ordinary happiness, Saint Therese, and faith

In continuing to read through The Happiness Project, I’ve come to the chapter about happiness and faith. I was particularly curious to read Gretchen Rubin’s thoughts on this since she writes from a perspective that’s not necessarily Christian. Imagine my surprise when she begins talking about “imitating a spiritual master,” and then chooses Saint Therese. A lesser known saint who lived a relatively quiet life, dying at age 24 from tuberculosis. How did such a woman become a saint? And then capture Gretchen Rubin’s attention?

It was her ordinary happiness. Meaning that Rubin was impressed that her achievement of sainthood happened “through the perfection of small, ordinary acts.” She quotes Therese’s famous spiritual memoir Story of a Soul as follows:

Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by … every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.

Rubin says, “Therese’s example shows that ordinary life, too, is full of opportunities for worthy, if inconspicuous virtue.” And the theme of Therese’s life is a happiness motto Rubin’s sought to adopt for herself: 

I take care to appear happy and especially to be so.

If Rubin, who by all accounts is a wonderful woman and writer and person but seems to be without a saving faith in Jesus Christ, can make her life happier by imitating this quiet saint, how much more can we who have THE source of happiness that Therese herself knew? One particularly striking story Rubin shares is of a nun whom Therese disliked and was annoyed by, yet made an especially strong effort to appear happy around. It worked to the point that this nun thought that she was closest to Therese of all the nuns! Little did she know …

I’m not advocating being fake. A “pick yourself up by the bootstraps and paste a happy face on” kind of happiness. But perhaps there is something for us to consider – that we should ask God for the grace to choose happiness, and kindness, and love, even when we don’t feel any of those things. That we could choose to be happy, dwell on what’s positive about our situation, instead of always focusing on the negative. I am so guilty of this as a “natural pessimist” and one who as a counselor by profession has witnessed some very hard realities of life in a fallen world.

Another point Rubin makes is that when “the call” comes – meaning the one that will change our lives forever, because it’s the cancer diagnosis or the bad news or the fill-in-the-blank – we then appreciate what we had. She quotes William Edward Hartpole Lecky:

There are times in the lives of most of us when we would have given all the world to be as we were but yesterday, though that yesterday had passed over us unappreciated and unenjoyed.

And so we are to live as though we’re dying. Because, well, we are. And this doesn’t bring pessimism but a greater appreciation for each day and what’s precious about now. We will not always have today, nor what we take for granted today. 

A moment happened today to bring this all into focus. One of my daughters unexpectedly tumbled out of the back of our SUV onto hard pavement. A friend “happened” to break her fall a bit, but she still got a pretty large bump on her head. It could have been so much worse. And in that instant I forgot about my petty complaints about how whiny she can be or how hard it is to get her to stay in bed. I was simply thankful to wrap my arms around her and give her the comfort she longed for as she repeated over and over again, “Mommy, I love you so much!” in between sobs. That’s a moment that makes me happy, though mixed in with a minor catastrophe. Have you had a moment like this recently? How did it change your perspective – and even your happiness?

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