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    a painting of four monks laughing

    Other Monks

    When I tried living in a religious community, I didn't get to choose my companions.

    By Zena Hitz

    March 27, 2023
    • Margaret Kerry

      I am in a religious order. We have sisters who are theologians and philosophers, those who have doctorates and those with a masters. Others joined while the community was founded, giving up opportunites for higher education. Some come from other countries and are still learning a language. We have a variety of family backgrounds. What could be one of the most difficult things in Religious life is actually the greatest gift, you mentioned this as a way to be truly human without any titles defining us. To love is to give without expectation and sometimes this means doing the dishes, putting aside what seems more important for the mission and trusting that the work is done by God. We are co-workers who continue to wait at table. Luke 17:8

    The actor Alec Guinness relates an exchange he once had on a visit to a monastery, prior to his formal conversion to Catholicism. A monk asks him, “What do you think is the greatest difficulty in the life of a monk?” Guinness promptly replied, “Other monks.” The monk solemnly affirmed his answer.

    While preparing to enter Madonna House, I came across an address from a superior of the Dominican friars to a group of novices who had just taken the habit. “Take no consolation from the brethren!” he warned. “Your consolation must be from God alone.” The words chilled me to the bone. What did it mean, not to take consolation from one’s fellow novices? Was I setting out on a life without friendship or fellow feeling?

    The traditional monastic rule against particular friendship is the great bogeyman of the cinematic representation of religious life. Who can forget, once seen, the dreadful episode in The Nun’s Story (1959), where the nun befriended by the protagonist confesses their attachment in the chapter of faults, and both are asked to scrub the floor in atonement? What could be more inhumane than a ban on human warmth and connection?

    In truth it is not difficult to see how a preferential attachment might harm the common good. Consider the sign of peace congregants give one another at typical Catholic liturgies. What might be a moment of communion with the stranger and reconciliation with one’s enemy becomes an opportunity for a tender smooch between happy couples, as the grieving and the lonely, those who have come to church seeking consolation, look around awkwardly.

    a painting of four monks laughing

    Claudio Rinaldi, Four Monks, Oil on canvas, 1884.

    At ordinary social gatherings, think of the best friends who speak a private language when others are trying to engage, or the couple so wrapped up in one another neither can connect with anyone else. We have all tried to have a conversation with the person whose children or pets are the only topics of interest; nothing and no one else seems visible to them.

    I first came to Madonna House as a guest, for two stays of a couple of weeks each. Its hospitality guidelines discourage asking guests personal questions. No one knew that I was a philosophy professor. Even after I joined the community, it was not widely known that I had been trained as a teacher and a scholar. It was for me enormously liberating. I could suddenly see, through the eyes of others, who I was as a human being. Instead of traveling under the banner of “person of superior education,” faced with the anxiety and exaggerated deference such a status inspires, I became one person among others. It turned out that I am a person with sparkling eyes, with a gift for small kindnesses and efficient work, prone to scold and to complain, with a sarcastic mouth and a fierce and unpredictable temper.

    I had a conversation with a longtime member of the community during one of my first visits. “Madonna House is great,” he said. “But I don’t like myself at Madonna House.” I learned to see that life with unchosen strangers laid bare one’s own faults so that one lives with a painful self-consciousness, regularly realized if not constant.

    In a religious community, one does not choose one’s companions. Of all the sacrifices, for me that one had the most excruciating impact on daily life. The other guests are other recipients of hospitality, not necessarily fellow travelers. The fellow novices (or applicants as we were called) are not chosen for their common interests but according to their call to the community. The people one works with are determined by the various counterbalanced needs of the community, not personal compatibility.

    One of the great shocks to me of entering the community was how fine-tuned my social preferences were. I had many friends; I prided myself on their political and religious diversity. But they were all bookish, and all middle class. How could I connect with people that fell into neither category? I was private and sarcastic; others were open and earnest. I hated consensus on principle and opted to be contrary; others did not understand contrariety in the face of the deepest truths of life. I found arguments entertaining; others found them rude or threatening.

