An Irrelevant life

“They don’t watch reality shows or spend hours online. Nor do they constantly text, raise productive families, or spend their holidays in Thailand.” I would also add that they don’t dye their hair red and paint their nails with ridiculous colours. I read this sentence in the Sunday Times column of Mark Anthony Falzon of the 4th of December 2011.

It is not difficult to decipher that Falzon was writing about the Discalced Carmelite nuns in Cospicua, a group I tend to have quite an interest in due to their charism. Firstly from a sociological viewpoint, their foundress St. Teresa of Avila proves to be quite an inspiring woman. Well, one can only enter St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and glance upwards at the eldest founders of the Church’s religious orders to see that among the army of men, one can observe a lonely woman. It’s her! It’s Teresa, a true feminist by my standards. One who defied the social pressures on women in the 17th century and led a revolution within the Church especially with the whole idea of a monastery.

Not from a religious viewpoint, Falzon has truly summed up the idea of religious life in the cloister, a life of prayer and silence, an idyllic environment for thought and reflection on various matters, but also a good scene for confronting the most difficult person in the world; oneself. As Falzon points out, many people fail to see the real objective of the cloister. They might think that those nuns are wasting their time and that their lives are irrelevant. “I’m sure my dead-quiet and low-profile neighbours would agree that their lives are far from irrelevant.” Who are we to judge others’ life as irrelevant? These nuns may wear long habits, pray for many hours, not have a biological family and a career, but although their life does have its difficulties, they are able to surround themselves with peace. Everyone who steps inside can easily feel it.

May it be however that the Church has lost some of the importance it used to give to contemplative life? Is the Church so much focused on missionary action and apostolate that it has forgotten about that life behind the iron bars? Undoubtedly the Church still holds this type of life in high esteem. In fact contemplative life has almost been equalled to the heavenly one. So much effort has been done to emulate the peace-giving life in a monastery. The institution of canonical chapters like the one in Birkirkara and the Cottonera ones are a clear example. The canons [actually just priests with an extra title] come together to pray the liturgy of hours, something considered as daily life for the religious.

It may seem though that Catholics are not being trained to appreciate this lifestyle. There is a curious kind of respect towards friars since most people tend to feel more comfortable in confession with a religious rather than a diocesan priest. Some lack of enthusiasm may even be coming from the orders themselves. Why are some monasteries in Malta experiencing a far more decline in vocations than others? I am not referring to the ‘appeal’ of their lifestyle since a person called by God will only find happiness in fulfilling his calling no matter how difficult it is. Children from an early age need to come to appreciate the beauty of religious life since without this charism the Church would not have achieved its current development.

In our consumer culture, there are still people living a life where “God alone is enough” as St. Teresa said. The life of the cloistered nuns features this idea with a radical difference from the type of life that most of us lead. It is good sometimes to visit monasteries and reflect on the lifestyle within them, a life where God is the centre and people are truly living as his creatures, his lovers.

18 thoughts on “An Irrelevant life

  • Reply Ramon Casha 12th January 2014 at 8:54 am

    I would say that someone’s life is relevant or irrelevant depending on how it influences others and the world around them. If a person or group of persons were to suddenly and mysteriously disappear, would anyone notice? If the answer is no, I think that life was irrelevant and wasted. The baker who finally retired left a void – his bread was excellent and sought after. The volunteers in various NGOs, they’re all making a difference.

    Of course many religious orders do good work – I know nothing at all about this particular order of nuns – but some seem to do nothing. They are born, they pray and contemplate, then they die. That strikes me a bit as escapism, avoiding the world while spending their lives waiting to die. Obviously they are within their rights to do that, but yes I think it’s a wasted life.

    • Reply Anton D'Amato 12th January 2014 at 1:51 pm

      Some people are called to be rather than to do. The importance and relevance of one’s life is not linked with what the person does. Take the sick for e.g. is their life irrelevant?

      • Reply Ramon Casha 13th January 2014 at 6:40 am

        Yes, to me the importance and relevance of a person’s life is linked to what that person does. If Bach had written all his music and then thrown everything away without letting anyone hear them, he’d be irrelevant too. If someone finds a cure for cancer then takes the secret to the grave with him, his life would be irrelevant. Some people do big things, some do small things – even the small things matter. Some people choose to do nothing and they become irrelevant. As the saying goes, “bihom u mingħajrhom xorta”.

