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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.

The book is not a straightforward explanation of what religious life is, nor does it try to be. Hitz has not chosen to take us through the theology of religious consecration, followed by an outline of the formation process, followed by advice for discerners (for which I am very grateful; there’s enough of that out there already, and if you desperately want to know that sort of thing, it’s best just to arrange a meeting with a vocations promoter). The structure—and I must say I was particularly impressed by the thought that went into the structure of this book—is kerygmatic: we go from the needs and desires of the human person according to his created nature through to his eschatological finality, with Christ and His Church at the heart. But it is a kerygma for a post-Christian age. The subjective entry point is not an experience of sin and a wish to be saved, but an experience of unfulfillment and a wish to be more than what modernity wants us to be.

Many people need to hear such a kerygma, just as Saint Anthony needed to hear the Gospel story of the rich young man. This book is religious life for people who not only never grew up with parish sisters or attended a convent school, but perhaps have never darkened the door of a church at all. It is for people who not only have never met a consecrated person but perhaps have never even met a person of faith. Towards the end of the book Hitz notes that “I have not made an argument for Christianity,” on the assumption, it seems to me, that the majority of her readers want and perhaps even need to hear such a thing. It is a noble endeavor (and no mean feat—I’d never attempt it myself) to write a book on religious life for such a demographic. The problem is that this demographic nowadays includes an awful lot of people. When Hitz states her hope that her book will “hold the attention of anyone seeking insight into his or her own life and the choices that structure it,” this strikes me as an unhelpfully vague hope, or at least an unhelpfully vague articulation of a hope. Is it possible to write with meaning and precision when setting out to address such a broad church (or non-church)?

For my own part, you will be unsurprised (and perhaps relieved) to hear I did not learn much particularly new about religious life from this book. But what I did learn was that stories of dramatic turns towards God’s will seem to hold great power over Hitz’s imagination. She relishes in brutally curt accounts of the choice for God. A contemporary of Saint Teresa of Avila’s runs to the convent and, “when she reaches the convent, they give her the habit at once.” Phan Thi Kim Phuc “leaves the faith of her family, becomes a Christian, and is disowned by her parents.” Augustine “immediately commits himself to celibacy.” The drama of the divine call, with its potential to utterly disrupt and disintegrate a person’s self-will, is clearly something that speaks to Hitz personally—at one point she describes a similar situation from her own life, upon hearing the Gospel account of the Sermon on the Mount—and lends a noticeable liveliness to her prose. It occurred to me that a follow-up volume, A Philosopher Looks at the Lives of the Saints, would be a highly enjoyable read.

There are several points in the book where Hitz also proves herself potentially very useful to those actively discerning the religious life. She is briskly unsentimental when describing the interior warfare that characterized her own discernment; the tangled emotions and apparent spiritual chaos she describes are, if perhaps not normative, certainly common enough to warrant being talked about more regularly. I’ve read enough stories of young ladies receiving joyful summons to be Jesus’s bride in the peace of Eucharistic Adoration that I was refreshed by reading Hitz’s account of the rage, tears, confusion, and dread she experienced on her journey into Madonna House. Similarly, the description of the kenotic stripping-away of her sense of self in initial formation—devastating to experience, and yet the utterly necessary foundation for the disciplines of the life—is very healthy in its frankness, and put me in mind of the accounts of monastic deaths in Nicolas Diat’s A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life. It is worth remembering that, however serene and elegant a religious might look on the outside, their interior is likely to be marked by the blood and guts of spiritual warfare until—to paraphrase one of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes’s best one-liners—approximately fifteen minutes after death, and I am relieved that Hitz did not shy away from this fact.

I was also very taken by her discussion of consecrated celibacy. It comes in a chapter entitled “The Human Family,” between a section on the challenge of loving those who are different to us and another on attentiveness to others’ needs. This in itself is very astute, sending as it does the message that celibacy is a specific way of taking one’s place in the social and communal fabric—a method of loving, in other words, rather than an abnegation of love. But the discussion itself is characterized by robust common sense about the sexed nature of the human person, which explodes the modern assumption that sexuality is nothing more (and nothing more harmless) than a particularly enjoyable form of self-expression. On the contrary, sexuality can become “an engine of illusion and delusion,” a temptation against truth. Hitz never explicitly calls on the Catechism, of course, but for the non-Christian or post-Christian reader her discussion of sexuality lays an excellent groundwork for the definition of chastity found in CCC 2337. It is one of the best examples of her ability to calmly short-circuit the kind of entrenched intellectual and spiritual preconceptions that might otherwise hamper the modern person’s understanding of religious life.

We live in a time in which few people write about the lives of consecrated religious. In such a context, this book would have been a welcome contribution to the literature were it only half as intelligent and articulate as it actually is. But even if our bookstores were overflowing with commentaries on the religious life, A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life would stand out for its distinctive and thoughtful approach, the breadth of its learning, and its willingness to speak to those entirely unfamiliar with, perhaps even hostile to, so much of what constitutes the great and unfathomable mystery of this life.

A correction was made on May 8, 2023: A previous version of this essay misstated that Josephine Bakhita “leaves the faith of her family, becomes a Christian, and is disowned by her parents.” The correct reference is to Phan Thi Kim Phuc. 

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