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Posted September 30, 2009

Happiness and Hell

by Pat Brennan

I talked to a priest from the Archdiocese of Chicago recently. He spoke from a dark mood, a dark place. He said, "Pat, our day is over. We were formed as Vatican II priests." I share this priest's view that the vision of Vatican II is fading and a pre-Vatican II spirit has begun to emerge among younger clergy, newly appointed bishops, and some laity. Vatican II attempted to reclaim some of the spirit and practice of the early Christian community when Christianity was a young, vibrant, livable spirituality.

Over the years, the centrality of Jesus, and that early Christian community spirit, was buried under clericalism and religious institutionalism. Vatican II attempted to penetrate centuries of theological debris to discover more the kerygma - the message of Jesus, and the lifestyle of the early church. I have spoken and written many times concurring with this priest's observation that what prevails in the Church now is a kind of restorationism - an attempt to go back to the traditionalistic church many of us grew up in, rather than the truly traditional church that Vatican II recovered.

I was in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles this week preaching a parish mission. The pastor, who is four years older than I, concurred with the Chicago priest and my observations. He said, "Our day is over." It seems like the spirit of Vatican II only lasted the duration of our priesthoods, and now people are working to dismantle the Vatican II Church.

The priest's comments, as well as those of the Los Angeles pastor, made me think of an article I read recently in the National Catholic Reporter. It told the story of the bishop of Tulsa, Oklahoma, returning to the practice of saying Mass with his back to the people, and his encouragement to his priests to do the same. He referred to Vatican II style liturgy as entertainment, and presiding at the liturgy facing the people, as a stage-like theatrical experience.

I make these observations as a way of getting into the scripture readings this weekend. The first reading from the Book of Numbers, chapter eleven, and the gospel from Mark, chapter nine, have similar themes. In the Numbers passage, the Spirit of God has come upon more people than just Moses to help Moses with leadership of the people. Joshua and others are troubled that the Spirit has been given to many people. There is almost exclusivity in the reaction of Joshua and his colleagues. God's Spirit is to be reserved, to and for, only a very few.

Similarly, in the gospel, John is troubled. Someone is driving out demons in the name of Jesus, though this person is not obviously a disciple, one who travels with Jesus. Both Moses and Jesus reprimand people who are trying to make their religious movement an exclusive experience. Moses says, "Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets." A prophet is not someone who predicts the future. A prophet is someone who has deep experiences of the here and now and speaks God's truth about the here and now. Moses wishes that more people were prophets.

Jesus has to remind John and others that the Reign of God is a broad concept and experience that is not limited by religious exclusivity. Jesus did not come to initiate a religious institution that includes some and excludes others. He came, rather, to help with the emergence of the Reign of God. The Reign of God is a vision of life, and a way of life. It is God-centered, seeks to do what is discerned as God's will, and is about universal communion and connections. Jesus's experience of the Reign of God, Jesus's understanding of the Reign of God, is not that only a few belong and are saved; but rather, the entire human family, ideally, is to be connected as brothers and sisters, as family, with God at the center of our lives. Some of the sin of religion, Christian and other denominations, is that religion is sometimes used to help some people feel better or superior to others. Religion is sometimes used to separate people rather than to connect people.

Within Catholicism, there are certain factions of people that are almost Gnostic in nature. They believe that their ideology and their devotional practices are the truth. They sit in judgment about others that think differently, or perhaps behave differently, relative to faith. They judge themselves to be superior, better than, others. I think it is clear that Jesus does not endorse such spiritual arrogance and separatism.

As we passed through the teen years, we all hung out in friendship groups. Many of us were sensitive to the existence of cliques. Cliques, and often friendship groups, can become exclusive and mean-spirited. People in a clique sometimes use the group to prove their superiority over others. The Book of Numbers and Mark give witness that religion can become a clerical, hierarchical, institutional clique.

If the Book of Numbers and the gospel of Mark warn us about the possible mistaken notions that organized religion can fall into, the reading from the letter of James warns against parallel mistaken notions. James is addressing a group of early Christians who have become taken up with the accumulations of material possessions and their own pleasure. In addition to stockpiling resources for themselves, these errant early Christians unjustly cheated poor people of resources that were rightfully theirs. James counters with statements that speak of the transitory character of life here on earth. He also reminds them of the end of their own personal lives and the end of time. He challenges his readers to grow rich in values, attitudes, and behaviors that will prepare them for that end.

I have been recommending a new book by Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, entitled Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Diener and his son have done extensive research, cross culturally, into the nature of happiness. They describe happiness as including optimism and joy, feelings of calm and harmony, and other positive emotions. Happy people pay attention to the positive, interpret things positively, and live off of happy memories. The authors describe happiness as a process, more than a destination. Countering the vision of the people that James writes to, they found in the research that material wealth and resources do not bring people happiness. They say that, in their experience, the pursuit of materialism actually blocks people from paying attention to other important realities that they say constitute psychological wealth. Psychological wealth involves acquiring a portfolio of physical health, mental health, spirituality, material sufficiency, life satisfaction, close relationships, meaningful work, and contributing to the lives of others. The book encourages people to work on this portfolio of psychological wealth.

I would like to expand on the notion of psychological wealth, and speak of both psychological andspiritual wealth. The Dieners include spirituality as one of the elements of psychological wealth. Much of the literature coming out of the positive psychology movement underscores the need that people have for spirituality.

Spirituality includes daily conscious contact with the presence and Spirit of God. Spiritual wealth includes an active prayer life, membership in a faith community, and smaller faith communities, heartfelt worship, being in service to others in ministry, and an awareness of and involvement in works of mercy and justice. Often, those who pursue happiness, experience happiness eluding them, because they define happiness in terms of accumulation of material resources. Happiness happens when we lose ourselves in the portfolio of psychological and spiritual wealth.

As Jesus warns against the dangers of, what I would call, exclusive institutionalized, organized relation, he mentions the notion of Gehenna three times. Gehenna is a Jewish apocalyptic image that Jesus was aware of that originally referred to a place called the Valley of Hinnom, a place southwest of Jerusalem, where idolatrous child sacrifice was engaged in. The notion of Gehenna developed in Jewish thought to become a place of fiery punishment that some people went to after death. There they were punished for sins they had not repented from. Jesus seems to indicate some kind of belief in a place of punishment after death.

In speaking of heaven and hell, I have always tried to give a realistic, existential explanation of them. Heaven and hell are not places that God sends or condemns us to. Heaven and hell are lifestyles that we begin here on earth. A heaven lifestyle is characterized by the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that Jesus revealed in his Reign of God teaching and preaching. A hell lifestyle is the chosen isolation, divisiveness, and alienation that we experience in and through sin. This divisiveness and alienation can be found in the mistaken notions of religion we began talking about, and the materialistic lifestyle that some people choose that really misses the mark in life. The scriptures this week, on both a religious plain and a secular plain, call us to be cautious about missing the mark in life. We all suffer from mistaken notions that are in need of reeducation, conversion, and spiritual transformation.