Beauty and Joy of the Christian Life
by Laura Berquist

Aristotle tells us that we are made for happiness. He spends the whole of his work on ethics leading us to understand that happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue. (Nicomachean Ethics, Ch. 13). He explains that activity is better than passivity, that a man is happier when he acts than when he is sleeping.  He shows that activities of the soul are more noble and enduring, and more truly said to be human, than activities of the body, as they are characteristic of what makes a man a man, rather than one of the lower animals. We are happier acting according to what characterizes us as men, that is acting reasonably, than if we act unreasonably. He shows that it is better to use one’s human powers well, and that this is what we call virtue, namely the right use of our highest powers. 

So as men, following upon our nature, if we use the best and highest part of our self, our reason, well, and use it to think about the best, and highest objects, we will be happy.  Happiness is found, most of all, in the contemplation of the highest and best objects.

Then he says” …such a life [seems] too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him; …. [For] If reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life. But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything.” (Book X, Ch. 7)

Remember, here he is speaking of natural happiness. One wonders what he would say about the end we have promised to us! For by faith we know that our final end, and complete happiness, consists in the union with God where His own form is received into our intellect and it is that whereby we see Him ‘face to face’, not through an intermediate form, but directly.

St. Thomas, in the Summa II-IIae, III, 8, says, “For perfect happiness the intellect needs to reach the very Essence of the First Cause. And thus it will have its perfection through union with God as with that object, in which alone man's happiness consists” and in the Supplement, 92, corpus, he says, “When therefore intellectual light is received into the soul, together with the indwelling Divine essence, though they are not received in the same way, the Divine essence will be to the intellect as form to matter: and that this suffices for the intellect to be able to see the Divine essence by the Divine essence itself may be shown as follows…. since the Divine essence is pure act, it will be possible for it to be the form whereby the intellect understands: and this will be the beatific vision.”

This is incredible. We will be united with the essence of God, contemplating Him, directly. We will arrive at the state defined by Aristotle as happiness, but in a degree which Aristotle could not even imagine.

That is what we were made for from the beginning. Our first parents were created in grace, and therefore had what was necessary to live life here in the right way to eventually live with God in heaven, in this happiness He intended for us. But in Adam we sinned, and so we lost that grace, and lost the access we had had to the Vision of God.

But it has been restored to us! We have been redeemed. As we say in the Exultet, “O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”   This restoration, however, came at a great price. We were redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, by His death on the Cross. We have been washed in the blood of the lamb, and thus restored to grace and to the Vision of God in Eternity.  

This is the good news! We are redeemed, our longing for God is able to be fulfilled. This is not just something that is done to or for us, but something that we are called to participate in. St. Peter Chrysologus, commenting on a text in St Paul, says, “Listen to the Lord's appeal: In me, I want you to see your own body, your members, your heart, your bones, your blood. You may fear what is divine, but why not love what is human? You may run away from me as the Lord, but why not run to me as your father? Perhaps you are filled with shame for causing my bitter passion. Do not be afraid. This cross inflicts a mortal injury, not on me, but on death. These nails no longer pain me, but only deepen your love for me. I do not cry out because of these wounds, but through them I draw you into my heart. My body was stretched on the cross as a symbol, not of how much I suffered, but of my all-embracing love. I count it no less to shed my blood: it is the price I have paid for your ransom. Come, then, return to me and learn to know me as your father, who repays good for evil, love for injury, and boundless charity for piercing wounds.”

St. Peter goes on, “Listen now to what the Apostle urges us to do. I appeal to you, he says, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice. By this exhortation of his, Paul has raised all men to priestly status.” He explains, “God desires not death, but faith; God thirsts not for blood, but for self-surrender; God is appeased not by slaughter, but by the offering of your free will.”

How do we do this? Because clearly, this is what we want to do. We want to participate in Christ’s sacrifice so that we can participate in the life He is offering us. And the interesting thing about this is that even in this life, this is what will make us happy.

Since God made us for happiness, that is what He wants for us. Every rule he gives us, every truth we contemplate, every virtue we attain is ordered to our happiness. God wants us to be happy, and He knows how we need to live to be happy. He has been training us in that knowledge throughout our lives.

