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Sacrifice and the search for happiness - a philosophical look at religious life

Zena Hitz was already an academic when she converted to Catholicism.

She went on to spend three years living with the Madonna House, a Catholic mostly-lay community founded by Servant of God Catherine Doherty in 1947. She eventually discerned out, discovering that she felt called to teach at a liberal arts college. 

Zena Hitz. Credit: St. John’s College.

But her time of discernment - coupled with her background in philosophy - led to Hitz’ recently released book, “A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life,” which examines Catholic religious life through a philosophical lens, seeing it as a path to happiness and fulfillment despite the sacrifice it entails.

Today, Hitz is a tutor at Saint John’s College in Annapolis and the foundress of the Catherine Project, which hosts free, online courses on the great books.

She spoke with The Pillar recently about her new book, her experience in religious life, and how modern philosophy approaches the renunciation of worldly goods for the sake of the Gospel.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


There is a quote on the back of your book from David Hume, in which the philosopher says that “monkish virtues” have no purpose — they don’t make someone richer, nor a better member of society, or even more enjoyable. Hume says that religious life seems to  “stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper." 

It’s a very David Hume sort of quote. Do you think that his words hold any truth?

I love the quote too. I think one of the reasons why it's so good is that it does seem like it has some truth in it. There's something we can recognize at least in the world of imagination.

In the dour nuns depicted in Hollywood movies, maybe?

(laughs) Exactly.

It's true that I’ve met few people in religious life who meet that category.

I think most of us who have spent time around religious people notice that they're often personable, sunny, full of life, have great senses of humor, and are doing, of course, enormous amounts of work that benefits society. So, there's a way in which, of course, I think the quote is wrong and disagreeable. And from the point of view of the book, one of the things I think is important about the religious life for people who are not called to it, is that these disciplines are actually important for everyone. They're actually part of being a flourishing human being in some form or other. So, on the whole, I disagree with Hume.

I do think that the grain of truth is that there are people, there's a personality trait that's out there in which you seek sacrifice, suffering, or penance out of some kind of disorder that is not for the sake of flourishing in a life with God, but for some other more selfish reason. And I think that's recognizable even among Christians or religious, and it's something that we always need to be on guard against. It's not about being superior to others. It's not about being a “martyr” in that folk psychological sense.

It's about actually really giving everything you have to what you care most about. So, I do think that that's harder than it might appear at first, and it requires a whole rich set of practices. It's not enough just to follow some rules. That’s why I think there’s a grain of truth.

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Why has religious life lost its appeal in a secularized West? Are we Christians simply speaking a language that is too unintelligible? Does relativism make it hard to understand that there can be happiness in renouncement, in mortification, in chastity, poverty and obedience?

To some extent, I think there's something simple about it: there are fewer religious interacting with people outside the Catholic Church, but even within the Catholic Church. You could live your whole life as a practicing Catholic and never meet a Catholic religious in many parts of the West.

If people know them as human beings rather than as an idea, I think that demystifies it a bit. One of the reasons why I was excited about writing the book was because I wanted to demystify religious life a bit.

I wanted it not to just look like religious people are totally alien to the mind of a liberal person. I don't think it is totally alien. I think there's a human appeal to it. I really wanted to try to bring that out.

I grew up in a secular background. I remember that around the corner from my mother’s house, there’s a convent from the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s nuns. And I remember seeing them on the street, and it was odd, I was like “What is that?” (laughs), it seemed like a totally different kind of entity, totally other, completely out of my world.

And I think part of the issue is the lack of familiarity, just not knowing these people, not having ever talked to someone like that.

But then it's so challenging to understand religious life [today]... because no matter how idealistic you are, your life is really suffused with some kind of consumerism. With a sense that life without sex is unlivable, with a sense that material comfort is just how you get by in the world. It’s a habit: If I feel uncomfortable, I'm going to buy something to fix it. I have a problem, I'm going to buy something to fix it.

So, there's a recognition at some level that if you try to understand religious life, you might have to change your life. Because there's something that's deeply off about the way that you live. So, on the one hand, you kind of know it and on the other hand, you block yourself off. It's very human.

Like Saint Augustine - whom you mention in the book - said, “Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet.”

