Hope in the Lord — ‘Let’s Shake On It!’ — The Priest Assembly’s quest for happiness

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz

Usually on reaching some agreement at the end of a discussion or debate, one party turns to the other, extends a right hand and says, “Let’s shake on it.” This is a common way to show agreement and give emphasis to good faith. I recall that the roots of this ritual gesture was an open hand, without any weapon, showing good intent. I recently read that one of the earliest depictions of a handshake is found in a ninth century B.C. relief, which shows the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III pressing the flesh with a Babylonian ruler to seal an alliance. People seek gestures to accompany words.

So, to conclude the four day Presbyteral Assembly at Saint Meinrad last week, I turned to Father Pablo Hernandez and shook his hand — following the advice of our instructors for the week. At the same time, each priest in the room did the same with the priest next to him. 

The workshop, conducted by the Spitzer Center for Visionary Leadership, revolved around studying and recognizing the four levels of happiness, ancient formulations that extend back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the 4th century BC. The seminar began with a keynote from Bishop Ronald Gainer, formerly Bishop of Lexington and now Bishop of Harrisburg. He serves as the episcopal moderator for the Spitzer Center and set the stage well.

While we studied happiness, one might appropriately identify the theme by other names: purpose, desire, destiny, legacy.

In case you are wondering about those four levels of happiness, they are somewhat evident but still elusive in daily practice. You also might speak of these levels as the levels of desire that God has placed in each of us. These levels provide the framework for a daily act of diligence and require a healthy dose of God’s grace to order the desires correctly to achieve the optimal results.

The first level is immediate gratification. Whether that yearning for ice cream, a life on easy street or simply a drink of water, this is the most basic level. Meant to ensure survival but not as an ultimate destination, this level, if unchecked, becomes the dwelling place of the hedonist – one concerned only for personal pleasure. Being stuck on this level is the ground for deadly addictions.

The second level – that of ego achievement – puts the focus on competition and winning. Whether in a sporting arena or that never-ending quest for honors and recognition, this level brings a sense of confidence to each person. If it is the final destination for a person, however, a shallow attention-seeking egoist is created. Getting stuck on this level brings a different sort of addiction – a life of endless competition to be “number one.”

The third level of happiness is that of contributing. Here we find the time for generous friendships, for a sense of the common good that motivates unselfish acts and for a movement out of the ego. Where the first two levels of desire for happiness move the person inward, this call to contribute to the world transforms the attention away from the person to focus on others. It is a mark of a mature person to seek the good of another without seeking one’s own gain. It is also the basis for deep friendships and successful marriages as well as great acts of philanthropy. 

That final level, called the transcendent, is the one in which we seek to discover the unconditional, albeit imperfectly in this world. For the philosopher, it is unconditional beauty, truth, goodness and unity. For the deeply religious, it is the presence of God. This journey, pure and unconditional, is the pathway of the saint.

In the first lines of his famous classic, “The Confessions,” St. Augustine speaks of this desire for happiness as relentless and never satisfying in this world. He is worth quoting: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” That fourth and final level of happiness is the basis of the endless search engine called the human person. Our hearts desire not just imperfect beauty around our world but perfect or unconditional beauty.  The same is true for goodness or truth. This is a relentless desire that only the source of all beauty and truth and goodness can achieve. Thus, St. Augustine rightly speaks to God that “… our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”

While worthy, the third level of happiness in which we contribute to others also can go awry when we seek the perfect and unconditional love in another human being or another worthwhile enterprise in this world. Level three can never be a substitute for level four.

It may be surprising to learn that the 1994 “Catechism of the Catholic Church” begins its treatment of our beliefs in chapter one with these words: “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (CCC, n. 27).

Finally, what was the purpose of the handshake? It was to affirm the trust necessary to help each other pursue all four levels of happiness in the right order by giving each other the benefit of the doubt, by emphasizing the Good News even in the midst of confronting difficulties and by trusting in God’s grace to lead us. This gesture was a fitting conclusion to a fruitful four days. Every family, including the family of the archdiocesan priests, deserves to make this pledge and seal it with a handshake.

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