Confession: I am a little obsessed with cloistered contemplative nuns. It’s gotten to the point at which my YouTube algorithm is giving me nothing but interviews with women about their vocation stories, or short documentaries that offer a glimpse into the serene environs of Carmelite or Poor Clare monasteries: sisters picking apples, chanting, lying completely prostrate on the floor during professions of vows. Years ago, a friend gave me a book about the daily routines of famous writers and thinkers – W. H. Auden rose at six sharp and disdained working at night; Willa Cather wrote for three hours a day, max – but today I am more interested in the highly regimented schedules of these hidden women. Sometimes I idly wonder if I could rise in the middle of the night to pray, glutton for sleep that I am, or if I’d succumb to the urge to chat before evening recreation time (the answer is almost certainly yes).
This is a very unorthodox fixation for me, an Orthodox Jew. After all, my own life is rife with examples of religious discipline, even if it often feels more frenetic than the kind exhibited by the nuns. For example, I began writing this essay during the height of Pesach preparations. Most people know that on Passover, Jews do not eat bread or other leavened products, but considerably fewer know how intense and detailed the purgative lead-up to Pesach can be for the traditionally observant. Every inch of my kitchen is thoroughly cleaned; plates and cutlery are replaced by alternates whose surfaces have never been besmirched by breadcrumbs; not just cereal and bagels but mustard, sesame seeds, and couscous are packed into closed closets or donated, and I’m one of the lazier Pesach balabustas out there. On my synagogue’s WhatsApp group chat, congregants ask the kinds of questions that to outsiders must look like angels-dancing-on-a-pin stuff: Can I keep my Brita water filter on my faucet through the holiday? Can I use white vinegar to remove smells from laundry? Can I drink milk without specific Pesach kosher certification? (Answers: yes, no, and only if you buy it before the holiday starts.)
I’m accustomed to people finding the demands of Jewish ritual life nonsensical, but I admit to being a little confused when I can’t immediately sell others on the beauty of cloistered living. I thought the appeal of retreat would be obvious, considering how much people complain about how uniquely terrible modern life is. When I chew someone’s ear off about the Poor Clares, the most common response I get is, “But wouldn’t these people be more effective out in the world?” This is a curious contemporary deontology, to imply that participating in society is an inherent good regardless of its outcome. (Is a publicist inherently virtuous for “contributing”? An advertising executive? A real estate developer?) The only retort that invariably works is, “But their carbon footprints must be nearly zero!” What I have to do, it seems, is translate the cloistered life into the language of modern heroics.
The average modern person’s reaction to the idea of cloistered vocation reveals a great deal, actually, about our current attitudes toward obligation, sacrifice, and discipline. Asked to define the final term, most people immediately identify two distinct strands: the power of a person to give up or abstain from something, and the wherewithal required to stick to a demanding schedule or maintain a singular focus in order to reach the highest echelons of achievement. So let’s call these “abstention discipline” and “lifestyle discipline.”
We live in an age that glorifies self-care to the point of parody, whereby any attempt to deny oneself something pleasurable is suspect.
Generally speaking, lifestyle discipline is more likely to garner respect. This is most evident in fields that involve performing for an audience, such as sports, dance, or music. (Exceptional visual art and writing might also provoke awe, but because they’re done in private, it’s usually of a quieter, delayed variety.) Think of our reverence as we watch a particularly gifted violin virtuoso perform or a skating prodigy seemingly float above the ice. The awe is often heightened by the thought of the sacrifices that must have been required to reach this apex. “This young lady has been dreaming of the Olympics since she was four years old!” breathless announcers inform the rapt crowd. We assume that the person had to engage in all manner of abstention discipline to excel – think of all the birthday cake forgone by the budding Olympian, or the hours practicing scales when one’s school pals were playing outdoors – but because it’s done in service of a goal that contains some element of the transcendent, it’s seen as worth it. Perhaps we recognize in this striving an outsized version of a satisfaction we have all experienced in miniature, as psychologists suggest that humans find the most meaning in projects that involve some hardship.
Outside of performance, stories involving serious lifestyle discipline evoke slightly more ambivalent reactions: people remain deeply attracted to them, but dissenting voices often arise, asking, as people did regarding the nuns, what exactly the point of it is, or whether it’s worth whatever is produced in the end. In 2011, throngs of people flocked to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about Jiro Ono, a Japanese sushi chef so devoted to his craft that his tiny restaurant, located in a subway station, received a three-star Michelin rating. Ono was so exacting in his demands that employees weren’t permitted to prepare food until they’d learned the proper way to squeeze the hand towels offered to guests upon arrival, which could take weeks or even years; when an apprentice finally made a passable tamago omelet, he wept with joy. Audiences arrived in droves, but critics were torn about Ono’s single-mindedness. “This is a portrait of tunnel vision,” the critic Roger Ebert wrote – he didn’t mean it as a compliment – noting that Ono’s relationship to a meal that can be consumed in a matter of minutes “wavers between love and madness.” And when a pursuit is full of hazard, that changes the calculus for some. “I just can’t get behind calling this incredibly risky behavior a sport, and I don’t want to aid in its glorification,” said a review of the documentary Free Solo, which chronicles Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb the face of El Capitan without safety equipment. Sure, ascending 3,000 feet up a sheet of rock, with the possibility of death at any moment, is an impressive, even majestic, feat. But what about this man’s family? Or the film crew, who would live with the image of his demise for the rest of their lives if so much as a single digit slipped? Is he any different from an adrenaline seeker we’d be more immediately suspicious of, like a street racer or a drug addict?
