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February 5, 2009

Lent in 2009 - Where Is Happiness Found? -
The Holocaust and Bishop Williamson -
Year of St. Paul - and more



In this edition:
-- New book tells what happiness is.
-- Where happiness is found.
-- Last year at this time: an earlier book on happiness.
-- Currently in the news: Quotes on the Holocaust and a traditionalist bishop.
-- Fasting this Lent: Recognizing the hungry as friends, not strangers.
-- Does St. Paul have a message for today?
-- Opportunity for parishes to re-examine social mission: the economic crisis.

Do We Know What Happiness Is?

Are happy people just lucky? Not according to Benedictine Abbot Christopher Jamison, author of a new book titled "Finding Happiness."

He says that "to find happiness, we need to broaden our definition" of it. "All too often," he cautions, "happiness is narrowed down to mean feeling good." But while there is "nothing wrong with feeling good," happiness needs to be viewed in "the wider context of doing good and knowing good."

This book, first published in Britain in 2008, now has been published in the U.S. by the Liturgical Press (Collegeville, Minn.; $19.95). The author is abbot of Worth Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in England.

"People are searching for happiness, but not everybody knows how to find it," says Abbot Jamison. There is an "underlying assumption," he believes, that "when people use the word 'happiness' they all mean the same thing, namely, the very loose concept of 'feeling good.'"

As a result, pleasure and happiness tend to be confused with each other. When pleasure and happiness are confused, however, happiness "becomes a matter of taste," since what brings pleasure to one person may well differ from what brings pleasure to another, the abbot says.

Overemphasizing pleasure's role in happiness could have some negative results, he suggests. He writes, "It seems some people are quite prepared to be vicious rather than virtuous in order to be what they call happy."

By distinguishing happiness and pleasure, "we can see that pleasure is indeed a matter of taste, but that happiness is not," says Abbot Jamison. "As with gold, so with happiness, careful work is needed to discern the real thing."

Abbot Jamison says that the founder of his order, St. Benedict, "never used the words 'happy' or 'happiness'" in his Rule. Instead, St. Benedict preferred "to speak of joy and delight, and in describing those qualities he is describing the monastic understanding of happiness."

The monastic approach involves a wariness "of signposts that point to happiness as feeling good" and looks instead "for paths that lead to the joy of knowing the good and the delight of doing good."

Where Happiness Is Found

In "Finding Happiness," Abbot Jamison examines, chapter by chapter, what he calls the Eight Thoughts, which "provide the framework of our search for happiness." The Eight Thoughts are "negative thoughts" that "are present in all human hearts." Facing the Eight Thoughts and overcoming them "lies at the heart of the monastic way to find happiness," the author says.

"Happiness comes to us indirectly as the fruit of defeating the causes of our unhappiness," he says.

These Eight Thoughts are probably familiar to anyone acquainted with the history of Christian spirituality. They are viewed in contrast with their opposite Eight Virtues in Abbot Jamison's presentation. In his approach to each of the Eight Thoughts, he avoids predictability as he applies historical understandings to contemporary circumstances.

The Eight Thoughts include: acedia (spiritual carelessness; "loss of enthusiasm for the spiritual life itself"); gluttony; lust; greed; anger; sadness; vanity; and pride. These thoughts "have the potential to damage our well-being, they throw us off balance and lead us away from happiness," says Abbot Jamison.

He informs us that the desert fathers and mothers called these thoughts "demons." The assumption, he explains, is "that if we find our soul and rescue it from the demons, then we will be on the way to inner freedom and happiness."

The abbot calls attention to several ways of walking away from a demon. He says, "The most favored practical activity for monks to defeat the demons is hospitality: in other words, an act of love toward somebody else."

But today, he writes, "some people simply refuse to allow themselves to imagine a world in which people do not get angry, a world in which people are not greedy, a world where the proud are scattered. They are addicted to the current picture of how things are."

The opposites of the Eight Thoughts are the Eight Virtues, which include: spiritual awareness; moderation; chaste love; generosity; gentleness; gladness; magnanimity; and humility. "To live the Eight Virtues is the pure gold of happiness, a happiness that is robust, generous and everlasting," Abbot Jamison says.

However, "living the Eight Virtues is so much harder than embracing the Eight Thoughts," and finding happiness is "a lifelong process," he writes.