A friend once put it to me this way. When you buy a new car you get an owner's manual. You can choose to read the manual and learn where the oil goes and how often it needs to be changed, where the gas goes, and how large the gas tank is, and how to change the tires. Or you can throw the manual away and experiment. Over time you may learn where the gas should be put, and how large the the tank is, where the oil goes and how often it needs to be changed, but before you figure that out you may do some real and lasting damage to the car and you are quite likely to run out of gas at some point. The lesson is that it pays to read the manual, and to implement the directions given there. The manual was written by those who put the car together in the first place. They know the car and what is needed to make it run well.

As Christian parents and educators we are called to pass on to those we teach this good news and how to live according to it. We want to make it clear that God made us. He knows and loves us. He knows what we need to do to be happy, both here and in the next life.

Recently I was teaching a Health course for parents. We were all struck with this quote from Casti Conubii. " God wishes men to be born not only that they should live and fill the earth, but much more that they may be worshippers of God, that they may know Him and love Him and finally enjoy Him forever in heaven; and this end, since man is raised by God in a marvelous way to the supernatural order, surpasses all that eye hath seen, and ear heard and all that hath entered into the heart of man. ....Christian parents must also understand that they are ....to educate...children who are to become members of the Church of Christ, to raise up fellow-citizens of the Saints, and members of God's household..."  (Casti Connubii, 12-13, Pius XI, emphasis mine)

What a charge we have been given!  Our job, as Christian parents, is to participate in God's saving work as it is carried out in our families.  We have a work that is ordered to eternity. Those of us who homeschool do so because we think homeschooling is especially effective in this work. It seems obvious that if our goal is to raise up children who will share eternal life with us, and that this is specifically what God wants us to do in our families, then anything that furthers that goal is good. For those of us here who are not homeschooling, or who are not parents, it is still the case that we are all called to evangelize, to participate in this saving work that has eternal consequences. At the moment, though, I am speaking particularly to parents.  

Society often does not see what we do as parents, particularly homeschooling parents, as valuable. Society sees talented women burying themselves at home, narrowing the sphere of their influence,  giving up fulfilling and important careers, giving up power and success, to perform unimportant, largely menial tasks.  Even though education is regarded as important, to educate these four, or six, or even 12 children, is pretty small potatoes compared to what we might have done with our lives. "Think of those you could have influenced!" we are told. Sometimes we even wonder ourselves about the value of what we do.

I enjoyed homeschooling my children, so often my first response to such thoughts and attitudes has been along the lines of, "I had fun with my children. I looked forward to spending time with them and getting to know them and watching them develop." I have, on occasion, been told that was very selfish. It was about what I enjoyed, not about using my talents or about what was best for the children. Then, of course, I replied that though I enjoyed it (on the whole, mind you, not every single moment of every single day), I did it primarily because I thought it was better for my children.  I thought then and I think now that children are better formed socially, morally, and religiously in our homes than anywhere else they could be in those most important formative years.  I think this fits with the message of Casti Connubii, but it can be fleshed out, and reflected upon. There are days that are discouraging for the homeschooling mom, and indeed for any mom. There are days when she thinks, too, that what she is doing is not as rewarding as other things she might do with her time. 

One of my good friends, some years ago, said that it took her years to stop thinking about homeschooling, or parenthood, as primarily directed to her. She had always put it to herself this way, "God is calling me to do this hard but important job." She thought of it as about her.  Then she said as she was graduating her last child from her homeschool it suddenly hit her that though God had called her to this important but difficult job, it was truer to say that He had called her children to this work. He had called them to come out of the world, to be formed in His love, so that they could better serve Him and attain eternal life. It was primarily about them, not her.  She was integral to the work, and of course, she was formed by it as well as her children, but the work wasn't about her.

That insight stayed with me because I think it is in a very profound way true. That is not to say that God is not calling us to teach our children, He clearly is, but He is calling us because He is forming them. They are the work to which all of the activity is ordered. It is by doing this work that we are participating in His sacrifice, and offering our free wills. We participate for His glory and their salvation.

It is like the master craftsmen who together built the great cathedrals. What are their names? What were their lives like? We don't know, but we see the magnificent buildings they made.  We see the work that they accomplished, not for their glory but for God's glory.

There is a lovely little story about a master sculptor who was busily at work in one of those cathedrals,  carving a little bird singing to God's glory. The carving was on a beam, high up in the church, that would never be seen by anyone on the ground. And how many people clamber up into the beams of the Cathedral? Another workman asked him, "Why are you wasting your time and talent making that carving? No one will ever see it." The sculptor answered,  "God will see."