In contrast, abstention discipline tends to garner a more universally negative reaction. This plays out a lot regarding diet. Dietary restrictions have always existed, of course, but in the past two decades, the number of ways in which you can restrict your diet, and the reasons you might cite for doing so, have exploded. You can be on a low-FODMAP plan for your irritable bowels, or eschew nightshades because you’re Gisele Bündchen, or be vegan because of the environment, or be gluten-free for a real malady or gluten-free because of an imaginary malady: the list stretches on. But even those who’ve taken undeniably ethical paths, like abstaining from animal products for reasons of animal rights or the environment, are often perceived as smug, judgmental, or self-involved. Part of this is that we live in an age that glorifies self-care to the point of parody, whereby any attempt to deny yourself something pleasurable is suspect, unless you’re engaged in the limited kinds of lifestyle discipline we easily venerate (the aforementioned music, dance, and athletics). Another reason is that we often take the choices of others as a direct commentary on our own: we feel implicitly judged for tucking into a hamburger while our dining companion seems satisfied with rice and beans. In my own life, I’ve recently begun to tell friends that I hope to give up air travel at some point in the not-too-distant future, and nearly all of them have responded by telling me that the planes are still going to fly even if I don’t buy a ticket, or that personal travel only accounts for some vanishingly small percentage of carbon released into the atmosphere, or that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of individuals to counteract the harm that is done by a handful of behemoth corporations. Their defenses are generic – and not entirely wrong – but it’s clear to me that they’re also deeply personal: if they accepted that my choice was the morally correct one, they would have to change their own travel habits, and they (understandably) don’t want to. (Lest this seem extra holy on my part, rest assured I’ve rolled my eyes at plenty of vegans in my day.)
What if a life of faith is itself a kind of creative pursuit, an athletics of the soul?
Religious discipline confounds the modern sensibility because it upends our ideas about the value of discipline and sacrifice. To a person steeped in modern heroics, religious discipline looks solely like abstention, with none of the benefits of lifestyle discipline. It is giving up pleasurable things just to make your life less enjoyable; it is overcoming, ignoring, or dismissing your own desires solely from masochism, or because of communal expectations, which is the worst possible sin these days, to do something because someone or some group expects you to. (Contrast this with the Talmudic discussion of whether it is better to perform an action because you’re commanded to or because you want to, which rules firmly on the side of commandment: “Greater is one who is commanded to do a mitzvah and performs it than one who is not commanded to do a mitzvah and performs it.”) People often disdain the religious because they feel the religious expect them, too, to give up the things they enjoy. (Sometimes we do, but not as often as people assume.) And faith pervades every aspect of our lives, but we can’t monetize it or craft “peak experiences” out of it. There’s not going to be the satisfaction of a finish line even if it’s a sort of marathon. It is production with no product, a project with no deadline, a rock face with no summit.
But what if, instead, people saw all our pesky obligatory rituals, and all the stuff that looks like deprivation for deprivation’s sake, not as a program of self-torture but as a technology by which we allow ourselves to refine a certain set of skills? What if a life of faith is itself a kind of creative pursuit, or an athletics of the soul? “It’s like a beautiful old cathedral or an old building,” a cloistered Poor Clare told the writer Abbie Reese for her book Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns. “The life is a work of art, this eight-hundred-year-old order.” This is the thesis of the Stanford anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann, who has written prolifically about religious ritual and its effects on believers. After careful observation in environs as different as synagogues for newly Orthodox Jews in California and charismatic churches in Ghana, Luhrmann posited that the behavioral structures of religions are not in place only as a means of worshiping God, but also as a way of shaping the human beings themselves, by making them more open to mystical experiences, more oriented toward gratitude, more meticulous about small, detailed actions like the kind involved in ritualistic behaviors, and better able to enter a state of pure attention (she calls this “absorption”), among other things. “In fact, when you look carefully, you can see that church is about changing people’s mental habits Sunday by Sunday so that they feel that God is more real, more relevant, and more present for them,” Luhrmann writes in How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others.
