A Catholic, liberal-arts college’s course of study, being an integrated one ordered to and by natural and supernatural wisdom, is an excellent apprenticeship into the contemplative life, which does not replace the active life, but only crowns it and makes it worthwhile…
Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day. — Matthew 6:24-34
G.K. Chesterton, considering his life in retrospect, said that he has always had the almost mystical conviction of the miracle in all that exists, and the rapture dwelling essentially within experience. Within this statement lie three separate assertions: that everything holds and conceal at bottom a mark of its divine origin; that one who catches a glimpse of it ‘sees’ that this and all things are ‘good’ beyond all comprehension; and that, seeing this, he is happy. Here in sum is the whole doctrine of the contemplation of earthly creation. —Josef Pieper
God and happiness are the same. Man desires the bonum universale, which is happiness.The essence of happiness consists in the act of the intellect. —St. Thomas Aquinas
Happy is the man who has everything he wants. —St. Augustine
In the Gospel, Jesus tells us not to worry, for God is in control, knows what we need, wants to give us what we need, and can do so infallibly. But He also tells us to seek first to do God’s will, for then, and only then, we will be given all that we really need, and more if that is beneficial to our souls. It would seem, then, that not worrying is not enough, for He chides us as “men of so little faith” and enjoins us to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first and foremost. In other words, Jesus is telling us to pray, not worry, and seek God, who, as St. Thomas Aquinas tell us, is not only perfectly happy Himself, but is Happiness itself.
God desires our happiness, and for this He has given us the infallible means to Him, prayer, and thus to happiness, for He is our happiness as well as His own. But many of us, perhaps all of us, worry, and worry too much. St. John tells us that perfect love casts out all fear, but alas, we are not perfectly in love with God, ourselves, and our neighbour. To love perfectly is a sheer gift from the Holy Spirit, pouring the love of the Father for Christ, Christ for His Father, and the love that is His own Spirit, proceeding from both Divine Persons, into our hearts. Therefore, it would seem, that that perfect fearlessness enabling us to cease our worry is truly a gift and fruit of the Holy Spirit, and so there is nothing we can effectively do to earn it or secure it for ourselves. After all, we pray to God at Mass for this gift, as we say “And free from all needless anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.” Moreover, prayer itself is the perhaps the greatest of the divine gifts we receive in this life, for we pray so that we may be able to pray, as “the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity. For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings.”
In addition to freedom from fear and prayer, it would seem that happiness, which is the fruit of union with God, both the cause and primary effect in our souls of perfect, anxiety-free love, is also a Divine gift. Plato, a pagan, came to something like this conclusion in the dialogue entitled Meno, where he argued that because there is no evidence of any effective teachers of virtue, virtue meaning to him the perfect excellence and harmony of soul by which the Good is attained, virtue cannot be taught, but can only be received as a gift of the gods.
So, here we have three divine gifts: prayer, freedom from fear, and happiness. A gift is something that cannot be earned, worked for, secured, grasped at, planned for, stolen, or otherwise produced by any act of ours—gifts are out of our reach. And these gifts are mutually related and integrated, such that one can’t remove one of them without losing the other two. If we pray, we will be free from fear. But if we are free from fear, it means we have experienced and have perfect love. If we have perfect love, Who is God Himself, we are happy, for we have God. If we are free from fear, we are enabled truly to pray in spirit and in truth, and if pray thus, we are put in touch with God, who is Happiness, and therefore we are happy. If we are happy, we will pray to God in thanksgiving and give glory to Him, which is to show Him perfect love, which liberates us from fear—and on and on it goes and a divine, eternal circle of love, happiness, and peace.
So, God gives us the gift of happiness, a happiness which we don’t deserve and can’t obtain by our own efforts. What’s left to say? What’s left to do?