This is what we are doing  when we raise our children, when we give our lives to that work. We are building cathedrals in our homes, not for our glory but for God's glory, not to use our talents to achieve a work that will garner recognition for us, but to achieve a work that He has given us.  Only He will see and fully appreciate what we have done.  This is good, because, as my friend discovered, this work really isn't about us, though we are involved. I am reminded of Mary's Magnificat.

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid;
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
Because He who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is His name;
And His mercy is from generation to generation
on those who fear Him.
He has shown might with His arm,
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty.
He has given help to Israel, his servant, mindful of His mercy
Even as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.

This is a hymn of praise. Mary is praising  the great work that God has done. She is involved in this work, but it is most definitely not about her, but about Him.  She starts out by saying that her soul magnifies, or focuses on, or announces the greatness of, the Lord. That is her theme.  She is rejoicing in her savior, not in her position. She is blessed, because He has blessed her in allowing her participation in His work.  He has done great things, for her and for the world, He is holy, He is merciful, He is mighty and scatters the proud. His might lifts up the lowly, and gives good things to those who want them, while those who think themselves rich without Him get nothing. He is the champion of those who declare fealty. He keeps His promises.   That is her song.

Though we are often not as perfectly aware as Mary was that our work is not our work, but a participation in His work, even we have a sense of it. A lady once said that her son invited a friend home from university for a special dinner.  He said something like, "Oh, come to our house for this lovely dinner. It's so much fun and very relaxing. We get to rest and eat; what could be better!"  The lady's first thought when she overheard him was, "Relaxing? I don't think so. Great, I get up at the crack of dawn to get the turkey ready; I spend all day running around the kitchen to make the dinner. What does my son see? A relaxing day and lots of food! What he obviously doesn't see is me. I'm the invisible person!" But she said that her second thought was better. She realized that she didn't want him saying, "Come to my house and watch my mom work. She is amazing and we can marvel at her." In fact, she wanted him and her whole family to rejoice in her work, but not as her work. She wanted them to love the dinner and have a great time together.  She realized she had succeeded in what she really wanted when he said to his friend, "You will love the day at my house." It was actually a greater compliment than almost anything else he could have said, because it showed that she had achieved her goal, which was something entirely other than praise for herself. 

Our work is just not about us, even when we, like Mary, are an integral part of achieving the plan. I often think when I hear the story of the rich young man that he asked the wrong questions. He was thinking about himself, and bargaining. He was not willing, as was Mary, to give himself wholly to the work he was called to.  Remember?  He asks, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" Right away one hears at least the suggestion that he wants to buy his way in with the minimal expenditure.  What good deed must I do, to get what I want? When Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, his response is another question, "Which?" as in "Which one?" He wants to gain eternal life, but he wants to know what the minimum is that must be done.  And in fact, when Jesus tells him he must give up everything he has and come follow Him, the rich young man can't do it.  (Mt. 19:16-22) We have to be willing to give up everything for the sake of the work God has called us to, even, and perhaps especially, recognition. It's not a bargain you make with God, and an attempt to see what the minimum is. It's a call from God to give up yourself.  That is what we are being asked to do. To give up ourselves, to make a free offering of ourselves, for the sake of this great work of bringing souls to God.

Now, it's good for people to thank those who work for them, and our children should, sometimes at least, tell us that they have noticed our hard work and thank us for it. It's better for the children that they do so. But my point here is that it's better for us to think about the work we are called to and, like Mary, to rejoice in it, not requiring our part in the work to be front and center. It's so much better to do what we do than to be in a worldly position where we are following a career path, and leave our cathedrals to be built by someone else. 

That brings to my mind the laborers in the vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16). I know what usually catches our attention in this parable is the question of fairness. It seems, at first, that the men who worked longer hours should have been paid more. One's attention has to be drawn to the fact that those men who started early in the day received the going rate, and it was the rate that they agreed to. it was perfectly just.  The fact that the owner was merciful to the poor men who weren't hired early in the day, and kindly gave them a day's wages, is generous, not unjust.  This is something I have gone over with my children and my students many times.  Usually, after a bit they say, ok, it's not unfair. But they think the men who were hired late were better off.  I wonder about that.

