The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Practical Lessons in the Life of the Spirit by Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg, editor-in-chief at Orbis books, follows his successful All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time with The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Practical Lessons in the Life of the Spirit, a companion book of practical wisdom from his personal saints. In the book, Ellsberg uses the broadest definition of sainthood to explore the meaning of happiness and how to achieve it. He looks not only to the canonized saints of the Roman Catholic Church for insight, but to anyone he considers saintly. Quotes from Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Flannery O’Connor appear alongside those from St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Francis of Assisi.

The practical lessons Ellsberg gathers from his personal saints are valuable as well as uplifting. The quotations he chooses are appropriate and meaningful. The title is grossly misleading, though, because Ellsberg uses a definition of saint so far reaching. On the importance of living in the moment, he quotes Henry David Thoreau along with desert father St. Antony. He finds wisdom in the writings of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh as well as eighteenth-century French Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade.

While Christians can certainly draw inspiration from Buddhists and secular writers, it is a stretch to consider Leo Tolstoy a saint. Ellsberg also overemphasizes his own holy heroes. For instance the strong influence of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, is evident in the numerous references Ellsberg makes to her. Ellsberg dropped out of college and spent five years in that movement searching for the meaning of his life. It was during this time that the author says he became a Roman Catholic and he came to appreciate the saints as “friends and contemporaries”.

The pursuit of happiness often equals acquisition in the United States, even though many find emptiness instead of joy in possessions. In a quietly urgent voice, Ellsberg points out that genuine happiness is not about ephemeral feelings or fun. Rather, it is found “by sharing in the life and spirit — the happiness — of God”. Ellsberg believes we can learn how to share in this eternal bliss from the example of saints who possess enduring happiness. Each chapter discusses an aspect of learning how to achieve the goal — To Be Alive, To Let Go, To Work, To Sit Still, To Love, To Suffer, To Die, and To See. Saints understand that happiness lies deep in a place that the vagaries of life cannot reach. Nothing external, neither disappointment nor tragedy, can erase enduring contentment.

The quest for happiness begins with shaking off the “deadness” of contemporary life — the drudgery of making a living in our consumer driven society. The saints appreciate the importance of living in the present, even while longing for the bliss of eternal life with Christ. To escape life’s treadmill, Ellsberg urges us to let go of our acquisitive natures. He believes the saints found gratitude for their blessings filled the void created by quitting the chase for prestige or possessions.

Most of us must work, however, to feed our families and ourselves. Moreover, the absence of labor does not breed happiness, but work done well brings satisfaction beyond compensation. The desert fathers cited by Ellsberg valued work for the joy it could bring them. Finding that joy and balancing it with prayer is a monastic tradition going back to St. Benedict, the sixth century abbot, who carefully divided each day among work, study and prayer.

Ellsberg uses the first half of his guide explaining how the saints found happiness, and then tells how they held on to it when faced with suffering and death. Many saints suffered and Ellsberg draws on their experience to show how a loving relationship with Christ sustains deep inner happiness. Ellsberg’s saints teach us sadness is not the opposite of happiness, but a part of it. Many Christians today witness to how a life crisis led them into a deeper awareness of God and the comfort He offers.

The Saints’ Guide to Happiness is seriously flawed with its misleading title, but still offers beneficial assistance to those in the pursuit of happiness through relationship with Christ. With generous quotations and brief biographical sketches, Ellsberg awakens the voice of his personal saints, so they can speak to today’s needs.

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