By Joan Chittister (Eerdmans, 2011)
Joan Chittister’s admirers take up her books expecting to draw from a well of wisdom and insight. They approach a writer of her stature with a challenge and a plea: “Tell me something I don’t already know.” Or, at least: “Tell me what I know in a way that unlocks spiritual doors and shines light on new ways of experiencing God.” We are seldom left wanting.
Yet it must be said that much of the information Chittister presents in Happiness is familiar to those who read Rohr, Rolheiser, and other contemporary writers of our faith community. Happiness does not disappoint, but the journey can feel dry and repetitive at times. Chittister explores the nature of happiness in all its expressions and definitions, from Hinduism’s four aims of human life to contemporary social, psychological, and neurological studies that probe what brings happiness across worldwide cultural and religious spectrums.
Fortunately we can always count on Chittister to deliver, although satisfaction is deferred until the book’s latter sections and the epilogue. Expanding on some of her earlier work, she mines the great world religions for insights and secrets to achieving—or better, recognizing—human happiness. The payoff arrives in a wave of summary insights like, “The sociologist . . . says, choose carefully what you think will make you happy. The physician says, be happy so that you will be at your physical best your whole life and so be able to take advantage of the multiple dimensions of life. . . . The psychologist says, take responsibility for your own happiness. The philosopher says, realize that happiness is more than pleasure. But religion is the only one of the disciplines that says to us directly, ‘Happiness depends on this . . . ’ ”
Some will surely dispute Chittister’s declarative conclusion. The wise response for people of faith is to test its truth in their own yearning for happiness.
This article appeared in the May 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 5, page 43).