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Issue 16 – Easter 2023

Arts and Letters

Curt Accounts

A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life

Zena Hitz 

Cambridge, pp. 150, $12.99


At first glance the title of Zena Hitz’s new book, A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life, filled me with skepticism. As somebody who does not so much look at the religious life as have my face rubbed in it daily (with willingness and joy, I should add), I am aware that there is only so much use in looking at something that is meant to be lived; this, after all, is why several years of total immersion in the religious life, as postulant, novice, and junior professed, always precede the act of binding oneself to it unto death. But it turns out that Hitz has sufficient practical experience of the religious life (having been a member of Madonna House for three years—a fact which, friends inform me, I would have known already had I read her previous book, Lost in Thought), as well as a sufficiently pragmatic bent to her thinking, to understand that religious life is just that: a life, rather than a thought experiment. As a philosopher, her view of religious life is thought-provoking and distinct; as a practicing Catholic, it avoids both abstraction and sentimentality. There are many who will find it useful and insightful.

I’ll begin on the via negativa, if I may: A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life is not a manifesto. It certainly looks positively on religious life, but it is not an in-your-face summons to it. I recently read Millennial Nuns by the Daughters of Saint Paul and was struck by the fact that, while their honesty and spiritual nous is certainly a match for Hitz’s, their stories thrummed with a desire to prove the joy and beauty of their life and to actively encourage others to pursue it that was, at times, a little too intense for the casual reader (though I appreciate that nowadays there are perhaps not that many “casual readers” of books about nuns). But Hitz is somewhat cooler and more subdued in her approach. She lays her groundwork slowly and solidly, taking in topics of broad interest to any thinking person (virtue, transformative personal experience, the human search for meaning) as well as ones more tightly knotted to the concept of religious consecration. On the whole this is commendable, though I did at times wonder—and perhaps this simply a reflection of the fact that I am not a philosopher myself, nor any sort of academic—where on Earth she was going with some of this.

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