RonRolheiser,OMI

Ten Secrets to Happiness

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The past five years have seen a growth in interest in studies on human happiness. Numerous books have been published on the topic, not least Sonja Lyubomirsky’s, The Myths of Happiness, which has become for many a secular bible for happiness and meaning. In a recent book, Called to Happiness, Sidney Callahan critically evaluates many of these studies. Whatever the merit of these studies, all of us nurse our own secret dream of what will bring us happiness and often that fantasy is at odds with what we know to be true at a deeper level. What will make us happy?

In a recent interview (July 29, 2014) for the Argentine weekly, Viva, Pope Francis weighs in on this topic, submitting his own “Top 10 Tips” for happiness. What are Pope Francis’ tips for happiness or, as he puts it, “for bringing greater joy to one’s life”?

In presenting these, I will be faithful to his captions but, because his commentary on each one was rather lengthy, I will risk synthesizing his central point in my own words:

1.      Live and let live.

All of us will live longer and more happily if we stop trying to arrange other peoples’ lives. Jesus challenged us not to judge but to live with the tension and let God and history make the judgments. So live we need to live by own convictions and let others do the same.

2.      Be giving of yourself to others.

Happiness lies in giving ourselves away. We need to be open and generous because if we withdraw into ourselves we run the risk of becoming self-centered and no happiness will be found there since “stagnant water becomes putrid.”

3.      Proceed calmly.

Move with kindness, humility, and calm. These are the antithesis of anxiety and distress. Calm never causes high blood pressure. We need to make conscious efforts to never let the moment cause panic and excessive hurry. Rather be late than stressed.

4.      A healthy sense of leisure.

Never lose the pleasures of art, literature, and playing with children. Remember that Jesus scandalized others with his capacity to enjoy life in all its sensuousness. We don’t live by work alone, no matter how important and meaningful it might be. In heaven there will be no work, only leisure, we need to learn the art and joy of leisure not just to prepare for heaven but to enjoy some of heaven already now.

5.      Sundays should be holidays. Workers should have Sundays off because Sunday is for family.

Accomplishment, productivity, and speed may not become our most valued commodities or we will begin to take everything for granted, our lives, our health, our families, our friends, those around us, and all the good things in life. That is why God gave us a commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. This is not a lifestyle suggestion, but a commandment as binding as not killing. Moreover, if we are employers, the commandment demands too that we give our employees proper Sabbath-time.

6.      Find innovative ways to create dignified jobs for young people.

If you want to bless a young person, don’t just tell that person that he or she is wonderful. Don’t just admire youthful beauty and energy. Give a young person your job! Or, at least, work actively to help him or her find meaningful work. This will both bless that young person and bring a special happiness to your own life.

7.      Respect and take care of nature.

The air we breathe out is the air we will re-inhale. This is true spiritually, psychologically, and ecologically. We can’t be whole and happy when Mother Earth is being stripped of her wholeness. Christ came to save the world, not just the people in the world. Our salvation, like our happiness, is tied to the way we treat the earth. It is immoral to slap another person in the face and so it is immoral too to throw our garbage into the face of Mother Earth.

8.      Stop being negative.

Needing to talk badly about others indicates low self-esteem. Negative thoughts feed unhappiness and a bad self-image. Positive thoughts feed happiness and healthy self-esteem.

9.      Don’t proselyte, respect others’ beliefs.

What we cherish and put our faith into grows “by attraction, not by proselytizing.”  Beauty is the one thing that no one can argue with. Cherish your values, but always act towards others with graciousness, charity, and respect.

10.   Work for peace.

Peace is more than the absence of war and working for peace means more than not causing disharmony.  Peace, like war, must be waged actively by working for justice, equality, and an ever-wider inclusivity in terms of what makes up our family. Waging peace is the perennial struggle to stretch hearts, our own and others, to accept that in God’s house there are many rooms and that all faiths, not least our own, are meant to be a house of prayer for all peoples.

Offered with apologies for whenever my own thinking replaced that of Pope Francis.

Walking on Water and Sinking Like a Stone

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Faith isn’t something you ever simply achieve. It’s not something that you ever nail down as a fait accompli. Faith works this way: Some days you walk on water and other days you sink like a stone.  Faith invariably gives way to doubt before it again recovers its confidence, then it loses it again.

We see this graphically illustrated in the famous story in the gospels of Peter walking on water. The story goes this way: The disciples had just witnessed a major miracle, Jesus feeding more than 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes. Having just witnessed a miracle, their faith was strong. Soon afterwards they get into a boat to cross a lake. Jesus is not with them. A few miles out they run into a fierce storm and begin to panic. Jesus comes walking towards them on the water. Initially they’re frightened and take him for a ghost. But he calms their fear by telling them, right from the center of the storm, that he is not just Jesus but that he is God’s very presence.

Peter is immediately buoyed up in his faith and asks Jesus to let him too walk on the water. Jesus invites him to do so and Peter gets out of the boat confidently and begins to walk on the water. But then, realizing what he was doing and the incredulous nature of it, he immediately starts to sink, cries out for help, and Jesus has to reach out and rescue him from drowning.

What we see illustrated here are two things that lie at the heart of our experience of faith, namely, that faith (literally) has its ups and downs and that it works best when we don’t confuse it with our own powers.

Faith has its ups and downs: We see this, almost pictorially illustrated, in the incident of Peter walking on the water. Initially his faith feels strong and he confidently steps onto the sea and begins to walk. But, almost immediately upon realizing what he was doing, he starts to sink. Our own faith works exactly like that, at times it lets us walk on water and at other times we sink like a stone. The gospel-image of Peter walking on the sea speaks for itself.

