The Pursuit of Happiness
Do you want to be happy?
I’m guessing that you do. The pursuit of happiness is right at the top of most people’s priorities in life. There are masses of self-improvement books, and a whole field of scientific research dedicated to the study of happiness. Not a day goes by that I don’t have something on my social media feed giving me advice about what it takes be happy.
But the quest for happiness is nothing new. People have been doing it for millennia. The psalms are one of the oldest collections of writing in the world, going back almost three thousand years. And the psalm that is placed right at the start of that collection is the one that we read this morning. It begins with the quest for happiness:
“Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful. Their delight is in the way of the Lord.”
Do you want to be happy? According to Psalm 1, happy are they who delight in the way of the Lord.
And then the psalmist gives us an image, which is one of my favourite images in all of scripture:
“Happy are they who are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall thrive.”
Later in scripture, the prophet Jeremiah will come back with the same image with a bit more detail:
“Happy are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”
I like the image of the tree planted by water. I like it because it has two parts: the part you can see, and the part you can’t see. The part you can see is beautiful. The strong trunk. The outstretched branches. The green leaves. And in their season, flowers, fruit and seeds. The whole tree swaying in the breeze, dancing to the rhythms of nature, growing, bearing fruit, giving shade. That’s what we can see, that’s the part that’s in public view above the surface.
But beneath the surface, there’s a whole lot more going on. The root system, the part we don’t usually see, can be as big as the tree above ground that we do see. Below ground, the tree sends out roots, and those roots seek out moisture and nourishment, probing, reaching, going deeper, heading towards the water of the stream which is the source of its life. The tree’s roots seek out what the tree needs, steadily, relentlessly, persistently. It’s a life-long process. It’s the roots reaching towards the stream that keep the tree green, even in times of drought. Even when the soil is bad or rock is struck, the persistent seeking of the roots never stops.
I like to think of a pine tree, growing in the harsh conditions of the Canadian shield by the shores of one of the beautiful lakes we find north of Ottawa or in Algonquin park. Even in the harshest of conditions the tree will send out roots. If the roots can’t get under the rock, they’ll go around it or over it in their search for the waters of the lake. I’ve often marvelled at how the woody roots of a scraggly tree will find a crack in the rock and they’ll work it so hard that eventually the rock itself splits in two. That’s the sort of persistence, that’s the sort of rootedness that we’re being called to in today’s Psalm.
My daughter Michelle is currently walking the Camino de Santiago, an 800 kilometer pilgrimage across northern Spain. Last year, I did the same walk, and on my fifth day I met a young man from San Francisco who had quit his job to come to the Camino. As I often did when I met people, I asked him why are you walking, and he told me that he was walking the Camino because he wanted to connect with something bigger than himself.
To be happy, we need to connect, to be rooted in something bigger than ourselves, something life-giving, something that nourishes us the way the waters of the stream nourish the tree.
And when we frame it like that, the pursuit of happiness becomes a spiritual quest. We start to focus on the deepest values and meanings by which people live. We want to experience a connection with something bigger than ourselves.
As Christians, we tend to call that something God. Paul Tillich, one of the most influential of 20th century theologians preferred to use the phrase “Ground of being”. He understood God as the ground upon which all beings exist.
Happy are they who delight in the ways of the Lord, says the psalmist. But how are we to know the ways of the Lord?
To know the ways of God takes discernment. It takes persistence. It takes practice. In fact, you might say, spiritual practice. The psalmist continues: those who delight in the ways of the Lord meditate on God’s ways, day and night. They are like trees sending their roots deeper and deeper in the quest for connection, rootedness and nourishment.
We need spiritual practices. That’s not just me speaking. In fact, that’s not just the wisdom of thousands of years of our faith tradition speaking. That’s also what researchers are discovering as they delve into positive psychology and the study of happiness.
Researchers at Harvard have been conducting a longitudinal study for the past 75 years to try to discover what makes for a happy life. They have identified five activities which contribute to happiness when pursued on a regular basis. One of them is spiritual practice. The other four, in case you’re curious, are learning, social interaction, helping others and play.
I’m currently reading a best-selling book called Designing Your Life. It’s written by a product designer and an engineer. It’s based on a course they developed for the Stanford University Institute of Design. The course teaches us how to adapt design principles and use them to help make life choices. The book talks about design problems, process, brainstorming, prototyping and making choices. It’s a good book. But I was floored when I got to the end of the book, and the authors made their final recommendation:
“Perhaps the most important recommendation we can give you to sustain a well-designed life is to invest in and commit to some personal [spiritual] practices.” Then they gave two examples from their own lives: meditation and centering prayer.
There you have it. Harvard researchers, the authors of Designing Your Life and the Psalmist all agree: the pursuit of happiness begins with spiritual practice: meditation; prayer; pilgrimage; lectio divina; journaling; gratitude, service and the like. There are many practices available, and we have a three thousand year old tradition to guide us. But to put down roots, to connect to something bigger than ourselves, to delight in the way of the Lord requires us, as the psalmist puts it, “to meditate on the ways of the Lord day and night.”
And that makes sense when you think about it. Jesus was really helpful in summarizing the ways of the Lord for us in two commandments: “To love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself.” But it takes a lifetime of discernment to understand what this means for us in all the varied times and circumstances of our lives. And so we pray, and we read the scriptures, and we gather together in worship, and we practice compassion and forgiveness, and we sit in silence and we meditate in God’s presence. And when we do these things, these spiritual practices, our roots go a bit deeper, and we are drawn a little farther, and we are nourished, and we are shaped, and we grow. Even in times of drought, our leaves will not wither. We become connected with something greater than ourselves, the very ground of our being.
And this is the way of happiness. This is the choice that will make us happy. Or if you prefer, to use the language of our gospel reading, joyful. Or again, if you prefer, to use the language of our reading from first John, this is the way of eternal life.
Homily: Yr B Easter 7, May 13 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Acts 1.15-17,21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5.9-13; John 17.6-19
Image by Neil Cornwall (Creative Commons)