When looking at the state of our country and the struggles that abound, the fact that so many individuals and our society seek to journey apart from the light of God’s grace and truth should not be minimized for its effect. Scripture often presents the two paths that are open before us – with God and apart from God. If we are created to live in communion with God and if God is, as the Catholic Church teaches, both our meaning and our ultimate goal, then it seems logical and true that life lived apart from God will result in emptiness, the pursuit of idols and disillusionment.
In a recent virtual presentation on Christian wisdom for these challenging times, multiple faith leaders said that it is critical we get back to the basics in terms of our faith and living it. Love of God and love of neighbor hold great promise as an ethic and path for both individuals and our collective life. This is the only true path to a brighter and more just future. I am not advocating a theocracy mind you but advocating that we make more room for God in our lives and more room for God in our collective life. Happiness begins by inviting God in not shutting God out. The later is madness and nihilism – it is the false road – and yet it is trod by far too many.
The last couple of years have been the happiest of my life. In fact, notwithstanding the challenges that priests face, we are often rated among the happiest professions….yes I know ours is technically a vocation and not a profession. Stephen Rossetti wrote a book on this topic – “Why Priests are Happy.” I think it boils down to the fact that most priests spend more time in prayer and also live a life of generous service. Meaning and happiness flow from a life lived with God and lived for others. Don’t get me wrong – there is no life that I can think of as more sacrificial than parents putting their lives in service of their children, and there are certainly some priests who do not live lives of generous service. I would bet these priests are not happy.
While I have been happy throughout my priesthood, these past two years have been the happiest years of my priesthood. In reflecting on where this comes from – the origins of my happiness – I briefly point to five principles below. They have been helpful in my life and I think they can be applicable to the spiritual lives of others as well. One more caveat before getting to the principles – COVID is a game changer in so many ways. I have felt more highs and lows since mid March than I have ever experienced in my life. While my trajectory has been clearly in the direction of spiritual health and depth, there have also been moments of desolation and the other disappointments and rejections that life brings. Life is a mixed bag and our spiritual journey is often not linear. Five principles stand out as integral to increased spiritual health and attendant happiness.
Prayer – my morning begins early with sustained and fruitful prayer. I pray anywhere from 1 and 1/2 to 2 hours in the morning before beginning my day. I know this is not possible for most folks but it has been a lifeblood – a gift, which has also become a strong habit.
Healing – All are wounded – wounded by original sin, wounded by family of origin stuff, wounded by self-inflicted harm or wounded by harm perpetrated by others. We are are in need of healing and Christ seeks to heal us – to heal us deeply and bring greater health and healing to our souls. While my journey is ongoing – as Van Morrison sings – the healing has begun – the healing that Christ uniquely offers to all of us. The healing that Christ offers us unlocks our hearts and brings greater peace and wholeness.
Forgiveness – Spiritual happiness flows from being right with God – receiving God’s forgiveness and mercy and also extending forgiveness to others. In addition, there are some folks in our lives from whom we need to seek forgiveness or, at the very least, extend an apology for the harm that we have caused. While receiving God’s mercy has been a gift I have cherished throughout priesthood, my journey to forgive and ask for forgiveness continues, and I have more work to do in 2021.
Spiritual Freedom – I wrote about this a bit last time. Freedom is key to a healthy spiritual life. Interior freedom is a gift that God gives us – he precedes us in extending his grace, but we must desire and seek this freedom. The great saints, including Ignatius of Loyola who wrote beautifully about interior freedom in his Spiritual Exercises, lived in the freedom of God and thus their lives manifested the vital and fecund dialectic of humility and boldness. I have some room to grow in all of the above areas, but particularly in spiritual freedom. However, with sincerity of heart, I desire interior freedom and I desire to do God’s will. I believe as Thomas Merton powerfully writes – the desire to please God and to do God’s will does in fact please God.
Annual Retreat – Priests are asked to make an annual retreat. I have been faithful to this throughout my priesthood but because of COVID, it had been 18 months since my last retreat. I had a powerful retreat earlier this month and learned that God’s grace can work even through zoom sessions. I have found that something profound occurs when we dedicate an extended period of time to walk with God. Some of the most moving spiritual experiences I have had occurred while on retreat. Retreats are a gift from God.
You may find some of the above principles helpful in your own journey of faith. Of course putting faith into action in our service of others is also critical to a life of happiness and fulfillment. My bet is that deeper integration of these principles into one’s life will make 2021 the happiest year yet, notwithstanding all of the ongoing challenges.
Finally, on this Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I join all people of good will in seeking to build the beloved community for which Dr. King so tirelessly and prophetically labored. Justice is a gift from God and, as Hebrew Scripture exhorts, is founded on love of and right relationship with God and neighbor. This movement toward justice begins in the souls of each one of us and our recognition of our common origin, our common humanity and our shared destiny.
I end with words of Dr. King from a 1967 Christmas sermon, which I continue to find so powerful and acutely relevant today: “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”