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Happiness is an Inside Job – As Seen in the Story of Paul and Silas

May 27, 2014 12 Comments

052714In the first reading for Tuesday’s daily Mass, there is a remarkable description of an event in the lives of Paul and Silas. And even more remarkable than the event itself is their reaction to it. Let’s pick up the story as told in Acts:

The crowd in Philippi joined in the attack on Paul and Silas, and the magistrates had them stripped and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After inflicting many blows on them, they threw them into prison and instructed the jailer to guard them securely. When he received these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and secured their feet to a stake (Acts 16:22-25).

It is so easy for us to read passages like this and miss the severity of what happened. The two are beaten with rods. Such beatings might vary somewhat in degree, but the overall severity of the passage (e.g., having them cast into the deepest part of the prison and the jailer later having to bathe their wounds) leads to the reasonable conclusion that the beating was also quite severe. Beatings like these would often lead to deep bruises and contusions, both external and internal bleeding, broken ribs, and trauma to the kidneys and other internal organs.

After this severe beating, and likely bloody and in severe pain, they are ordered bound by leg shackles and cast into the deepest and darkest part of the prison. In this inner part, there were probably rats, snakes, mice, and vermin. There was likely also foul water, along with urine and feces.

No matter how we look at it, the external dimensions of both the prison and their pain are grave. It would be enough to have the average person in despair, self pity, and perhaps even a semiconscious state.

Yet what do we find?

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:26).

Yes! Despite an awful beating, severe pain, and terrible conditions, they are singing and praising God. It is loud enough that the other prisoners in other parts of the prison hear them.

And here is a remarkable teaching: happiness is an inside job. Paul and Silas, despite every external discomfort and tremendous physical pain, have a joy that cannot be taken away. They have a connection to God that cannot be severed.

It is too often the case today that we strive to root our happiness in external matters such as money, esteem, creature comforts, and the like. And yet it remains true that many who have these things in abundance are still unhappy, and conversely that many who lack these things in abundance are happy.

There is something deeper about happiness than mere comfort, riches, or externalities. I remember some years ago talking with the personnel director of the diocese about an impending transfer. I told him of my fear that I might be sent somewhere where I would not be happy. He told me, “Charles, you have been in four assignments now and have been happy at every one. The fact is, you’re going to be happy wherever you go, because that’s the way you are. Happiness is an inside job.”

I have come to discover he was right, and I’ve never been unhappy wherever they’ve sent me. There’s a joy I have that the world didn’t give to me and the world cannot take away.

Sure, there are moments of sorrow and tension in every life. But deeper down there is a stable serenity that the Lord has given me for which I am exceptionally grateful. And I have come to discover that deep, inner place of peace, joy, and contentment; and I have further discovered that it is largely unaffected by external realities.

There is a Greek word, “μακάριοι (makarioi),” which describes a kind of stable happiness or blessed state. The pagan Greeks used the verb to refer to the happiness of the gods, unaffected by worldly matters. Jesus takes up this verb in the beatitudes: Blessed (μακάριοι – happy) are the poor in spirit, the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. In other words, “Stably blessed and happy are those who have their treasure in Heaven, rather than this passing and unstable world.”

Here then is a gift to be sought: the gift of an inner and stable happiness, the gift to be like Paul and Silas, to bless the Lord at all times, whatever the circumstances. This of course is the “normal Christian life.” As Scripture says,

I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1).

And Paul himself says,

Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:16-18).

And again he said, Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Phil 4:4)

Yes the normal Christian life is to be one of joy, a joy largely unaffected by external events and accessible even in moments of sorrow. It is a joy in which a consolation, difficult to describe, is always at work.

Two final things to note from this passage about Paul and Silas, are the ways that their joy and confident disposition affect others. There is an old saying, “When I get better, others get better too.” In other words, we have important effects on others around us.

The first thing to note is the liberating power of their joy and confidence. For the text says, there was suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook; all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose (Acts 16:27). It is the role of the Christian to exude joy, and to show a confidence that liberates others from the prison cells of despair, sin, and depression. Do people see you as a person of hope? Does your joy liberate and give confidence?

Second, note the love that is manifested by Paul and Silas and how that love moves the jailer to repentance and conversion. The text tells us, When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, Do no harm to yourself; we are all here. Now consider that the jailer may well have been one of the men who beat them with rods. And at a human level, the average person might rejoice to see the jailer try to kill himself. But Paul, not wanting the jailer to take his own life, calls out and seeks to save him, even at the risk being re-imprisoned. So moved is the jailer by this demonstration of love and faith, that he seeks immediate conversion. How has your love and reverence for life won the hearts of others?

Yes, happiness is an inside job. Here is a gift to be sought from God: a transformation to an inner peace that is stable and largely unaffected by external things. What a gift this is both to us and to others around us! For when I get better, others get better too.

Here’s some good advice form an old Spiritual, rooted in the story of Paul and Silas:

Paul and Silas bound in jail
Had no money for to go their bail
Keep your Hand on the Plow and Hold on!

And they wore three lengths of Chain
Every link was in my Jesus’ name.
Keep your Hand on the Plow and Hold on!

When the storms are raging High
You suffer and you can’t tell why
Keep your Hand on the Plow and Hold on!

Keep on plowing don’t you tire
Every Round goes higher, higher.
Keep your Hand on the Plow and Hold on!

