Is This the Way to Happiness?
IN PURSUIT of happiness many go to extremes. Consider, for example, the case of Caterina Fieschi. She came from a well-to-do family in Italy, was intelligent and very religious. Mental depression from an unhappy marriage caused this young lady to seek relief through the gaiety and comforts that her position in society made available.
That changed, however, when Caterina reached the age of 26. At that time the young woman experienced what has been termed “conversion.” Thereafter she “made great penances, so that all her senses were mortified. . . . So soon as she perceived that her nature desired anything, at once she deprived it thereof. . . . She wore [a garment of] harsh hair, ate no meat nor any other thing that she liked; ate no fruit, neither fresh nor dried . . . and she lived greatly submitted to all persons, and always sought to do all those things which were contrary to her own will.”
That account is from the biography of one who came to be known as “Saint Catherine of Genoa.” When asked the reason for engaging in self-torture, she replied: “I do not know, but I feel myself drawn inwardly to do this . . . and I think it is God’s will.” She believed that torturing herself was a means of purification for gaining God’s favor and true happiness.
A like viewpoint was held by the Spaniard known as “Saint John of the Cross.” He recommended, among other things, that people seek out ‘not what tastes best, but what is most distasteful; not what most pleases, but what disgusts; not what is highest and most precious, but what is lowest and most contemptible; not the best in everything, but the worst.’ He advised: “Despise yourself, and wish that others should despise you; speak to your own disadvantage, and desire others to do the same; conceive a low opinion of yourself, and find it good when others hold the same.” Similar views have supporters even today.
But is such extreme self-humiliation the way to find real, lasting happiness? Not according to the Bible. The apostle Paul writes:
“Did you not die with Christ and pass beyond reach of the elementary ideas belonging to this world? Then why behave as though you were still living the life of the world? Why let people dictate to you: ‘Do not handle this, do not taste that, do not touch the other’—all of them things that must perish as soon as they are used? That is to follow merely human injunctions and teaching. True, it has an air of wisdom, with its forced piety, its self-mortification, and its severity to the body; but it is of no use at all in combating sensuality.”—Col. 2:20-23, “The New English Bible,” margin.
Extreme “self-mortification” is a sham, with merely “an air of wisdom.” It is neither pleasing to God nor of any use in attaining happiness.
What about the opposite extreme of living mainly for pleasure? Is that perhaps the way to the genuine joy of living? Many believe so. Some of their exploits at pleasure-seeking are set forth in the next article.
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‘She wore a harsh hair garment, ate no meat nor any other thing that she liked’