However if we feel discouraged because our faith vacillates in this way, we can take consolation from these words from Julian of Norwich. Describing one of her visions, she writes: “After this He [Jesus] showed a most excellent spiritual pleasure in my soul: I was completely filled with everlasting certainty, powerfully sustained without any painful fear. This feeling was so joyful and so spiritual that I was wholly in peace and in repose and there was nothing on earth that would have grieved me. This lasted only a while, and I was changed and left to myself in such sadness and weariness of my life, and annoyance with myself that scarcely was I able to have patience to live.  … And immediately after this, our Blessed Lord gave me again the comfort and the rest in my soul, in delight and in security so blissful and so powerful that no fear, no sorrow, no bodily pain that could be suffered would have distressed me. And then pain showed again to my feeling, and then the joy and delight, and now the one, and now the other, various times.” (Showings 15)

Julian of Norwich was a renowned mystic with an exceptional faith and, yet, like Peter, she too vacillated between walking on water and sinking like a stone. Her confident feelings came – but they also left.

As well, faith works best when we don’t confuse it with our own efforts. For example, Donald Nichol, in his book, Holiness, shares a story of a British missionary working in Africa. At one point, early on in his stay there, the missionary was called upon to mediate a dispute between two tribes. He had no preparation for this, was naïve, and totally out of his depth. But he gave himself over to the task in faith and, surprisingly, reconciled the two tribes. Afterwards, buoyed by this success, he began to fancy himself as mediator and began to present himself as an arbiter of disputes. But now, however, his efforts were invariably unhelpful. Here’s the irony: when he didn’t know what he was doing, but trusted solely in God, he was able to walk on water; as soon as he began to wrap himself in the process, he sank like a stone. Faith works like that: We can walk on water only as long as we don’t think that we are doing it with our own strength.

The Sufi mystic, Rumi, once wrote that we live with a deep secret that sometimes we know, and then not, and then we know it again.  Faith works like that, some days we walk on water, other days we sink like a stone, and then later we walk on water again.

The Law of Karma

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In 1991 Hollywood produced a comedy entitled, City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal. In a quirky way it was a wonderfully moral film, focusing on three, middle-aged men from New York City who were dealing with midlife crisis.

As a present from their wives, who are frustrated enough with them to attempt anything, the three are given the gift of participating in a cattle drive through New Mexico and Colorado. And so these three urbanites set off to ride horses through the wilderness. The comedy part of the film focuses on their inept horsemanship and their naiveté about cattle and the wilderness. The more serious part of the movie tracks their conversations as they try to sort through both their own struggles with aging and the larger mysteries of life.

And one day as they are discussing sex, one of the three, Ed, the character with the least amount of moral scruples, asks the other two whether they would be unfaithful to their wives and have an affair if they were sure that they would never be caught. Billy Cyrstal’s character, Mitch, initially engages the question jokingly, protesting its impossibility: You always get caught! All affairs get exposed in the end. But Ed persists with his question: “But suppose you wouldn’t get caught. Suppose you could get away with it. Would you cheat on your wife and have an affair, if no one would ever know?” Mitch’s answer: “No, I still wouldn’t do it!” “Why not?” asks Ed, “nobody would know.” “But I’d know,” Mitch replied, “and I’d hate myself for it!”

There are volumes of moral wisdom in that answer. Ultimately nobody gets away with anything.  We always get caught, not least by ourselves and by the moral energy inside the air we breathe. Moreover whether we get caught or not, there will always be consequences. This is a deep, inalienable moral principle written into the very fabric of the universe itself. Universal human experience attests to this. Nobody ultimately gets away with anything, despite every protest to the contrary.

We see this articulated, for example, in the very heart of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and virtually all Easter religions in a concept that is popularly called the Law of Karma. Karma is a Sanskrit word which means action or deed, but it carries with it the implication that every action or deed we do generates a force of energy that returns to us in kind, namely, what we sow is what we will reap. Hence, bad intent and bad actions will ricochet back on us and cause unhappiness, just as good intent and good actions will ricochet back on us and bring us happiness, irrespective of what is seen or known by anyone else. The universe has its own laws that assure this.

Jesus was no stranger to the idea. It is everywhere present in his teachings and at times explicitly stated: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6, 38)

In essence, Jesus is telling us that the air we breathe out is the air that we will re-inhale and that this is true at every level of our existence: Simply put, if we are emitting too much carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide into the air we will eventually find ourselves suffocating on them. And this is true at every level of our lives: If I breathe out bitterness, I will eventually find myself breathing in bitterness. If I breathe out dishonesty, I will eventually find myself breathing in dishonesty. If I breathe out greed and stinginess, I will eventually find myself gasping for a generosity in a world suffocating on greed and stinginess. Conversely, if I breathe out generosity, love, honesty, and forgiveness, I will eventually, no matter how mean and dishonest the world around me, find life inside a world of generosity, love, honesty, and forgiveness.

What we breathe out is what we will eventually re-inhale. This is a nonnegotiable truth written into the very structure of the universe, written into life itself, written into every religion worthy of the name, written into the teachings of Jesus, and written into every conscience that is still in good faith.

Where does this principle ground itself and why can it never be violated without consequence? The principle is alienable because the universe protects itself, because Mother Earth protects herself, because human nature protects itself, because the laws of love protect themselves, because the laws of justice protect themselves, because the laws of conscience protect themselves, because God has created a universe that is moral in its very structure.

Being moral or not is not something we can choose or not choose. We don’t have that prerogative because God created a morally-contoured universe, one that has deep, inalienable moral grooves which need to be honored and respected, irrespective of whether we get caught or not when we cheat.