There has without a doubt been no shortage of reflections and commentaries done on The Sermon of the Mount over the centuries. For some, it might seem like a cliché to revisit such a well-expounded topic. However, the reality is that The Sermon on the Mount is a virtually inexhaustible source of inspiration for the Christian life. It is the perfect homily, delivered by the perfect God-Man for the purpose of guiding souls along the path to happiness.
Happiness therefore, as described by the Sermon on the Mount, will be the focus of this discussion. First of all, we will examine the writings of the Church and of learned theologians in order to arrive at a proper understanding of who man is. Secondly, we will use this understanding as a bridge to our explanation of what true happiness is in relation to man. Finally, we will apply our understanding of human nature and of happiness to the Sermon on the Mount in order to arrive at the means by which man can achieve happiness, both in this life and the in the next. Along the way, we will examine certain false conceptualizations of happiness that have appeared over the centuries and why they have ultimately resulted in the loss of happiness.
The Nature of Man
The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, was the first to arrive at the truth of human nature in describing him as a “rational animal.” Understanding this nature provides a crucial insight into the understanding of what happiness is in relation to man. According to Catholic theologian D.Q. McInerny, “Man is a rational animal, and is therefore differentiated from the other members of the animal kingdom because he consciously acts for a purpose. Man is, by definition, the purposeful animal, the end-oriented animal, the goal-directed animal.”
Man, as we see here, is the only creature on earth which acts for a deliberate purpose. Proof of this lay in man’s ability to recognize his actions and to consciously choose them. In other words, in his intellect and will. According to McInerny, even the intellect and will of man, from which his actions proceed, are themselves oriented toward a specific purpose. In his own words, “the intellect is defined in terms of truth; the other, the will, is defined in terms of the good. Speaking with reference to ends, we can say that the end or purpose of the intellect is truth. The truth is what the intellect is for. On the other hand, the end or purpose of the will is the good.”
Since man always acts for a specific purpose, regardless of circumstance, it can be seen that man has a specific purpose in of himself. It can also be seen that only the acquisition of truth and goodness can satisfy the intellect and will of man. This means that in order for man to be truly happy, he must strive to attain these latter two. However, since nothing natural can fully satisfy man, it is obvious that man’s final end and ultimate purpose must be a supernatural one. As we are concerned with ends here, and not merely with truth or goodness as abstract concepts, we must presume that the final end of man consists in attaining the source of truth and goodness itself. In other words, man can only find true happiness in God, since truth and goodness cannot exist simply as concepts, but must be rooted in being. We do not desire concepts in of themselves. Rather, we desire existing things which we perceive as true or good.
It is toward his final end, consciously or unconsciously, that man moves when he seeks after some lesser truth or good, as he discovers it within an existing thing. This movement is described by McInerny in the following terms:
Everything which we desire is desired in terms of the final end, even though we may not be—and very probably are not—in each and every case fully aware of the fact. Every single good which we pursue, however trivial it might be, or even however distant it might be from what would truly contribute to our happiness, derives it character as a good from the fact that it is somehow related to the ultimate good which is the root motivating force behind all our actions.”
In essence, McInerny is saying that man is always seeking the ultimate source of his happiness whether he realizes it or not. Even when man chooses something contrary to his ultimate happiness, his inherent desire for his final end is such that he will never be satisfied until he achieves it. This explains much about human nature and why modern society has fallen into its current trends. A fundamental lack of understanding about who man is inevitably leads to a false understanding of what will make man happy. Thus, the development of erroneous notions concerning happiness throughout the centuries. It is the true nature of happiness therefore to which we must now turn our attention.
The Nature of Happiness
Perhaps the quickest way to arrive at the true nature if happiness is to first examine what happiness is not. To that end, McInerny writes that:
Men repeatedly succeed in convincing themselves that riches, material possessions, hold the key to human happiness. At the heart of this benighted conviction is a monumental mistaking of means for ends … The more we have the more we want, and we are never completely satisfied.”
This mistaking of means for ends is the foundation upon which all erroneous notions of happiness ultimately rest. Since man is a “rational animal” who acts with purpose and who exists for a purpose, then we know that man’s happiness is ultimately bound up within the attainment of this purpose; namely, union with God, Who is the source of the truth and goodness which all men crave.
Since modern society has largely rejected belief in God as the final end of man, it has also inadvertently rejected happiness as such. Hence, we now find ourselves in a society which seeks happiness only in material goods and pleasures, often denying these to others in order to safeguard them for themselves. In other words, we live in a morally relativistic society in which the individual is concerned primarily with himself at the expense of his neighbor.
