Deeper into Christ: The Beatitudes

Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)
They show a way toward a more authentic Christianity.

‘Man cannot live without love,” Saint John Paul II wrote in Redeemer of Man. He continued: “He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. . . . The man who wishes to understand this thoroughly — and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being — he must with his unrest, uncertainty and even weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ.”

In the new book Kingdom of Happiness, Father Jeffrey Kirby writes about how do to this, to live “the Beatitudes in everyday life,” as the subtitle puts it. He talks in an interview about the process and reasoning.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: “No one hopes to be miserable, melancholic, confused, or lost. We all want to be happy, preferably with other people, especially those we love and care about. Everyone wants the happiness you want.” You seem to be addressing this to everyone. Is everyone some degree of “miserable, melancholic, confused, or lost”? Or enough of us to justify the direct note at the front of the book?

Father Jeffrey Kirby:  Each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, has experienced moments of misery, melancholy, confusion, or a sense of being lost. Kingdom of Happiness is addressing those darker parts of our life. It seeks to share a message of light and hope with each of us.

Lopez:  How can the Beatitudes help with happiness? When you start to focus, they appear to be quite hard work, don’t they?

Father Kirby:  Happiness has been falsely or incompletely defined. If we think happiness is a synonym for pleasure, or euphoria, or power, then we will always expect it to be enjoyable and self-seeking. This understanding, however, sets us up for failure, since it cannot endure the push and pulls of reality.

Happiness needs to be realistically understood as a deep awareness that we are blessed and loved, and were created good. It’s a decision to let this goodness flourish within ourselves and be an instrument of this happiness in others. This is where the Beatitudes can help us.

In our decision for happiness and choosing to let goodness win, therefore, we see a lot of dark areas in our lives or in our world that need to be cleaned up and reordered to what is virtuous and right. This work is precisely what brings us suffering or hardship, but it’s worth it since it brings about a great good. And so, it’s not that suffering takes away our happiness, but, when accepted and used well, it actually grounds and enriches it.

Lopez:  How is happiness a kingdom and what does it mean to convert to it?

Father Kirby: The image of a kingdom gives us the symbol of a king, a sovereign. It’s used within the context of happiness to show us that our happiness is not subjective or determined merely by our preferences or pleasures. Our happiness has a sovereign, which is truth and virtue. They pave a way of life for us, which is best displayed in the eight Beatitudes given by Jesus Christ.

Our happiness is not subjective or determined merely by our preferences or pleasures. It has a sovereign, which is truth and virtue.

The Beatitudes are summarized as living with a poverty of spirit, sorrow over evil, meekness, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and a willingness to suffer for the sake of what is right and good. While summarized in the Christian tradition, each of these tenets are found in the sacred literature of Judaism and Islam and in the philosophies of the East, since they reflect the deepest desires of the human heart for happiness.

Converting to this kingdom means leaving a life of selfishness and moving toward one of goodness and selfless service to others. In this context, conversion means a transformation, which is a willingness to change our focus away from ourselves and toward God and our neighbor.

Lopez: You mention the widow of Nain who was “consoled by the power of God.” You reflect: “This manifestation of his authority shows what God can do through those who are willing to endure the sufferings divine providence bestows on them. In the widow, the Lord saw purity, humility, and a sorrowful love that compelled him to draw near to her and grant her his consolation and peace.” You then write that “in our own lives, we may not be privy to such a dramatic episode and blessing, but we know this is the solace and happiness that God wishes to grant to all of us, if only we choose to genuinely grieve over our sins.” How can you be so confident in this? How do we reasonably choose to suffer and grieve over sins? It’s not exactly something encouraged in our culture —  to grieve over sins and accept or even desire suffering. It sounds “off” to most!

Father Kirby: Each of us is invited every day to look at our life and see how we can be a better person. This is countercultural in a world scarred by pride and defensiveness. And so, it takes humility to acknowledge out faults. But when it’s done, we’re able to recognize areas of self-centeredness and unkindness, mourn over them and any hurt they’ve caused, and then resolve to change our lives.

As we’re willing to grieve over our sins, we can deepen in virtue, grow in our relationships with others, have a freedom that comes with knowing that we’re not perfect, and experience true happiness in our lives.

These positive results can be observed in the lives of those who accept this invitation and grieve over their faults and weaknesses.

