The Pursuit of Happiness- God’s Way
Living the Beatitudes
Servais Pinckaers, O.P.
Reviewed by Karen M. Early
Scott Hahn recommended the book by Servais Pinckaers, O.P., a professor at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, to grasp the Sermon of the Mount as enumerated in the Gospel of Matthew. Fr. Servais is one of Hahn’s favorite moral theologians, which piqued my interest. I encountered Fr. Pinckaers earlier when I read his book on the Source of Christian Ethics. So, I wanted to explore this book.
Father Servais takes his impressive knowledge of theology and Scripture and aptly applies it to contemporary man. Instead of a book that could be dry and erudite, his style is fresh and captivating. In a short span of 202 pages, he helps the reader get to the heart of Jesus’ teaching.
The text opens with Father Servais situating the individual Beatitudes within the Sermon on the Mount in general. His text concludes with an overview of the Commentaries of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas on the Beatitudes. The reader is then equipped with a handy overview of each of the Beatitudes and a summary of all the Beatitudes taken together as a constellation under the watchful gaze Augustine and Aquinas.
The preface precisely states the thesis of the Sermon on the Mount, “There is no doubt about it. We all want to be happy. Everyone will agree with me, before the words are even out of my mouth. […] So let us see if we can find the best way to achieve it.” Father takes these words from Augustine, who himself borrows them from Aristotle, as the basis of his study: How man finds a true, satisfying happiness that fulfills and cannot be taken from him. Jesus’ answer to this universal longing is the Sermon on the Mount. This Sermon is the Magna Carta for the Christian life. It is the recipe, that if tried gives an abiding happiness. The problem is that the Beatitudes are left untried. The predominant reason for not implementing the Beatitudes is the desire to avoid suffering. The second common problem is a lack of understanding. Father Servais addresses both of these problems. He will state that the Sermon is not a dreamy idealistic affair, but rather has a clear view of reality, with happiness attained in the midst of the greatest tragedies. By understanding what the Lord is teaching, abiding happiness can be found. Following will be a brief synopsis of four chapters.
Chapter 1: The Sermon on the Mount
Though the Sermon on the Mount seems severe and impossible to follow at first glance, Augustine notes it perfectly contains Christ’s teaching. Aquinas proposes that the Sermon on the Mount replaces the Law of Moses in the New Covenant. Christ could certainly propose something more demanding as the Christian has the aid of the Sacraments in the New Covenant, but Christ would not command the impossible. A key sign of its applicability is the source of renewal the Beatitudes plays in the founding of new religious orders through the centuries. More importantly than the fruit of new orders, is the personal address to each heart. For the address to be fruitful in the hearts of its hearers, it must be realistic. Jesus addressed this Sermon to the crowd. We can put ourselves in the place of the little ones in the crowd to whom the Father wishes to reveal the mysteries of the Kingdom.
Chapter 2: The Beatitudes
Beatitude means blessing. God always speaks of his love and desire to give man happiness before issuing commands. “Promises of happiness therefore come first in God’s Word and designs.” Faith in God’s desire for happiness for us causes us to have hope in our lives. The greatest happiness for man is for him to participate in the very life of God. A creature sharing communion with his Creator, this is beatitude. This communion of creature to Creator defines the Kingdom of Heaven. It is a communion that both originates for man on earth, because he is formed from the earth, but will find its fulfillment in heaven as the Spirit has breathed life into man’s soul. Christ chooses poverty, suffering, and righteous persecution as the surest way to the Kingdom. Man could never have discovered this on his own initiative. For example, consider the first beatitude on poverty.
Chapter 3: Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit
Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This beatitude is first considered intertexually. The definition of poor is considered both from the perspective of the Old Testament with Isaiah 61:1 and from the New Testament with Lk 4:16-21. Poverty for the ancient writers was not only a matter of material want but was also one of moral and spiritual deprivation. The rich man could have an attitude of self-sufficiency thinking his barns were full of grain, not realizing that very night his life would be demanded of him. The poor man, who could not escape the fact of his want, must be dependent on God for his sustenance. It is a poverty associated with littleness and humility. In the Magnificat, Mary declares the Lord has regard for her “low estate” with His act of “filling the hungry with good things”.
Poverty takes on many forms: chronic sickness and illness, the lack of affection and love, the aged, and having ones ambitions for life crushed. Perhaps the most difficult poverty stems from error and sin. Fr. Pinckaers states, “It is in this deepest part of our being that the first Beatitude touches us and challenges us with a wholly personal question. Can we truly accept to be poor, to acknowledge our basic poverty in all honesty?” This assessment runs counter to our desire to be self-possessed, expressed in the desire to accumulate material goods. This is pride and Jesus is offering us a solution by living poverty personally.
Jesus’ birth and death was in poverty. He meets us in our poverty by His very deeds explained by His words. Poverty teaches us freedom of heart and shows us where our true riches lie. Jesus’ riches are found in His relationship with the Father. By humbling Himself, He offers us a relationship with His Father. (2 Cor 8:9) It is a love purified of possessiveness. This first Beatitude is addressed to all, because before God we are beggars.
Chapter 5 For Those Who Mourn
Mourning comes from the depths of one’s being when words cannot express the sentiment and only tears are possible. Fr. Servais frankly asks, “Let us be honest. Among all of the Beatitudes there is none like this one for flying in the face of common sense. No one believes that happiness is the lot of those who weep and mourn.” Again, he cuts through idealistic patter.
The Gospel is stating a common truth: suffering is humanity’s common portion. Jesus will show how this common lot is a blessing rather than a curse. The virtue of courage enables the good man to profit from suffering. Not in a Stoic manner but in a manner that follows Christ. Of all the ways He could have chosen to save man, Jesus chose suffering, and that ‘he learned obedience from it’.
The key is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. How many times in the midst of suffering have I wondered, “How could I bear this except by means of the Holy Spirit?” Those who suffer are “mysteriously drawn by Christ and His Spirit.” This is not Stoicism but a faith in Christ who conquered suffering and death by His Resurrection. Somehow, in the midst of trials, we too connect to this truth by the Spirit, and we not only endure the suffering, but sometimes actually see the benefit. This is the unbelievable transformation of suffering that can become a blessing.
I am very grateful for the suggestion of Fr. Servais’ book by Dr. Hahn. Along with Father’s book discussing Christian Ethics, this one on the Beatitudes can be read throughout the course of one’s life, finding ever new insights and applications.