Discerning A Vocation to the Religious Life

This article, taken from a circular, Via Sanctorum, is on the discerning of a vocation to Religious life (monastic or convent life) and goes into what goes on in the soul of one who is called and what the Religious life means and entails.

Dear Readers, there are many souls who feel drawn to a higher form of life than what is strictly necessary for salvation. The world may seem to smile on them; they may be of a close and caring family, have good and faithful friends, a good deal of temporal advantages and opportunities, together with the prospect of a bright future dangling in front of them. And yet all this seems to fall short of their aspirations. They are still far from satisfied. No amount of earthly or natural gain seems able to meet the needs of that inner hunger and thirst, or to give peace to the soul’s restless discontent. The mind multiplies possibilities, presenting one temporal thing after another, and the natural man inclines after these things, as being the portion and the goal of all the worldly-wise; of all ‘ordinary persons.’ Nature also argues that God can be served and be a part of one’s life while in the world.

Yet still, the heart that earnestly seeks God knows that the world cannot offer it the only good it desires. It is sensible of the fact that it is an exile from its true home. The soul already feels homesick for that blessed society of God and His angels. Its solution cannot be in following those dreams of earthly prosperity, but if it would truly find God, the answer is rather to let all those temporal things go, and thus lightsome, advance to those living waters of grace that are found in the chaste and mortified way of Christ. “Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.” “As the deer panteth after the fountains of water, so my soul panteth after thee O God.”

The soul naturally tends to God, as to its final end and beatitude. Yet it is because so many allow creatures and self-interest to divert them from this end, that so many never become holy. Monasticism is a term derived from a Greek verb (monos, monazein, monachos) which means the act of “dwelling alone.” It came to be used in reference to those who ‘go aside’ as it were from the society of the world in order to lead lives of self-abnegation and asceticism. Now it is an edification to the secular world for there to be persons in it who are examples of virtue and asceticism, while living in it themselves, and not being separated from it by flying into solitude. We have many of the early Christians to look to, as well as others, for examples of persons leading religious lives in this way, without the ‘dwelling alone’ aspect of monastic life.

But God has always inspired in those who earnestly seek after spiritual perfection, a wholesome desire for the physical isolation of the desert. At rest from the tumult of the world and far from the countless dangers and distractions that are prevalent therein, the solitary religious soul can enter with so much the greater facility into the interior solitude and liberty of a lively and profound spiritual life. “Propter hoc ecce ego lactabo eam, et ducam eam in solitudinem, et loquar ad cor ejus.” “Therefore, behold I will allure her, and will lead her into the wilderness: and I will speak to her heart.”

While Religious life is understood to be a formal, structured and permanent commitment, all Catholics should strive to abide at least by the spirit of religious life, since this is required in order to fulfill or meet the demands of the Divine precept of Charity towards God and our neighbour. The counsels given by Christ Himself for those seeking after perfect Charity are the renunciation of and disengagement from riches and temporal possessions, which the heart is so easily attached to and so preoccupied with, the giving up of carnal pleasures through the virginal life and also of vain ambition and self-will by the life of humble subjection. Our Lord proposes these things as the antidotes of the three great concupiscences of the world: the concupiscence of the eyes, the concupiscence of the flesh and the pride of life. These pernicious tendencies hinder the growth of charity in a soul and so it is by curbing them and modeling our lives in accordance with Christ’s spiritual counsels that we draw closer to fulfilling the precept of charity which is the measure of holiness.

It is by voluntarily binding oneself to and taking upon oneself the burden of these Evangelical Counsels by means of entering into a Religious Order or Institute approved by the Church, that one formally becomes a Religious; a person Ecclesiastically recognised as consecrated to God, principally through the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

While the external structure is important and necessary on the legal level, what counts chiefly with God is the person’s purpose, (propositum) to give themselves as virgins or consecrated ones to Him, to His service and to the all-important work of self-sanctification. Without this interior and willful dedication and free offering of one’s entire self to God, we do not have a true religious person, nor any well-grounded confidence that they will produce the fruits of genuine sanctity. It is those who have this desire, this will and also the means to give themselves to God and lead lives formally dedicated to His service through the religious vows that may be said to be ‘called to religious life.’ Those who desire and will to become religious and who are not held back by any impediments, are free to accept Christ’s invitation to pursue holiness and salvation in the poor, chaste and obedient life. St. Jerome says the following in regard to the consecrated life: “The Master of the Christian race offers the reward, invites candidates to the course, holds in His hand the prize of virginity, points to the fountain of purity, and cries aloud “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” Let no one think that by this saying “not all man can receive it etc.” either fate or fortune is introduced, for those are virgins to whom it is given by God, or that chance has led to this, but it is given to those who have asked for it, who have desired it, who have worked that they might receive it. For it will be given to the one who asks, the seeker will find, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. … It is in our power, whether we want to be perfect. But whoever wants to be perfect, should sell all that he has…and when he has sold, give everything to the poor.”

