'Happy' or 'Blessed'? How faith can be drained of meaning

'Happy' or 'Blessed'? How faith can be drained of meaning

Arthur Ballingall

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, under the title 'Our Vocation to Beatitude' (par 1716-1729), presents all of the Beatitudes prefixed by the word 'Blessed'. But most modern English translations used by the Catholic Church, whether from the pulpit or elsewhere in the Mass, present the Beatitudes prefixed by the word 'happy'.

As the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) is perhaps the most significant sermon ever delivered, the above word contrast, deserves to be looked at more closely.

In my search I could not find in any place, Internet or elsewhere, any English dictionary that defined the evolved word 'happy' as synonymous with 'blessed'.

To suggest that the word 'happy' has somehow evolved is quite inaccurate. Etymologically 'happy' derives from an Old Norse word 'happ', meaning fortune or chance. The word first appeared about a millennium after the gospels were written, but would be inserted, in the late 1960s, as a substitute for 'blessed' in the Beatitudes.

Original Greek

The Greek words 'makarios' (blessed) - 'makarizo' (to consider blessed) - 'makarismos' (blessing) and a derivative 'macarism' (beatitude), whose meaning was clear back to the days of Aristotle, are found in the original Greek as seen by St Jerome in his translation of the Vulgate from the Greek and Hebrew.

St Paul (1:Tim 1:11; 6:15) uses the word 'makarios' to describe the blessed transcendence of God. Jerome's translations were handed to the Council of Hippo in 393 AD, the Council of Carthage in 397AD, and subsequently approved and forwarded to Rome where the collection was given final approval as the Scripture we know today.

Why then was the word 'happy' substituted for 'blessed'?

As pointed out, the word 'happy' did not exist until the millennium after the Gospels were written. The problem occurs in some modern Latin dictionaries which allow two words for the word 'happy', namely 'felix' and 'beatus', and two words for 'blessedness', namely 'beatitudo' and 'felicitas'. 'Fortunate' is also included as a meaning.

Hence, on the surface, the choice of the word 'happy' to prefix the Beatitudes does not appear unreasonable, if recent Latin dictionaries are one's guide. However, for reasons expressed below, 'happy' and 'blessed' are both etymologically and theologically different.

In his excellent book, Back to Virtue (Ignatius Press), Catholic philosophy professor, Peter Kreeft, maintains, that the modern tendency of Bible translators to render 'makarios' as 'happy' is 'a fundamental and disastrous mistake'.

Kreeft makes three observations regarding each of these words:

(1) The word 'happy' is a subjective state or feeling.

(2) The word indicates a temporary state or feeling.

(3) As explained above, it is by connotation, dependent on fortune, or chance.

Kreeft then demonstrates that 'blessedness' is

(1) An objective state, not a feeling.

(2) A permanent state.

(3) 'Dependent on God's grace and our choice, neither chance nor fortune'.

Professor Kreeft also says that 'suffering is the crucial test separating happiness from blessedness. Suffering can be part of blessedness, but not part of happiness.' Kreeft says it is patently wrong to say that Job was happy on his dung heap, experiencing the very depths of human misery, but he is blessed, even if he does not know it, because 'he is learning wisdom and coming closer to God, his true good, his true blessedness.'

Kreeft further observes that 'it is startling to tell mourners that they are blessed, but it is silly to tell them that they are happy!' Well may happiness proceed from blessedness, but these words are by no means synonymous, and least of all inter- changeable.

The revered Christian writer, C.S. Lewis, invented a word to describe what he called a criminal act, namely 'the killing of word meaning'. Lewis called it 'verbicide', an expression not yet found in the best dictionaries!

There are English words that can be stretched so far to cover many meanings, even to the point of being emptied of their original meaning. While we can be happy with the paint on our house, the potato chips or the pet dog, the splendour of the Beatitudes cannot be adequately expressed in English, by words that are inherently unauthentic.

Charity or love?

A similar discordant change can be found in modern translations of Corinthians I, Chapter 13. This passage is one of the most beautiful expressions of religious faith to be found anywhere. But someone, late in the day, felt impelled to tamper with it.

Prior to the 1960s, the key virtues listed by St Paul were faith, hope and the greatest virtue, charity. Charity by definition is the love of our fellow human beings, because we love God, and as such was St Paul's understanding of the word.

A collection of theological enthusiasts, however, decided that love was a better word than charity. In fact it seemed a wonderful and powerful word, and perhaps in keeping with the general idea that language must continually evolve.

Indeed, in the second half of the 20th century, the word love itself has been trivialised and coarsened. If that calls for a full explanation, perhaps the advice of C.S. Lewis, as noted above, would be that yet another 'verbicide' had occurred.

Meanwhile, the long-awaited changes to the English liturgy will hopefully remedy such losses of eloquence and elegance.

Arthur Ballingall is a Catholic writer based in country Victoria.

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