        Being sick is not a choice one makes. Not to mention that many who have some life-long medical problem still try to make the best of their lives despite that problems. It’s a whole different kettle of fish when you have people who are quite healthy and make a conscious choice to make nothing of their lives.

        • Reply Anton D'Amato 13th January 2014 at 9:10 am

          I have to disagree with this point you raise, first and foremost from a humanist perspective. The human being’s dignity, relevance and importance are something which precede who he is, or what he does.

          • Ramon Casha 13th January 2014 at 9:15 am

            First and foremost there is nothing remotely humanist in what you said. We’re not talking about dignity. A person’s dignity, rights and so on are unrelated to what they do with their lives. Whether or not they waste their lives or do something relevant on the other hand depends on what they do with it.

  • Reply Anton D'Amato 13th January 2014 at 9:28 am

    What I am saying is that one’s relevance and importance in society (which is linked to one’s dignity) must not be linked to the amount they do … if we calculate it on that measuring stick then many risk falling into irrelevance (without their fault).

    As to the initial argument – relevance of one’s existence should depend on being rather than on doing. Whether society sees profit in what you do, or whether you are worth it is an argument which bases itself on an Utilitarian conception of life, whereby the calculus of whether something is good or bad; important or not; relevant or irrelevant, is based on a calculus of numbers. Humans and human life cannot and shouldn’t be reduced to that!

    • Reply Ramon Casha 13th January 2014 at 9:43 am

      First, the relevance of one’s life is NOT related to one’s dignity – the two are unrelated matters. A human has/deserves dignity no matter what they do.

      Secondly, like I said earlier, even small things matter. In Malta there is a tendency to look down on garbage collectors for instance, but if there were a strike and the garbage didn’t get collected, people would realise how important their work is. That’s why I asked at the very top “If a person or group of persons were to suddenly and mysteriously disappear, would anyone notice?” If all garbage collectors were to disappear there would be a major panic. They make a difference – a positive one – in other people’s lives.

      Humans and human life is ELEVATED to this: we have one life. It may be long or short, we may be born with a silver spoon or with just enough to get by, we may have great intelligence and a healthy body or not – but what we make of this life, how we play whichever hand we are dealt is what matters. We can waste it or put it to good use. The parable of the talents comes to mind. To me, getting walled up in a cloister is equivalent of hiding the talent in a hole in the ground as opposed to putting it to good use.

      • Reply John P Cauchi 13th January 2014 at 2:27 pm

        I think the question here is more on this level:

        Does the nun “locked up in a cloister” see her life as being relevant?

        Yes of course. Especially since:

        1. She can bear it
        2. People who visit can gain from their interior wisdom
        3. They are people who live in a lot of peace. Not just “peace” as in “no problems” – rather they have found meaning in their solitude.

        We live in a world full of utilitarian philosophies, where one’s life is measured by what we do or not do. Capitalism is one such clear example. Everything is profit. What is not profitable will fail.

        So what if we do not give as the world expects from us? After all, civilization as we know it could collapse tomorrow, for all we know. It’s happened before on numerous occasions. Surely life has more meaning than us being mere processing agents of what was given to us, and what we produce..? Being after all is far more worth than producing. Which is why many people decide to take sabbaticals and go on long journeys to “find oneself”. Surely it’s not an effort done to be “more productive to society” in the long-term. Many change their lives after such an experience to a simpler one. What does that tell you?

        What about the 3 billion people and more living in poverty in the world? Are they “irrelevant” because they do not contribute to the world as much as the world wants them to? Is a banker in Wall Street worth more than they are? Perhaps, monetarily, he is, yes. But it’s a stupid argument. Because ultimately that same banker is the same as you and me – a fragile, weak being trying to make sense of it all. And frankly, the banker is more likely to commit suicide, statistically.

        Utilitarian arguments falter frequently. One such argument I once met during a demography class at a masters level course was “why don’t we jsut give euthaniasia to all those over 65? THey’re useless anyway”. She meant it. And on a deep, interior level, I found it an abhorrent argument to make.

        Suffice to say she then came after the lecture asking us to donate to a dog pound she does fundraising for. Clearly she finds dogs mroe useful than elderly people. Which is as valid an argument as you can make, utility-wise..

        • Reply Ramon Casha 13th January 2014 at 4:08 pm

          “Does the nun “locked up in a cloister” see her life as being relevant?”

