02 September 2012

Advice for discerning a vocation to religious life. . .

A couple of HA readers have written to ask about vocation discernment.  From 2009, here's my answer:

Q:  What basic questions should those discerning a religious vocation ask themselves?

I get a lot of questions from younger readers about vocation discernment. For the most part, they want to know how they know whether or not they have a religious vocation. I wish it were as easy as drawing blooding, testing it, and announcing the result. If horse had wings, etc. Here are three cautions and a few questions to ask yourself:

Three Cautions

Suspend any romantic or idealistic notions you might have about religious life. Religious orders are made up of sinful men and women. There is no perfect Order; no perfect monastery; no perfect charism. You WILL be disappointed at some point if you enter religious life. You are going to find folks in religious life who are angry, wounded, bitter, mean-spirited, disobedient, secretive, and just plain hateful. You will also find living saints.

Do your homework. There is no perfect Order, etc. but there is an Order out there that will best use your gifts, strengthen your weaknesses, and challenge you to grow in holiness. Learn everything you can about the Order or monastery you are considering. Use the internet, libraries, "people on the inside," and ask lots and lots of questions. Vocation directors are not salesmen. For the most part, they will not pressure you into a decision. They are looking at you as hard as you are looking them.

Be prepared to do some hard soul-searching. Before you apply to any Order or monastery, be ready to spend a great deal of time in prayer. You will have to go through interviews, psychological evaluations, physicals, credit checks, reference checks, transcript reviews, retreats, and just about anything else the vocations director can think of to make sure he/she knows as much about you as possible. Think of it as penance.

Practical Advice

If you are considering religious life right out of undergraduate school, consider again and again. Get a job. Spend two or three years doing some unpaid volunteer work for one of your favorite Orders. These help you to mature spiritually and will make you a better religious. Most communities these days need folks with practical life-skills like managing money, maintaining cars and equipment, etc.

If you have school loans, start paying them back ASAP! For men, this is not such a huge problem b/c most men's communities will assume loans on a case by case basis when you take solemn vows. For some reason, women's communities do not do this as much. Regardless, paying back your loans shows maturity. I was extremely fortunate and had my grad school loans cancelled after I was ordained! Long story. Don't ask.

Don't make any large, credit-based purchases before joining a community. Cars, houses, boats, etc. will have to be disposed of once you are in vows. Of course, if you are 22 and not thinking of joining an Order until you are 32, well, that's different story. But be aware that you cannot "take it with you" when you come into a community.

Tell family, friends, professors, employers that you thinking about religious life. It helps to hear from others what they think of you becoming a religious. Their perceptions cannot be determinative, but they can be insightful.

Be very open and honest with anyone you may become involve with romantically that you are thinking of religious life. One of the saddest things I have ever seen was a young woman in my office suffering because her fiance broke off their three year engagement to become a monk. She had no idea he was even thinking about it. There is no alternative here: you must tell. Hedging your bet with a boyfriend or girlfriend on the odds that you might not join up is fraudlent and shows a deep immaturity.

Be prepared for denial, scorn, ridicule, and outright opposition from family and friends. I can't tell you how many young men and women I have counseled who have decided not to follow their religious vocations b/c family and friends thought it was a waste of their lives. It's sad to say, but families are often the primary source of opposition. The potential loss of grandchildren is a deep sorrow for many moms and dads. Be ready to hear about it.

Questions to ask yourself

What is it precisely that makes me think I have a religious vocation?

What gifts do I have that point me to this end?

Can I live continent chaste celibacy for the rest of my life?

Can I be completely dependent on this group of men/women for all my physical needs? For most, if not all, of my emotional and spiritual needs?

Am I willing to work in order to provide resources for my Order/community? Even if my work seems to be more difficult, demanding, time-consuming, etc. than any other member of the community?

Am I willing to surrender my plans for my life and rely on my religious superiors to use my gifts for the mission of the Order? In other words, can I be obedient. . .even and especially when I think my superiors are cracked?

