Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Does God Want Us To Be Happy?

It feels like an offensive question. "Of course my God wants me to be happy!" one might hastily proclaim. "My God who sent his son to die on the cross. My God who forgives my sins. Of course my God wants me to be happy! Why else would He have done all of this?"

Frankly, it seems like God has ulterior motives. Happiness doesn't have much stage time in the bible: joy, peace, contentment, they're all there, as well as charity, patience, and kindness, which show up on the list of Seven Heavenly Virtues. Yet happiness is of a different flavor. Happiness is not necessarily synonymous with contentment or peacefulness. "Blessed are the poor, the meek, the merciful," Matthew recounts in chapter 5 of his gospel, listing states of being that are far from happy.

In truth, I'm not convinced that happiness has a place on God's priority list. Yes, God has endlessly shown his love for us; still, he has also demanded that men leave their families, kill their children, starve. There are basic tenets of all three Abrahaamic religions that ask followers to moderate drink, sex, and diet, all of which serve to make us happy. Catholicism especially is concerned with forming a moral being, a caring being, a being both internally connected with God and externally devoted to others. If we are to do good work, if we are to make use of the gifts God provides us and humbly commit our time to the love of others, we might find that happiness follows. But to seek happiness as an end to our actions, or even to actively hope for it, doesn't seem to fit within the Catholic framework, much less be a pressing bullet on God's agenda.

It is understandable, then, that Dorothy Day's passage about happiness in Robert Ellsberg's Dorothy Day: Selected Writings took me by surprise. Throughout the first 119 pages of the book, she defines both her work and her spirituality within the boundaries of Catholic virtue: on page 98, for instance, she defines her mission of, "feeding our brothers and sisters, clothing them and sheltering them" as "loving." She writes, "The more we do it, the more we realize that the most important thing is to love. There are several families with us, destitute families, destitute to an unbelievable extent, and there, too, is nothing to do but love" (98). Just a few pages later, when quoting a woman doctor who was very interested in making people happy, Day cites happiness as also part of her mission, writing, "When people have asked us about the work, what we were trying to do; it seemed very simple to say, 'We are trying to make people happy.'...We want to be happy, we want others to be happy, we want to see some of this joy of life which children have, we want to see people intoxicated with Christ" (102). Of course, as a basic human rule, we want to be happy and we want others to be happy as well. But how does happiness apply to Day's work? What does it mean to make the destitute happy, and is this synonymous with "intoxicating people with Christ"?

While I understand what Day is getting at, the language she uses is jolting. She references happiness in a few other place in the text, both of which are equally surprising. On page 23, she confesses, "'I am praying because I am happy, not because I am unhappy. I did not turn to God in unhappiness, in grief, in despair-- to get consolation, to get something from Him.' And encouraged that I am praying because I want to thank Him, I go on praying." Reading this, I couldn't help but question if happiness is really what she means. Is fulfilled perhaps a better term? Day writes that she was mistaken for a homeless person at a Salvation Army due to her appearance, and she also notes that she and her colleagues work long hours with no pay or thanks. Is this happiness?

Day also uses the idea of happiness when referencing the bible. She writes, "Peter's mother-in-law hastened to cook a meal for Him, and if anything in the gospels can be inferred, it surely is that she gave the very best she had, with no thought of extravagance. Matthew made a feast for Him, inviting the whole town, so that the house was in an uproar of enjoyment, and the straitlaced Pharisees were scandalized" (95). Once again, I became critical of Day's analysis. I am skeptical about (but not closed to) the idea that Matthew made a feast and invited the town in order to create an "uproar of enjoyment;" it seems more likely that Matthew was just trying to feed a friend. Day's assumption of "no thought of extravagance" might be more accurate than the former inference.

In conclusion, I don't know what to make of happiness or Day's use of it. It's far from a central theme of Day's writing, anyway; she is obviously more concerned with simple living, poverty, systemic injustice. Still, her mention of happiness provoked me to reconsider both her writing and the knowledge of Catholicism that I already had. Feeding and clothing people is a noble, good thing. Making them happy is a different act entirely.

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