Lopez:  How can Gethsemane help someone pray through Lent and Holy Week?

Father Kirby: The Lord’s passion began in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the garden, he took on himself the sins of humanity and grieved over the darkness of our world. As the Lord offers this sacrifice for us, we are called to unite ourselves with him and mourn over evil.

During Lent, as people of good will, we can join ourselves to the Lord Jesus. As we see acts of violence and unkindness, poverty and illness, indifference and hatred, we can grieve over these evils with the Lord in the garden. We can petition him for the graces of fortitude and perseverance as our sorrow compels us to strive to be instruments of goodness to those around us.

Lopez: “As we pray, we find the virtue of hope growing within our souls.” How do you know this? How does that work?

When we pray, we enter into an awareness of eternity. Rather than any one event radically defining our entire life, each event becomes only one event — however good or evil — in an everlasting narrative.

Father Kirby: Whenever we pray, we enter into an awareness of eternity. As we try to understand our lives in this light, things that were once absolute or so concentrated become more broad and loose. Rather than any one event radically defining our entire life, each event becomes only one event — however good or evil — in an everlasting narrative. This narrative is enriched and carried by a growing knowledge of God’s goodness.

It is the perception of eternity and of divine favor that allows us to realize that things do get better and all things will turn out well. This is not an assertion of our own strengths or talents but an acceptance of things that are beyond us, especially in the light of God’s benevolence.

This is the birth of authentic hope. It can be experienced by anyone and is offered to all.

Lopez: You write that “we are hardwired for worship, happiness, and union with God.” Again, where does your confidence in this come from? And what does it have to do with the Sermon on the Mount?

Father Kirby: In life, we can know when things work and when they don’t. One easy test is to ask whether the results match the promise. This is also true in discerning the spiritual life. And so, when we choose to worship God, we can see a difference. Something connects, perhaps even to our own surprise. Suddenly, we want to hold the door open for someone, we give a smile, we do something — even if it’s small at first — that makes us more human. We feel better. We know that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. Again, something connects. Something makes us happy.

As we draw closer to God, and nurture a life of grace within ourselves, our actions grow and become more pronounced and decisive. For example, we want to be generous to the poor, spend more time with our family, or go the extra mile for a neighbor. As we begin to live this life, we see an inner logic to it. All the pieces begin to come together.

While this synthesis can be found in all major religions throughout the world, it is best summarized by Jesus Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. In particular, this summary of a happy life is given in the eight Beatitudes. And so, in the eight counsels of the Beatitudes, we find a full recap of what it means to love, to live for others, and to seek a life of true happiness.

Lopez: “We see in the life of Jesus Christ a shining exemplar of what it means to take up the mantle of solemn mourning for the sins and sorrows of humanity. While the Lord Jesus fulfilled this call throughout his life, it was concentrated and fulfilled in the paschal mystery; namely, his passion, death, and resurrection.”

Father Kirby: The paschal mystery is the heart of the Christian message. It’s the credibility of the Sermon on the Mount. As we seek to live the Beatitudes, we will be called to relive this mystery in our own lives. We do this by dying to our selfishness, narcissism, fear, and anxiety. By suffering our own small passion, we unite with the Lord. By dying to ourselves, we are one with him. And with the Lord in his passion and death, we will share in his Resurrection.

For example, I suffer the passion of my impatience. I die to it. And a resurrection can be given. A new life of patience is born within me.

Lopez: You write: “In order to be happy, we must live a life of mercy. No one can be happy while holding (while greedily storing up) resentment or anger in their hearts. We must let our scars and wounds go and release their burdens from our souls.” But what about justice?

Fr. Kirby: Authentic mercy always fulfills justice. If we show mercy without justice, it lacks substance. It’s more akin to irresponsibility rather than to mercy. With this in mind, it’s worth noting that mercy suspends active or passive vengeance. Vengeance is when we seek the destruction of someone else. And so, mercy removes vengeance, not the discipline that should rightly accompany the consequences of our actions.

And so, when I show mercy, I suspend vengeance. I might exercise discipline because I want the person to learn from his mistake and become a better person. I hold no grudge but will demand that the person grow from the offense. This is the Biblical understanding of mercy. Plainly put, mercy is when we give people the freedom and forum to change. And this oftentimes involves justice and discipline.

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