25 June 2016

Vocation Discernment: Cautions, Advice, & Questions to Ask Yourself

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

A: 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 dispositive, 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 fraudulent 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.

2016 Add: Many religious congregations and diocesan presbyterates are experiencing serious generational conflicts between their Baby Boom age priests and younger priests. The principal conflict seems to be over how to read and implement VC2 in the parish. Baby Boomer priests tend to be more "pastoral" and less interested in "following the rules" in theology and liturgy. They see the younger guys as rigid, institutional, and too focused on "being right." The younger priests tend to be more interested in thinking with the long-tradition of the Church and usually work hard to celebrate the sacraments according to the rubrics. They see the Baby Boomer priests as Protestant wanna-be's. These are all unhelpful stereotypes, but they persist. 

If you are thinking about the priesthood and religious life, be prepared to run into some deeply divided communities and presbyterates. Don't let these divisions dissuade you from answering God's call. This is nothing new in the Church. It's just part of being human.


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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:27 PM

    I'll discuss my answers to these questions with my spiritual director!

    Thank you!