There’s something that might surprise a lot of people, including informed life-long committed Catholics, that I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately. It’s the idea that the moral life, as understood in the Christian tradition (right up until the late medieval and early modern period), gave great emphasis to the notion of happiness. And yet for many reasons since that time this idea has somehow been lost. We’re now much less likely to see our lives as Christians in terms of happiness, and instead tend to think first about what the rules for our lives might be.
I’m not suggesting here for one moment that things like the commandments, or the natural law aren’t important. They are extremely important. But what has been lost to an extent, perhaps, is the sense of what those things are actually for. We might say we’ve forgotten how to use what God has given us in the moral teaching of the Church as signposts; which point to the possibility of happiness in this life, which reaches its fulfilment in the next.
If this is the case, then today’s Gospel gives us a timely and famous reminder of the possibility of happiness, of beatitude, coming right from Our Lord himself. In the beatitudes we’re given a set of paradoxes, where each one of them issues a challenge to us. The challenge is that they turn any ideas that we might have about what it means to be blessed, to be happy, upside-down and inside out. Each of them speaks of a situation or a disposition which we might not associate with flourishing and happiness, and shows us that in and through those things by God’s grace we might have some taste of the kingdom of God which Christ came to bring. And they also show some of the features of discipleship that we will all encounter.
The wonderful thing about the beatitudes is that they teach us how no-one needs to think that the Christian life is not for them. It’s not a manifesto for the people who've already made it. On the mount, Jesus is teaching people who are neophytes - a crowd of all sorts who’ve come to listen to what he has to say. A common side effect of our confusion about what moral teaching is for is thinking that living the life of faith is just for those people who already have the self-discipline and the strength of character to be good and happy people. Not so. Regardless of where we may feel we’re at in this moment, we should remember that fulfilment in God is what we were created for, and is at the very heart of our desires and longings. And these can start to shape and direct our lives towards him, when we accept the promptings of his grace, and take up the challenge of discipleship. The journey to a happy life can start right now this minute; there’s no reason to delay!
And in case we needed more encouragement - and let’s face it- most of us do; then we need only think about today’s great solemnity of All Saints. It’s a day when we’re reminded that happiness, beatitude isn’t just an ideal, but a real possibility for us. And that’s because we know that there are people just like us who have responded to that grace to take up the challenge of discipleship, and attained beatitude with the vision of God in heaven. A crowd of all sorts, people as diverse as anyone could imagine, who have grown through grace, and walked with God towards a happy life; a life which now stretches out into eternity.
And yet more encouragement - since we can never have too much - they’re not just signs to us of the possibility of beatitude. They’re interceding for us, supporting us with their prayers as we journey towards God. They’re asking God to bring to fulfilment in us what he brought to fulfilment in them.