Well, consider this: Have you ever wanted to give someone a gift, and you had the gift all ready to give, and you had someone to give it to, but you could not give it? Perhaps the reason is pride, or an overwrought sense of self-sufficiency and ingratitude, or disdain for the gift as useless and a waste of time, or disdain for the gift-giver—whatever the reason—the receiver won’t receive your gift. And how about if he can’t receive this gift, even if he wanted to, because of, say, an inability to appreciate it as a gift, or because of some intellectual, psychological, physical, emotional, spiritual, or financial indisposition?
In short, the giver of a gift is powerless to effect his desire of giving if the receiver will not or cannot receive it. And therein lies the power of the receiver, the power to receive or not receive a gift. We are all in this position, for existence itself is nothing but a gift, and so we ourselves are walking and talking gifts, the kind of gifts, however, that, paradoxically, can choose not to be a gift or a receiver of gifts.
So, we have some power here. There are two preconditions that I can see for receiving the three divine gifts of prayer, happiness, and freedom from worry that are in our power to obtain or create, that is, we can dispose ourselves to receiving these three gifts deliberately, and quite infallibly given the right circumstances. The first precondition is that we exert our wills strongly and consistently, in the right direction, for the right things, towards the right end. The second condition is that we discover who or what in which this end consists, and learn to know it intimately and profoundly. As not only the Catholic Church but also the pagan Aristotle teaches us, knowing this end, God, who is the bonum universal, or “the whole good,” is Happiness itself, is that in which our happiness consists. St. Thomas, following Aristotle, tells us that, “The essence of happiness consists in an act of the intellect.” And St. Augustine tells us that “Beatus est, qui habet omnia quae vult”—Happy is the man who has everything he wants! St. Thomas was once asked how one can become a saint, and he answered in three words, “By willing it.” Thus, to put it briefly, knowing the “whole good” and getting it, is happiness, and all that we have to do is will it, once we know what it is.
I said before that we can dispose ourselves to receive the gifts of happiness, prayer, and freedom from worry deliberately, and quite infallibly, given the right circumstances. The most obvious provision for the effective reception of the gifts of prayer, freedom from worry, and happiness in an educational setting is a robustly Catholic liberal arts education, a learning community in Christ, and for others, providing daily Mass celebrated reverently and beautifully, frequent confession, yearly retreats, festive celebration of feast days, a mandatory academic sequence in theology, and communal devotions. A Catholic college education, as well as a Catholic secondary education, should be a veritable guild in the art of prayer, the active participation in which, which is to say, willing it! can’t but enable one to become a prayer neophyte, journeyman, or master craftsman, depending on the intensity and consistency of one’s willing. Theology classes teach you to know about God as He is in Himself, and the liturgical and communal life provides the place to know, not just about God, but to know Him personally and intimately, as He is in Himself, and in His image in our neighbour, as well as to put this knowledge into effect by loving actions towards others. In short, a Catholic college’s liturgical life teaches the soul how to pray to God, her theology classes teach the mind to know God, and participation in its communal life ordered by rules and practices whose end is love of neighbour develops habits of virtue which dispose the will to love God. And virtue is its own reward, for it perfects the soul ensuing in the highest form of pleasure, what we call joy. Perfect love casts out all fear, and is the source of perfect happiness, so, with a community created by and centred on the Eucharist, it is easy to see how a college’s truly Catholic character provides the right circumstances to pray, not to worry, and to be happy.
A much less obvious preconditioning circumstance for happiness, prayer, and fearlessness, but perhaps, for that reason, more necessary to talk about, is a Catholic college’s liberal arts curriculum. How can studying philosophy, literature, history, mathematics, and science provoke God to bestow upon my soul divine gifts? The answer, I think, can be gleaned from three quotes, one from Josef Pieper, who in my opinion is the great teacher of St. Thomas for twenty-first-century man, combining extraordinary profundity and complexity with simplicity and clarity-and an all-pervading childlike joy and serenity. The other from St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor. Here they are:
G.K. Chesterton, considering his life in retrospect, said that he has always had the almost mystical conviction of the miracle in all that exists, and the rapture dwelling essentially within experience. Within this statement lie three separate assertions: that everything holds and conceal at bottom a mark of its divine origin; that one who catches a glimpse of it ‘sees’ that this and all things are ‘good’ beyond all comprehension; and that, seeing this, he is happy. Here in sum is the whole doctrine of the contemplation of earthly creation.
