A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life
by zena hitz
cambridge university, 150 pages, $12.99
At first glance, it seems odd that a major academic publisher should commission a volume on, as it were, the phenomenology of religious life. Insofar as they are perceptible at all, religious have retreated to the margins of our imaginative universe, as defendants in court cases, amiable extras in musical comedy, or characters in gothic horror. Sure, there are religious who teach in schools here and there. There are Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. There are a few incurable eccentrics opting for a life of enclosure. But these are marginal groups. And are they not headed for extinction? Recent decades have witnessed a catastrophic decline in vocations in the West. In one of the Holy See’s most notable recent documents on religious life, the instruction Cor Orans from 2018, the tenor is defined much more by the chapter on “Suppression” (that is, the closing of moribund communities) than by the one on “Foundation.” The former is not useless. We have lacked clear procedures for closure. Still, it makes you think.
Religious agonize over the demise of their state of life. When I was discerning a call to monastic life twenty-five years ago, vocational literature, published in the 1970s, still exuded self-confidence. Fading brochures showed photographs of monks and nuns, sisters and friars doing all sorts of enterprising and holy things, usually in crowds. This picture did not quite match the reality on the ground. Communities were becoming geriatric. More often than not they were giving up traditional works. Religious schools were being closed or handed over to lay trustees who solemnly pledged to keep an institute’s “charism” alive. Hospitals and care homes, privatized or state-run, no longer accommodated religious who, through untold sacrifices, had laid the foundations for modern healthcare. Even monasteries were restructured. In the early 2000s, it was no longer financially viable for an abbey such as mine to live by agriculture, as our community had done for almost two hundred years. Monks and nuns closed down their farms and turned to . . . what? Hard choices had to be made. It is tough to start afresh in a competitive landscape with a tired, diminishing workforce. One temptation has been to establish token industries that keep able-bodied brethren gainfully employed while, in real terms, communities have begun living off savings. This is a shortsighted policy in any walk of life, one expression among many of resignation to dismal long-term prospects.
Many communities have negotiated change with a supernatural attitude: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.” Even from such a mindset, solidly anchored in faith, ambiguous discourse has issued forth. I think of the tendency, for example, to recast death as a vocation, as when communities without recruits proclaim, “Our present task is to witness to dignified dying,” or when an elderly monk, rattling around a cavernous monastery, says, “Oh well, as long as I can die here!” There may be heroism in such statements; but there may also be self-indulgence, the satisfaction of acting out a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think, too, of a refrain that has long puzzled me. One hears it regularly. It articulates what I would call an essentialization of consecrated life. Faced with the circumstances described above, religious tell one another: “Take courage! What matters is not what you do but what you are.” This attitude, when interiorized, brings risks. It invites me to idealize my mere presence and erodes the significance of mission. A community without a clear mission will have no force of attraction; one can, after all, be anywhere. We might ask whether such a community would even have a raison d’être.
Only against this sociocultural backdrop can one appreciate the timeliness of Zena Hitz’s book. It is presented as a philosopher’s view of religious life. What does that mean? Hitz is a learned woman. She has mastered the canon of philosophical writings; she refers to Plato and Husserl with easy familiarity, as if they were squash partners with whom she lunches. The point of the book, though, is not to shower the reader with quotations or technical terms. Hitz shows herself a philosopher chiefly in the sense that she asks “Why?” about things we take for granted. She states that her intention is not “to do justice to the enormous variety of religious communities and their influence on Christian life”—to analyze, say, the Neoplatonist strain in the Cappadocians, the mendicants’ part in rehabilitating Aristotle, or the Benedictine response to the French Revolution. This is a book designed not to flaunt learning, but to seek understanding: “I am a philosopher, and my gross ignorance, like the ignorance of Socrates, provides opportunities.” The approach works. It is refreshing, given that literature on religious life is often weighed down by ponderous self-affirmation.