(Laughs) Well, but even then Saint Augustine was in better shape in some way than we are. Already admitting that chastity is valuable, that you want to be chaste puts you in a very advanced spiritual condition than what you see these days. The common stance in our secular liberal environment would be “Chastity? What are you talking about?” People wouldn’t even think that chastity is something desirable.

And I think that's partly because the word chastity has gotten distorted so that people don't recognize that their own principles of moderation with respect to sex might count as chastity. Unless you really believe in the absolutely unrestricted pursuit of sexual appetite you believe in some kind of chastity. But people are not accustomed to thinking that way.

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You ask yourself in the book “What does it mean to renounce everything to follow Christ, or live for God alone? And what could attract someone to such a life?”

What can philosophy say about this? Because it seems that philosophy, as mostly understood today, would be deeply agnostic about these kinds of questions.

I don't think that in the early Church and in the ancient world it was seen that way. I've spent most of my career studying classical philosophy, Greek philosophy especially…think about someone like Socrates, who lays himself down for the pursuit of wisdom.

He was executed, at least if we follow the narrative that Plato gives us in the dialogues. He was executed for pursuing wisdom, he gave everything he had to pursue wisdom: He gave up money, he gave up wealth, he gave up political influence.

He did everything in order to pursue wisdom and eventually died for it. So that figure really is influential in classical philosophy. And you see back then, even now, a lot of people realize that a happy life is a focused life. A happy life is a life that has the best thing as its final goal.

Christianity in that sense is not countercultural. What’s countercultural is who Christ is and that Christ is the one who suffers, the one who humbles himself. When he surrenders himself, when he abandons himself to the will of the Father---that I think is where you get to the sharp difference.

So, from the perspective of classical philosophy, it takes a while to get to the point where you're really faced with something totally non-philosophical, which is, of course, revelation. Christ is God, He was born to a virgin, He suffered, died, and was resurrected. These core mysteries which are revealed to us are not amenable to philosophy. They have to be communicated in a different way. So, the content of the final end towards which we dedicate everything, for which we will endure everything, for which we will suffer and die and be tortured and humiliated, ultimately, that content is not available to philosophy.

So, in that way, also, I think you can’t completely understand the real meaning and fullness of Christian love without receiving that revelation.

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There's a certain kind of philosophy, especially contemporary philosophy, that is allergic to mystery, to things that transcend reason. Studying religious life, beyond sociological, cultural and psychological categories seems to be precisely this: to study something that cannot be fully reduced.

How can a philosopher approach religious life earnestly and in its own terms?

In one of the reviews of my book, someone complained that I had taken the religious who I wrote about on their own terms; I didn't say what psychological problem could be behind them or how might this have an alternate explanation, an economic explanation, for instance, where people are pursuing a certain kind of stability, a psychological explanation, and emotional explanation, historical explanation. 

It's not so much [just] an issue with philosophy. That's something about our contemporary academic mode of seeing debunking as being a kind of exemplar of thinking… we tear away the internal explanation of a practice and explain it in terms of something else. That's something I think is really interesting and where exactly it comes from, how it becomes so pervasive. But you can tell that this is not just an attitude, it's a framing. It's not a piece of reasoning. You have to assume in advance that the internal perspective of a phenomenon, such as religious life, is somehow reducible to these other things. Not just that these factors I mentioned are contributing, or that they go alongside or whatever, but that they are at the core of the phenomenon.

And that's a significant philosophical assumption, and one that I think is ultimately not justified.

It's quite difficult to articulate because this way of thinking is so pervasive not just among academics, but among everyone who's been educated by academics, which is most of us in the middle class in the West.

I think it is a subtle kind of enemy. I do have a soft spot for contemporary philosophy because I think the idea that you have to explain everything has some value. You can't just say “Look, this is a mystery” or “I can't explain this to you.” You have to do everything you can to lay down the reasoning behind what you're doing.

I taught for a time at a part of the University of Maryland called UMBC, and I used to go to their Newman club meetings with the Catholic students. Those particular students at the time had a practice in which they would get these big theological discussions, and they considered it a sign of weakness to play what they called “the mystery card.” You had to explain as much as you could without just saying “It’s a mystery.” I think there is an intellectual virtue in trying as hard as you can to find terms in which mystery could be comprehensible to someone who hasn't received a personal revelation, or gotten the grace of faith. I think it's worth doing---I think pressure from philosophers is good for that reason.