Am I willing to go where I am needed? Anywhere in the world?

Can I listen to those who disagree with me in the community and still live in fraternity? (A hard one!)

Am I willing join the Order/community and learn what I need to learn to be a good friar, monk, or nun? Or, do I see my admission as an opportunity to "straighten these guys out"?

How do I understand "failure" in religious life? I mean, how do I see and cope with brothers/sisters who do not seem to be doing what they vowed to do as religious?

What would count as success for me as a religious? Failure?

How patient am I with others as they grow in holiness? With myself?

I can personally attest to having "failed" to answer just about every single one of these before I became a Dominican. I was extremely fortunate to fall in with a community that has a high tolerance for friars who need to fumble around and start over. In the four years before I took solemn vows, there were three times when I had decided to leave the Order and a few more times when the prospects of becoming an "OP" didn't look too good. I hung on. They hung on. And here I am. For better or worse. Here I am.

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  1. From the discussions we've had, Padre', I think for the better. You've been the 'iron' I've needed from time to time, and I dare to call you friend.

  2. a Mother9:55 AM

    Fr. Powell, is there more you can address on this subject to assist parents of young adult children, particularly with questions young ladies may want to ask themselves and what they should consider and even ask of Orders they are visiting?

    As a mother I am at a lost on how I might spiritual help my daughter who is discerning a religious vocation and have not yet found an individual who has 1) the time, or 2) desire to assist with issues (questions) that have arisen since she has shared her desires w/me.

    Recently, I spoke w/a mother whose son is considering the priesthood. Similar to me and my family background, she is a convert, she feels isolated and lost on how to assist her son in the discernment process. I hear about what has been put in place for seminarians such as tests and spiritual counseling to assist men, but I never hear what young women 'should' expect or available to them?

    With the LCWR situation and my own brief experience at a Catholic Woman's College in the late '70's where TM was all the craze, I am really concerned that my daughter needs to be asking the 'right' questions not only about herself, but also about the Order she is pondering which is contemplative. While I have read some sources that have offered list of questions, none of them have asked questions that address a woman's nature. Your list is the first that seems to get to some nitty gritty.

    As for your statement: "It's sad to say, but families are often the primary source of opposition. The potential loss of grandchildren is a deep sorrow for many moms and dads. Be ready to hear about it."

    Are 'the Church' leaders 'ready' to spiritual assist parents who experience 'deep sorrow'?

    It is a 'deep sorrow' especially when it is your only daughter. It is the human heart that mourns and it appears to be brushed aside so flippantly and with such negativity towards the parents that it adds to their sense of 'loss' and real pain and isolation that is felt. I would like to know how religious leaders in the area of 'vocation' counseling are reaching out to the parents to help them spiritually and in addressing the reality that in the recent past the Church leaders had not taken good physical and spiritual care of their children once they entered into religious life? How are they helping them 'form' support communities of other parents?

    My husband who is not Christian and I will not block my daughter's vocation to religious life, if this is really God's calling and not some youthful fantasy or a strategy of avoidance of she fears. How are these issues discerned? Our hearts will bare the pain of not having her near us in old age, or to receive her kiss at our death, and even carry with our son his loss of having his only sibling around to share in his joys and sorrows in life. Know well that the deeply felt loss (mourning process) has been heavily salted by religious who see 'all' parents as an 'obstacle' and never reach out to the parents to help them through their real loss and struggles of their heart (love for their children) as they grope to 'trust in God' and the unknown 'human' souls guiding their children, especially in these sad times.

    Father, I am grateful for this posting and any feedback or forward of resources you might recommend we might investigate ... and your prayers.

    a Mother and convert

    1. A Mother,

      Lots of answer here. . .

      First, I realize that some parents encourage vocations, but stats tell us that most don't. My warning about parental opposition was intended to prepare a young person looking into religious life.