          The question is, do others? If her life is only relevant to herself, then it is effectively irrelevant. You mentioned “People who visit can gain from their interior wisdom”. Good, then in that case she is making her life relevant.

          “Capitalism is one such clear example. Everything is profit. What is not profitable will fail.”

          Correct – but capitalism is only one of many examples. A person could choose to help others with no gain, altruistically. Very non-capitalistic, but still utilitarian.

          “So what if we do not give as the world expects from us?”

          I said nothing about doing what the world expects.

          “Being after all is far more worth than producing.”

          I disagree completely.

          “Which is why many people decide to take sabbaticals and go on long journeys to “find oneself”.”

          They call it self-improvement and most expect to live a better life after – possibly more relevant.

          “What about the 3 billion people and more living in poverty in the world? Are they “irrelevant”…”

          Nope, as I said from the beginning, even small things matter, and what the world wants is irrelevant.

          “But it’s a stupid argument.”

          Which is why I didn’t make it.

  • Reply Ramon Casha 13th January 2014 at 4:13 pm

    “Utilitarian arguments falter frequently.”

    I’ve never known one to do so.

    “why don’t we jsut give euthaniasia to all those over 65? THey’re useless anyway”.

    a) Because they’re not useless. Most people continue to have an influence on others well beyond 65. They may have retired from a paying job but most still do something.
    b) Because as I said before, all humans deserve dignity. Even if they WERE useless they shouldn’t be “euthanised”
    c) Because as I said before in the example of people who get sick, growing old is not a choice.

    In short, that wasn’t a real utilitarian argument.

    “Which is as valid an argument as you can make, utility-wise..”

    Nope, that’s called a straw man fallacy.

  • Reply John P Cauchi 13th January 2014 at 7:00 pm

    Still don’t get your drift though. Why call the lives of people who choose a life of solitude and contemplation as “useless” and “irrelevant”? After all, the vast majority of people decide to do things not for the good of society, but for themselves. Perhaps these people choose to do something for themselves as well.

    Fine – so 65 year olds are not useless. (of course they aren’t , I jsut gave an example of a mindset). How about people with sever mental disabilities who are totally dependant on society from birth?

    As regards your arguments on Dignity – I can’t see where they stand. What are they based on? On the mere fact that we are human as opposed, say, chimps, or cats? Because then it’s a very arbitrary stand to take. I, for example, think all life deserves dignity, which is why I rage constantly against the destruction of the environment that our society reviles in… sometimes in pursuit of “being relevant” and “development” – which are silly concepts at the end of the day.

    We are but specks of dust in a wonderful cosmos – and we have the joy and curse of being able to be self-aware. So why arguments of “relevance” and non-relevance? In the grand scheme of things, we are not relevant at all. Yet on a spiritual level, we are relevant – at least to ourselves. So why criticise the choice of a woman who decides to live out her relevance in the confines of a cloister to be in solitude? In my opinion, it definitely is a far more peaceful life than of a politician, frankly

    • Reply Ramon Casha 13th January 2014 at 8:47 pm

      It’s not a matter of WHY they do it, but what they do. To me, if they choose a life of solitude and contemplation and do not do anything for others, they have wasted their lives. It doesn’t matter if they do something for payment, they’re still doing something for others. There is also a difference, to me, between someone who can’t do any better, and those who choose not to.

      “What are they based on? On the mere fact that we are human as opposed, say, chimps, or cats?”

      Yep. In part it’s an extension of self-preservation, but it’s also a matter of self-awareness. We’re the species with the most advanced sense of self-awareness in the world, and thus in the known universe.

      “In the grand scheme of things, we are not relevant at all.”

      There is no grand scheme of things. The only schemes we know of are our own – that makes us quite important within the only known schemes.

  • Reply John P Cauchi 13th January 2014 at 10:33 pm

    “There is no grand scheme of things.”

    Well that’s your viewpoint. Theirs clearly isn’t that. Who’s to say You are correct? How can you be sure? One never truly can. And what’s the point of our own petty schemes? Passing on genes? Then a car hits you – and your schemes become utterly worthless… 🙂

    That’s the issue here. You see prayer, solitude and contemplation as a waste of time. To them, it gives them meaning. I can’t imagine what their life entails, and I’m sure they don’t go in to “waste their time”. Perhaps through the eyes of a world fixed on productivity, we see it as waste. But at the end of the day, many of us do vey wasteful things. We aren’t robots. Have you ever spoken to them, after all? They are very wise, most of them. More than you’d think.

