by Archbishop Joseph Naumann
What do Whitney Houston, Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix have in common? A lot! They were all successful, wealthy, famous celebrities whose deaths were tragic.
In many ways, from the world’s perspective, they seemed to have everything one needs for happiness — money, fame and power. Sadly, I could fill a book just listing the names of the rich, famous and powerful who had what the world considers everything and who either ended their own lives or died in otherwise tragic circumstances.
This past Sunday, we celebrated the solemnity of All Saints, commemorating not only the canonized saints, but the millions who lived far from the world’s or even the church’s spotlight, but now live happily with Jesus and their fellow saints in the heavenly kingdom.
Each year, the Gospel for the All Saints Day Mass is the Beatitudes. For many who grew up frequently hearing this passage from the beginning of the fifth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, we have become dull to its revolutionary and countercultural message. In a sense, the Beatitudes are Our Lord’s recipe for true happiness, which completely contradicts the secular world’s assumptions.
The world insists that we need wealth for happiness. Jesus calls the poor in spirit blessed.
The world urges us to avoid pain and suffering whenever possible. Jesus counters by saying blessed are those who mourn.
The world asserts to be happy we need to be a winner. We need to be No. 1. We need the recognition that comes from being considered the best. Jesus proposes it is only the meek and humble of heart that will experience authentic joy.
The world urges us to satisfy our every hunger and to quench every thirst. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements encouraging us to indulge our desires and to seek more frequent and intense pleasure. On the other hand, Jesus claims hungering and thirsting for righteousness are needed to acquire an enduring happiness.
The world is consumed with “rights talk.” The implication is that we can only be happy if we are treated fairly and, more importantly, our enemies are vanquished and punished. Jesus counters with the universal need for mercy and cautions only the merciful will be capable of experiencing God’s mercy.
Our culture mocks virginity, purity and chastity. It claims the frequent experience of sexual pleasure is the one absolute for happiness. To suggest any form of sexual experiences to be immoral is considered prudish, harsh and even cruel. On the other hand, Jesus proposes only the clean and pure of heart will be able to see God.
The world’s wisdom maintains that it is important to be in control, to be able to impose our will on others. Jesus, rather, praises the peacemakers, the reconcilers, as those who have truly discovered the key to the gate of happiness.
Our culture stresses a need to be free to do what we want when we want. According to the world’s estimation, it is important to be highly regarded by others and to receive recognition for our accomplishments. Jesus sees things quite differently, telling his disciples that they will find a capacity for happiness even when they are persecuted, insulted, lied about or imprisoned unjustly because of their love for God.
The world is crazy or Jesus is crazy! They both cannot be right! Whose wisdom are we choosing to follow? One way to discern who has got it right about happiness is to examine and contrast the lives of those who followed the world’s wisdom with the saints who attempted to live the Beatitudes.
Do you prefer to die like Jimi Hendrix, asphyxiated by your own vomit after a drug overdose — or like Maximilian Kolbe, singing hymns and exhorting your fellow prisoners to keep their sights fixed on heaven after he volunteered to take another man’s place on death row in a Nazi concentration camp?
Do you prefer to spend your last days like Howard Hughes in a hermetically-sealed room cut off from the rest of humanity, futilely attempting to prevent his own inevitable death — or like Francis Xavier Seelos who, after contracting yellow fever from attending the sick and dying, arose from his own death bed to minister the last rites to one more person?
Would you rather be Henry VIII, the king who was married eight times and had ordered the execution of as many as 72,000 people, among whom were several of his wives as well as many saints such as Thomas More and John Fisher and whose own counselors — lest they be accused of treason — were afraid to tell him of the imminence of his death resulting from a combination of the effects of syphilis, diabetes and obesity — or to be like Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin, the first canonized married couple, who created the environment in their family to form a saint like Thérèse of Lisieux?
Do you prefer the Beatitudes or the wisdom of the world?