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Posted July 17, 2003

Book: The Saints' Guide: Everyday Wisdom from the Lives of the Saints
Author: Robert Ellsberg
North Point Press: A division of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, pp. 214

Excerpt from Preface:

In All Saints published in 1997 and already a classic of its kind Robert Ellsberg told the stories of 365 holy people with great vividness and eloquence. In The Saints' Guide to Happiness, Ellsberg looks to the saints and asks: What is happiness, and how might we find it?

Countless books answer these questions in terms of personal growth, career success, physical fitness, and the like. The Saints' Guide to Happiness proposes instead that happiness consists of a grasp of the deepest dimension of our humanity, which characterizes holy people past and present. The book offers a series of "lessons" in the life of the spirit: the struggle to feel fully alive in a frenzied society; the search for meaningful work, real friendship and enduring love; the encounter with suffering and death; and the yearning to grasp the ultimate significance of our lives. In these "lessons," our guides are the saints; historical figures like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, and Teresa of Avila, and moderns such as Dorothy Day, Flannery O'Connor, and Henri J. Nouwen. In the course of the book the figures familiar from stained-glass windows come to seem exemplars, not just of holy piety but of "life in abundance," the quality in which happiness and holiness converge.

Excerpt from Book:

It may seem foolish to speak of suffering in connection with the pursuit of happiness. "No pain, no gain," the saying goes, but that applies to dieting and exercise. Real pain is something else. Surely happiness whatever the word implies requires the greatest possible distance between ourselves and everything that hurts. Were it otherwise, we might be inclined to "take a pass." Yet suffering will come to us all the same.

It is not astonishing to learn that we can find happiness through work, through love, through inner peace, or detachment from everyday cares. Each of these pursuits, after all, implies a certain contentment. But to say that we shall be happy if only we learn to be content is a mere tautology. Our contentment is thin fare if it can be undone by a flea, a spark, a patch of ice, a broken twig. And so it is here that we most need the guidance of the saints. For they have known a path to happiness on which suffering is no necessary impediment.

One approaches this lesson with humility. Suffering is cold, hard, and repellent, and only those who have suffered can speak with assurance and without risk of seeming glib. St. John the Evangelist restricted his testimony to "what we have seen and heard," and there is particular peril, in this case, in talking about what one does not know firsthand. Yet the subject cannot be avoided. What, after all, is the value of any prescription for happiness if it depends ulitmately on happy circumstances beyond our control?

The saints do not teach us how to avoid suffering; they teach us how to suffer. They do not provide the "meaning" of suffering. But they lived by the assurance that there is a meaning or truth at the heart of life that suffering is powerless to destroy. They did not believe that suffering is powerless to destroy. They did not believe that suffering is "good" but that God is good and that "neither death or life . . .nor height, nor depth" can deprive us of access to that good if we truly desire it. They found that there is no place that is literally "godforsaken," but that in every situation, even the most grim and painful, there is a door that leads to love, to fullness of life . . . to happiness. This is the deepest mystery of the gospel. Our task, if we would learn form the saints is to find that door and enter in.

Table of Contents:

1. Learning to be alive
2. Learning to let go
3. Learning to work
4. Learning to sit still
5. Learning to love
6. Learning to suffer
7. Learning to die
8. Learning to see

Conclusion