Friday, December 11, 2009


Last weekend, in between a Sunday noon Mass and one at 5:30 at St. Charles Borromeo, in San Francisco, I took a walk to downtown (about a mile or two away) and saw many a shopper with arms or shopping bags full of Christmas presents. I reflected on Christmas gifts I’ve received and given. What is the best Christmas gift you ever received? Gave?

The gift that most of us yearn for more than anything else is…happiness! Christmas is a time when we especially want our loved ones to be happy. We sacrifice ourselves financially and in so many ways to make them happy. And, of course, their happiness also makes us happy.

Perhaps, Christmas is a time to celebrate that God not only gave us the perfect gift and the ultimate happiness, but treated Self to the best gift and happiness by becoming what God loves ~ one of us. Maybe that’s why the angels sang, “Glory to God in the Highest!” God got the gift that God longed for. And God and all the angels in heaven were joyously happy.

If our loved ones’ happiness and our own is our dream, how DO we make it happen? Wise, old Aristotle once said, “Happiness is a life well lived.” Other sages have penned their thoughts. In fact, there are more books on happiness than we probably have time to read. Some recent best sellers include: “The Secret”, “How We Choose to be Happy”, and “True Mentors”. Each of these seems to focus on “success”: setting a goal and then fulfilling it, whether it’s fame, power, wealth, knowledge, acknowledgment, affirmation, or the sheer pleasure of some achievement. Often we find vicarious happiness in the success of our kids or favorite team(s). If we’re honest with ourselves, we cannot deny that all these things do make us happy.

We must also note, however, that studies have been done which show that there are various levels of happiness. For some, happiness is winning the Mega Lottery. For others, it is health. If we get up in the morning and feel no pain, we feel happy. If we have a job, the job we want, if we get a bonus, we are happy. But the studies show that the highest level of happiness is when we make another person happy. Of course, this is what Jesus told us…and showed us.

This is the essence of Christmas: making others happy (which in turn makes us happy). A billboard on a drive from Green Bay, WI to Menominee, MI boldly advertised this message: HAPPINESS IS…HELPING ANOTHER. Precisely what Jesus said, “I came not to be served but to serve.” Those of us who follow him know his message quite well. In fact, we end each Mass with the words, “Go in Peace…to Love and Serve.”

Sadly, there is often a large gap between knowing and doing. There is an expression, “Show me how you live and I’ll tell you what you really believe.” Which should prompt us to ask, “What do we really believe?” Do we really believe that giving/serving is the secret to our happiness here and now (not just some far off reward in heaven)?

Some years ago, I tried an experiment with eighth graders at St. Paul, in Chicago. We lived in a poor, violent neighborhood. There was much senseless violence: shootings, broken store windows, vandalized cars, graffiti on homes, businesses, and even the church. All done for no apparent reason ~ just senseless violence.

So I challenged the students. I asked how many wanted to be happy. All the hands went up. I told them I had the secret to happiness. The first step of this secret was to go home and do a “senseless” act of kindness for their parents or brothers and sisters. Just do something nice for no reason at all, and see the other’s response. I told them to take notice as well of how they themselves felt.

The next day, I asked how many had done the assignment. Most of the hands were raised. I asked them to share their experience. Some helped a younger brother or sister with homework, or Mom in the kitchen, or Dad washing the car, etc. What response did they get? In most cases, the other asked, “Are you OK? Are you sick? What is it you want?” All were smiling and happy. And the students said they, too, felt good, felt happy.

I then asked if they wanted to continue the project. They said, “Yes”. So I told them that the next step was to do something nice for a stranger, because when you do it for someone who knows you, they will usually pay you back. The following day I asked how many had done the assignment. This time only a few hands went up. I asked, “Why, if you saw the result of your kindness?” No one answered. Still, I asked those who did the assignment to share their experiences. Some had helped kids in the neighborhood or nearby park, another helped carry the groceries of an elderly woman, who wanted to give her $5. She had refused, but she was “forced” to take it. Those who did the assignment said that both they and the ones they helped felt happy.

Lastly, I said, “There is one last step to this experiment. Do a good deed for your enemy.” One of the students said she had no enemies. I said, “Do it for someone you like the least.” The next day when I asked how many had done the assignment, no one raised their hand.

We all want to be happy. Perhaps, we need to ask ourselves, “How badly do we want it?” But even more importantly, I believe, is the question, “What IS happiness for us?” For example, for me, it is bringing out the Christ in me and helping others to give birth to Christ as well. There are still a few shopping days left. Why not finish your Christmas list by completing the statement: FOR ME, HAPPINESS IS…And then go out and “buy” yourself the greatest gift. This Christmas may we not settle for less…may we give and get the very best gift…true happiness.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


There is an illuminating book about the condition of humanity, its downfall and ultimate redemption. It is entitled, "Cry, the Beloved Country", by Alan Paton. Its central character is a poor black pastor, Stephen Kumalo, in the back-country of South Africa. He is troubled because of the lack of news from his son and sister who left for Johannesburg to find work. As the story begins, the land is parched, the plants in the field have wilted, and there is an air of hopelessness – reflective of the brokenness in the relationships among the family members and society.

Kumalo travels to the big city, where his worst fears are realized: his son stands accused of murder; his sister surviving as a prostitute. After much struggling to put his house in order, saving the soul of his son (if not his life), he returns home a broken man, expecting all to reject his ministry and tribal leadership. Instead, they welcome him with jubilation, sensitive to his loss, and appreciative of his sacrifice and loving efforts. The book ends with life-giving rain pouring upon the fields, symbolic of new life and hope.

In our Advent and Christmas readings, we hear of the desert that Mary and Joseph traversed on foot, and of John the Baptist’s heralding the coming of the Messiah at the river Jordan. The landscape not only transports us to the time and place of the miracle of miracles, it is a reflection of the state of our being. The harsh terrain that is prominent at the birth of Jesus is symbolic of the evil in “our land” and our need of salvation. The river that cuts through the desert provides hope and life, and a lesson as well on how we might navigate our journey of life.

It is noteworthy that the Jordan River, which begin near the north of Israel, close to the border with Lebanon, flows to the Sea of Galilee, and continues south, near Jericho, and into the Dead Sea. Since the waters flow into and out of Lake Galilee, there is abundant life within the lake, and much vegetation surrounding it. However, the Jordan does not flow out of the Dead Sea…and there one finds neither life within it nor on the surrounding banks.

Some 1,500 years ago, a Chinese poet wrote:

I, like a river,
with a love as great as the sky,
gave my all to you,
flowing and changing into you.

You, like a lake,
caught in the delusion of your self-importance,
gave me no notice, but instead remained stagnant,
and failed to be transformed into me.

As we continue our Advent journey through the “desert” of our life, in preparation of the greatest miracle within us, and take stock of our personal geography, are we more like a river or a lake?