10 May 2009

Questions for Those Discerning a Religious Vocation

A couple of commenters and a few emailers have suggested that I write a book or some posts on the Dominican religious vocation.

My upcoming prayer book has a couple of Dominican themed litanies/novenas and a novena for discerning a vocation to the priesthood.

For those who don't want to wait until Sept for the prayer book, here's a post from back in January 2009 about discerning a vocation:

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 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.


  1. Lucia1:48 PM

    It's funny that you re-posted this...when you posted this the first time, I printed it out and kept it like I do with a lot of things. About two months ago I found it again and started actually thinking about it, answering the questions, etc. It lead me very much to a religious vocation. It stays with me in one of my school notebooks (oh, the stealth) every day now. Just thought I'd let you know. Thanks for the post.

  2. Off topic.

    A sincere "Happy Mother's Day" to your mom, Fr. Philip.

  3. Father,

    I just ordered your two highest priority books from your amazon wish list. I attempted to add the paperback as well but for some reason amazon said it could not be sent to your shipping address. I am not sure why. However, the two I was able to successfully add will arrive at your address sometime in June. I hope that they are of some help to you. Best regards, Glenn Skarzynski dirtycopper.blogspot.com

  4. Glenn,

    Thanks so much! Sometimes the amazon.com books...especially the used books...can't be shipped overseas. When I buy books I use The Book Depository in the UK. They sell in dollars and they don't charge shipping!

  5. It occurs to me this morning that much of this applies intimately to the vocation of marriage. I'm considering using your framework here, and fill in a few word changes, to address marriage. I'll let you know if I do.

  6. Anonymous3:25 PM

    What I have to add to this might sound counter-intuitive, but from experience, I believe it is correct. Once you have decided about a community, do not spend a lot of time with them before entering. At that point, it must be clear to you that your vocation is to that institute (its spirituality, its work, etc.) and not to its members. Get to know them, yes, but carry on your own life while still outside of the community and let them carry on theirs. They probably don't have a lot of time to entertain you if you "just drop." Too much familiarity before entering can decrease your ability to obey some of those same people after you've entered, and you will need a certain docility about you to experience the formation program with integrity. One of the greatest challenges of the religious life is obeying superiors who have been your companions and whom you know so well that you know their faults, their shortcomings, their blind spots and their shallow spots. Your vocation is between God and you. The other Brothers will be very important to your journey, but you are not making the journey because of them.

  7. Hi Fr. Philip,

    I've been lurking aroung your blog for a while, and thought of posting this comment back in January when you first wrote this post. Now that you have posted it again, I'll go ahead comment.

    It seems that most of what you have to say to potential aspirants to the priesthood and religious life are words of caution. Is this the only, or the most important advice you have?

    In my experience in campus ministry, students are already in dread of the v-word (and often literally run the other way when I bring it up). As one young lady, a recent graduate put it, to think that God, from all eternity, has a plan for her life puts a lot of pressure on her. (It is of little help for me or a vocation director to tell her that God's plan for her is her path to happiness -- I think students react to the exhortation 'discern your vocation' like they used to react to 'eat your vegetables or do your homework.')

    What joy, fulfillment, excitement, freedom, love is there in religious life to attract young people to consider a vocation? Why would anyone want to answer 'yes' to any of your questions (which call for a yes or no answer)?

    Perhaps your post is directed to those who already see great good in religious life which attracts them, but in my experience, they are rare -- or there would be more if those who were living the good of religious life shared that.

    I hope I'm not too negative, myself. Thanks for your post, your blog, your ministry and your witness.

    Joe Magee (xOP)

  8. Joe, thank you for the thoughtful comment.

    My intention in this post is to address issues that come up again and again when I am sitting with young people who are discerning vocations. I really don't intend it to be an advertisement to attract people to the religious life. This post applies to people well on their way toward making a decision and not so much for those who are just starting the process.

  9. Anon (10.25),

    I was with you up until, "Your vocation is between God and you." Though this is true, it seems to me to be far from the fullness of the truth as the Church understands it. We have a vocation from God confirmed by the Church and lived out in the Order. My fear here is that the "Me & Jesus" take on vocation sounds too much like some of our sisters who play at being "ordained priests" and claim that it's legit b/c their vocation to be "priests" is from God...regardless of what the Church says.

    In my short experience as an OP I've found community to be difficult at precisely those moments when my vision of my vocation clashed with the Order's. So far, the Order has been right every time. And over time I've allowed this to mellow my tendency to assert my prerogatives too quickly and too strongly.

  10. Anonymous11:25 PM

    Dear Father,

    Thank you very much for posting this! I must have missed it the first time, but the questions each speak to me in the heart - especially the stern warning to prepare myself to learn from my prospective superiors, not swaggering about self-importantly and asserting my self-appointed mission to straighten them out. For young fogeys this is a very real risk, and I'm sure you'll agree that it's the vice of pride which Satan will so deftly use to poison us, spoil our service of God.

    Reading this today has prompted me to get in touch with my director in Sydney (I'm currently overseas for a year of exchange) and see what advice he has for me, how I can bring my spiritual preparation up a level. God bless you and your brothers, Fr Philip.

    Anthony OPL

  11. I would also suggest that the word DISCERMENT be if not eliminated than radically reduced from a person's vocabulary.
    In the Summa St. Thomas says that we shouldn't spend a long time deliberating or taking counsel from others. And when we take counsel it should be from those in favor! Deliberating is different than discerning.

    Basically, if you are attracted to religious life and have no impediments (not just practical ones but "spiritual" ones), than go for it! Only by actually experiencing the life will you know if it is for you.
    This often shocks young women but when they go around in circles I try to bring them home by telling them to stop praying to know what is God's will and ask the question in His Presence, "What do I really want." And to pray for the purification of desires. A vocation to religious life is different than priesthood. For the priesthood one is called out of the faithful to be a minister of the Mysteries of God and to serve his people. For religious life, one moves on the desire to consecrate ones life to God.
    I'm not sure if this all makes sense but I do know that that word discerment can often freeze a person to the point where she or he can't seem to make a decision.