A few more questions before I hit the hay. . .
1). Lots of talk on the blogsphere these days about the "end times." What say you?
Along with speculation about the identity of the Anti-Christ, predicting the date of the Second Coming is a favorite Christian past time. Catholic art, literature, music, theology, etc. have all been directly inspired by the Book of Revelation's graphic depictions of the Last Battle, the rise of the Beast, his "666" mark, and the Woman Clothed in the Sun. For the most part, this sort of thing doesn't much interest me. As a fundie Protestant way-back-when I fretted and sweated about it because I believed that we were heading into the End Times as a matter of historical fact; that is, I knew that we were all playing out our parts in the scripted drama of the Apocalypse to come. Now, however, I realize something more important: when it comes, it comes. Jesus said to be ready for his return "like a thief in the night." When asked directly about the coming end of the age, Jesus shrugged and said, "I dunno. Only the Father knows." So, if Jesus himself doesn't know when this thing's gonna blow, I'm not going to lose much sleep worrying about it either.
2). 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:
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.
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 determinitative, 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.
3). I don't get what you are saying about prayer. Don't we pray to God for what we need? Why not ask St Joseph for help in selling a house?
My objection to the use of St Joseph statues to sell a house hinges on the superstitious use of a sacramental. If God does not will your house to be sold, it will not be sold. . .you can bury hundreds of St Joseph's statues, and it won't make a bit of difference. Burying statues will not change God's mind. Magic is the belief that we can alter reality by using willing it to be altered. Prayer is not magic. What we do in prayer is train our hearts and minds to receive as gifts all the blessings God has already given us. Every blessing you will ever receive has already been given to you. Prayer is your way of receiving those blessings in thanksgiving. The best prayer is: "Lord, I receive today all the blessings you have given me and give you thanks for them." Petitions are designed to keep us constantly aware that everything we have and everything we are is a direct gift from God. We ask for food, shelter, clothing so that we are reminded that food, shelter, clothing are God's gifts to us for our use. The "claim it and get it" school of prayer is a fraud. When Jesus says, "Ask and you shall receive," he means "You have been given, now ask for it." This is a spirituality of humity and gratitude. Think of it this way: God, from eternity, has willed that you get a new job. He has also willed that you will actually get that job when you ask for it with thanksgiving. Don't ask, don't get. So, the best thing to do is to assume that God always wills the absolute best for you; align yourself with His will for you; ask for what you need, according to His will, and give thanks BEFORE and after you get it.