The essence of happiness consists in the act of the intellect.
If Chesterton and Aquinas are right, then created reality, in all its manifold aspects, is, in its core essence, a sign pointing to and containing in it, to a certain extent, God Himself, insofar as His infinite Being can be present to and imitated by finite, created beings. When we know this creation correctly, that is, as a plethora of signs not only pointing to God, but in some way embodying Him, for every creature’s imperfect and time-bound act of existence is nothing but a share in God’s uncreated, perfect, and eternal act of existence, an act of existence which is identical to His very being, we see that all of creation is good, including ourselves. Even the real evil we see in the world, in others, and in ourselves is seen to have its place, permitted by God for a greater good, with nothing escaping God’s redemptive power unless He permits it to escape it for the greater good of the universe, all men, and for His glory. And seeing all this, contemplating creation as it is, just looking at it in wonder and awe and affirming and loving its goodness as a participation in the goodness of God, is happiness, insofar as we can have it on earth. Finally, when we see that it’s “all good,” as well as true and beautiful, we have nothing to fear, for fear is the passion that ensues in the anticipation of an evil that one wishes to avoid. But when we know and love reality as it is, we do not wish to avoid any of it! We should, of course, fear and avoid sin, and fear God’s judgment for it, but sin is a non-reality, a turning away from Being itself. Furthermore, sin is nothing to worry about, since, through contemplation of Being and through Being to God, and in putting this contemplation into practice in works of Charity, we have caught a glimpse of the whole, and God’s plan for man to which this whole is ordered, and we have judged it to be good.
Now, a Catholic, liberal-arts college’s course of study, being an integrated one ordered to and by natural and supernatural wisdom, is an excellent apprenticeship into the contemplative life, which does not replace the active life, but only crowns it and makes it worthwhile. We should study the liberal arts, philosophy, and theology for four years, not because we place no value on the servile and useful arts and practical sciences, but precisely because we value them so highly. Because we take seriously our obligation to sanctify the world through work, and here we are only following Our Lord, we dare to say that there is a world that transcends the work-a-day-world to which the world of work and toil and use is ordered. Liberal education, besides being eminently useful in training the mind to think, the imagination to create, the lips to speak, the ears to hear, and the eyes to see, enabling the student to succeed in any field, prepares us for eternal life, for it gets us accustomed to seeing and knowing and loving as ends, not means; liberal education is all about giving our attention over to things because they are true and good and beautiful, which is to say, liberal education is practice for death, after which we will do nothing but see God, which is everything, and all that we want to do. We will, to use Augustine’s definition of happiness, get all that we want.
I conclude with the words of Simone Weil who tells us how to receive the gift of study and put it to right use:
All study, whether inherently useful or useless, must ultimately be prayer. Our purpose in life is to imitate that Being whose very nature is useless, for out of the contemplation of His own uselessness comes the entire universe of useful things, useful, according to His plan, as steps on a ladder to Him, the only reality that can truly be said to exist for its own sake: Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer. When we set out to do a piece of work, it is necessary to wish to do it correctly, because such a wish is indispensable in any true effort. Underlying this immediate objective, however, our deep purpose should aim solely at increasing the power of attention with a view to prayer; as, when we write, we draw the shape of the letter on paper, not with a view to the shape, but with a view to the idea we want to express. To make this the sole and exclusive purpose of our studies is the first condition to be observed if we are to put them to the right use.
So, pray, don’t worry, be happy—at College!
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