      Second, your question about resources for the parents of those entering religious life is an excellent one. I have no idea if there's anything out there or not. It sounds like a real need! Call your diocesan office and see if they know of anything. I'll check around too.

      Third, it sounds as though your daughter is looking into some seriously cloistered communities. I don't know of any communities that completely cut familial ties. Women's monastic life can be pretty open. . .there are varying degrees of cloister. Dominican nuns are cloistered, but they also visit with family and friends.

      Fourth, as an organization the LCWR is to be avoided. However, many of the communities that belong to the LCWR are just fine. Your daughter will have to do her homework. There is an alternative women's group that is entirely faithful to the Church, The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (http://www.cmswr.org/).

      Lastly, nothing helps more than getting in touch with several communities and get some hands-on help with discernment. Discerning a vocation in a vacuum is impossible. She needs to be talking to the vocation promoters from these communities.

      Please leave a comment if you need any further help!

    2. a Mother12:19 PM

      Father ... wanted to let you know I appreciated your reply and to share that I spoke w/a priest this week whose sister is a nun in a similar order in another state. He gave me names of parents whose daughter has entered the Order that holds my daughter's interest. I was grateful for the information and time he shared with me and the contact information. Again, thank you for your feedback. God bless.

  3. Second Thoughts5:58 PM

    From my years in religious life, I remember that the old members, formed before Vatican II, were extraordinarily kind and forgiving, even indulgent, of the flaws and failings of the younger ones. The Boomer VatII generation, however, seemed much more demanding and frankly narrower in their judgments, as if they were discerning for friendship rather than brotherhood. I think that this is part of why so many Boomer-dominated institutions --and not just in the Church-- find themselves unable to "reproduce". Thinking themselves so special, almost messianically unique as a generation, their standards were both unclear and demanding.

    1. I find that SOME Baby Boomer religious are very angry that the younger generations aren't picking up the BB banner of ecclesial revolution. Some of the bitter comments I've heard are scandalous. However, many are truly trying to understand GenX and the Millennials, but they struggle with our desire for firmer authority and tradition. . .all the things that they thought gone forever. Imagine being a BB religious formattor and having to form a houseful of guys/gals who are clamoring for all the stuff you worked so hard to get rid of! The other thing I find annoying: so many BB religious think that our desire for traditional religious life means that we want to escape responsibility for learning and carrying out the Church's social justice teachings. They seem deaf to the notion that we aren't rejecting social justice. . .we're rejecting their overwhelmingly leftist approach to social justice.

  4. Quixote9:07 PM

    Why is it that I find it easier to answer satisfactorily these questions now in my 40s and not in my early 20s, though now I have much more "baggage" and fewer orders would accept me now? How could I be of service to a community and to an order for so much less time than the young vocations were I truly called to this life? How can I tell if this monastic tug is legitimately from God when there seem to be so many hurdles beyond me?

    1. Q, I'll ask you the same question I always ask folks looking into priesthood/religious life: what would it take to convince you that God is calling you to be a monk?

      So many of those discerning a such a vocation seem to think that God Himself must appear to them in person and order them into the seminary/convent/monsatery. Nothing short of a personal theophany will do.

    2. Quixote10:38 AM

      I wouldn't say that a theophany would be needed, but I do have fears. I am convinced though that I am called to ask a community to confirm my vocation, so help me God.

    3. Whatcha waitin' for? :-)

    4. Quixote12:00 PM

      Well, I did visit a monastery last week while on a trip and attended daily mass there, though it was a half hour drive from where I was. After Sunday mass, I talked briefly with the presiding priest, who I later found was also their vocations director, and, out of the blue, he said that he often comes to my state and that we could meet for coffee and I left my contact information with him. I can't express how glad I felt after yearning to live inside those walls!

      Will you please pray for me?

      God bless you, Fr. P.

  5. An excellent list of opening questions, easily tweaked into discernment for becoming a permanent deacon.