I cannot in this brief space summarize what Abbot Jamison says about each of the Eight Thoughts. However, I'd like to call attention to a couple of points he makes that stood out for me.

In his chapter on sadness, the abbot says that "hope is the surest remedy against sadness, and so we have to take conscious steps to sustain hope." He writes, "Sustaining hope is one of the surest ways of keeping sadness at bay and is an important aspect of both mental and spiritual health."

With that in mind, Abbot Jamison proposes that people take "a moment to do an audit of hope" in their lives. In conducting an audit of hope, they might ask: "What gets us out of bed in the morning? What do we most dread losing? What absorbs our spare time? The responses to these questions are the answer to the question, In what do I place my hope?"

Sadness also may ensue when people "catastrophize" a problem, the abbot tells readers. How does one "catastrophize" a problem? This can happen, for example, when one regards a problem as a crisis or treats a loss - perhaps the loss of a job - as a unique assault upon oneself. It is one thing to "acknowledge that there is a serious problem" in one's life, he says, and quite another thing to approach it as "an unbearable crisis."

Abbot Jamison says in his chapter on vanity that the Sermon on the Mount "and in particular the Beatitudes constitute a profound and unexpected solution to life's perceived emptiness and vanity." He comments, "Poverty of spirit, meekness, grief, these are qualities of people without vanity."

There is a link between vanity and human vulnerability that needs to be grasped, the writer proposes. "The truth that we find hard to accept about life is that to be human is to be vulnerable. We would rather believe that to be human is to be secure. So we spend our energy on looking secure and convincing ourselves that we are secure. That is vanity."

He advises, "We should instead work at accepting our vulnerability as a gift, a gift that enables us to receive other people's love and help. In turn, other people's vulnerability is the gap into which we can pour our love and support."

But vanity "blocks that whole process," Abbot Jamison says. "The emptiness of self-love stops the natural flow of love from one person to another."

What virtue is vanity's opposite? Not humility. The abbot calls humility "the opposite of pride, not of vanity." Instead, he says, "magnanimity is the virtue that defeats vanity." The "magnanimous soul," he adds, "is one that can affirm the true worth of self and of other people without needing to make special claims for oneself."

Last Year at This Time: Another Book on Happiness

One year ago at this time, in the edition of this newsletter dated Feb. 13, 2008, I discussed a just-released book on happiness that had raced onto the best-seller lists. "Eight out of 10 Americans say they think about their happiness at least once a week," Eric Weiner wrote in "The Geography of Bliss" (Twelve Books).

Weiner discovered through his research that people don't find it easy to talk about happiness. It is difficult to get people to talk about happiness because "they literally don't have the words for it," he wrote.

Weiner's research project took the form of traveling the world to interview people about the meaning of happiness and to assess the happiness quotient in various nations. "All cultures value happiness, but not to the same degree," he said. He commented that "in America, few people are happy, but everyone talks about happiness constantly."

In "The Geography of Bliss," Weiner said that according to estimates by social scientists, "about 70 percent of our happiness stems from our relationships, both quantity and quality, with friends, family, coworkers and neighbors." He added that when it comes to happiness, beaches are optional, but trust and gratitude are not.

To read my complete article on "The Geography of Bliss," click on the words "Follow this link to Dave's archive" at the bottom of the "Dave's Corner" section on this Web site's home page, then scroll down to the entry that begins, "What makes people happy?"

Currently in the News: Quotes on the Holocaust and Bishop Williamson

(In late January Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops ordained against papal orders in 1988 by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. But protests arose afterward in many quarters over the views of one of the four, Bishop Richard Williamson, regarding the World War II Holocaust - the Shoah. He has said the no Jews died in gas chambers and that the number of those killed have been exaggerated greatly. The lifting of the excommunication did not restore the four bishops to full communion with the Catholic Church, but the Vatican said it marked an important, first step toward possible full communion with the schismatic Society of St. Pius X, founded by Archbishop Lefebvre in 1970; there will need yet to be an acceptance by the bishops of Vatican Council II, the Vatican said Feb. 4. However, most public discussion immediately after the lifting of the excommunication focused on Bishop Williamson's views regarding the Holocaust. The following quotations on the Holocaust and Bishop Williamson are taken from statements by church leaders.)

