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Religion, Happiness, and Story of a Soul

The next book on the list is Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux. In chapter four one single sentence really stood out for me: “I am sure one can experience such joy only in a religious community.” Saint Therese was no expert on psychology, but she was definitely onto something. Her sentiment immediately reminded me of Haidt’s chapter on spirituality where he asserts that religious people tend to be very happy and live longer than non-believers. He discusses how the feelings of awe and what he calls elevation play into this (you’ll really have to read the explanation to get this one, but it has to do with moving away from disgust, feeling warmth in your the heart, and inspiration to help others). When I began exploring happiness, the first thing I looked into was faith. I come from a religious family, but haven’t identified as a religious person for as long as I can remember. So when I started thinking seriously about faith again it made sense to start where it all began for me: Christianity. I learned a lot from the time I spent with the Christian fellowship on campus and for a while I lost myself in exactly what Haidt and Saint Therese refer to: the elevation and awe instilled in one when they are a part of a religious community. I hadn’t been that happy in years and really thought I might become a Christian. Ultimately, I realized it wasn’t for me. I just couldn’t get behind some of the less tolerant and more supernatural doctrine. But I believe (and I think I can venture to say Therese would agree with me) that Haidt’s final question to the reader from this chapter has a lot to it. He ponders:

“If religious people are right in believing religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe in God.”

I’ve already discovered so much about happiness from spending time thinking about my own and discussing other’s spiritually. I’m not really sure if I believe in God yet, but I’m positive that I’ve learned a great deal from taking part in a religious community.

Anne has already filled me in on her disgust (no elevation here!) for our “little flower” Saint Therese and I have to be honest that I find her to be a bit off putting and…scary. How can I be afraid of a poor innocent dying nun you ask? Check out the beginning of chapter one when she recalls a conversation in which she wishes her mother would die so she will go to heaven. “Oh, how I wish Darling Mummy, that you would die!” But, I do think her autobiography has been worth reading. It clearly shows a form of extreme religious happiness that I myself have never experienced and in many ways hope never to experience. There are a lot of interesting bits on adversity and happiness as well so you may see another post on that topic before the week is over!

(Anne again:) I, too, was struck by Haidt’s description of the happiness of the religious, and by his description of our secular world as a short-sighted “flatland” that fails to acknowledge the “vertical” dimension that intersects with our social “horizontal” one. The world is larger than what we construct among ourselves, and we might well  be more open to that expansion — and so be happier (I’m looking forward to reading the Dalai Lama’s account, next week, in this regard).

But in the meantime? Alex’s report is correct; I’ve been having LOTS of trouble with The Story of a Soul. It violates just about of my political, philosophical and religious beliefs: there is so much “littleness,” so much diminishment — I think it’s mostly the feminist in me that can’t stomach this story. I confessed my dislike, this week, to a colleague who is a nun, and she suggested this way of accepting the story: “If God could make a saint out of this little neurotic creature, then there’s hope for all of us!”

But that still doesn’t get me very far: Saint Therese’s account is so filled with a longing for martyrdom, for victimization (the book ends with a prayer, “I beg You to choose in this world a multitude of little victims worthy of your LOVE!!”). She begs to remain “poor in spirit” (p. 38; I need to understand better what that means) and  “rich in suffering” (p. 82). She celebrates humiliation (p.111), and she admits that “freedom frightened her” (p. 41; I think I know all too well what that means!).

I do think, along with Hadit, that a sense of an expanded world, one larger than our little selves, can to help to make us happy; and I’ve long seen my religious life as entirely congruent with my intellectual work as a college professor and researcher: the exploratory seeking that Quakers call “continuing revelation,” the process of constantly “testing” in a social context, against what others know, what one knows oneself, against new experience and new information….are activities that, ideally, can be practiced in both the religious and the intellectual realms. But Saint Therese maddens me because she sacrifices her feelings (p. 137) along with (as far as I can see) all of her potential for thinking for herself. She just hands it over to God. Yuck!

Posted in Alexandra Funk.

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