It’s the start of a new school year, which means students are diving back into classes and coursework. It’s also the season when after-school commitments resume, with students signing up for clubs, teams, and leadership positions they hope will catch the eye of college admissions counselors. As the Wall Street Journal reported last month, spending on extracurriculars is on the rise, largely because parents are eager for their kids to stand out among fellow applicants.
The Journal article focused on the financial toll extracurricular activities can take on families. But it is worth asking whether “the high cost of filling kids’ free time” is purely monetary. A recent book by Zena Hitz, a tutor at St. John’s College, suggests that the race to stand out involves spiritual costs as well.
In A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life, Hitz studies the practice of total abandonment embodied by the religious life of Christian monks, nuns, friars, and hermits, who “renounce wealth, sex, children, and ambition to live a life of prayer and sacrifice.” Though a Catholic convert herself, Hitz does not examine religious life from the perspective of dogma, but from the human quest for happiness. That is, she asks why anyone would pursue their religious convictions so radically, to the exclusion of other natural, rational goods. Contrasting religious life to her own successful pursuit of academic and professional prestige, Hitz invites her readers to question often unexamined assumptions about the comfort and security personal achievement can provide.
For Hitz, as for many religious, conversion began with realizing the utter contingency of human endeavor. On September 11, 2001, as she grieved the thousands of lives lost in the attacks on the Twin Towers, she was not only struck by the fragility of “[t]he civic effort of one of the richest cities in the world to preserve life and prevent catastrophe,” but of any human effort. In this light, her own goals—greater academic success to further solidify her position in life—seemed imbued with a kind of delusion that she could control her own destiny. “Even my initial interest in religion showed signs of the illusion of self-sufficiency,” Hitz reflects, recalling how she first approached God as another extracurricular activity she wished to tack on to the “already wonderful, flourishing life” she had made for herself.
Religious life demands that its adherents abandon this approach. In doing so, they practice wholeheartedness, a virtue foreign to what Hitz calls “modern middle-class life.” Whereas the modern approach to happiness often involves playing it safe by diversifying our efforts, Hitz writes that “[w]holeheartedness means putting all our eggs in one basket and waiting for them to break.” It means, in other words, carefully and earnestly discerning what our highest priority is, and then courageously and steadfastly devoting ourselves to it.
Wholehearted devotion takes training, however, training that today’s busy, extracurricular-filled adolescence, in which the successful student’s schedule revolves around his or her goals and ambitions, does not provide. Here, Hitz’s account of religious communal life is especially instructive.
Religious postulants must give up signs of distinction: material possessions, career success, chosen friends, personal dress, even given names. Reinforcing this surrender, they must likewise love without distinction, “loving one another on account of our simple humanity,” regardless of another’s charm, education level, good looks, cleanliness, intelligence, ability, or health. Religious love in this way by practicing works of mercy—nursing the sick and dying, sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked.
They also put this love into action by living in community. Monasteries and convents are not simply home bases to which monks and nuns return after a hard day’s work. Rather, they are themselves “schools of love,” where members exercise charity for one another, growing and preparing one another’s meals, mending one another’s habits, cleaning common bathrooms, repairing common furniture, and striving to understand one another, no matter how incompatible their personalities may be. In this way, religious life further strips its practitioners of any pretense to self-sufficiency by making “the reality of dependence . . . very obvious.”
Awareness of this reality does two things. First, it cultivates humility, reminding us that, however talented we might be, we cannot ultimately make it on our own. And secondly, it manifests our obligations to others, who have the same bodily needs and limitations that we do. In short, the education provided by religious communal life instills moral virtues no family or community can do without.
Humans’ mutual dependence is no less real outside of the convent or monastery, and, if anything, one might expect it to be heightened during school years. Yet, as Hitz points out, contemporary life makes this easy to hide, even when sharing a house with parents and siblings. As each family member’s schedule becomes more intense, with after-school commitments lasting beyond dinnertime, it becomes more efficient for families to outsource the burdens that religious communities share, paying strangers to grow and deliver our food, sew and ship our clothes, and even nurse aging parents or grandparents.
As a result, our children learn not only to put their own aspirations and achievements above all else, but to believe that in doing so, they work toward the highest good of total independence, neither needing nor owing anyone. But the human person is a social animal by nature, endowed with unique capacities of speech and reason that orient him toward others. When we teach our children otherwise, either implicitly or explicitly, we deprive them of the means to fulfill their natures.
Hitz’s powerful portrait of religious communal life not only challenges the tenets of our modern, individualistic society, but offers a model that nonreligious can imitate through family life. By keeping ordinary chores in-house, sharing the responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, and caring for one another from beginning to end of life, family members, like religious, can experience the same tangible, daily reminders of our mutual dependence. Domestic tasks come at a cost, leaving less time for personal advancement at the academic or career level. But they also provide an education of their own. “In the best cases,” Hitz writes, “a family or a marriage can be the same training ground” for wholeheartedness “that a religious community can be.”
This piece originally appeared in First Things