the struggle in his own life between the deceptive values of the world and the promptings of his own conscience. “I don’t do the good I want to do; instead I do the evil that I don’t want to” (Rom 7:19). Elsewhere he assures us that true freedom, joy, peace and love are to be found only in Christ (Gal 5:13-25).
Each of us hungers for real happiness; the choice of menu is our own! Happy New Year to all.
Bro Columba Gleeson