    The community, of course, is united in a common goal: love of God and love of neighbor. But unlike a knitting club, a polo club, a graduate program in philosophy, or a soup kitchen, that goal made no finer distinctions. I lived with people from various backgrounds and walks of life, in a community that looked more like humanity than any other group I have been in. It was wonderful, profound, and totally exhausting.

    One can only travel the long way into the heart of another: the slow work of finding common ground, the careful discernment of grounds for admiration, the disciplines of kindness, encouragement, silence, and restraint.

    Among the forms of human speech sacrificed in common life are gossip, trivial comments about the lives of others: complaints, hasty judgments, salacious stories, speculations, cruel entertainments, and gratuitous criticism. When I was living in the community, to restrict my speech in this way did not come naturally to me. The impulse to relate an annoyance, a discovered secret, a joke at another’s expense, for me is by default very strong.

    For much of my youth, social anxiety fueled my social attachments. I had been a strange and abrasive child, and was often shunned or excluded by my peers. Once I found a way in (not until college), I was fearful of losing my place. So I located myself in anxious, exclusive groups, who ruthlessly put down or mocked outsiders. Such speech flatters the insider with inclusion while holding oneself up as a gatekeeper. It holds an implicit threat to exclusion also, should the insider act in the manner mocked or criticized. The grounds for exclusion may have been presumptively noble: We were, perhaps, intelligent, wise, authentic, morally upright, or edgy. Perhaps we drank fresh-brewed coffee rather than instant, read books rather than watched movies, or had in other respects excellent taste in consumer products. Nonetheless, such garden-variety exclusion is the antithesis of unconditional love.

    The shortest path to a human connection is to draw someone aside and to distinguish the two of us as superior to others. If we avoid gossip and backbiting, especially when aided by a communal commitment to do so, we are cut off from this costly shortcut. One can only travel the long way into the heart of another: the slow work of finding common ground, the careful discernment of grounds for admiration, the disciplines of kindness, encouragement, silence, and restraint.

    Selective control over our social lives need not be selfish, focused on the pleasures of exclusion or the joys of real affinity. There are other benefits. We choose to develop our interests, for our own good and the common good, with others: We volunteer for the maintenance of public parks, play cards, support local Democrats, ride motorcycles, or collect antique photography equipment. For the young, intense friendship is a means to escape the unchosen relationships of one’s family of origin, to find unconditional love one might have been refused earlier, or to develop parts of oneself that might not develop otherwise.

    Yet selective commitments cannot constitute the whole of social life, or we will find ourselves in a frenzy to replace friends whose affinity with us has been worn away by time or circumstances. The habits and pleasures formed by exercising social preferences can run onto rough shoals in any common endeavor with a variety of unchosen stakeholders. Social preferences may help to shape a marriage initially, but they will not sustain a commitment when the person you once chose in deep affinity proves rich, complex, and prone to change over time. The pleasures of chosen relationships may collapse in the face of one’s children, who stubbornly insist on characteristics and behavior that you did not choose and cannot influence, even if they have the advantage of shared genetic material and shared domestic experience.

    One’s chosen friends also change as one’s scope and path of life change. The fact is that our chosen relationships are hard to keep. Outside of chance, habit, fear, shame, or a safe distance, only unconditional devotion will maintain them. In the course of the ordinary changes a person undergoes in life, one’s dearest friend, to whom one is unconditionally devoted, may end up further off in terms of affinity than many one might have scorned to befriend initially. A deliberate choice, once and for all, renewed regularly, to love every human being one encounters saves us from the absurdity of clinging to something that in the course of things cannot be preserved.

    From Zena Hitz, A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023), 109–115. Reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear.

    Contributed By ZenaHitz Zena Hitz

    Zena Hitz is a tutor at St. John’s College and the author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (2020).

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