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Happiness in disguise

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For Aristotle and St. Thomas, I tell my students, "happiness" meant not a mood or a feeling, but rather an achievement. To look back at a man's life and declare it "happy" was to say that he was a success at being human -- not the same, obviously, as being so in business, politics, entertainment or sports. But then what kind of success is it?

The question was answered more clearly for me when reading "Putting Down Roots," a book by John Coverdale about a priest of Opus Dei, Father Joseph Muzquiz, who served the last years of his life in the Boston area, and whose cause of beatification was recently opened.

I was primarily interested in "Father Joseph" from filial piety. I never met him, because he died the year before I encountered Opus Dei in graduate school at Harvard. But I would hear stories about how he had come from Spain with someone I did know very well, Father Sal Ferigle, and that, with no command of English and no resources, they had laid the foundations for the lively apostolates of Opus Dei all around the country. I wanted to learn this story, frankly, to acknowledge my debts.

"Putting Down Roots" is a short book, and to the point, and you can easily read it in an afternoon. If you do, the life of Father Joseph seems to fly by--as indeed my life and yours is flying by -- and yet, when I finished it, I was astonished by all that Father Joseph had accomplished. His life was not "sound and fury, signifying nothing," but enduringly fruitful. He purchased buildings for student residences in a dozen cities; started classes in Christian doctrine; founded centers of Opus Dei; attracted hundreds of men and women to the apostolate, even as celibates; and encouraged, directly or indirectly, thousands of persons in the Christian life -- and this is to speak only of his years in the United States. Yet he did all of this as a fairly ordinary man, trained originally as an engineer in Spain, not a "wonder worker" or miracle-doer, and not some frenetic workaholic or over-achiever.

Without hesitation I pronounce Father Joseph to be a "happy man," and I hope the Church does so as well, in a definitive way. But what does the book tell us about his success?

I say at first that he possessed a kind of concept or attitude, a fundamental way of seeing and judging everything, which I would express as this: the identification of gift of self and fruitfulness. We know that the Church teaches that a human being finds fulfillment only in a gift of self. And yet, selfish as we are, we can misunderstand even this good teaching, and imagine that someone might make a gift of himself without any implications of fecundity. Christ's teaching is quite to the contrary ("unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit," Jn 12:24), and I suspect that nothing which is not fruitful is ever really a gift of self. In Father Joseph's case, he would have been taken this attitude which I mention from the very first lines of "The Way," the spiritual classic written by the Founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaria Escriva: "Don't let your life be barren. Be useful. Make yourself felt. (Deja poso.) Shine forth with the torch of your faith and your love."

An immediate implication of this attitude of fruitfulness is optimism, and a certain lack of worry -- call it, "Christian carelessness" -- by which Father Joseph was confident that, in supplying his miniscule loaves and fishes, he could rely on God to do the rest. "He was undaunted by lack of money," Coverdale observes, "He did not consider the fact that a given objective far outreached their economic resources as an obstacle."

Another obvious implication for Father Joseph was "working at God's pace," which meant not tarrying, and making good use of even scraps and slivers of what we call "down time" -- as when he once came down with hepatitis and used his convalescence, for apostolic purposes, to read through library journals on the history of the Church in Asia.

Father Joseph's acceptance of the principle of fruitfulness showed itself too in a kind of spiritual entrepreneurship. He lived in the United States according to the advice which Escriva gave him on departure: "It's better to have to turn back in two things than to fail to do ninety-eight for fear of making a mistake." His life was an analogue, in the apostolic realm, of the maxim that a failed business is a success if one learns enough so that the next venture succeeds.

Finally, he was noteworthy for the dignity he accorded others. Showing the concern of a father or brother for his associates, Father Joseph gave lots of room for human freedom. "He was anxious to get the input of others," Coverdale writes, "He was so refined in the way he presented ideas and so naturally respectful of the view of others, that they found it easy to say what they thought."

Goethe once remarked that "Everything great, builds up." If so, then we can say confidently that "Putting Down Roots" is the story not of a good and holy man, simply, but of a great man.

Michael Pakaluk is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Ave Maria University.

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