I told you once, and I’ll tell you again
You can’t get to heaven if you’re stayed on sin
Keep your Hand on the Plow and Hold on!

I you wanna get to heaven let me tell you
Keep your hand on the gospel plow
Keep your Hand on the Plow and Hold on!

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Comments (12)

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  1. annaincalifornia says:

    Monsignor Pope,
    How do you feel about getting new assignments? How often do they need to happen?
    How can we as a flock not long to have a shepherd like YOU for more than a few years??

    Our parish has had a good priest for the past 2 years, but in July he will be reassigned.
    I pray that the First Friday devotion which he got started and many people involved will
    not fizzle… he is a dynamic teacher to all. And I hate to see him go, especially since WE are
    learning so much and doing better than before!! In the past, our parish has had some dry
    and anti-social priests; the worst was the one who yawned aloud (yes, really!!) during our
    confessions. Yes, everyone talked about how they avoided going to confessions with him.

    This little lamb is glad to have found you, anna

    • Thanks God bless you. Here in DC we have six year assignments after which it is possible we will move but not certain. I have been here 7 and would like to stay but I serve at the pleasure of the Cardinal

      • Beverly Firmin says:

        Thank you, Msgr Pope, how refreshing it is to hear a priest say that…. I serve at the pleasure of the Cardinal!”. So many priests have forgotten that promise of obedience that they made ast their hands are between the bishop’s hands at ordination… Thank you f or your faithfulness!

      • MikefromED says:

        If you are moved to another parish that will be a loss to your current parish and a gain to your new parish but the great thing is that you will still be serving your blog readers in exactly the same superb way. We will only lose out if you ever stopped blogging.

  2. Renee Cordell says:

    Very timely for me. I need to be reminded that joy is a gift from God.

  3. Ann says:

    Dourness is contagious too. I had gotten into a bad habit of venting with the other mothers at school about all sorts of things. I realized that what felt good in the moment was actually bringing me down, and probably the others too. I don’t do it anymore. If I don’t have something positive to say, I say nothing. I choose joy or silence!

    • Doug says:

      I agree. One of Paul’s letters admonishes us not to grumble. I think grumbling indicates a lack of gratitude. I struggle with that. What I don’t struggle with is enjoying Monsignor’s fine postings. Happiness is from within, and is a choice.

  4. edraCRUZ says:

    That you may have joy to the full, as promised by Our LORD JESUS CHRIST. Even in the midst of sadness and loneliness, pains and sufferings, joy to the full. 1Thess 5:16 -18 Rejoice always, pray unceasingly and give thanks to the LORD in all circumstances. We know and feel the sacrifices of our priests, when all Masses have been celebrated on Sundays and holidays of obligation, especially Christmas, families celebrate and there you are left all alone by yourself with nary a person to prepare for you your supper. GOD Bless you, Monsignor, GOD Bless all our priests. We pray for you all.

  5. C Beltz says:

    Perfect

  6. Peter Wolczuk says:

    Recall an inspirational story, which I once read, about two young brothers who left the small town in which they were raised and headed toward a new life in a big city.
    As they walked one was very eager and briskly strode ahead of his brother. Soon he encountered an old man who was sitting on a bench at the roadside. The old man asked the first, leading, brother where he was going and the brother replied that he was on his way to the big city to make his fortune.
    The old man asked the first brother what the town in which he’d been raised was like and the young man replied that it was a nice town with decent people where one could be happy but – he’d made his decision and was determined to go to the big city; whereupon the elder smiled and commented that the young man would like the big city.
    Later, the slower moving brother came to where the old man was sitting on the bench.
    The elder asked where he was going and the young man said that he was following his brother to the big city where he was hoping life would be better. This led the older one to inquire what the town the younger one had been like.
    The younger man declared that it was a shabby little town with only grouchy people and misery everywhere.
    The elder sadly shook his head and commented that the younger man wouldn’t like the big city.

  7. Claire L. says:

    Yes, I know it and often read it, that a true christian should show the joy and happyness of knowing that he is loved by the Lord Jesus. But I have not yet acquired this serenity yet. I feel troubled by the fact that some people I know and love do not acknowledge the truth about our Saviour. When I see this and also the way the Church is being persecuted and ridiculed, it saddens me deeply and I don’t know how to overcome this feeling. I would compare this with the sadness of a mother who loves each one of her children and discovers that there is division and hatred among some of them. How can she find serenity?
    I keep asking the Lord to give me this permanent joy and happyness that I should be feeling, regardless of the world’s blindness. One day my prayer will be answered.

  8. NinaBG says:

    AMEN!!!! I read your posts regularly, but this one is a hands-down favorite. And the video of the choir? W-O-N-D-E-R-F-U-L!!!!!

    Monsignor, you pulled apart this passage in a way only YOU can do, and it absolutely came alive for me. You nailed it!! Thank you for taking the time to express yourself in blog format. It’s really sooo refreshing to read your words.

    My parish will be getting a new pastor momentarily. We have prayed hard that Bishop will be open to the Holy Spirit and assign the perfect fit for our community. The pool of candidates is quite limited, as is the case everywhere, I’m afraid. I hope and pray that he is a man like you, with a happy and full interior life that bursts forth on the outside!

    Wouldn’t it be fantastic if you could tell a Christian by the JOY written on his/her face?!

    Loved that choir.

    Thanks again for a great post!

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