Of course, in the end, you need the gift of faith.

Dogma is the guardian of mystery, as Flannery O’Connor would put it.

Exactly. So, you want to go straight up to the portal of mystery, you don't want to pretend it's somewhere where it isn't and you don't want to stop a conversation from happening.

And I think that's especially true in a secular age like ours, if only to increase the amount of understanding between religious and non-religious people to always be looking for human terms on which you can communicate what you're talking about.

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I think a frustrating moment for many philosophers is when you come to realize that reality is a “misty space, as Nicholas of Cusa would masterfully put it: reality doesn’t come in clear-cut concepts, and typically the truths you hold dearest to your heart can’t easily be reduced to concepts.

I used to say to my students in the seminary that even a logical positivist is more convinced of the love of his mother than of a logical axiom. No one would die for the ontological argument, but many have died for Christ. Is religious life a challenge to philosophy in that way?

I think there’s an intellectual vice that’s very widespread and is sometimes at work in a case like this.

Often academics, especially contemporary philosophers, show not just discomfort with what they hold most dear to their hearts, but they don't like waiting to understand something difficult.

There's impatience, and the desire for a sort of instant intellectual gratification, which is bad for intellectual life in general.

A lack of contemplation.

Contemplation and a real understanding that thinking is an organic process that sometimes happens at a very slow pace that can't be controlled.

And the more difficult and important something is, the more time it takes to let it unfold. [These are] the defects of our intellectual culture, which of course are getting worse in an age when reading big, long books, which takes a lot of patience and time and struggle, is becoming less common than looking around for bits of information to put together into a coherent whole as quickly as possible.

There's a shallowness in our intellectual culture and a desire for quick results, which makes the situation for religious questions harder.

In my personal experience, it took me many years to move from being a secular person to being a believing Catholic.

There were difficult intellectual situations because there were significant interior barriers, which took quite a long time to untangle. I sometimes think about how stupid it sounds, if you look at my own life, that it took me three years in a quasi-monastic community like the one I lived at to go from being a regular academic to teaching in a liberal arts college, but that’s how much work it takes to really see something that matters deeply for your own life and your own happiness. It can take years and years of sacrifice and struggle and without understanding where it's all going.

And one of the things I think is really urgent in our culture for all of us is that we need to start developing that patience of waiting for the truth to unfold, whether that's a philosophical truth and academic truth, or scientific truth, Mathematical truth, or whether that's a truth about how we personally are meant to live. It just takes time.

You can't find it in a Google search.

You mentioned in the book that “the difference between religious life and the life of an ordinary Christian lies not in any core principle but in its social role. Religious life sets out to communicate the central teaching of Christianity.” 

Can’t an ordinary Christian life do the same? Because after all, there were no monks and nuns among the first Christians. They were fishermen. They were lawyers. They were military, artisans, housewives, etc.

The short answer is yes, of course. One of the chief sources for the spirituality that animates the book is this very famous spiritual classic Abandonment to Divine Providence, by [Jean Pierre de] Caussade, a 17th-century Jesuit. And I think one of the main points of that book, along with many books from that time period is the potential for holiness in everyday life. So, if you think of abandonment to the divine will as being the goal of life, the union of one’s own will with the divine will, that can be done in any walk of life. It's something that is available to everybody.

I got into some trouble with this claim because there's a beautiful review by the Dominican nuns of Linden where they complain about this part of the book, they claim it's not just a social role, it's something more than that from their point of view.

I think they live the life of abandonment in a way that's more visible, more obvious, more challenging, and more attractive once it's grasped than an ordinary layperson does. So maybe social role might be too weak. Perhaps an Evangelical role it’s more appropriate, it’s a special way in which the Gospel is communicated, a special kind of witness to the Christian life, which is different from the married style where, you know, you work with someone for a few years with some guy, you talk about sports, you go to games together, you take your kids to the park, and then you realize this person has a source of life within them that makes them different from other people.

So, perhaps calling it a “social role” is a little weak. It’s an Evangelical role.

One side of a vocation is renouncing your old life, like St. Francis renouncing his wealthy attire in front of his father. But vocatio means calling in Latin, so it also has this dimension of sensing a calling from God. Can we explain this “calling” side philosophically?

