‘I thank the Lord that I possess more than my fair share of happiness!’ I am sure many readers (of a certain age) will remember the song by Sir Ken Dodd! ‘Does God want me to be happy?’ This was a question posed to a colleague of mine by someone seeking to leave a marriage and begin a new life in a new relationship. It is a very good question. Humanly speaking no one would wish to deprive another person of happiness, or deny them an opportunity to find a happy life. This is not the same as saying God will always agree with the course we take in life to pursue happiness.
I can’t be the only Spiritual Director to begin a statement with ‘I am sorry to tell you.’ It can be ‘I am sorry tell you that the Christian life does not permit you to make that choice.’ Or it can be ‘I am sorry to tell you what you have done is clearly forbidden to Christians.’
‘Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’ as a goal for individual and community, as set out in the American Declaration of Independence clearly indicates that there is a religious, moral and social context to the well-being of both individual and community. This being the case, it is very likely that the pursuit of ‘happiness’ by an individual or a couple can have disastrous consequences for the wider community, impacting negatively on their well-being.
Ironically the Greek word ‘Makarios’ was translated in the Authorised Version as ‘Happy’, most notably in the Beatitudes – ‘ Happy are the pure in heart for they shall see God.’ At the heart of this call to blessed happiness is spiritual poverty and selfless spending of life for the sake of others. This is the blessedness or ‘happiness’ of the way of the cross.
The will of God in Christ is that we should find blessing – that is to say an indwelling in the Divine presence – a ‘blessed communion’. This is found in walking the way of the cross which is ‘none other than the way and life of peace.’
The experience of my colleague responding to this ‘pursuit of happiness’ points to a very important aspect of ‘Ghostly Counsel’. Spiritual Direction is precisely that – direction by the Holy Spirit whose will is revealed in the Scriptures, the life of Our Lord and the practice of the Universal Church. Those involved in Spiritual Direction put themselves under the authority of the Word. There is a growing tendency in Spiritual Direction to borrow skills and practice from non-directive counselling and to deliberately reject any notion of ‘authority’ in the relationship. There may be some insights to be gained from doing this but the perils are numerous.
Once the Christian life is cut free from the moorings of Scripture and long established morality of the Church there is an inevitable drift onto the rocks. It is for good reasons that the Prayer Book advises those seeking Ghostly Counsel to seek out ‘a learned minister of God’s Word.’
Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House