Purity of Heart
Finding Happiness is a follow-up to a book we studied together last year called Finding Sanctuary. As with that book, it draws on the Bible and the teachings that have been passed down through the monastic tradition, in order to offer some powerful wisdom and guidance for living as disciples of Christ today.
‘The simple idea running through the whole book is that happiness comes to us indirectly as the fruit of defeating the causes of our unhappiness. To take steps in this direction requires determination and a readiness to look at ourselves unflinchingly.’
What is happiness?
The book opens with Christopher Jamison exploring the idea of ‘happiness’. He notes that ‘happiness’ often means ‘feeling good’, but then happiness is a subjective opinion.
What if ‘feeling good’ compromises our integrity?
And is ‘happy’ really the same thing as pleasure?
From the studies that are done on happiness, and from his own experiences of working with a whole range of people, he observes that although we’re wealthier than ever in Britain, there is a general feeling of dissatisfaction. ‘Our society’s obsession with seeking happiness through consumption and pleasure often leads to the very opposite.’ (p.2).
So the problem is twofold:
- Our idea of happiness is probably skewed;
- Our remedies for unhappiness are often flawed.
Happiness is not the same as pleasure.
- There’s nothing wrong with pleasure – it’s a perfectly moral and desirable part of life.
- Yet such pleasures do not of themselves make us happy; in fact, Abbot Christopher argues, ‘they can only be enjoyed fully if one is already happy.’ (p.6).
The word ‘Happy’ originally had something to do with being lucky. If your crops grew, you were lucky, and that made you ‘happy’. But the ancient philosophers began to see through that, to the fact that there’s something more permanent to being happy, something less arbitrary than being lucky.
For Plato, happiness is about contemplating what is truly good and beautiful.
He believed our deepest desires are about seeking perfect goodness and beauty, when that desire is fulfilled, we find happiness. That’s also why we have to channel our desires very carefully with discipline, said Plato, because there’s a dark side to desires that come out in all sorts of misguided fantasies and obsessions.
For Aristotle, happiness is about living virtuously.
That takes work, forming good habits from good role models, says Aristotle, but it means we’ll be living in harmony with the world around us, and with what we’re really meant to be like as human beings.
For the early Christian monks, these two ideas were put together with the teaching of Jesus, and shaped how they understood what it means to find true happiness.
It’s not about feeling good, as our culture would tell us today.
It’s about knowing what is truly good, and living it out.
In his Rule, St Benedict described to his monks how, by living the way of life he offered to them, their hearts would overflow with the inexpressible delight of love. (RB, Prologue 46-47).
Some of the happiest people I’ve met are monks and nuns.
Abbot Christopher tells a moving story of a fellow monk who died a very ‘happy’ death, and it reminds me of St Paul’s later letters, especially to the Philippians, where he describes a joy, peace, and contentment even in the most trying circumstances.
I encourage you to take 5-10 minutes this week to think through your understanding of ‘happiness’.
- If you had to think of a time when you were most happy in your life, what was it like, why were you happy?
- Perhaps your idea has changed through your life, either through particular key experiences, or more gradually.
- What has influenced your idea of happiness?
- Do Abbot Christopher’s words change the way you think about happiness?
Freedom: Internal and External
In chapter 2, Abbot Christopher points out how strange it is that while there’s so much emphasis on external freedom in contemporary society, very little is said about interior freedom (p.36). Then he goes on to say something so well that I’ll quote him directly:
‘Those with interior struggles are often held where they are by sympathy and understanding that stop short of real help to move forwards. Anger and pride, gluttony and greed, these and other feelings are not categorised by our society as disabilities yet they do prevent people from living the lives they would really like to live, either because of the negative impact on the person experiencing them, or because they have a negative impact on other people.’ (p.37)
So a monastic environment specialises in reducing external freedoms in order to help people zoom in and concentrate on internal freedom, because what so often happens our is that our external freedoms become ends in themselves, and hindering us from finding internal freedom (finding happiness).
A typical example: ‘retail therapy’, which easily becomes a displacement activity for attending to our inner selves.
Out we go shopping: a new outfit; a new picture for the wall, redecorate, have my hair done a different way, a new CD to listen to, a new box set of DVDs to watch through – that will help! That will make us feel better! And it does…for a little while…
A challenge for us this week: let’s review our lives and see if there is any way we can reduce or adjust an ‘external freedom’ for the purpose of helping us attend to our inner freedom. (By the way, there’s a whole season in the church year’s especially for doing that, called ‘Lent’!)
So how do we go about working on this inner freedom? What are we aiming for?
When the early monks and nuns talked about inner freedom, they used the phrase, ‘purity of heart’.
- They were not talking about ‘innocence’ or squeaky clean.
- They were talking about but more like a hard-earned quality of somebody focused on leaving behind negative thoughts and embracing only the good.
- ‘Purity of heart’ is ‘when we have achieved this focus as a permanent state of mind.’
- ‘Purity of heart’ is when someone’s heart is at its full potential, when their capacity for love finds complete expression without any selfishness.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart,‘ said Jesus, ‘for they will see God.’ (Matt.5:8). Purity of heart was something Jesus said should characterise his people.
‘Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord or stand in his holy place?’ asks Psalm 24. ‘Those with clean hands and pure hearts…’
There’s something about having purity of heart that allows us to experience God more fully.
Getting in the way: ‘Eight Thoughts’
But it’s not easy to attain purity of heart.
So what gets in the way? What ruins it?
That’s what the early monks and nuns asked, and they identified a certain pattern of negative thoughts – eight in fact (known as the ‘Eight Thoughts’) which to varying degrees afflict everyone:
- Afflicting our bodies: Gluttony, lust. greed;
- Afflicting our hearts & minds: anger, sadness, acedia (i.e. ‘carelessness/ apathy’ – more on that next week).
- Afflicting our souls: vanity and pride.
These thoughts come and go, but the more we act on them,
- the stronger they become,
- The more they damage our sense of well-being,
- They throw our balance out,
- and lead us away from happiness.
So the key to finding happiness is to face these Eight Thoughts and overcome them. When Antony of Egypt, one of the earliest and greatest Christian monks, coined the phrase ‘wrestling with your demons’ – this is what he was talking about.
The rest of the book (and this series) is about those eight thoughts, so I won’t say any more about them yet.
But for now, I encourage you to make it your practice each day this week (perhaps at the start of the day when you wake up) to pray for purity of heart, remembering Matthew 5:8.
And open yourself to the work that God might do in your life through this series. For it might just be that in eight weeks time we’ll be happier people!
Sermon by James Pettit on Sunday 4th September 2016