Reviewed by Robert P. MARKO , Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, MI 49503
"Morality is a search for happiness," writes Fribourg professor Servias Pinckaers, OP in his spiritual reading of the beatitudes in the popular, The Pursuit of Happiness - God's Way. For Pinckaers the beatitudes are Jesus' answer to the human quest for happiness in the form of eight challenges and promises. Like his more scholarly and well received The Sources of Christian Ethics (1995), this more devotional work claims that Christian ethics begins in the Sermon on the Mount. The sermon is not fundamentally an ethic for the elite, found in the evangelical counsels of Catholic religious orders, or an interim morality for those of Matthew's day expecting an imminent return of Jesus the Christ, or even, as in Luther, an impossible teaching that leads us to faith. Rather, the sermon, and more specifically here the beatitudes, are intended for all Christians as the way to real happiness.
Pinckaers does not enter into a historical-critical exegesis of the sermon and beatitudes; rather he offers what he calls a "realistic" or spiritual reading of the text that faith and life reveal to us. While briefly situating the beatitudes in Matthew's gospel and reading them in light of the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament, Pinckaers invites readers to go beyond the words of the text to the reality signified by God's promise to us that a life lived in faith unfolds. Like his fellow Dominican Thomas Aquinas, the author posits the new law of the sermon as the work of the Holy Spirit given us through faith in Christ. The life promised in the beatitudes is thus a matter of graced living and not, as found in some catechetical works, a new Christian law to supplement that of Moses. The beatitudes therefore challenge our conception of happiness as individuals and corporately as the people of God. Their paradoxical nature turns our world upside down. Pinckaers observes:
We need no one to teach us that good fortune and joy will make us happy. But what we could never have discovered for ourselves is that poverty and suffering could be the most direct road to happiness and that Christ has chosen them as our way to the Kingdom. (p. 35).Chapters three through ten of the text reveal the richness of the beatitudes that Pinckaers' realistic exegesis yields. While not concerned about a rigid schematic order, such as found in Augustine or Thomas, Pinckaers explicitly connects the beatitudes to suggest a wholistic spiritual and moral life. The beatitudes really "seek us out rather than we they." (p.200). Life, and through the trials of our human condition such as poverty, suffering, unjust violence and death, speaks the Word of God in the beatitudes to us.
In his commentary on the first beatitude of poor in spirit, while Pinckaers distinguishes well poverty as humility from material need, he sees no essential opposition between Matthew and Luke on this blessing. Citing multiple forms of poverty from illness, human affection, future possibility, error and sin, Pinckaers suggests that all the vicissitudes of the human condition can bring us real freedom and liberation from inferior attachments in life. The meekness of the second beatitude is likewise paradoxical. The experiences of life do not without resistance shape us into the meek of the gospel. Pinckaers recognizes:
Far from being associated with weakness, true meekness is rather the outcome of a long struggle against the disordered violence of our feelings, failures and fears. (p. 61).The third beatitude of happiness for those who mourn concerns those who fully accept life as it and the cards they have been dealt. Suffering equalizes all, the rich and the famous and the poor and forgotten as it plays no favorites. While not sought for its own sake, suffering becomes a path for happiness in God's reign. As we share in Christ's suffering, we so share in His victory.
The fourth beatitude of hunger and thirsting for justice alerts us to our yearning for God who alone makes us happy. It is here that Pinckaers briefly treats justice and its varied meanings in the scripture and the tradition. The author reminds us that suffering injustice is preferable to performing an unjust act or losing our love of the virtue of justice. Mercy of the fifth beatitude is linked to the justice of the fourth as, to quote Thomas, "justice without mercy is cruel, while mercy without justice is the mother of moral dissolution." (p. 111). The open-heartedness and receptivity of mercy, like all the beatitudes, requires grace. The purity of heart of the sixth beatitude requires commitment to justice, mercy and faith as the weightier matters of the law. (cf. Mt 23:23). The graced achieving of such purity is not without intense struggle as we painfully discover the inclinations, habits and demons of our hearts.
The seventh beatitude proclaims peacemaking as the possession of the daughters and sons of God. Pinckaers rightly distinguishes between the cowardly peace of no conflict with the noble peace of truth, justice and love. Peace, grounded in right relationship with God, does not mean that we have nothing in our lives to convict us or that we have never sinned or failed. Rather, peace consists in the inner harmony and integrity of reconciliation that moves us to reconcile with others and help others reconcile.
The persecuted of the eighth beatitude, like the poor in spirit of the first, are promised the kingdom of heaven and thus we have come full circle. We are not told to seek persecution but neither are we to flee it at all costs. For it is amidst our persecution that we encounter Christ. Polycarp of Smyrna writes:
It is clear to us all that in the midst of their torments the generous martyrs of Christ no longer remained in their bodies, or rather, that the Lord was there sustaining and conversing with them. (p. 181).Pinckaers affirms that this kingdom promised is not a utopian ideal in this life but includes the Christian hope of the life to come.
Servais Pinckaers, summarily, offers us a profound meditation on the life of the beatitudes drawing upon the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the patristic tradition especially Augustine, and Thomas. The Pursuit of Happiness -God's Way makes for profound personal spiritual reading as well as serving as a text in spirituality courses on the adult and undergraduate level. Moreover, Pinckaers, as one of many recent moral theologians who are recovering the centrality of scripture for moral formation, offers us a fine supplemental text in introductory Christian ethics courses. Pinckaers' approach, centering on personal conversion rather than primarily upon systemic, structural, and institutional transformation as the framework within such change can first take place will not please all; yet in my reading the social ramifications of the gospel life are so evident that such rejection is easily checked. In short, Pinckaers beautiful reflection on God's way to happiness is well worth a meditative read.