Monday, August 15, 2011

Questions of Faith: What is Happiness?

The Monty Python clip offers a humorous reminder of the power of questions, and of the dangers of setting yourself up as someone who knows all the answers, to all the questions. I was aware, when I decided to do a sermon series based on faith questions offered by Trinity folks, that I might end up like the wise guy on the bridge of death. He was the one who tripped on his own cleverness, and was plucked off his perch by the same unseen forces that grabbed the poor travellers who failed his test.

I received some very good responses to my request. Not many, but in something like this, it’s quality rather than quantity. Here is one note I received, in its entirety. It tells you a lot about the depth of thought of the person who wrote it:

“ Assuming one is leading a comfortable life (i.e. has family and friends, food and shelter, OK job, etc), is it a rejection of or lack of faith in God to be dissatisfied with one's life? 

In other words, if one truly has gratitude and faith in God, will contentment or a sense of peace follow?

Is anxiety or discontentment or just general unhappiness the result of not having a sense of a universal presence, or God?

The writer went on to say:

I understand that a person will be sad if something tragic happens such as a catastrophic injury or death of a child.  But I am wondering if for a lot of people psychological misery results from being disconnected from a sense of wonder, of timelessness, of God. 

To push the question further- Is being miserable un-Christian?”

There is so much good stuff in that letter. Next week I want to talk a bit about whether or not religion is a necessary aspect of life. Today I want to talk about happiness.

Saint Paul, who wrote the letter to the Phillipans, had found a way to be happy, regardless of his circumstances. In the words of the paraphrase from The Message, “Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.” His happiness did not depend on his reputation, or his worldly power. He did not measure his life by the accuracy of his golf swing, or the size of his bank account, or the brand name of anything he owned. He probably owned very little. It might be easy to use his words to suggest that we would be happier, if we were less affluent. But that kind of generalisation can be insulting to people who are struggling to live each day.

The story from the Sufi tradition suggests that sadness and happiness are both temporary conditions. “This too shall pass” could be paraphrased as “Don’t get too used to things the way they are. Don’t rely on the outward things to keep you smiling, and also know that the things that bring you down will not last.” This may seem trite to say to someone who is in grief, or very ill- but there is truth in there. The cause of grief- the loss of a loved one, cannot be undone, but the grief itself does pass, eventually.

What the Sufi story of the ring, with the inscription “This too shall pass” is meant to teach, is the possibility of detachment, of stepping back from our experience, and looking at it, contemplating it.

I read a joke in Readers Digest while waiting for my daughter at the orthodontist. A student approaches their professor, and asks, “What does contemplation mean?” The professor says, “Think about it.” The student says, “Seriously, what does it mean?”

Contemplatives are people, who, through the use of a spiritual practice such as prayer, or meditation, develop the capacity to detach, or un-attach themselves, even if only for a moment at a time, from the busyness and complications of their lives. According to Wikipedia:

The word contemplation comes from the Latin word contemplatio. Its root is also that of the Latin word templum, a piece of consecrated ground, or a building for worship, derived either from an earlier language  base *tem- "to cut", and so a "place reserved or cut out" or from the base *temp- "to stretch", and thus referring to a cleared space in front of an altar.

I like the idea of clearing some spiritual space in my life, if only for a moment or two at a time. From a Christian perspective, the space that gets cleared is not actually empty. It is a space in which we are more able to be with God, who is always there, even when our lives are so cluttered that we can’t or don’t notice that God is there.

One of my contemplative heroes is Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk and priest. He is a prominent teacher of the spiritual discipline called Centering Prayer.  Keating has an interesting perspective on happiness. He believes that every one of us comes into the world with instinctual needs for survival and security, affection and esteem and approval, and power and control. The craving for these things is essential to our surviving early childhood. But the reality of life in our imperfect world is that every child is to some degree deprived of these basics.  

Keating sees a connection between how a child’s instinctual needs are met, and the child’s success at establishing a meaningful relationship with God. If that connection to God is not established in a healthy, life-giving way, the person may seek happiness by compulsively seeking to fulfill those instinctual needs for security, and esteem, and power.

Like the country song says, people end up looking for love in all the wrong places. We end up chasing wealth, or influence, or popularity in order to feel happy. Keating names this as addictive behavior. Addiction to wealth and possessions, to popularity and power are as dangerous as addiction to alcohol or drugs. Being driven by any of these compulsions is like trying to fill a bottomless pit, because we never actually get enough to really be satisfied, because these substitutes can’t take the place of what we actually to be at peace, and happy.

If we focus only on what we want, and think we need, we end up living a selfish existence. The things we crave take the place of real relationships with people, and with God. People make idols of money, or possessions, or power, or food, or alcohol, or other drugs, or sex. They shape their lives around acquiring what they think they want and need, whether or not it is truly good for them.

I think it is also possible to be addicted to a false idea about ourselves, that will keep us from being happy, as long as we hold onto it.

Another of my contemplative heroes, the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister says, “Happiness comes when clinging goes.” She also says, “ Happiness is the ability to live every day, every phase, every stage of life in the awareness that it will not be ours forever- and that is just as it should be if we are to grow and live, live and grow. “

I was talking with someone this week who finds happiness each day in remembering about himself that he is a person who can do small things to help others. I think he is on to something there. Happiness is something we help produce in the world, rather than just sitting back and expecting to receive it. Rather than trying to hold onto it, we do our best to give it away. Amen