In the course of working on a book about religious conversion, I’ve met many people who have given up all manner of things in service of their newfound beliefs: driving, television, alcohol, meat, social media, the ability to leave their place of residence whenever they want, zippers, coffee, health insurance, property ownership, footwear, pork, sex, marriage. They’ve made public and private promises never to partake not only of luxuries, but of the kinds of things most people, certainly most Americans, consider essential. These choices are not random acts of self-denial. Often they bind the person practically to a faith community: an Amish convert I recently spent time with said she obviously understood a car would be more convenient than a buggy, but it would give people the ability to travel further outside their area on a more regular basis, and thus fracture the strong ties they shared with one another. Sometimes, in the case of nuns or monks, the sacrifices are made in an attempt to strip away worldly distractions to allow them to more readily enter the meditative state required for prayer.
When you subtract the religious element of some of these choices, they make evident sense to even a secular observer. Abstaining from alcohol, under the clever new label “sober curious,” has been massively trending for the past few years, and among the benefits people cite, maintaining clearer cognition ranks highly. A person who gives up alcohol is still likely to be judged by others as uptight, but less than the Mormon or Muslim who doesn’t drink for religious reasons, even though maintaining a clear mind is part of the reason for the ordinance in both faiths.
Much religious discipline does involve a measure of bodily denial, in the case of alcohol, food, or sex. For some, that isn’t wholly pleasant. I do not enjoy keeping kosher all that much, actually. I don’t miss the cheeseburgers or lobsters of my youth at all, and I enjoy thinking of skipping these as a potential opportunity for holiness, but I absolutely hate how often I have to turn down food when I’m visiting others (no matter how many caveats I offer, it never fails to come across as rude) or how difficult it makes traveling. The difficulty, it turns out, is rather by design. In a Midrashic commentary on the book of Vayikra, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah is quoted as saying, “Whence is it derived that a man should not say: I do not desire to wear [linen and wool]; I do not desire to eat the flesh of a pig; I do not desire to cohabit with [improper sexual relationships]. I do desire it, but what can I do? My Father in heaven has decreed against it!” The twinge that comes with renunciation – so deeply alien a concept, let alone a value, to twenty-first-century morality – helps us craft our bodies as well as our lives into vessels for holiness.
Just as becoming an elite athlete requires both an intense physical regimen and the ability to maintain psychological focus, a life of religious devotion requires practices of renunciation to hone our physical, mental, and spiritual muscles, as well as attention to the mind and the body and the delicate interplay between them. The comparison becomes even more apt when you look at the kind of language athletes use to describe the way they feel at peak performance. “The body, by force of the soul, can in fact be converted into a luminous fluid. … When, in its divine power, it completely possesses the body, it converts that into a luminous moving cloud and thus can manifest itself in the whole of its divinity.” This statement wouldn’t be out of place in the writings of a mystic like Hildegard of Bingen. But no: it comes from the modern-dance luminary Isadora Duncan’s memoir.
We dance on the heads of pins, and maybe few people see or care, but it’s the most exquisite ballet you’ll never see.
When a dancer performs “Blue Danube” with Duncan’s choreography, onlookers may watch, breathless, feeling certain that they’re witnessing a work of near-divine beauty. They can sense some kind of greatness at work – greatness both of body and of spirit – and feel grateful that others have toiled to realize it for their consumption. Some may wish to try to mimic this experience in their own lives, by running marathons or swimming great distances or going on arduous hikes; they might even recognize that some of what satisfies them about doing so is directly related to the mental and physical hardship involved, about feeling it and enduring it and then moving beyond it.
Religion, even, can attract this kind of discomfort tourism: think of the people who sign up to do ten-day silent retreats at Zen centers, or who apply to live for a short time with an Amish family, or who pay to dunk in a ritual mikvah in hopes of manufacturing some kind of spiritual experience, or because they have some kind of vague sense that emotionally charged moments should be marked in a way that is sacred but they have no idea how to do that in a culture bereft of such opportunities. Personally, I am skeptical that these small bursts of discipline have the long-lasting salutary benefits people seek. They may help clear your mind or refine your spirit or strengthen your body in the short term. But once you go back to your default state you would have to redo the exercise just to reach that same level, as it would be if a musician ceased to practice daily and then tried to perform Paganini on the spot.
The elite athlete and the perfected mystic must not only dabble in discipline, not only praise it, to paraphrase a Cervantes quote, but submit to it. And while achievement in the realms of spirituality and performance are reached via remarkably similar disciplined paths, only the performative is met with ovation. Maybe that’s fine, because acclaim isn’t at all the point. For some, public acclaim is itself the thing to abstain from; avoiding it becomes, as it does for the cloistered, its own kind of discipline, another way in which religious values stand in opposition to the moral lodestars of our time. The invisible devotees among us, whether the Poor Clares or the bedraggled Jewish women of the Bronx: we dance on the heads of pins, and maybe few people see or care, but it’s the most exquisite ballet you’ll never see.