There are versions of it out there that are quite rationalized. I remember this was the thing that was really hard for me when I was discerning because it felt like I was being called to do something irrational or imprudent, like giving up my philosophy career.

But you know, Catholics also believe that grace builds on nature, so reason is a good guide to the will of God. You’re not somehow flying in the face of Revelation by following reason, these things work together hand-in-hand.

I was haunted by this. There’s this ordinary prudence, the kind that a really excellent college counselor can have and he tells you “Hey, you're good at mathematics, and you like to build things, so, I think God might be calling you to be an engineer.”

There's a sense in which vocation can work like that and often does

So, you can discern by prudence and by the Holy Spirit, this is what my wonderful spiritual director, a Dominican, taught me. It’s going to be a different kind of experience; it’s not going to feel the same way. So, it might feel like it’s imprudent, but it really isn’t. I think my case is a perfect example - many people thought I was completely nuts to quit my job, leave my career behind, and go live in a monastic-style community for three years. And I didn’t originally plan to stay for three years, I wanted to be there for as long as I needed, even if that meant my whole life.

I eventually discerned out, but I had changed quite a lot and made this choice to teach in a liberal arts college. I started writing about my experiences and now I think it's obvious to anyone who knows me that I'm using all of my talents much more dramatically and much more clearly, much more prudently than in my previous life.

So, I think, sometimes, prudence can only be seen in retrospect and we really overestimate how prudent we are and how rational we are. So, we often need to be severely shaken up in order to reason properly.

And that's what I think the value of the life of grace is, and the value of discernment through prayer, discernment through penance, discernment through fasting, discernment through the Holy Spirit.

The value of that is not that somehow there's something irrational about what you're doing, but that there's something so rational that you can't see it because you're in up to your eyes in attachments that you can't get out of by natural means. And that's where grace is really essential. So, in that sense, grace helps you to do something that everyone wants to do.

It's an aid to something that we all want: to live most fully and flourish and give all of our talents to the world in the most effective possible way.

You mentioned that this decision might seem irrational, but from the Catholic view, a calling from God cannot be irrational, because God is reason and truth in itself. So, this is precisely the apex of rationality.

Even if you cannot explain it at the moment, it just makes sense. It’s walking on fog, step by step, you see a little light in front, a place where you can fall to the left, and so on. But you don’t see the whole way.

We're just really not as good at being rational as we think we are … And in a way, it's fascinating that there are these signs that a good spiritual director knows and can teach you for discernment, that are, in a way, outside of the content of what's discerned. So, you don't have to be able to see exactly why this is the most rational thing to do. You see signs that it is God's call.

And that's hard for people to do, to really trust that there's a process that can do that, but it's one of the things I'm most convinced of.

In a way, you can tell when someone's getting married or planning to get married and it's a mistake. There are some signs, right? You don't need to know a ton about the situation. If the person is in a hurry. If the person has an outrageously sunny idea about what the outcome is going to be. If they're sort of manically excited. If they're not listening to people who are close to them, these are all signs that something irrational is happening, even though you might not be able to see from the circumstances what that is.

For a while, I discerned a vocation to celibacy, and the funny thing is that I felt very repelled from marriage. — Thinking about kids, 50 years with the same person, the other family, worrying about money, etc. All this made me dislike the idea of marriage and I confused that with a calling to celibacy, because I had this idea that living in a spiritual family was easy. You know, you just wake up at 6, do your prayers, go to daily Mass with the community, never worry about money, have a few apostolic tasks entrusted to you, and then, after a few years, you’re shipped off to heaven.

So, I had, I think, a very abstract idea of what marriage and religious life meant. Eventually, when I met a woman who was gorgeous, shared my values, my perspective on life, and so on, the idea of marriage became much more attractive because now I saw it concretely. 

So I think there’s always this temptation to idealize a way of life when we see it in abstraction.

I think that's hard for us, right? Not to think too abstractly in our discernment. It’s asking yourself do I want to do this particular activity, with this particular person or group of people? It's very concrete. And I think it's hard. It's hard for us when we're young to do that, to really keep your eyes open to what's in front of you. It's what some people told me when I was discerning and I was just like, give me a break. Come on. Surely, there's a science of how to do this. If I do enough research, I can find these answers.

