The Thought of God, the Stay of the Soul: Newman on Happiness (PPS 5.22)
Are you happy? This is a question we are asked frequently – and a question we ask others frequently. But what does this question really mean? Blessed John Henry Newman, in his sermon, “The Thought of God, the Stay of the Soul,” can help us put this question into its proper perspective, and thereby help us grasp whence true happiness comes.
When one inquires after another’s happiness, what is usually being asked is in reference to temporal well-being, that is, whether things are going well, or whether the person is feeling good, or whether the person is looking forward to some fun event. Daily things, fleeting things. But is this really all there is to happiness? Of course not! True happiness is something outside of these passing situations. Furthermore, true happiness can be found even if we’re experiencing hardships or sorrow. To appreciate more fully Newman’s teaching on happiness, it is helpful to recall the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s teaching on the subject. Newman, who studied Aristotle, would have been familiar with Aristotle’s famous work, the Nicomachean Ethics.
According to Aristotle, happiness is the ultimate purpose of human existence. In the Ethics, he gives his theory of happiness. Aristotle asks, “What is that end or goal for which we should direct all of our activities?” While temporal well-being has value, no fleeting thing can occupy the place of the chief good for which humanity should aim. To be an ultimate end, an act must be self-sufficient and final, “… that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else …” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1097a30-34). Aristotle claims that nearly everyone would agree that happiness is the end which meets all these requirements. This kind of happiness, in Greek, eudaimonia, is not fleeting, but, instead, is an end in itself.
Aristotle’s teaching does not contradict Christianity; on the contrary, it helps us to understand well what is developed more fully in Christian ethics. And this is what Blessed John Henry Newman considers in his sermon.
For Newman, “… the soul of man is made for the contemplation of its Maker; and that nothing short of that high contemplation is its happiness; that, whatever it may possess besides, it is unsatisfied till it is vouchsafed God’s presence, and lives in the light of it.” True lasting happiness, then, must come from God. Newman continues:
“Now, if this be so, here is at once a reason for saying that the thought of God, and nothing short of it, is the happiness of man; for though there is much besides to serve as subject of knowledge, or motive for action, or means of excitement, yet the affections require a something more vast and more enduring than anything created . . . He alone is sufficient for the heart who made it.”
This is what St. Augustine meant when he wrote in the Confessions, “Thou has made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
Newman agrees fully: “But there is another reason why God alone is the happiness of our souls . . . the contemplation of Him, and nothing but it, is able fully to open and relieve the mind, to unlock, occupy, and fix our affections. We may indeed love things created with great intenseness, but such affection, when disjoined from the love of the Creator, is like a stream running in a narrow channel, impetuous, vehement, turbid. The heart runs out, as it were, only at one door; it is not an expanding of the whole man.”
So how does this contemplation of God bring about lasting happiness? We must first let God enter into our heart.
“Created natures cannot open us … None but the presence of our Maker can enter us; for to none besides can the whole heart in all its thoughts and feelings be unlocked and subjected.”
Happiness, lasting happiness, comes only from the contemplation of God, who knows and loves us perfectly, and knows even the very number of hairs on our head. Let us open our hearts to Him, ask Him to dwell within us, to contemplate Him in His perfection. And when our hearts are sad, or we are experiencing illness or loss, when we are troubled, when happiness seems far away, let us remember this beautiful prayer of St. Bonaventure: “May you alone be ever my hope, my entire assurance, my riches, my delight, my pleasure, my joy, my rest and tranquility … in whom may my mind and my heart be fixed and firm and rooted immovably hence forth and for ever. Amen.”