Halfway to Heaven

Book cover
The Saints' Guide to Happinessby By Robert EllsbergNorth Point Press. 214p $23

Karl Rahner famously observed that the saints teach us that it is possible to live the Christian life in this particular way. Rahner’s point is that the saints may serve as paradigms for us, which is not to say that every saintly life is a necessary model for us to emulate. While we may learn from the prayer life of Ignatius of Loyola or about the staunch faith of a contemporary martyr like Oscar Romero, it is not clear that pillar-dwelling would be the primary vocation of most Christians, or gaining a reputation as the finder of lost items would be a suitable aspiration. The tradition of the saints is a complex one. Not to put too fine a point on it: there are saints and then there are saints.

Robert Ellsberg understands these discriminations better than most. The author of the very popular All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses in Our Time (Crossroad, 1997), he has turned again to the rich tradition of the saints to ask how they may help us develop a happy life. By happiness, Ellsberg does not mean a smiley-face existence, or even Aristotle’s fullness of life derived from an intellectually and morally ordered way of being. He has in mind that happiness rooted in the Beatitudes of Jesus, whose introductory word is more commonly translated today as blessed, rather than happy.

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The happiness promised in the beatitudes often has an oxymoronic character in that, alongside peace and mercy, its litany of blessings includes words not normally associated with happinesssuch as mourning and poverty. That tension, of course, is deeply reflected in the paschal mystery of Christ, who offers both the cross and the risen life. It is Ellsberg’s argument that happiness and holiness are intimately bound together. As his mentor Dorothy Day once put it, halfway to heaven is heaven.

Garnished with stories of saintly figures and their teachings, this book consists of eight chapters that are like interlocking facets of happiness and holiness. The chapters are pitched to Christians of every walk of life, even though Ellsberg draws copiously from monastic sources, activist examples, radical gestures like those performed by St. Francis of Assisi, and the profoundly intellectual insights of a St. Augustine of Hippo.

Ellsberg’s topics, true to the subtitle of his book, all begin with the word Learninghow, for example, to be alive, to let go, to work, to sit still, to love, to suffer, to die and so on. By way of a conclusion, he argues that holiness is not a code of conduct or a program to be followed, but a certain habit of being, a certain fullness of life. Like the saints whom he considers, it is not so much about being holy as it is walking the way of holiness. That walk, while in the direction toward God, is a lifelong journey that takes us toward God. Borrowing from, but not citing, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Ellsberg sees holiness as a kind of striving without end (epektasis is the formal term), and it is the striving that is holiness and happiness.

One of the most attractive features of this work is the author’s capacity to translate the hallowed language of Christian spirituality into terms understandable to the contemporary person. Thus the capacity to love provides us new eyes with which to see; the will of God is not a benediction over fate but an interior challenge to bear witness to love, justice and truth; that movement toward our own death is, as Henri Nouwen phrases it borrowing from the lingo of trapeze artists, trusting the catcher; that the deepest meaning of monastic stability is to cure us of an aversion to commitment; that conversion may be simply the graced moment when we face our own mediocrity.

Profoundly influenced by his years with the Catholic Workers and his role as editor in chief of Orbis publications, Robert Ellsberg is a graceful writer who wears his learning lightly. He persuasively argues that the path to holiness will lead us, in the fine phrase of the medieval English mystic Richard Rolle, to know mirth in the love of God.

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