God Wants You Happy: From Self-Help to God’s Help
By Father Jonathan Morris
(HarperOne, 224 pages, $24.99)
Books on happiness are notorious, both in their number and their difficulty to write. I know, because as an author on the history of happiness I read most of them over a ten year period in my academic days. Thus, I groaned a little when I received the new book from Rev. Jonathan Morris, a diocesan priest in New York City and analyst on Fox News, with the title God Wants You Happy.
However, Father Morris has succeeded where many others have failed, both in clarifying the much-abused notion of happiness and, more importantly, setting our natural desire for self-fulfillment firmly in the context of our, just as natural, search for God. His book is well-written, immediately engaging, and was for me, insightful and personally uplifting. I will return to it again and will be recommending it to all, but especially to those whose spiritual trials have made them squeamish about honesty.
Father Morris admits he passed through this trial himself. As a priest in the Legion of Christ he had to face disclosures about the private life of its founder Rev. Marcial Maciel that led him to leave his order.
I cannot tell this story without being overwhelmed by grief. Had I known as an idealistic young man of twenty-one that saying yes to God would mean to follow in the footsteps of a man some psychologists would later call a psychopath or sociopath.… I would instead have chosen suburbia and a white picket fence.”
Father Morris’s book is not about Maciel, and it is not an explanation of why he left the Legion of Christ. But, he candidly admits he could not write about spirituality “without opening my heart to you and showing how and why my soul moves as it does today.” I’m sure Father Morris struggled with a decision about whether or not to include a section on Maciel in his book, but he made the right choice — his willingness to place his struggle alongside those of the others he discusses, and the reader’s, saves his book from sounding like just another exercise of pious instruction.
At the same time self-help books have made millions for their authors and publishers they have been viciously and deservedly lampooned, no more successfully than in Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self Help Book (FSG, 1983). Percy, himself a Catholic convert, adopts the style of self-help to conduct the reader through a consistently humorous existential-semiotic-Augustinian self-examination.
Father Morris, however, uses the self-help mode in a straightforward way — without any sense of irony — in a way, I think, would earn Percy’s approval. Morris consistently makes reference to deficiencies of the American self-help tradition, as represented by Eckhart Tolle and others, while connecting its nuggets of common sense to a Catholic spirituality rooted in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.
Father Morris rightly characterizes self-help approaches to happiness as grounded in “feelings-based or consequence-based conceptions of love,” which in his view are doomed to failure in the long term because they are “divorced from God’s help.” What we, as human creatures, are called to is the more radical “disposition of living love.” Self-regarding conceptions of happiness actually encourage us to fixate on failures rather than move us forward toward the transformative process of our intellect being healed by faith, our fear, anxiety and shame healed by hope, and our self-centered will healed by the “living love” of charity.
This is what Father Morris means by what he calls “the Faith-Hope-Love-Cure” which is “valid for each and every one of us, no matter what self-destructive or self-limiting patterns we are struggling with.”
I was particularly struck by his treatment of hope as a way of healing our memory, allowing us “to move forward in confidence, despite our remembering our own many failings of the past, and how others have failed us in the past, because we know that God is all-powerful, is all-living, and will be faithful to his promises.”
This type of healing, however, makes great demands on us, for example, in our ability to forgive not just ourselves but others. Healing the memory requires in forgiveness that we give up all “just causes.” Forgiveness “is not a debt-reduction gimmick” but a “letting go of a just cause we rightly have against someone. It is burning the accounts-receivable file.”
The personal stories told by Father Morris to illustrate these concepts are quite memorable; some will undoubtedly bring tears to your eyes, as did that of Ana who had been married to Lionel for forty years. Lionel, an engineer for General Motors, was the kind of man who pursued precision in all things and was always seen with a jumble of writing and measuring instruments protruding from his pocket protector. When Lionel was suddenly let go by General Motors it was discovered he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and could no longer perform his job or keep track of the smallest things. Ana’s frustration with Lionel quickly turned to anger — “He was driving her nuts.”
As Father Morris tells the story, Ana came across verse 10:14 in the Gospel of Mark, “Let the little children come to me,” and it got her thinking in the middle of the night. The next morning Ana bought a bunch of colored markers — “because Lionel loves pens!” — and a whiteboard, which she mounted on the kitchen table. Using different colored pens she would outline each day’s activities from waking up and morning coffee through going to sleep. A friend of Ana’s made this comment, “You should see her now; it’s like they’re teenagers in love again. She treats him with such respect and dignity.”
As Morris puts it, as followers of Jesus we are “called to throw out every scale and balance in our relationships.” Ana could have continued stewing in her disappointment and resentment, but God showed her a way to accommodate her husband’s disability and rediscover the joy in their marriage.
Ana’s example illustrates the importance of one of the three entrance points to the “Divine cure” that we should make part of our daily lives:
1. Do ordinary things in an extraordinary way;
2. Let go of just causes;
3. Consult regularly with the Senior Partner.
Throughout the book, Father Morris refers to the human self-help side of the journey toward happiness as the “Junior Partner” role, while God’s presence through the Holy Spirit in prayer and worship is the “Senior Partner.” Cute, yes, but after all Father Morris is parochial vicar at a parish in New York City where business terms speak directly to both the successful and the upwardly mobile in his pews.
It’s important in a book such as this that Father Morris candidly recognizes not everyone starts out from the same place in the search for happiness in God. In his years as a priest and counselor, Father Morris has observed that “our capacity to know divine love for us, in the first person, is directly related to how much human love has touched us.” Each of us, therefore, not only starts the journey from a different place but also with our own stories of acceptance and rejection. Father Morris’s own telling of the stories throughout the book reveal his ability as a priest to intuit, then unpack, those individual liabilities and assets from our past.
This is a book, I think, that will change lives, and perhaps unfortunately for Father Morris, bring many to the doors of his parish. He’s already a very busy man but wears his responsibilities gracefully and with an almost constant smile. His parish, the Archdiocese of New York, and the Church are blessed to have him as a priest.