Therefore, if we are able to enter monastic life but are not sure whether God wills this of us, let us remember that the religious life is truly for those who desire it. Desire, seek and ask, and it will be given to you. Our Lord invites and challenges devout and noble souls to enter into this way, and those who hear Him and follow after His voice are indeed called to leave the world and become His close disciples and friends. “Si vis perfectus esse, vade, vende quae habes, et da pauperibus, et habebis thesaurum in caelo: et veni, sequere me.” “If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me.” We are invited to set out in the way of Evangelical perfection and if we embrace this way for the love of God, we are bound to keep to it for life and thus we become His specially favoured and chosen ones. If God has given you a lively desire for perfection, He will also provide for you the means to realise this desire. What better thing can the Christian soul desire other than holiness? And what way is more conducive to this end, save the religious life? St Bernard, speaking of religious, says; “They live more purely, they fall more rarely, they rise more speedily, they are aided more powerfully, they live more peacefully, they die more securely, and they are rewarded more abundantly.” It was this same Saint who estimated that one in every three Catholics has a religious vocation.

On the subject of discernment, about which some are very anxious, St Francis de Sales says; “To know whether God will have a person become a religious it is not to be expected that God Himself should speak, or send an angel from heaven to signify His will. It is not necessary that ten or twelve confessors should examine whether the vocation is to be followed. But it is necessary to correspond with the first movement of the inspiration, and to cultivate it, and then not to grow weary if disgust or coldness should come on. If a person acts thus, God will not fail to make all succeed to His glory. Nor ought we to care much from what quarter the first movement comes. The Lord has many ways of calling His servants.”

If there is in you a persistent desire to draw closer to God, to do great things for Him, to save souls, it is not unreasonable to believe that He is calling you to serve Him in religion. These things are not easy to achieve amid the many cares, distractions, turmoil and constant temporal demands of secular life. For many, it seems too much to sacrifice the comforts and advantages that go with living in the world. But for a serious aspirant to spiritual perfection and union with God, it is either quite easy, or even a joy and a relief to let go of such things, in order that becoming ever more free from earthly things, they may attend at leisure to eternal things and be conformed and moulded into Christ. For while the sacrifice of leaving all things for God may indeed be as a thorn to our weakened human nature, yet at the same time, we must not overlook the fact that the soul rejoices in having its first bonds loosened in order that it may the sooner be detached from all hindrances and attain to union with God. “Quis dabit mihi pinnas sicut columbae et volabo et requiescam.” Who will give me wings like a dove, and I will fly and be at rest?” If, with upright intentions and good motives, you simply will to become a religious, and nothing keeps you bound to the world, proceed joyfully and confidently! Souls must will their way to sanctity, they must will their way along the noble path of the Evangelical Counsels. For where a good and determined will is lacking, all is lacking.

St Alphonsus says; ‘There is a true vocation whenever the following three things concur: First, a good end, namely, to get away from the dangers of the world, the better to insure eternal salvation, and to unite oneself more closely to God. Secondly, that there is no positive impediment due to poor health, lack of talents, or some necessity on the part of one’s parents, in regard to which matters the subject ought to quiet himself by leaving all to the judgment of the superiors, after having exposed the truth clearly. Thirdly: That the Superiors admit him. Now, whenever these three conditions are truly present, the novice ought not to doubt that his vocation was a true one.’

Suarez tells us that the religious life is an invitation from which none are excluded; ‘It is to be assumed that everyone – prescinding from obstacles – is per se a fit subject for entering religious life, for everyone is per se capable of the Christian perfection which is the goal of the religious life, and consequently the Counsels of perfection are addressed to all … there is no reason why we should always expect an extraordinary grace or calling of the Holy Ghost before we deliberate or consult others about this state of life. Although one does not feel any attraction or desire for the religious life, if one had any thoughts or interior movements in regard either to the dangers of the world or the excellence of the religious state, this is a beginning of a vocation.

Leave a comment