The Secret To Happiness

There’s so much bad stuff going on in the world–and even in our houses, the wearing daily grind of togetherness causes so much stress–that it feels almost insensitive to acknowledge out loud how beautiful some of this stay-at-home experience is.

How can we find beauty in our world when so many are suffering and dying, when so many have had the pain of losing loved ones they can’t even be with in their last hours? Can’t gather to bury?

But beautiful things are happening in our homes alongside the stress of isolation. With the punishing busy-ness removed, creativity has flowered, giving rise to new traditions. My family kind of hopes the birthday parades continue! For Mother’s Day and birthdays this spring we wrote up affirmations and left them hidden around the house for the honoree.
We’ve cooked well, regularly eaten together on the deck. Taken lots of walks and bike rides, done lots of work in the yard. All because we weren’t chasing the futility of the rat race all over town.

And for all of that, in the midst of this upheaval, I give thanks to God.

More from Francis de Sales

Background photo by Laura Elfrink

When I went through my files looking for words of comfort the other day, I wasn’t sure whether to share this or not. There’s a lot to be anxious about right now, and I doubt any of us feels real inner peace. Yesterday we took a break from the Lenten sweets fast. I said, “You know, sometimes life hands you Lent, and when it does, you don’t need need to make it for yourself.”

Of course, we have no chocolate in the house to speak of, so we can’t just make cookies. But we pulled out the cake pops that have been in the freezer for a year or more, and they decimated the candy jar. All the Valentine’s candy is gone. (Before Easter!)

But that’s not really the point. The point I’m aiming for today is that a quote like this *can* do more harm than good, making us feel that if we aren’t able to live up to it, we are deep failures. I spoke to a counselor yesterday for the first time in my life. Once I cleared the anxiety that dogged me for years in young adulthood, I vowed that never again would I be too ashamed to seek help. And yet every time anxiety has reared its head in the past two decades, I’ve managed to work through it on my own in a few days or a couple weeks.

When it hit last week, I knew I’d outrun my ability to cope on my own. And with a stay-at-home order in place, I am well aware that I have to have my own emotional health if I hope to support that of my children.

So I stopped reading articles on the pandemic, and asked to be removed from an impassioned family email thread; I’m not watching the news; and most importantly, I called a counseling service available through my husband’s work.

One of the things he told me is that our emotions respond to the narrative we give them. Right now I’m focused on the deprivation–concerts, freedom, unfettered grocery store runs. But the reality is that what I still have far outweighs what has been taken from me. That’s why this quote speaks to me this morning. The whole world SEEMS upset, but it isn’t as upset as it feels. However imperfectly, however often I fail, I will work to refocus on what I have, rather than what I’ve (temporarily) lost.

St. Francis de Sales

I’m going to switch focus for a while to words of comfort and hope… for my own sake as well as, I would imagine, everyone else’s Only one comment to go with this quote, which felt like balm on my own soul this morning: when I went online to doublecheck the spelling of St. Francis de Sales’ name, this was in the Wikipedia preview biography about him: that he was “noted for his deep faith and his gentle approach to the religious divisions in his land resulting from the Protestant Reformation.”

We have religious divisions of our own. St. Francis de Sales might be a great model for us all.

Scrupulousness

A few years ago, I’d never heard the term “scrupulousness.” My mother introduced me to it when I wrote a series on my personal blog about my struggles with anxiety. Now I think of it all the time–though simply recognizing it is a big step toward battling it.

I tend to view it as a sin, although a web search this morning seems to indicate that it’s more a cross to be borne. But I think Catholics in general are particularly susceptible. I would argue that scrupulousness is a big part of “Catholic guilt.”

Once I was sensitized to this tendency in myself, I saw it cropping up all over the place. It may not be a sin, but the inevitable fallout of scrupulousness is a rush to judge anyone who doesn’t share whatever I think is the right way to look at the world, and to place rigid expectations on others that constitute a heavy burden on people prone to scrupulousness–which, as I said, I think is many of us.

I would argue that scrupulousness plays a big part in a lot of the no-compromise fights we have within the Church–the political ones, yes, but also the liturgical ones (and many others). Most recently it’s struck me in the arguments about texts of liturgical songs–an assumption that because I read a particular text fragment in a certain way, a song is inarguably heretical, even though thousands of other people may find great spiritual benefit in it, and great potential for growth in holiness, because they don’t interpret that text fragment the same way I do.

For a long time, because I myself was very conservative and all my scrupulousness was about doing the right things (which were always conservative values), I thought scrupulousness was only a problem conservatives have. As I got better at combating my own scrupulousness, I began to move to the center, and that seemed to confirm my assumption.

But I was wrong. These days I am more likely to suffer from scrupulousness about environmental issues. It’s never enough. And I am VERY judgy about other people’s lack of environmental stewardship.

But the example that sparked this post was this: In the midst of my great world view shift, a quote kept cropping up over the course of months–I can’t find it anymore, but it was something like, “Your money doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the poor.” It was attributed to a pope. No arguing with that!

The obvious conclusion to draw from this quote is: anything I do to save money is a sin. I have no right to enjoy the things of the world as long as poverty exists. I should never go out to a nice dinner, I should never take a trip to see the wonder of the world, I should never own jewelry–because as long as people are suffering, “my” money doesn’t belong to me. Also, I pointed it at conservatives who don’t like taxes.

It was a big struggle. I told myself that religious figures exaggerate to shock their listeners into doing something for the poor. But that didn’t help, because of who we hold up as the ideal of Christianity: Francis of Assisi and Katherine Drexel, rich people who did give away everything they had; Mother Teresa, who lived in abject poverty for decades; the fact that to this day, a lot of religious orders take a vow of poverty. A papal quote + the body of evidence of what the Church holds up for honor made it hard to draw any other conclusion than the Church intends us to be poor rather than rich.

Even Robert Barron used that quote once.

I tried for a long time to find the exact verbiage, but couldn’t find it anywhere. Then one day, someone attributed it to Rerum Novarum #22. Finally! I went to look it up.

Guess what? Rerum Novarum 22 does NOT say I am obligated to give every single penny I don’t absolutely need for my bare survival to the poor. Here’s what it actually says:

True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, “for no one ought to live other than becomingly.”(13) But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.” (14)

Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 1891

(Note the date: eighteen ninety-one. This is not some uber-modern corruption of the Gospel. Note 2: the footnotes refer to the Summa theologiae and to Luke 11:14.)

Now, it’s important to recognize that this quote doesn’t give us a free pass to hoard money or to try to avoid paying taxes; it does NOT give us a free pass to store up wealth for our own pleasure, or for passing it on to kids, or whatever. The actual quote–like virtually everything the Church puts in writing–is nuanced to recognize the complexity of competing needs and factors. What this quote requires of us is that we discern honestly, prayerfully, what it means for us to “keep up becomingly” our condition in life.

It’s also worth noting that St. Basil the Great is a little more blunt on the topic of our responsibility to the poor:

(Note: I have not checked that quote, for what it’s worth.)

In the end, we all have to wrestle, to try to find a balance between enjoying with gratitude the good things of the earth (which are, after all, made by God), and hoarding the wealth that allows us to do so, thereby sinning by not helping those who suffer.

Happy All Saints Day!

A brief and very relevant thought from St. Teresa of Avila for All Saints Day. Because whenever we pray–really pray–we get closer to the mind of God, which sensitizes us to the ways we still fall short, and how much we need to change.

To Love Is…

Since the Church considers this quote important enough to be underscored in the Catechism, I thought it deserved a graphic of its own, even if I did already write a whole post on the topic. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, right?