Such a false understanding of happiness completely contradicts the charter for happiness which has been given to us by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. This famous homily of Our Blessed Lord contains within it the true meaning of happiness as well as the means by which man is to attain it. Thus, with the understanding that happiness for man consists of union with God, we must now turn our attention to the Sermon on the Mount as it pertains to proper Christian living.
The Sermon on the Mount
Found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7, the Sermon of the Mount presents the 8 Beatitudes as the foundational charter for Christian living. As delivered by Christ in Matthew’s Gospel, they are as follows:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, or they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”
As we can see, the 8 Beatitudes strongly emphasize meekness, purity, peacemaking, and sacrifice as the means by which man is to attain spiritual riches and rewards from God. They differ from the Ten Commandments in that they take the Commandments a step further. While the Ten Commandments tell us what not to do in order to be happy, the 8 Beatitudes tell us what we should do. Contained within them is the implicit requirement of possessing the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity as well as the four Cardinal virtues of Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice. If any one of these foundational virtues is lacking, especially charity, then the practice of the beatitudes will be made extremely difficult if not impossible. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that, “The beatitude we are promised confronts us with decisive moral choices. It invites us to purify our hearts of bad instincts and to seek the love of God above all else.” Thus, the Beatitudes fulfill man’s final end, which is attaining union with God and therefore perfect happiness.
A deeper inspection of the Beatitudes reveals that they actually contain the Ten Commandments within them, for it is impossible to observe the Beatitudes without first observing the Commandments. One cannot seek and rejoice in the kingdom of heaven unless he puts God above everything, as the First Commandment obliges him. Moreover, one cannot attain purity of heart or be a peacemaker without observing the Fifth and Sixth Commandments. Nor even can one thirst for righteousness if he is not observing the righteousness which the Commandments call for.
Ultimately, the Beatitudes provide the perfect means by which Christians can attain happiness on earth and in heaven. However, Christ’s teachings extend beyond the Beatitudes as they are merely a fraction of what the Sermon of the Mount fully entails. Elsewhere in the Sermon, Christ refers to His disciples as “the salt of the earth,”meaning that they are to preserve the world from the rottenness of moral decay, and that they are to flavor their daily lives with the truths of Christ. In various other places throughout the Sermon, Christ gives instructions concerning anger, divorce, oath swearing, anxiety, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Perhaps the most widely expounded upon teachings of Christ in the Sermon, after those which we have already enumerated, are His teachings on loving our enemies and His parable of how “the eye is the lamp of the body.” Expressing love for one’s enemies and for those who have inflicted injury upon us is a stark reversal from our typical pattern of behavior, yet Christ commands this of His disciples as a requisite for holiness and therefore happiness. Indeed, holiness is an essential requirement for happiness since true happiness consists not only of union with God, but also in becoming like God. In other words, in becoming holy. Meanwhile, Christ urges us to keep a close guard over our eyes and what we allow to enter them since what we see has a direct effect on our soul. Hence, “if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness.”
What we may readily see in all of this is the that fact that the Sermon of the Mount, with all that it contains, is ultimately the charter for true Christian living in the sense that it upholds the moral standard set forth by the Ten Commandments and enhances it. As the Catechism describes, “Jesus acknowledged the Ten Commandments but he also showed the power of the Spirit at work in their letter … He unfolded all the demands of the Commandments.” The Beatitudes therefore, are an unfolding of the full richness which the Commandments contain.
Throughout this discussion, we have explored the nature of man and how this nature dictates what happiness is in relation to him. We have also examined how the teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount ultimately contain the secret to man’s true and lasting happiness as they orient him toward his final end which is the immediate and unimpeded possession of God. We have explored this concept more deeply in our reflection upon the various parables which the Sermon contains and how the Ten Commandments are ultimately the foundation upon which the Sermon is based. It is my sincere hope that all of us may learn to practice the Beatitudes which Christ has given us so that one day we may all arrive at that true and perfect happiness which our human nature universally craves.
 McInerny D.Q, A Course in Thomistic Ethics, 17-18.
 McInerny D.Q., A Course in Thomistic Ethics, 18-19
 McInerny D.Q., A Course in Thomistic Ethics, 21
 McInerny D.Q., A Course in Thomistic Ethics, 22
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1716
 The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1723
 Matthew 5:13
 Matthew 6:22
 Matthew 6:22-23
 The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2054