Homily to the Saint Louis Priory School
May 6, 2016
Father Augustine Wetta, O.S.B.
So the end of school is just around the corner and that means…stress. Stress and worry and short tempers and…well…more stress. This is the last school mass for our seniors, which means that they are about to enter the world of adult stress (which is just like kid stress but there’s more of it). Yet here is what Jesus has to say to you today: “You are in anguish now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” You hear that? You may be in anguish, but you also have a joy which no one can take from you. How is this possible?
First we have to distinguish between happiness and joy. Happiness is something you are lucky to have. The word actually comes from the middle English word for luck, hap, from which we get the words happen and perhaps. Luck is what makes you ‘happy.’
So. You find $20 on the sidewalk…that makes you happy. You make an A on the test…happy. You’re accepted at your first choice college…happy. You win your rugby game…happy. Now, hard work is likely to have had some influence on this. But bad luck can take it all away in a second. Your $20 slips out of your pocket; you studied the wrong chapter for the test; the college interviewer just didn’t like you. Bad luck. It can ruin your day—it can ruin more than your day—BUT only if you let it. Because real happiness is yours for keeps. In theological language we call it blessedness or beatitude or joy. No one and nothing can take it away from you. This is what Socrates meant when he said, “No one can harm the good man.” You can take away his money and power and influence, but you cannot touch the things that make him a man: you cannot take his virtue, his courage, his joy, his beatitude.
Let me put it another way: there are a lot of miserable people in the world. And some of these people are that way because they are suffering serious oppression and have been pushed beyond their strength; others are miserable because they’re struggling with their own brain chemistry; but for most of us, we’re unhappy because we choose to be. You say, “That guy makes me angry!” But he doesn’t make you angry. He did something inconsiderate and you made you angry. Dorotheos of Gaza, the great 6th century abbot, wrote in his conferences, “If your brother provokes you, don’t blame him for your anxiety. You were a pile of dry leaves. He was just the breeze that blew you over.”
Two days ago, I saw something that made me unhappy. A kid in the lunch line dropped his plate and it broke into about a dozen pieces and everyone laughed at him. Even I laughed because, frankly, it was nice to see someone else look stupid for change. But then I realized that everyone was laughing and no one was helping him clean up the broken plate. Oddly, that made me angry… but it didn’t seem to make the kid angry. In fact, he laughed along.
And at that very moment, I learned the secret to real happiness. And I’m going to share it with you now: the secret to real happiness (by that, of course, I mean joy/beatitude) is to be kind to other people when they don’t deserve it. That kid—and I honestly don’t remember who he was because I was too busy judging everyone else in the lunch room—that kid could’ve turned around and yelled at the people who were laughing, but what good would it have done? Instead, he laughed while I yelled at everyone.
Now which of the two of us brought more joy to that room? A few weeks ago, I was talking to one of our assistant rugby coaches. His name is Randal. He’s got two kids and he just discovered that he has a third on the way. He and his wife didn’t exactly plan for this third kid, and he was explaining to me that he was a little worried. They just moved into a new house, the timing is all wrong, he just switched jobs, etc. etc. I said to him that I probably wasn’t the best guy to come to for advice on this because I don’t like babies; but that I could tell him this one thing: Coach Randal is a good person and good people tend to have good kids and as a twenty-year veteran of the educational system, I can say with real confidence that one good kid can make a very big difference. And with that, as if on cue, Tony Kraus walked up. He’s got the coach’s sunglasses in his hand. “Hey Coach,” he says, “You left these on the bench. I picked them up because I was afraid someone would sit on them.” I couldn’t have planned it better. Coach Randall actually got choked up. It was a small gesture for Tony, perhaps, but it had a profound effect on Coach Randall.
Now maybe your life really does feel like it’s going down the tubes. Maybe you are lrgitimately stressed out. Maybe your teachers are giving you too much work. Maybe you’ve got a teacher that doesn’t even like you. Maybe there’s some kid in your class that doesn’t like you. Maybe you’ve been mistreated, pushed around, taken for granted, bullied. Maybe you’re dealing with all these things at once. Or maybe none of them. Maybe you are perfectly content. If that’s the case, then I’d ask you to spread that happiness around today. And if it’s not the case then I’d ask you to fake it. Just today as a kind of social experiment. So I have some homework for you. Actually no, it’s schoolwork. I have a list of assignments. I want you to choose one. And I want you to finish it by the time lunch is over. In fact, I want you to finish it during lunch. I’m going to post these lists all over the school so you won’t forget. I’ve even posted lists around the lunchroom. Let’s see if we can make lunch today the best lunch so far this year. Just choose one of these six assignments and make sure you complete it by the end of lunch. Here they are:
At lunch today…either
1. Let someone pass you in the lunch line.
2. Help yourself to the least attractive piece of lasagna.
3. Serve someone else in the lunch line.
4. Clear someone else’s dishes.
5. Volunteer to wipe down a table.
6. Clean up someone else’s mess. Bonus points if it’s on the floor.
Just do one of these seven assignments and lets see if it has an effect. Or better yet, see if you can do them all!
I’d like to close with a quote from Saint John Chrysostom. He gave a sermon back in 399AD, entitled “No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Harm Himself” and he ended it like this:
People today say that the earth is a frightening place. They say that the world has turned upside down. That the human race is confused and doomed. Well I say this is not true. Because even if a man loses everything at the hands of gossips and miscreants; even if he has been attacked by his own friends, what harm can this do to his virtue?
If you keep in mind that nothing can hurt your soul, then neither loss of money, nor slander, nor gossip, nor banishment, nor disease, nor torture, nor even death can harm you. And if these things are harmless, how can you be harmed at all? No, even if all the creatures who inhabit the whole earth and sea teamed up to attack you, they could do you no harm so long as you took refuge in Christ. Very well, then. I beseech you, be sober and vigilant in the Lord at all times, and let us endure all painful things joyfully that we may obtain those everlasting and pure blessings in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power, now and ever throughout all ages. Amen.