So it’s the day after Easter Sunday. Let’s suppose that you had died and been raised from the dead. Yesterday was the big celebration of the astonishing gift of “another life,” as they say in video games. How will you spend it?
In video games, indeed, one typically just goes right back at it. Perhaps you learned a thing or two about what got you killed in the first place, and you’re determined to repent of your mistaken attitude or action and proceed more carefully this time. Okay, then: off we go again.
Perhaps, instead, you learned to pursue a different strategy entirely. Clearly, knocking on these doors or chasing these goals or proceeding on these paths isn’t getting you anywhere but dead. Time to re-think the approach to the game.
Perhaps, however, in the time it took the game to resurrect you, your head cleared, your game-fever broke, and you saw suddenly that the game itself wasn’t worth the hassle. Better goals came to mind, and it’s time to pursue them instead.
Robert Wilken reminds us that
for the ancients, happiness was a possession of the soul, something that one acquired and that, once acquired, could not easily be taken away. Happiness designated the supreme aim of human life, in the language of ancient philosophy, living in accord with nature, in harmony with our deepest aspirations as human beings….
For this reason ethics in antiquity was a matter less of what one ought to do according to universal notions of right and wrong than of what kind of person one can become by living a certain way. Hence it had to do with deeds practiced over the course of a lifetime and the disposition of the soul.
(The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 273)
The beatitudes begin with the word “Happy,” as does Psalm 1. Because “happiness” in contemporary English tends to denote a fleeting state of positive feeling, dependent mostly on circumstances and one’s bodily state, translators have looked for something stronger to attach to the holiness described as the way of life in these passages. “Blessed” is the favourite choice.
“Blessed,” however, has to do with someone receiving a gift. The Biblical texts instead point us unapologetically to attainment. The one who is “poor in spirit,” who “walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly” but delights in the Law of God, is properly oriented to reality. That one has achieved the right state of mind consonant with the summum bonum: holiness (Matthew 5:48), complete conformity to goodness and the well-lived life.
Of course all of our attainments are at the same time gifts of God, for we can do nothing good without cooperating with God, and what we make of our lives depends on what he provides us. Still, passivity, sloth, would be the wrong way to look at this challenge, and promise, of happiness.
Toward what end? Toward what telos? What are you pursuing in your life? If you got everything you most wanted, what would you have…and who would you be? What I most want in life acts as a black hole, drawing me ever nearer and preventing anything else from escaping. I’d better want what’s in the centre of that star, because the further along I go, the more focused I will become and the less my little power of self-determination will work to take an alternative course. “Deeds practiced over the course of a lifetime” bring me closer and closer, and more and more attuned to, and more and more fully prepared for…what?
“Perfect,” in both Biblical Hebrew and Greek, has to do with completion, maturity, arriving, realization. One could therefore become “perfectly awful.” A recent New Yorker magazine profiles both Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter, and Kobe Bryant, the basketball star, who are two of the most self-centred people you could ever meet. You have to hand it to them, though: They have known what they wanted and they have gone hard after it.
Actually, you don’t have to hand it to them. Clearly, they’ll take it: first chance they get.
So what is my Pearl of Great Price, on this Resurrection Day + 1? For what am I selling out? In what direction does happiness lie?
I’ve just been given another life. Instead of plunging back into the same game, the same way, toward the same goal, perhaps I should take a moment and look around. The Game may not give me another life.