Excerpt From a Vatican Secretariat of State Statement Feb. 4: "The positions of Bishop Williamson on the Shoah are absolutely unacceptable and firmly rejected by the Holy Father, as he himself remarked this past Jan. 28 when, in reference to the brutal genocide, he reconfirmed his full and unquestionable solidarity with our brothers, the chosen of the First Covenant, and affirmed that the memory of that terrible genocide must lead 'humanity to reflect on the unpredictable power of evil when it takes over the human heart,' adding that the Shoah remains 'a warning for all against hate, against denial or reductionism, because violence done to a single human being is violence against all.' For any admission to episcopal ministry in the church, Bishop Williamson will have to distance himself, in an absolutely unequivocal and public way, from his positions on the Shoah, which the Holy Father did not know about at the time the excommunication was revoked."

Excerpt from Statement Feb. 3 by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: "As is now widely known, one of the four bishops, Richard Williamson, has recently made some deeply offensive and utterly false statements about the Holocaust of the Second World War. Bishop Williamson has denied historical facts about the Shoah, in which 6 million Jews were cruelly annihilated, innocent victims of blind racial and religious hatred. These comments have evoked understandable outrage from within the Jewish community and also from among our own Catholic people. No Catholic, whether layperson, priest or bishop, can ever negate the memory of the Shoah, just as no Catholic should ever tolerate expressions of anti-Semitism and religious bigotry."

Excerpt From Jan. 29 Statement of Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. "1) The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops finds abhorrent the notion that somehow the terrible evil of the Holocaust is not a fact of history and joins the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI in calling on all people to recognize that the Holocaust is 'an admonition against oblivion, negation and reductionism.' 2) The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops joins the Holy See in criticizing and rejecting the comments that Bishop Williamson has made on the Holocaust. 3) The Catholic bishops of Canada, together with the Holy See, remain committed to dialogue with the Jews, as was reaffirmed by the bishops of Canada at their September 2008 plenary assembly. 4) The Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X, Bishop Bernard Fellay, has apologized concerning the remarks made by Bishop Williamson and announced that Bishop Williamson has been forbidden to speak further on this question."

Excerpt From Statement of British Bishops' Conference Spokesman Jan. 27: "The views of one of the bishops of the Society of St. Pius X in denying the reality of the Holocaust are totally unacceptable. His personal positions do not affect in any way the position of the church's most authoritative document on this dialogue, 'Nostra Aetate,' which deplores any type of anti-Semitism. Today on Holocaust Memorial Day we remember the death of 6 million Jews and follow Pope Benedict XVI in deploring anti-Semitism in all its forms. We call on all Roman Catholics to do the same."

Fasting This Lent: Recognizing That the Hungry Are Not Strangers

Fasting helps to open people's eyes "to the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live," Pope Benedict XVI says in his 2009 Lenten message, which focuses "on the value and meaning of fasting."

People make a statement when they freely embrace "an act of self-denial for the sake of another" - a statement "that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger," the pope states. The reason he encourages parishes and other communities to intensify "the custom of private and communal fasts" this Lent "is precisely to keep alive this welcoming and attentive attitude toward our brothers and sisters," the pope writes.

The pope's Lenten statement was released during a Feb. 3 press conference at the Vatican. Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, was invited to speak during the press conference. Her organization relies heavily on Catholic charities and other faith-based organizations to distribute food aid. She said:

"Let us not forget that the food and financial crises hit the world's most vulnerable the hardest. Since 2007, 115 million were added to the ranks of the hungry to create a total of nearly 1 billion people without adequate food. That is one in six people on earth."

But, Sheeran said, "this is not a problem of food availability. It is a problem of distribution -- and of greed, discrimination, wars and other tragedies." For, there is sufficient "food on earth for every human to have adequate access to a nutritious diet. This is indeed a challenge for the human heart."

Fasting during Lent can help people remember "that hunger is on the march worldwide," Sheeran said. She proposed that as financial rescue packages are drawn up to address the global economic downturn, a "human rescue package" also should be developed that includes funds to fight hunger. "Financial rescue packages must serve not only Wall Street and Main Street, but also the places where there are no streets," Sheeran said.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that to a hungry man, a piece of bread is the face of God," Sheeran recalled. "Feeding the hungry," she said, "is a profound act of love and restores dignity to a mother or father who cannot provide for their starving child."

