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

C.H. Doyle

Ellsberg's saints teach us sadness is not the opposite of happiness, but a part of it.

The Saints' Guide to Happiness

Publisher: Doubleday
Length: 240
Subtitle: Practical Lessons in the Life of the Spirit
Price: $12.95
Author: Robert Ellsberg
US publication date: 2005-09
Amazon affiliate

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.





'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Mobley Laments the Evil of "James Crow" in the US

Austin's Mobley makes upbeat-sounding, soulful pop-rock songs with a political conscience, as on his latest single, "James Crow".


Jordan Tice's "Bad Little Idea" Is a Satirical Spin on Dire Romance (premiere)

Hawktail's Jordan Tice impresses with his solo work on "Bad Little Idea", a folk rambler that blends bluesy undertones with satiric wit.


Composer Ilan Eshkeri Discusses His Soundtrack for the 'Ghost of Tsushima' Game

Having composed for blockbuster films and ballet, Ilan Eshkeri discusses how powerful emotional narratives and the opportunity for creative freedom drew him to triple-A video game Ghost of Tsushima.


Love and Cinema: The Ruinous Lives in Żuławski's L'important c'est d'aimer

Żuławski's world of hapless also-rans in L'important C'est D'aimer is surveyed with a clear and compassionate eye. He has never done anything in his anarchic world by the halves.


On Bruce Springsteen's Music in Film and TV

Bruce Springsteen's music in film and television captured author Caroline Madden's imagination. She discuses her book, Springsteen as Soundtrack, and other things Springsteen in this interview.


Alt-pop's merci, mercy Warns We May "Fall Apart"

Australian alt-pop singer-songwriter, merci, mercy shares a video for her catchy, sophisticated anthem, "Fall Apart".


Tears in Rain: 'Blade Runner' and Philip K. Dick's Legacy in Film

Blade Runner, and the work of Philip K. Dick, continues to find its way into our cinemas and minds. How did the visions of a paranoid loner become the most relevant science fiction of our time?

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.