Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Consolation of Religion?

I don't really like it when people say that "my religion makes me happy!" because that's not what religion is supposed to do.

We don't go to church and worship God because it makes us happy but because it's the right thing to do.

If you only practice your religion because it makes you happy, then what happens when you're unhappy? What if you're sad for days and weeks at a time? What if you're even depressed?

Does that make your religion false?

Catholics have a phenomenon that we call "the dark night of the soul." It is something that happens to very holy people, in which God takes away all spiritual consolation from them, so that religion gives them no happy feelings at all. This dark time can last for decades.

It's very rare, fortunately, but Mother Teresa, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Paul of the Cross and many other great saints experienced it.

The person undergoing the dark night is no longer practicing his or her religion because it gives them positive feelings and spiritual rewards. Instead, they practice their religion as an act of will. They choose to believe in God and to worship Him despite any evidence that He cares or is listening.

Doesn't that sound awful? But the dark night of the soul is actually a gift (allegedly). It is a test of faith that purifies the soul of the one suffering it, helping that person to increase in holiness.

Although these people are some of the holiest there are, their religious faith isn't making them happy at all. Religion is not a consolation. It worries me a little when people think it is.

But if our religion doesn't make us happy, what does it give us?

It brings us joy.

Joy is different from happiness, and I didn't figure out the difference until quite recently.

I had heard joy described, of course. I've read Surprised by Joy and of course A Severe Mercy. These books puzzled me, because they described joy in a way that I had never experienced.

When the protagonists of A Severe Mercy first meet early in the book, they find that they both feel pain when they experience great beauty. This is something special they share that draws them to fall in love with each other. Lewis too describes joy as a "stab," as some weird painful longing that comes with the experience of great beauty.

The heck? Was my reaction to this. Why would beauty be painful? It just made no sense.

But one day, I was walking across God Quad at Notre Dame and I saw a young dad playing with his baby boy. It was one of those perfect fall afternoons that made me so grateful to be a student there. All of campus was awash in glory. The sun shimmered through the leaves and turned the child's hair to gold.

As I watched, the dad tossed the little boy up in the air. They both laughed with the sheer fun of it. The dad drew the baby close to kiss him, and I found that I had to look away. The moment was too intimate. I felt a strange, sharp, sweet pain shoot through my heart, even as I vicariously treasured the beauty and happiness of the moment.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was experiencing joy.

To be continued in Thursday's post on Joy...


  1. Not to be an ass, but what do you mean by happiness? If you're talking about warm feelings of sweetness and light (as our friend the Fifth Earl of Wickenham might say) then I'd agree with you without reservation (I think, though I must admit I sort of skimmed it after you started talking about how religion isn't supposed to bring us happiness).

    In the short term, what does religion promise anyone? Nothing, unless you're a follower of what's-his-name that predicted the rapture and the apocalypse in May and November of this year (I think). It's all about the long term, right? So you might as well throw out anything immediate. Don't expect it from religion, right? I mean there might be some nice warm feelings of sweetness and light at the beginning because you feel like you're doing something real meaningful or whatever but that's kind of a side-effect.

    But if you're going to go with happiness as something greater than those sweetness and light feelings I mentioned earlier... I guess that's sort of a corollary to what you're saying, isn't it? Does that make any sense?

    In any case, I enjoyed this post, not least for it's reference to Joy, which is an unutterably exciting aspect of being religious. Thanks!

  2. Mother Teresa once wrote, “If I ever become a saint—I will surely be one of ‘darkness,’”... “I will continually be absent from heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”

    Just thought it related :)

  3. Sam, I think my next post answers that question.

    Alex, that's beautiful... thank you for sharing! She really knew what she was talking about too, having lived through such a prolonged dark night. Thank goodness we have her up there looking out for us now.