Pope Benedict commented that with contemporary society's accent on caring for the health of the body, fasting "seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning." He said fasting "has taken on, in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value" in terms of bodily care.

The pope did not deny that fasting benefits "physical well-being," but he said that "for believers [fasting] is in the first place a 'therapy' to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God. Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by his saving word."

Does St. Paul Have a Message for Today? The Year of Paul

"Catholics today, both individually and corporately, are called to respond in new and creative ways to bring the Gospel to the 'earnest seekers' with whom we daily rub shoulders," Jesuit Father John Donahue said in a Jan. 23 speech. This, he proposed, is one of St. Paul's messages for our times. A professor of theology at Loyola College in Maryland, Father Donahue delivered the annual Hecker Lecture at St. Paul's College in Washington.

Father Donahue explained that the Hellenistic world of Paul's time "was a world filled with people trying out different forms of religion." He said Paul was "a missionary to such religious seekers." Paul's communities "were multiracial and multiethnic, and for their sake Paul became all things to all people," Father Donahue said.

Paul thus "leaves a mandate to our church today to reach out to such people," the speaker added. Today, he said "the United States represents a multicolored tapestry of religious belief and practice, and the Catholic community itself is composed of religious seekers who often seek God elsewhere."

The meaning of Christian "community" for Paul also was examined in Father Donahue's address. He noted that in Paul's day, the people of the Roman Empire's cities were "stratified into a rigid social hierarchy," with wealth serving as one of several criteria that determined a person's place in the system.

"The poor in the ancient world were looked on somehow as 'subhuman,'" Father Donahue said, but "Paul envisioned a 'contrast society' to the ethos and norms of the world around him."

There is a message both for today's church and society at large in "Paul's Gospel of new life in Christ," said Father Donahue. The priest said that for Paul, "the social distinctions between upper-class and lower-class people which are part of the fabric of the Hellenistic world have no place in the Christian assembly."

The nature of the "contrast society" envisioned by Paul comes through in what he has to say about baptism and the Eucharist, Father Donahue observed. "The foundation of community for Paul is that those who have responded in faith to the Gospel (the proclamation of the Christ event) and have been baptized are 'in Christ' (used over 150 times in the letters)."

For Paul, "the new life that every Christian shares transcends differences of religion (Jews and Greek), social status (slave and free) and gender separation," Father Donahue explained.

Not only were society's prevailing divisions between social groups unacceptable in the Christian community, but the members of the Christian community were to be regarded as interdependent, according to Paul. Father Donahue said that Paul used "the image of the body to stress the interdependent nature of the Christian community, where the weaker members are absolutely necessary to the whole body and are clothed with greater honor."

He said that for Paul, baptism "was a sign not only of dying with Christ and walking in the newness of life, but of breaking down existing barriers that lead to new ways of remembering and celebrating the life and death of Jesus that were inclusive."

The text of Father Donahue's speech appears in the Feb. 5, 2009, edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service.

Opportunity for Parishes to Examine Social Mission: Economic Crisis

"I applaud the efforts of parishes to become in even greater measure places where parishioners and others can turn for concrete help and support," Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., said in a column for the Jan. 22 edition of the archdiocese's newspaper, The Record.

Recent economic challenges in society "provide parishes with opportunities to examine their commitment to our social mission," he said.

"The typical Catholic parish is a very busy place with many sacramental, liturgical, educational, service and formational programs and activities," the archbishop wrote. He added, "Ultimately, however, we are a people who are 'sent' to be light and leaven for the broader society, to seek justice for all and to be a sacrament of God's abundant love for the world."

The archbishop asked, "Is this commitment an isolated part of our parish that is confined to the efforts of a few well-meaning people or is it a vital and comprehensive part of who we are?" He pointed out that the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church calls the church's social mission "an integral part of our evangelizing ministry."

"Events of the last several months have undoubtedly caused fear and uncertainty," said Archbishop Kurtz. "We have seen the stock market plunge, unemployment increase, retirement accounts lose value, families lose their homes and companies fail." In this atmosphere, the principle of solidarity "should inform how we view the situation," he said.

It is tempting in difficult times "to turn in on ourselves, when in fact we are called to exercise even greater generosity," the archbishop said. Faith, he said, "rejects fear that paralyzes or causes us to lose hope," and instead "calls us to take this time to reorder our priorities, value what is most important and serve those in need."