The book is composed in the manner of a three-part invention by Bach. One theme is the repeated strain of “Why?,” a reaching for first principles. A second theme is the author’s experience of religious life during a few years spent in the community of Madonna House. This reference adds an intimate note, though it is deployed with such discretion that it never becomes invasive. The third theme gives voice to a polyphonic chorus. Hitz notes, “I am promiscuous with my sources.” Promiscuity isn’t always bad. The breadth of her references provides illumination, surprise, and touches of humor. In the index under “P,” you find Paul, Péguy, Priam of Troy, Pseudo-Dionysius, Ezra Pound, and Elvis Presley.
There are five chapters. The first, titled “The Call,” addresses the nature of vocation matter-of-factly. This is helpful in a climate given to mystifying this whole business such that “vocation discernment” becomes a lifelong task, almost a vocation in its own right. Hitz stresses the primacy of self-knowledge. To follow a vocation is to assume that God in his providence has seen something in me I had not noticed, then to try, letting go of inadequate notions of self, to rise to true perception. The process is arduous but also, pursued with integrity, freeing. It widens the heart. It lets me see the ancient perils, fears, and desires lodged deep within me in a new light. In an arresting image, Hitz describes a visit paid decades ago to the old World Trade Center:
We took the elevator to the top of one of the towers. Through vast windows, we saw a thunderstorm, well below us, flashing lightning as it moved across the city, from Brooklyn into lower Manhattan. I had never been above a thunderstorm, before—or since. It was magnificent to see something that would be overwhelming or dangerous on the ground reduced to a beautiful entertainment, harmless as a school of tropical fish.
Subsequent events made her reflect with grief that no earthly vantage point is final: That particular view across New York exists no more. Yet the symbolic impact remains. To follow a call is to learn to see more clearly. It is to contemplate oneself and one’s history from a higher altitude, in an ever-broadening perspective.
Sister Aquinata Böckmann, doyenne of scholarship on St. Benedict’s Rule, wrote a crucial volume in 1981 called Touchstone Poverty. Religious authenticity is measured, Böckmann surmised, by the extent to which genuine, enduring poverty is practiced. It is tempting to make excuses in this area, especially in a culture saturated with material wealth. Many of us who are professed religious have cause for self-examination. In her second chapter, “Blessed Are the Poor,” Hitz holds up a mirror useful for this exercise. She does not prettify poverty. She evidences its existential grandeur: “The link between catastrophe, poverty, and love is mysterious.” She also explains why poverty, rendered concrete in self-denial, makes sense for people who are resolved to live in the truth. Mortification is “training in rational desire,” a farewell to blind appetite. It touches intimate depths, the “desire for a certain kind of helplessness,” that is, the desire “to live in a way that recognized that I was, in truth, helpless” and thus available for grace, relieved of the illusion of self-sufficiency. Poverty can have a secret apostolic dimension: “The cultivation [through renunciation] of one’s own character, to burn out greed and to cultivate compassion and humility, if practiced writ large, would transform the surrounding community.”
Of such transformation we have need. Yet the finality of religious life goes beyond it. It seeks an encounter with God, for which self-knowledge is a preliminary stage, a way to learn where our treasure is. Only thus can we direct our hearts well: “When one’s private life is a dual life, what is kept in secret reveals what is authentic about us, the truth of what we care about.” This realization can be cause for rejoicing. It can also be damning. The desirability of knowing God is spelt out with reference to Julian of Norwich, “no pious idiot,” we are assured, but a woman “gripped” by both the turmoil and terror of earthly living and the palpable reality of divine consolation. Julian knew the possibility of a contemplative outlook foreshadowed in the one Hitz enjoyed in New York at an altitude of 1,300 feet. From such a vantage it is not only defensible but reasonable to affirm, faced with things as they are, that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
The constitution Lumen Gentium tells us that the Church is called to be “a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope, and salvation for the whole human race.” A religious vocation is necessarily oriented towards communion, even if one is a hermit. A hermit, Evagrius noted, is simply one who is “separated from everything” in order to be “united to all,” banishing indifference and wishing to learn compassion, embracing the horizontal axis of the cross. To pursue unity in this way is to enact charity—the subject of Hitz’s insightful fourth chapter, “The Family of Humanity.” Charity, she writes, “is a single and undivided condition of a person,” vertically touching God, horizontally touching neighbor: The condition is cruciform. A community living within the axes’ point of intersection is “a community that looks like humanity.” I suspect that when the classicist Hitz speaks of “humanity” here, she intends to suggest not merely “pertaining to the human species,” but also “philanthropy” and “kindness.” Charity on these terms “is beautiful,” but it “makes constant war with our comforts,” taking us back to the question of our priorities. Hitz speaks of celibacy in the context of charity, a sensible approach too rarely practiced. She is, she admits, “severe on sexuality,” though “not out of prudishness”—rather, “to counter the overwhelming rhetoric on the other side.” We act, she writes,
as if life without sex is impossible, and entertain the thought, even if less commonly nowadays than in my youth, that sex with strangers is harmless. Both cannot be true: Either sex reaches down to the core of our being, and so ought to be treated with reverence and caution, as something which might bear life’s meaning for us, or it is harmless, like chewing bubble gum, and can be given up without a second thought.
