The first known autobiography in the canon of Western literature is The Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo. The major theme of this classic work is laid out in the third sentence of the first chapter: “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” A restless heart is an unhappy heart, and therefore, according to this repentant son of St. Monica, a restful or peaceful heart is a happy heart.
Augustine knew first-hand the difficulties inherent in searching for happiness in the usual places of wealth, pleasure, power, and honor. His pre-conversion days were spent headlong in the pursuit of happiness – a pursuit so universal to the human condition that it is enshrined in the United States Declaration of Independence and is seen on the same level as life and liberty.
This pursuit can take many forms, and in his ill-spent youth the future Doctor of the Church was the epitome of the quintessentially modern, Nike vision of happiness: just do it. He sought worldly happiness with all of the gusto of a 21st century libertine, and could never have imagined that this pursuit would both leave him empty inside and draw him to a very different brand of happiness – one whose roots are embedded in the fertile soil of the Gospel.
In the third chapter of Gaudete et Exsultate Pope Francis draws his readers’ attention to this supernatural happiness, and insists that this true happiness – in which holiness resides – is a conscious willingness to “go against the flow.” The words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, most specifically in the Beatitudes, “clearly run counter to the way things are usually done in our world.” In a world where empowerment and self-fulfillment have carried the day, the words of Jesus seem not just out of touch, but downright dangerous.
According to Jesus, and by extension Pope Francis, the things that make us happy and holy are: “reacting with meekness and humility”; “knowing how to mourn with others”; “hungering and thirsting for righteousness”; “seeing and acting with mercy”; “keeping a heart free of all that tarnishes love”; “sowing peace all around us”; and “accepting daily the path of the Gospel, even though it may cause us problems.”
The Beatitudes have often been seen as the New Testament version of the Ten Commandments, and for good reason. They do not supplant the words delivered from God to His Chosen People through Moses, but they place them within the context of the New Law of Love initiated by Jesus – a Law that governs not an earthly kingdom, but the heavenly Kingdom of God as seen here on earth in the Person of Jesus Christ and the Church that He founded.
This Kingdom transcends all the political boundaries set by wars and treaties throughout human history, and provides all those who follow Jesus as King with their own Declaration of Independence in the Sermon on the Mount and its centerpiece the Beatitudes. To see Jesus in this role as King is to see His theology as eminently political – as the blueprint for His polis, a homeland so brilliantly detailed by St. Augustine in his City of God.
To take the Beatitudes seriously, to honestly and sincerely attempt to live by these most important words of Jesus, is to plant the flag of the City of God and the Kingdom of Christ in the foreign land of one’s earthly home. For a Catholic to “go against the flow” of the dominant political culture of her or his nation is to risk being seen as sectarian and divisive. To speak out in favor of the Beatitudes can be difficult, yet Jesus prepared His followers for the reaction that would follow upon their “going against the flow” when He said, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me.”
Both St. Augustine and Pope Francis teach us that any attempt at happiness that doesn’t “go against the flow” is doomed to failure, and in pointing to God as the source of true happiness they show that although the path can be a difficult one it is the route that leads to holiness and eternal beatitude.