I did travel to different places and put myself in the way of various people. I was active in the discernment, but it was in the end particular encounters with particular people that really made the whole thing work.

Yes, exactly, you mentioned in the book that the hardest thing for someone in a religious community is the other people in the community. So, you have to see that concretely.

If you grow up in a dysfunctional family, as I did, and many of us do, you can't help but see family life as being somehow colored by that dysfunction. Most of us end up living out some kind of dysfunction of the kind that we grew up with, but you don't realize that joining a religious community is going to have exactly the same dysfunction.

There can be this fantasy of married life as this perfect bliss and harmony and mutual understanding that grows and grows without meeting obstacles, and it has also spilled our idea of religious life as if it were totally peaceful, without any big and emotional situations. But this is also a complete fantasy, because religious life is very intense, and very emotional.

Getting out of our fantasy world is a key part of discernment.


In the book, you say “The man of faith, who finds himself in this condition by grace alone, receives back the infinite, all of the worldly things he initially renounced. He receives back everything he has sacrificed with joy, as a gift.”

Is that renunciation the key to joy in religious life?

The best example I can think of is a thing I loved about Madonna House and that I missed very much, which is liturgical eating. You eat very simply most of the time, but on Sunday or on feasts, you eat nicely. And then if it's the Immaculate Conception or another big feast, you’re really going to eat something good, and if it’s Easter or Christmas, you can imagine. So, there’s something about it that makes you appreciate the goodness of good food more and it puts it in a certain order, it creates a pathway between your enjoyment of food and your life of worship.

Compare a life of liturgical eating with the life of a San Francisco tech bro, you eat out every night, each dinner is fancier than the last, and it gets boring, and you don’t appreciate things as much in the same way anymore.

However, one of the things that happens in Madonna House is that, for example, because you don't eat sweets on a regular basis, whenever you see it, you’ve got to eat it. So, there are people that if you put them in front of the worst cookie in the world they will be like “Oh gosh, there’s a cookie, it’s the best cookie I’ve ever had,” so there are hazards in a life of penance in which you can get fixated on the thing you’re giving up.

It takes some work and some grace to get to the point where you simply receive simple food with joy, and fancy food with joy.

That reminds me of some spiritual advice Saint Josemaría Escrivá used to give, which is that every now and then you should change the mortifications you do because you can become fixated on the object of the mortification or because they become too easy for you, so they’re not really a mortification anymore.

There's something [Thomas] Merton wrote in his diary that I really like. He talks about how for a certain kind of person who's a little bit competitive, it's better just to take the piece of fruit that’s the best on the table instead of waiting and looking for the worst to turn up. Just take the best without thinking much about it, and that’s just mortification. Just do what a normal person would do.

In the book, you mentioned a sort of break between the mentality of Aristotle and Saint Paul. Saint Paul calls us to embrace dependence (Philippians 2:8). Our weaknesses can be a path to God, whereas Aristotle calls us to strive for divinity.

Shouldn’t we Christians both embrace our dependence and strive for divinity, to become God-like, through our union with Christ?

I wanted to draw that contrast because it's more complicated than I made it sound. So, the contrast I made was between Aristotle saying “become like God as much as possible” and Paul in Philippians saying that Christ did not see equality with God as something to be grasped at but emptied himself and became the form of a slave. So, there was something about the value of humility that I think is unique in Christianity but it is hard to get exactly right because you don't just stop acting or living, you actively choose to surrender and you actively discern what to surrender to, and you make an act of faith that this is the will of God.

So, it's actually extremely active, and that's why, of course, Paul also uses these images of athletes struggling and striving at the race, and so on. So, there's a way in which that element gets in there, and there's also a way in which, I think, even for someone like Aristotle, you're receiving something when you strive to become like God as much as possible. It’s not pure self-generated activity or something like that.

So, there's complexity at both ends. I do think that you find things in Christianity that are not in Aristotle. Humility, vulnerability, suffering out of love. These are things you don't find in Aristotle.

You have a creator God in Christianity. You don't have a creator God in Aristotle. So, if you were to look all the way back, everything would be a gift of God. Your existence is a gift of God. You're acting as a gift of God. The structure in which Aristotle is interested is one in which you leave behind what's human for the sake of the Divine. That’s different than Christianity. There's a genuine elevation of the human and a humbling of the divine that’s not found in Aristotle.

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