Hitz sets out from this framework to engage with fundamental aspects of religious life: intercession, doubt, loneliness, “the strange consolations of the Christian, the lights in darkness,” and forgiveness. I did not follow every turn of her argument in speaking of the love of enemies. I endorse the claim that at a human level “the ultimate defiance is to take the sting out of [one’s enemy’s] bite, to use what one receives from them for one’s own good and the good of others.” But I do not see how one can say that a Christian love of enemies “requires the capacity to see one’s sufferings as good, as successes or blessings.” Suffering is always scandalous. It is the possibility of its transformation through love that is sublime.
The final chapter is less strong. One gets the impression of an author rushed, subject to flustered emails from her editor. The terms named in the heading, “Abandonment and Freedom,” are evidenced with reference to Walter Ciszek, Edith Stein, and Takashi Nagai. Hitz has penetrating things to say about each, of course, but her argument remains, uncharacteristically, a little superficial. The story of Edith Stein “Facing Death” just cannot be told on five pages, with Mother Posselt’s life as the sole reference. We are touching the abyssal perspective opened in Stein’s Kreuzeswissenschaft, a work that remained unfinished on the table in her cell when she was rounded up from the Carmelite Monastery in Echt on August 2, 1942. There’s really a new book in this chapter. One can only hope Hitz will write it one day.
By way of criticisms, I have two. Overall, I found the stress on “stripping away” a little excessive. Hitz relates that when she entered Madonna House, her director, “a former dentist”—I am still pondering the significance of this detail—had told her: “If you didn’t come here to die, you came for the wrong reason.” This welcome corresponds to the myth whereby Trappist monks of old greeted one another with the words, “Brother, remember you shall die” (though the same lore also insists that the monks were vowed to silence). By all means, the consciousness of death matters, indeed is essential, but as a means: The end is life and thriving. St. Benedict in his Rule for Monks spells out two criteria by which to evaluate a religious vocation: Does the candidate truly seek God? Does he desire fullness of life? The religious life lived well, albeit precariously, is a happy, joyful life. This fact does shine through now and again, but it could have been made more prominent.
My second criticism is directed at the publishers. The volume is part of a series in which “A Philosopher” looks at lots of interesting stuff: science, work, architecture, sport, and so forth. This is all very well. My fear is simply that a readership that ought to be targeted, religious themselves, will feel put off by the packaging, presuming the book to be a dry academic treatise. That would be a monumental pity. For they have in this book a great resource, a source of renewal.
Having read Hitz’s book pencil in hand, I have drawn from it a small anthology of apophthegmata. “What we love follows from what we see; we can long for something after glimpsing only a shadow of its garment.” “I reckon that to hold something in loving attention while reconciled to its permanent annihilation is not humanly possible.” “Anger must be used well.” “Our ‘distractions’ are incursions of our real desires.” “Grief brings us into contact with the nature of things.” This book is the work of a philosopher who asks pertinent questions, reasons clearly, sees deeply, and loves wisdom. It is itself wise and companionable.
Erik Varden, a Trappist monk, is bishop-prelate of Trondheim, Norway.