I remember well how it felt when I first came across these words written by Blaise Pascal. It was like reading the story of my life. It was as if I was the character Neo in movie The Matrix and I had unwittingly taken the red pill that Morpheus promised would lift the veil.
What on earth am I talking about? If you haven’t seen the movie, here is the clip I’m referring to.
And these are the words that Blaise Pascal writes in the beginning of Section VII of the Pensées,
That man without faith cannot know the true good, nor justice.
All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.
Remember, Blaise wrote this in the year 1660, so whenever you see the word man or men, you should be reading persons or people. And as such, this paragraph is abundantly clear isn’t it? The pursuit of happiness drives our decision processes. Or as those who make a living in the dismal science (economics) put it, utility is the driver. And yet, chasing happiness is like being on a treadmill to oblivion. Like being on those people-mover-walkways in an airport, yet never getting nearer to your gate. At least that has been my experience.
And yet after such a great number of years, no one without faith has reached the point to which all continually look. All complain, princes and subjects, noblemen and commoners, old and young, strong and weak, learned and ignorant, healthy and sick, of all countries, all times, all ages, and all conditions.
Hey, where is happiness? I don’t seem any nearer to it! I think I know what happiness is, and I don’t have it yet. Our elected leaders promised it to us! And even worse, hope springs eternal that this time is different. Despite every time we have tried to find happiness on our own before, no matter where it is we looked for it, we wind up with the same result: dissatisfaction and melancholy feelings of frustration.
A trial so long, so continuous, and so uniform, should certainly convince us of our inability to reach the good by our own efforts. But example teaches us little. No resemblance is ever so perfect that there is not some slight difference; and hence we expect that our hope will not be deceived on this occasion as before. And thus, while the present never satisfies us, experience dupes us, and from misfortune to misfortune leads us to death, their eternal crown.
But what if your experience has been really good so far? You were born into royalty, for example, and you don’t struggle with problems that we of the hoi polloi face? Oh, you’ll stub your toe, if you don’t break your neck looking for the meaning of life first. Or maybe you’ll just deny your mortality and keep reading all the self-help books that guarantee long life if you take the right vitamins and eat the right foods, as CS Lewis alludes to in Mere Christianity. Isn’t this how our culture today treats death? As if it is avoidable? Or that when it occurs there must have been an accident or a problem with that particular person? As if it is their own fault?
What is it then that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.
And here then is the Eureka moment. At least it was in my case. The recognition of that splinter in my mind. That there was a better way and that there is a path to a better way. This longing can only be filled by God. He is greater than all other things and,
He only is our true good, and since we have forsaken Him, it is a strange thing that there is nothing in nature which has not been serviceable in taking His place; the stars, the heavens, earth, the elements, plants, cabbages, leeks, animals, insects, calves, serpents, fever, pestilence, war, famine, vices, adultery, incest. And since man has lost the true good, everything can appear equally good to him, even his own destruction, though so opposed to God, to reason, and to the whole course of nature.
Feel like you are facing 100 mph fastballs on the inside corner of the plate yet? Or like you are a passenger and the driver plants the accelerator to the floor and starts flinging the sports car you are riding along in around blind curves on a mountain road in the middle of the night? Blaise can have that effect on you. And listen how the child prodigy who died at the age of 39 winds this section up:
Some seek good in authority, others in scientific research, others in pleasure. Others, who are in fact nearer the truth, have considered it necessary that the universal good, which all men desire, should not consist in any of the particular things which can only be possessed by one man, and which, when shared, afflict their possessor more by the want of the part he has not, than they please him by the possession of what he has. They have learned that the true good should be such as all can possess at once, without diminution and without envy, and which no one can lose against his will. And their reason is that this desire being natural to man, since it is necessarily in all, and that it is impossible not to have it, they infer from it…
This is where thought (pensée) #425 ends. But I can tell you what I inferred from it. Because thoughts like these pointed me towards the only real port in the storm of life that rages within and around me—to the Catholic Church and her Seven Sacraments, and the graces that they grant us and the healing from what ails us. When I think of the Church, I keep in mind this quote of St. Joan of Arc,
About Jesus Christ and the Church I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.
A little further on Blaise reinforces this:
After having understood the whole nature of man.—That a religion may be true, it must have knowledge of our nature. It ought to know its greatness and littleness, and the reason of both. What religion but the Christian has known this? Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Humble yourself, weak reason; be silent, foolish nature; learn that man infinitely transcends man, and learn from your Master your true condition, of which you are ignorant. Hear God.
Amen to that, brother Blaise. Amen.