Readings: Sirach 2:1-11; Mark 9:30-37
Are people who practice their faith happier than people who don’t? It would seem so, if the results of a recent survey on religious practice can be trusted. Data collected from people around the world showed that those who are actively religious tended to describe themselves as very happy more often than people who are not. Here in the United States the difference is remarkable; actively religious people were over 40% more likely to describe themselves as very happy.1
We might wonder what the non-religious would make of this in light of today’s readings. First they hear Sirach say, “When you come to serve the LORD… prepare yourself for trials… in crushing misfortune be patient… For in fire gold and silver are tested, and worthy people in the crucible of humiliation” (Sirach 2:1-5). This is followed by Jesus predicting his passion and death and then telling his power-hungry disciples that those who wish to be first “shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). So, the non-religious person asks, happiness comes to those who endure trials, misfortune, and humiliation; who carry crosses, finish last, and act as everyone’s servant? Sounds like a recipe for making myself unhappier than I already am!
If we define happiness as feelings of contentment, well-being, or pleasant experiences, then they have a point; trials, humiliation, crosses, and servitude are the furthest thing from pleasant. But this is a misunderstanding. Happiness is not a feeling, it is a state of being; specifically, it is the state of being in union with God.
Look at it this way: Both religious and non-religious people have good times and bad; they undergo trials, are humiliated from time to time, suffer misfortunes, and know what it means to sacrifice. The difference is that religious people see these times not only as something to endure or to learn from but as opportunities to unite themselves to God and to others and in so doing come closer and closer to loving as God loves.
Divine love is the key to happiness. Again, although religious and non-religious people know what it means to love, there are at least two important differences. First, the religious person knows that we can only be happy to the degree that we love as God loves and that no one showed greater love than Christ. None endured more trials, suffered more humiliation, was crushed by more infirmity, carried a cross weighed down by more sin, or was more of a suffering servant than he who did it that we his beloved may be spared. With this depth of love as the standard, we are called to imitate Christ in the love we bear toward each other, even and perhaps especially those we think least worthy of it. We can never be happy without doing so.
Yet even our best effort to show this kind of love is in vain without the second aspect – hope. As the Catechism reminds us, “hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (CCC §1817). The non-religious may love and will find some contentment in it but without God, there is no happiness; with God, the hope of happiness springs eternal.
We should not be surprised that those who have received the gift of faith are happy. Christ promised it to the mourning, the meek, and the merciful; to the peacemakers and the persecuted; the humble and hungry; to all those who would imitate the love he showed by offering himself for the life of the world: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Matthew 5:12).