    You haven’t replied to my questions on children born disabled etc. They serve no evolutionary purpose, and in the wild, they’d have died. They clearly are not productive in any sense to society. By the “productivity” and relevance argument you hold, what is your take on them?

    As regards “dignity based on self-preservation and self-awareness” then dolphins, apes and elephants at the least should have the dignity we give to ourselves – the only problem they lack is frank communication, the way we do. Dolphins educate each other, apes recognise themselves in the mirror and can communicate quite well even with us, and Elephants mourn their dead, just to mention one of many things. Are these not signs of sentience?

    • Reply Ramon Casha 14th January 2014 at 11:53 am

      “And what’s the point of our own petty schemes? Passing on genes? Then a car hits you – and your schemes become utterly worthless… 🙂 ”

      That’s where you’re wrong. If I lived my life with no contribution to others – to society – then yes, whatever plans we had become worthless. Not so if we contribute something to society. That will remain when we are gone. Even if the only thing that someone does is “pass on their genes”, that’s a contribution.

      “They are very wise, most of them. More than you’d think.”

      They could be the wisest people the planet has ever seen – it wouldn’t make any difference if they keep that wisdom to themselves. If they don’t, then they ARE contributing to society.

      “You haven’t replied to my questions on children born disabled etc.”

      I did. I made the distinction between something that is one’s choice and something over which one has no control.

      “They clearly are not productive in any sense to society.”

      Some people are still productive members of society despite their disabilities. Sometimes the effect one has is subtle. Maybe a few have truly nothing to offer society, but we can’t judge something that’s not their fault.

      “As regards “dignity based on self-preservation and self-awareness” then dolphins, apes and elephants at the least should have the dignity we give to ourselves”

      No, not the same since they’re not at our level. However yes they do deserve some level of dignity and protection.

  • Reply Ludwig Camilleri 14th January 2014 at 10:50 pm

    @ Ramon Casha
    It is clear that a humanist cannot really understand the importance of prayer and contemplation and as such arguing on the subject is futile. Before anything can be said about one’s life, it is good to understand it first. Surely you do not know how these nuns spend their day. Well no they don’t have a sick people’s home or orphanage. They are nuns not sisters so they are secluded in a monastery where, yes, they pray. That’s their contribution to society. They pray for it. You won’t see the miracles flowing out of the monastery because you need to take the scientific glasses off. Their contribution is religious, in the spiritual realm so science has no business here.

    Professor Falzon whom I quoted, was looking at the nuns from a sociological viewpoint, him being a social anthropologist. He looked at the value of silence within the monastery and argued that even this fact. The fact that unlike me they do not shout their opinion on websites and newspapers contributes to society by lessening the noise. Yes, prayer and silence. Maybe not prayer, but silence is surely needed for good personal growth prior to one’s going out to help people in any sense. These nuns provide the caressing house. They are there to caress those who go out to find a cure for cancer or eliminate world hunger, without looking at skin colour or religion or political affiliation. They caress those who go to them with peaceful words [only a few of these] and much silence.

    • Reply Ramon Casha 15th January 2014 at 9:53 am

      To anyone who does not believe in God, praying is as futile as making a wish to the Queen of the Fairies.

      “they are secluded in a monastery where, yes, they pray. That’s their contribution to society.”

      In other words they contribute absolutely nothing from a humanist perspective.

      Prayer HAS been tested scientifically by many. The conclusion is invariably that it doesn’t work, it does nothing. Of course anyone can see that for themselves. If prayer really worked, there would be no Christians in hospitals. After all Jesus promised that EVERYTHING that you ask for in his name will be granted – no ifs or buts (John 14:13-14). So go ahead, pray for all the sick people at MDH get healed right away. Let me know when you succeed. Imagine how many skeptical people like myself you’d convince if you did. Why there would be no more competing religions in the world if one religion gets its prayers granted in the way promised by Jesus.

  • Reply Ludwig Camilleri 14th January 2014 at 10:56 pm

    Another thing, these people are totally unrelated yet they live together like a family with exceptional love between them. Isn’t it a show to society that people can live together peacefully and with love in a time where so much conflict is around.

    I still remember the last nun that passed away in this community and some of the nuns quietly crying under their veils. Well that was a sight to see.

    • Reply Ramon Casha 15th January 2014 at 10:22 am

      I’m sure they live together like a family but the question was, is that an irrelevant life.

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