A Theology of Happiness by Fr. Bedros Shetilian

I have overcome the world.
– John 16:33

I was once speaking with someone and said that in regard to material things, it is enough for someone to have “a roof over their head.” That’s how we Armenians describe having minimum necessary living conditions. He answered me by saying, “This is ‘poor people’ talk.” When I reminded him of Pope Francis, who refuses luxury, the gentleman could not respond.

There is a well-known social concept of what happiness is: a job one enjoys and finds fulfilling; an income to support a comfortable life—not necessarily rich, but an income that allows people to do what they want; a successful family; friends that can be trusted; good health. We know that most people don’t enjoy all of these conditions at once. If they do, the circumstances are often temporary. So, in practice, the social concept of happiness is a theory that rarely becomes a reality.

This opens the door to talk about one of life’s most important and most negative realities: the clash between the Truth and what society thinks the truth is. This issue is the reason for life’s tragic nature. The Russian Christian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev expresses this in a genius way: “They [society] ask of human beings to come under the control of society’s degradation. This is the reason why life is so tragic.” In other words, a degraded society compels people to be under its control; and since society is degraded, people also have to be.

I can cite many quotes on the subject of life’s tragic nature, such as what a Nobel Peace Prize winner, theologian, philosopher, pastor, humanitarian, and renowned organist Albert Schweitzer once said: “My knowledge is pessimistic, but my faith is optimistic.” By “knowledge,” he meant the realities of life. It is also worth quoting Ernest Hemingway: “The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to say the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.” Hemingway was a believer, or at least he considered himself a devout Catholic. “If I am anything, I am a Catholic,” he once said. But we also know that he committed suicide.

Not everyone has a tragic view of life. The tragic vision is for people “who possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to say the truth, the capacity for sacrifice.” Dostoevsky describes such people as having “a large intelligence and a deep heart,” and he says that, for them, “pain and suffering are always inevitable.” Jesus is the best example of this, though it is not necessary that such people be famous. The clash between the Truth and the truth is also not limited to people of faith. It is about the clash between the Truth and lies, between sacrifice and selfishness, between good and evil at large. Remember, Pilate ironically asked this question to Jesus: “What is truth?”

The late Karekin I, Catholicos of All Armenians, once said: “It is a necessary condition of happiness to willingly suffer for others’ happiness.” I am happy when I make others happy; I consider this a gift. Anyone who has this quality—believer or not—is watched over by God. I am not talking here about happiness from the social point of view. This form of suffering is for people who have “a large intelligence and a deep heart” and are the ones who make a difference. It is not that such people desire to suffer. But they do suffer because of the nature of life itself. If someone rejects “going with the flow,” if someone carries the Truth, or even more so says the Truth, sooner or later he will clash with the majority who are uncomfortable hearing the Truth. If someone has gifts or talents, people will be jealous of him and he will be under scrutiny at every turn. This is another sort of conflict with society. We always have to remember that we are not yet in heaven.

If we choose God’s side, then suffering will be part of our life and we will have a different vision of what happiness is, a vision that comes from the bible and is inspired by Jesus. If we choose neutrality (“neither cold nor hot,” as Saint Paul would say), then happiness will be for us what society thinks. If we choose the dark side, then we will be happy only when we have wealth and control over people, and in order to achieve such goals, we will be ready to kill our conscience (I am not talking about people who become wealthy by being honest and lawful).

I believe that if someone has faith and gets it right, then there is no way for such a person not to be happy regardless of how difficult life is. By “getting faith right,” I mean a deep and living connection to God and not a superficial understanding of religion based on education. In Hemingway’s case, his “Catholicism never really achieved the fullness of the faith,” as David A. King has written. I completely agree with this, and Hemingway’s lifestyle is proof. He might have had faith, but his faith was not nurtured, and I do not believe he had a living connection to God; otherwise, there is no way that he would have committed suicide and the quote referenced above would have ended with “wounded” and not “destroyed.” Some may argue that suicide was in his family, but having a real and living faith is so crucial and comprehensive that it can easily overshadow such hereditary factors. Berdyaev, Schweitzer, and Dostoevsky all prevailed in the end, though they suffered as much, if not more, than Hemingway. They were the ones who “laughed in the end,” as we Armenians would say, because they “got faith right.” Of course, having said this, I am not questioning Hemingway’s value as a great writer and a great human being.

People who have faith get their power from God; they are never alone. Faith is the greatest gift and the greatest source of power that anyone can have. Faith is what makes someone strong, helps him preserve his integrity, helps him persevere and never be broken, no matter how harsh conditions may be. A faithful person will head towards God with constant repentance, and that path and process can be itself a source of happiness. There is a beautiful Armenian hymn recited during the Great Lent called Janabarh, “the path” or “the way”: “You, Christ, are the way and the truth and the life. Guide our souls from Earth to reach the heavens.”

A clear conscience is also a condition for happiness. This idea is well known and accepted by many people. It is interesting to see that people who permanently ignore their conscience almost never use the word. They may use other words to justify their actions, like goodness, even if their actions do not reflect goodness at all. I am an avid reader of history, and I have never seen such people use the word conscience. Their avoidance of this word is significant. Hitler, for example, always had explanations for his actions. He used phrases like “good intentions” to defend Germany’s aggression, but never the word conscience.

Putting all these ideas together, we can conclude that happiness from the Christian point of view means living under the presence of God, having a direct connection to God, and, as a result of that, accepting that suffering is an inseparable part of life. It is to have a clear conscience, to live not only for ourselves but also for others. In the end, it is to prevail, “to overcome the world,” as Jesus said. The kingdom of God starts here, and that should be humanity’s ultimate goal, and the ultimate qualifier of our happiness.

Fr. Bedros Shetilian was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1963. After high school, he moved to Armenia and then to Russia to pursue a musical education and graduated from St. Petersburg Conservatory with a master’s degree in symphony conducting. Between 1992 and 2003 he successfully worked as a conductor. Fr. Shetilian attended the Catholic College in St. Petersburg and the Seminary of the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Lebanon. He was ordained as a married priest in 2003. Since 2005, he has been the priest in residence at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. Fr. Shetilian continues to combine both his callings as a clergyman and a musician. A version of this essay originally appeared on the Orthodoxy Cognate Page.

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