Fr. Josh Miller
Saints Peter and Paul Parish
August 27, 2011
Two weeks ago, I preached a little bit about my family beagle and what dogs show us about sitting at the feet of the Master, and today I thought I’d continue that theme of exploring something else dogs can teach us about how we’re different from animals.
One thing about dogs, if you’ve ever noticed this, is that they’re relatively easy to make happy. Food, water, attention, and they’re good to go: the tail’s wagging, they’re happy and content if their needs are met. This is because dogs live from one stimulus to the next: they’re hungry, they’re sleepy, they want to play. They move from one thing to the next and seem absolutely contented when they get what they want.
But this isn’t so true for human beings. We’re more complicated: We all know that we can have everything we need and be miserable; we can have everything we need and still feel like something is missing. This is because human beings seek fulfillment, not just happiness. We need a grander sense of accomplishment, of having achieved something; that desire we have for absolute and total fulfillment in life is a strange thing, something my dog cannot experience.
So let’s look at St. Paul today. Paul tells us about the need to “offer [our] bodies as a spiritual sacrifice,” and warns us not to “conform [ourselves] to this age.” He warns us of this because in every age, but most certainly in ours, perhaps in our age more than Paul, the world around us always seems to be focused on happiness, rather than fulfillment. And this is where the world stands to get us in trouble, because it treats us as if we were animals rather than human beings. Modern society confuses happiness for fulfillment and urges us to move from one stimulus to the next, like my beagle.
Just to give you an example of this, how we continually confuse happiness for fulfillment in this culture, John Paul the Great deals with the concept of “freedom” in his Veritatis Splendor. Now, don’t feel embarrassed here if this is your view, but when I say the word “freedom” most Americans in our society today would say that “freedom” means an individual should have the right to do whatever he or she desires so long as it doesn’t impede upon the freedom or rights of others. But what John Paul the Great notes is that this is actually a perversion of the word “freedom,” since the word has always meant our unimpeded ability to choose what is good. Not whatever we say is good, not whatever we designate as good, but what is truly and objectively good. What modern society has done in the past couple of centuries is say that freedom is all about your happiness, what you desire, rather than what will bring you absolute fulfillment, and this is absolutely problematic in our current society.
Modern society has reduced us to dogs. Everything in our culture has become emotionally driven nowadays. We make our decisions, we focus on everything through emotional desire, what we want in the moment. This is what St. Paul warns us about.
One of my favorite living Catholic writers is a man by the name of John C. Wright. He’s a brilliant man, and he spends most of his time writing science fiction novels. Strangely, the best and the brightest Catholic writers nowadays are writing in the science fiction and fantasy genres. I came across a quote this week that highlights precisely what I’m trying to get at with this misplaced emotion in our society, and I thought I’d share it with you. John C. Wright says:
We live in the midst of a Dark Age, that is, an age when intellectual and literate things are despised by the intellectuals and the literati. A Dark Age approves of emotional rather than intellectual response, the emotions judged and ranked according to purity and glitter, like precious stones.It seems to John C. Wright, as it seems to me and countless others in the Church today who attempt to live according to the Gospel, that we have become entirely emotionally and impulsively driven. Humanity has been prone to this throughout time; when Peter is rebuked by our Lord in today’s gospel, he’s rebuked because he’s let his emotion overcome him. In his bravado, in his emotional understanding of things, he stands up and says, “No, Lord, we can’t let anything like your suffering and death happen! This won’t work!” And yet Jesus, who actually thinks things through, is focused on fulfillment. And this is precisely why he rebukes Peter, tells him to get away, to stop tempting him with his nonsense.
Nonsense. That’s really what the world offers us. If left to my emotional impulses I end up like my dog, moving from one thing to the next, endlessly choosing what makes me “happy” without ever finding fulfillment. And God forbid someone should try and break that chain for me, tell me that something I’ve chosen is actually toxic to me in the grand scheme of things: How dare they try and do that, when my emotional senses tell me something is good?
People sometimes ask me why priests never preach on controversial topic x, y, or z. The answer there is that the greatest social crime someone can commit in our fickle culture is making someone else feel bad. And because people today tend to form their opinions through emotional desire, preaching what is objectively true through Reason, which does not account for your feelings one iota, can end up with a lot of hurt feelings. The truth hurts, especially in a culture that rarely stops “feeling” their emotions long enough to think. Abortion, euthanasia, and a host of other topics are debated on the other side of the Church not through reason-able, rational argumentation, but through emotion, through that false sense of what freedom means, through our desire to make no one feel bad or put out. But what the Cross shows us time and time again is that fulfillment, humanity’s highest end, is often going to feel bad. Fulfillment isn’t always going to feel good.
But that’s what it’s all about. Fulfillment, finding our Highest and most Perfect Good. The world tells us that it’s to be found in emotional happiness. Don’t buy it.
Rather, pray for what St. Paul calls “a renewal of the mind,” so that we might sharpen all the tools God has given us to choose what will bring us to fulfillment. Let our emotions serve our minds, and not the other way around. In doing so, we will know a sense of true freedom as we continue to grow ever closer to the Highest Good in God, who is that Good which no greater can be thought.