Happy endings

A sermon preached at St. Albans-St. Saviours, by Imogen de la Bere, on the 20th May, 2001.

In the last month I’ve been involved in something of an epic struggle.

It’s been the battle of the happy ending.

At the beginning of April, just before we left for New Zealand for a month, I delivered what hoped was the final draft of my latest novel, which I’ve been working on for about three years. It’s had three plots and six endings, though I hope this doesn’t show in the final product.

I finished it at last and sent it off to my agent to deliver to the publishers, and so confident was I that I wouldn’t have to tinker with the damned thing again, I cut it onto a CD and put in on the shelf, and got on with research for the next book.

But no, it was not to be.

Rather against my own inclinations I had given the book a resoundingly happy ending, with the hero and heroine cosied up in bed together, reading letters about an inheritance. I ended like this, because I felt that this positive take on life agreed with most people- or rather most novel readers – who are an affluent and successful bunch – felt about life – that life is good and should be celebrated.

I didn’t specially want to end the book this way, from an artistic point of view, since happy endings are much harder to write than bitter ones, and shadow is much more interesting to depict than light. But I felt that readers would nonetheless prefer the sunshine.

But fortunately for my artistic integrity, and interestingly, both my agent and publisher insisted that the epilogue, which contained the happy-wrap-up, had to go.

This is quite funny when you think that if I’d been writing a hundred years ago, my publishers would have insisted on a happy ending whatever I had to say on the matter.

Their insistence is nothing to do with fashion. Nor does it spring from pessimistic natures or unhappy lives. Both these literary people are successful, affluent, cheerful and kind. Their feeling that my book must discard its relentlessly happy ending sprang from the belief in how life is. It is not a sunlit place, where love conquers all darkness, where good people grow rich and live happily ever after and bad people get their just deserts. I know this, my critical readers know this, and all of us know that for a work of art to be authentic – that is true in its own terms - it must acknowledge that this is how life is.

(This is not to say that the hero and heroine don’t end up in bed together, but if you want to know about that you are gong to have to wait till its published.)

The point of my telling you this solipsistic tale is that it illustrates what we all know in our hearts – that if we are honest, we dare not preach happiness. I know people who claim to be happy. And I am sure that they are. But when they tell me this, I cannot help thinking that human happiness is fragile. At any moment the stock market crashes and wealth evaporates, cancer is diagnosed, a beloved child is killed – and our tenuous grasp on happiness is loosed. Or as the ancients put it, more succinctly, call no one happy until he is dead.

In truth it is not possible for an honest person to be perfectly, blithely happy in an imperfect world. It is quite conceivable for a person to have every good thing that life affords – excellent health, ample wealth, a beloved and loving partner, interesting work, good friends, an outlet for creativity - and indeed there are such blessed people. But the mere possession of so many good things only serves to highlight to the honest person that life is not like that for multitudes of other – that misery is real and terrible and inescapable for very many people. The consciousness of our own happiness is tinged therefore, if we are honest, by the painful knowledge that others suffer.

But naturally, as you protest, there are two kinds of happiness – the crude, selfish happiness that comes from having success, plenty and comfort, at the expense of others and blind to the suffering of the others, the happiness of OK magazine, and on the other hand the internal happiness that comes from content, inner modesty and the absence of suffering – a happiness that survives obscurity and a stock market crash.

We are, I think, all aware of these two kinds of happiness. I suspect none of us so much as glances at the cover of a celebrity magazine without telling ourself that they may be successful and glamorous, but genuine happiness is internal balance, the absence of desire, the thorough, repeatable, genuine delight in what we have and what we find around us, which the knowledge of others’ suffering and others’ success cannot shake.

But I would suggest that there are three kinds of happiness – the blind and selfish kind, the modest and contented kind, and the third – happiness as a state of grace, rather than a feeling.

I would suggest that the third kind of happiness is true blessedness – a state that a person might not even be aware of, being so selfless and so devoid of needs, so committed to others and causes outside the self that they do not even stop to consider whether they are happy or not. In fact this blessed person might in fact suffer terribly from the sickness of internal depression or terrible sadness at the sufferings of the world. But neither internal nor external suffering removes that person from the state of blessedness. In other words, it is not necessary to feel superficially happy to be happy.


Jesus said to his disciples:

Peace I leave with you.

My peace I give to you.

I do not give to you as the world gives.

Do not let your hearts be troubled,

And do not let them be afraid.

These words are so familiar to us that I suspect we rarely stop to consider them. But note what Jesus is saying. The peace that he gives is not even remotely like anything we understand as happiness – for remember the people of Jesus’ time understood very well the two kinds of happiness – the selfish as opposed to the humbly contented – the idea comes from Epicurus and was a commonplace of philosophy - but he goes one step further, and promises them something else again. I do not give as the world gives – blessed are the poor, blessed are you when men persecute you – there is nothing there about feeling at peace, about feeling happy. Do not be troubled, do not be afraid, he says, implying that these good and humble people will often feel troubled and afraid – they will feel very far from happy. But nonetheless they will be blessed.

There’s a lovely illustration of this principle of unhappy happiness in the Little Flowers of St Francis, a story called the Perfect Joy. St Francis, far from being all sweetness and light, was as good at staring misery in the face as any person has ever been.

In the episode told in chapter 8, Francis and Brother Leo are walking along towards the convent of St Mary of the Angels. It’s freezing cold. Francis wiles away the time by talking to Leo about the perfect joy, in the way you plan your summer holidays in the middle of winter. Francis lists off all the things that might, in Leo’s eyes constitute happiness for him.

    • If the Friars Minor were acknowledged as the wisest and holiest order in the world – would that be the perfect joy? Not it would not.
    • What if the Friars Minor could make the lame to walk, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, or even go so far as to raise the dead - would this be the perfect joy? No, it would not.
    • And what about if the Friars Minor were so learned and wise that they knew all languages, even the tongues of angles; understood the courses of the stars and the qualities of all living things - would this be the perfect joy? No, it would not.
    • Shortly after, the story tells us, he cries out again: "O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor could explain all Scripture; if they had the gift of prophecy, and could reveal, not only all future things, but the secrets of all consciences and all souls, or best of all, if they had the gift of preaching so as to convert all infidels to the faith of Christ – would this? No – it would not…."

Well, you can imagine by this time, Brother Leo is becoming quite impatient, as well as cold, and is no doubt imagining that the perfect joy would be a dry feet and a warm nose.

‘Well’, he asks Francis, ‘well, what is the perfect joy?’

‘Imagine,’ says Francis, ‘imagine we have arrived at St Mary of the Angels, all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger – ‘

‘Yes yes, that will be good!’ cries Leo, thinking of firelight and the smell of bread.

"if, when we knock at the convent-gate, and the porter comes down, and we call out that we are two of the brethren – ‘

‘yes, yes indeed’, cries Leo, ‘how wonderful that moment is going to be! We go inside and get warm and fed! What joy!’

But Francis isn’t finished – ‘ and the porter refuses to let us in, crying out that we are two impostors, and refuses to let us in till nightfall. Shivering with cold and faint with hunger, we wait patiently and then we knock again, but still the porter shouts at us and tells us to be gone to the poorhouse for we are rogues and beggars! And when we entreat him with tears, he comes out of the convent and beats us up with a big knotted stick and rolls us into the snow - if we bear all these injuries’, says Francis, ‘with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect joy.’