Who was better off, really? The men who were hired early and worked for their wage, earning what they gained, or the men who weren't deemed worthy of hire, spent their day hoping someone would hire them, seeing the day move past and thinking about how they weren't going to earn enough?  They were saved through the generosity of the owner, and I bet they were really grateful, and I am sure it was clear to them that they were not the source of their goods, but I think the first group was better off in another way.  It is generally better to do constructive work, to fully  participate in the end that is achieved, than to sit idle, even if the generosity ultimately achieves the end for you.

It's a gift from God that we are allowed to participate in the education and formation of our children. It's hard work, but it is satisfying work, and it's a work that uses all of the talents we have been given. We are able to be fully engaged in this work, because we have to be always aware of those cathedrals we are building, so that they will be well formed. Each individual brick has to be in the right place and it has to be smoothed out and mortared in at the right time. We can't say to ourselves, "Well, time for a break! I'll get back to this work of listening to the children, and guiding the children, and pointing out to the children what is most important later on, when I feel like it." Later on, when I feel like it, is often too late.  You see that what God wants from us is everything, just like He wanted everything from the rich young man.  But He wants everything from us, so that He can give us everything we want.  We have to let go of ourselves in the work, so that the work can be truly and rightly done. 

This is hard to do. Like Gideon (Judges 6-8), we have been called to do a task that is beyond us.  Gideon responds to the angel who just said to him, ""The Lord is with you, you mighty man of valor," by saying, "Pray, sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this befallen us? And where are all his wonderful deeds which our fathers recounted to us, saying, 'Did not the lord bring us up from Egypt" but now the Lord has cast us off and given us into the hand of Midian?" I love the angel's response, " Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?" In other words, stop complaining and looking for help elsewhere. Get to work!

Gideon's next response sure sounds to me like what I often tell the Lord.  He says, " Pray, Lord, how can I deliver Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family." He is telling the Lord that the work he has been given is beyond him. And the Lord says to him, "But I will be with you, and you shall smite the Midianites as one man." When Gideon then follows the call of God and pulls down the first altar of Baal, "the Spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon". Eventually "Midian was subdued before the people of Israel and they (the Midianites) lifted up their heads no more." We have to remember that if we will take up the work God has given us, and renounce ourselves, giving all that we are to God, He will work in and with us to achieve our goals.

When we have children, those goals are realized in our children. There was once a group of young women who were longtime friends. One of them was married with many little children, but the others in the group had not yet reached that point, and some of them weren't planning on that path in life at all. They got together periodically, to talk about what they had been doing, and what their plans for the future were. The young mom, whose name was Megan, began to feel rather out of place in this group, and wondered if she should bother to keep going to their lunches.  Megan would listen to everyone talking about their career advances and where they had been traveling recently, and think about her untidy home, with the cereal spilled on the floor, and the piles of laundry, and the fact that her only trips were trips to the grocery store.  At one particular lunch, where a woman who had once been close to Megan was talking about her trip to France and the great cathedrals she had seen, Megan decided this was the last lunch. The whole group was talking about how great the cathedrals were, and how much they all admired the work that had been done, and when each was going to go herself to see the great cathedrals of Europe. Megan said to herself that she lived in a different world, and though she would like to see cathedrals she knew she was only going to see a messy house and yard.  Then, as they were leaving, Megan's friend slipped a present into her hands. She was surprised, and wondered why she had been singled out.

When Megan got home, she opened her present. It was a book about the cathedrals of Europe, and on the flyleaf her friend had written "To Megan, who is building cathedrals in her home".  Megan's friend knew who was doing the important work. 

We stay at home with our children, and homeschool them, because we want to build cathedrals for God. This work is not about us, it's about Him and about them. And yet, in a surprising twist, it turns out that it is the way for each of us to achieve true and lasting, in fact, eternal,  success. Society is wrong in seeing the stay at home, homeschooling mom as burying her talents. In fact she is using all her talents in a great and glorious work dedicated to God.

This is how we parents and educators are participating in the saving work of Jesus Christ. This is how we find happiness in this life and prepare for the happiness of the next life. This is the beauty and joy of the Christian life.

Our happy lives, lived as practicing Catholics, can transform the world. Together we will witness to the truth, and lead people to it by faithful and happy obedience to the Church and to Christ. That you love God and work for Him, that you are honest and faithful, that you are doing His will and not yours, will make you visibly happy. Your way of dealing with suffering (and most of us will have some suffering in our lives) will speak volumes. The teaching that you do, the intelligible presentation of the truth taught by the Church and the guidance She gives that you pass on to others will give you joy and happiness here, and inexpressible joy and happiness in eternal life.