Twenty-five centuries ago, Aristotle wrote a book called Nicomachean Ethics, in which he concluded that the ultimate goal of human beings is and ought to be happiness. Aristotle’s book became a classic long ago. But when you think about it, its thesis is rather commonplace. When we honestly examine our lives, we quickly realize that what we want is to be happy. What sane person wouldn’t? So we scarcely need an ancient Greek philosopher to tell us what we already know.
What isn’t so obvious is how to be happy. There are any number of answers out there competing for our attention. The advertising industry, for example, spends billions of dollars annually to tell us that true happiness lies in buying this or that product. Pop psychologists assure us that happiness consists in getting in touch with our primordial self, looking out for number one, or learning how to be intimate. (It all depends on which psychologist you read.)Speaking of intimacy, popular films and novels imply that we need lots of sex to be happy. And let’s not forget money, power, fame, and social influence: These are all touted by various prophets as surefire keys to the kingdom of happiness.
We all want to be happy, but we don’t quite know how to go about it. And therein lies the problem, as old Aristotle recognized full well. His diagnosis was that our confusion arises because we too frequently confuse happiness with pleasure. There’s obviously a connection between the two, but they’re not identical.
Pleasures, which are typically responses to external stimuli, tend to be short-lived and sporadic. Moreover, even though immediate pleasurable sensations feel good, they may, in fact, be harmful to our well-being. The pleasurable rush of a cigarette is an obvious example of a harmful pleasure.
Happiness, on the other hand, is more of an abiding inner state than a transient response to an external stimulus. It can feel good at times, but because happiness isn’t identical to pleasure, it’s perfectly possible to be happy even while enduring pain. Additionally, genuine happiness isn’t deceptive in the way pleasure can be. Happiness is never harmful, precisely because it’s the consequence of living a fulfilled, enriched life. When a person achieves the possibilities essential to his or her nature—when a person becomes a human in the fullest sense of the word—then happiness is attained.
If Aristotle is right about this distinction between pleasure and happiness—and I think he is—it follows that many of us may be selling our chance for happiness short by settling for mere pleasure. Lots of pleasures—perhaps most pleasures—are innocent enough. But they can’t give us the happiness we crave, even if we add thousands and thousands of them together.
If we’re unhappy, then, it’s not because happiness is out of our reach; it’s because we simply haven’t stretched as high as we could and should. Francis of Assisi was someone who stretched as high as he could, and in doing so he found genuine happiness, or what he liked to call “perfect joy.” Like so many of us, Francis began his search in some confusion, mistaking transient pleasures for the joy he desired. It took him a few years of steadily growing dissatisfaction to figure out where he’d gone wrong. Then, with God’s help, he discovered what Aristotle already knew centuries earlier: that true happiness, perfect joy, is possible only when we live up to our innate potentiality and become fully human.
Aristotle, philosopher that he was, thought what made us fully human was our use of reason. But Francis dug deeper, arriving at the far richer conclusion that fulfillment lay in the heartfelt recognition that we’re made in the image of the living God and that our final purpose in life is to conform reason and will, body and soul, to that image. Perfect joy, in other words, comes when we model ourselves after Christ, the new human, the second Adam, the perfect example of what we can and should be. This is our destiny. This is what we were made for.
Francis spent his entire adult life striving for this conformity to Christ. Fortunately for us, each stage along his way was chronicled in great detail by his contemporaries. Taken together, these accounts give us a marvelously insightful record of what it means to travel the path to God, human fulfillment, and perfect joy. They allow us to embrace Francis as our spiritual director and follow in his footsteps as best we can so that we might find for ourselves what he found.
Even so, we need to begin our journey with eyes wide open, because the path Francis trod isn’t always a pleasant one. Remember: True happiness, perfect joy, isn’t identical with pleasure. If we choose Francis as a spiritual director, we must make an effort to take what he says seriously, even when it goes against the grain.
G.K. Chesterton once wisely wrote that people who admire Francis often do so because they fixate on those aspects of his life that please them while ignoring the ones they find unsettling or even repugnant. This obviously won’t do. Francis must be taken as he is. Scrubbing away anything about him that we find distasteful might leave us with a charming (and unthreatening) garden statue. But garden statues make poor spiritual directors.
One of the most disconcerting features of the real Francis—and hence of his message to us today—is his uncompromising commitment to Christ. Let’s be honest: Many of us are what C.S. Lewis liked to call “whiskey-and-soda Christians.” We prefer our Christianity watered down. Taken straight, it’s simply too strong for our weak stomachs. So we sidestep all the scriptural injunctions calling us to make radical changes in our lifestyles—loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, pooling possessions for the common good, voluntary poverty, sacrificing ourselves for the sake of others. We either ignore passages like these altogether or interpret them to mean something much less radical than Christ intended.
But Francis took Christ’s teaching seriously. He was too honest to read Scripture selectively and too unsophisticated to spin elaborate no-risk interpretations of it. Instead, he championed the radical notion that Christ meant what he said when he spoke of love and poverty and sacrifice. To presume otherwise is to conclude that Christ was in the strange habit of always saying one thing but meaning something quite different.
So Francis’s spiritual journey became the lifelong conversion of himself to Christ. As St. Paul might have said, Francis wished to “put on” Christ while simultaneously shucking off his old self, the Francis-centered ego (see Romans 13:14). To that end, he preached and practiced the three virtues he saw as most central to Christ’s life and teaching: poverty, simplicity, and humility.
Francis told his followers that when they wed Lady Poverty, they freed their bodies from the enslavement to possessions that breeds violence. When they embraced Holy Simplicity, they liberated their minds and hearts from internal vanities and ambitions that distracted them from God. And when they embraced Gracious Humility, they released their spirit to acknowledge gratefully its utter dependence on the Creator of the universe.
On a grander scale, poverty, simplicity, and humility free us to love because they destroy fear, the single greatest impediment to love. And when we learn to love with something like the love God has for creation, we arrive at the end for which we are made. We grow into our Godlikeness. We live fully and richly.
We also live joyfully. Poverty, as Francis and his followers discovered, is frequently quite unpleasant; no one likes to go hungry or thirsty or unsheltered from the weather. Simplicity and humility are likewise often painful. It’s so much easier to read theology than to live the Gospel, or to strike back than to turn the other cheek. But these unpleasantries are just transient reactions ultimately unable to override the deep happiness or perfect joy that comes when we fulfill our potentiality as loving images of God.
This is the incredible message that Francis brought to his world—a world, much like our own, sunk in forgetfulness and indifference, a world that preferred its Christianity watered down. His message, which was really Christ’s message, revitalized the spiritual climate of his day. So many persons (especially idealistic younger ones) opened their hearts to what Francis had to say that he formed the secular Third Order for them so that they might continue their lives in the “ordinary” world while striving to prove worthy of perfect joy.