Calling to Religious Life?

Friends, I have a question regarding religious life and its sacrificial nature. Objectively speaking, it is superior to other ways of life because of the vows one takes which conform one completely to God. With that being said, it obviously involves a sacrifice, because it forgoes the possibility of having a biological family. All humans have the natural desire for marriage, as engrained in our nature from the time of Creation. So while desire plays a role in discernment, if we go solely based on desire, it seems 100% should get married, leaving no religious left over. Therefore, discernment, properly understood, should involve the idea of embracing the Lord’s Will, whatever it may be; although one desires to have a family, he/she lays it down as a religious because it is what God wants him/her to do.

My question then is this: where do we draw the line between the sacrifice of religious life (and possibly the feelings of loneliness and isolation that commonly occur) and the reality that one is not called to religious life? As an example, a young woman may enter the convent as a novice and experience feelings of missing her family/loneliness from never having a biological family. However, these seem like normal human responses to the monastic way of life. So when does the young woman decide that she is/is not called to monastic life? Maybe even more specifically, the convent she joined has an aging group of nuns and needs vocations or will face a merger/closing. Reason tells the young woman that she should strongly consider the call, because she is a good Catholic and the convent is in need of vocations. And lastly, she is obviously attracted to the way of life of the nuns and the specific charism, or why else would she be there in the first place?

What are your thoughts?

I should clarify that although religious life involves a deep sacrifice, it should not be said that marriage does not, because all married couples know the sacrifice is large! But religious life eliminates the possibility of spouse with children, which is quite tough to say the least.

And one more thing: If the Church is right about religious life (which She is), then every serious Catholic should at least consider it, even if he/she is not called to it. With that, it almost seems like Catholics should consider the “default” vocation religious life, not marriage… So I’m just confused as to how one knows that God is not calling them to hat way of life. It seems like we should have many more religious than we do nowadays…

Cle, I’m having a little trouble here figuring out exactly what you are asking. It’s hard to take issue with much that you said here, but, just regarding the generalities of your line of thought, I can add the results of my contemplation and study on this issue with the hope that it may help you.

Often we use the criteria of discerning a calling to the priesthood with regards to every vocation, but that is faulty to my mind. Priesthood is a very distinctive vocation, conferred on a soul by a sacrament of character, and to which comparatively few souls are called. Every soul, though, has two contradictory vocations: our natural vocation to marriage and our supernatural vocation to celibacy. Our natural vocation has obviously existed since the very dawn of man and is written into the natural law. Our supernatural vocation, however, finds its proper orientation in this Age of Grace, drawing upon the words of Christ and St Paul on the matter and taking the example of the countless holy men and women who have lived that life.

So whatever is default, as you put it, depends on if you are approaching the issue from a natural or a supernatural direction. Bear in mind, though, that as of yet, I’ve only talked about celibacy, not religious or any other form of consecrated life. I bring this up because the many varieties of religious and consecrated life throughout the Church’s history can be construed as elaborations upon the theme of our supernatural vocation. So while I agree with you that all persons considering a deep spiritual life should first attend to their supernatural calling in whichever appropriate context (while admitting that it is no sin at all to follow our natural vocation, itself being ratified sacramentally), I’m not certain what you are asking.

There is an intense discernment process before one is accepted into the religious life (or priesthood). An experienced spiritual advisor helps the candidate pray and focus on what God is calling them to do. If they are accepted, the discernment continues and there are several more years before the final vows are taken. Not everyone is called to religious life, not everyone hears the call and not everyone answers the call.

I like your question, because this is EXACTLY what every single person considering a call to religious life (or the priesthood) wrestles with every day. EVERY DAY. “How do I know I’m called?”, “How do I know i’m not called to married life?”, “how do I know I’m doing the right thing?”, “am I doing the right thing?”,…but also “how do i know this anxiety is normal apprehension and not God telling me to forget it?”

But… to be perfectly honest, these are not easy questions to answer. And I don’t think I can adequately answer it at all. That’s why those discerning a vocation, religious formation programs, and seminaries devote a LOT of resources toward spiritual direction. This is what a spiritual director should hopefully be good at, helping you to sort through those different feelings, emotions, anxieties, and determine what is minor, and what is coming from somewhere deeper.

As you said, marriage is an attractive vocation, and religious don’t apply to join because they don’t want to be married, or they aren’t attracted to the opposite sex. You’re absolutely right in that it’s a sacrifice. But on the other hand, you have to be attracted to religious life as well. If you completely dislike the idea of being a religious or a priest, then you don’t have a vocation (at least not at that time…God works in mysterious ways and can absolutely change your mind. I know this first hand). So religious life has to have some element of attraction to you That level of attraction may diminish, grow or stay the same over time. If it fizzles out, you probably weren’t being called to that vocation, if it gets stronger over time or “just won’t go away”, then you need to take a deep hard look into that, start with your pastor, then contact a vocation director, get a spiritual director. You still may discern out of a religious vocation, maybe even years down the road, but it’s definitely something you should look into if you’ve had a persistent attraction to it.

Also, everyone’s story is different. No two stories of discernment or vocation journey are the same, which also makes this question hard to answer. Some people felt called late in life, some people have known since they were 3, some knew instantly, for others it was a gradual process. For me, it was a gradual process, but in hindsight, I can see looking back that I’ve “known” for most of my life, although I would never have admitted it then, and in fact tried to runaway from it in a sense. I’ll also tell you the most difficult thing I’ve done to date was break up with my girlfriend of several years in order to pursue religious life. I had an attraction to marriage which honestly seemed inevitable, but I also had an attraction to religious life for quite some time. Through prayer, I finally got the courage to talk with someone about it (my pastor initially), meet with various vocation directors, work with a spiritual director, and spend time with different communities to learn about them, and once I spent time with the “right” community I just knew it was what i had to do (although not surprisingly it was the same community that spawned my interest in religious life over 10 years before).

I had an attraction to religious life, but at the same time I didn’t want to at all because I didn’t want to end the relationship I was in, so even though i “knew” deep down, I still didn’t want to acknowledge it. It took another year before I broke the news to my girlfriend, ending that relationship, and began the application process, then formation.

I don’t know how else to explain it other than tell you the little about my story that i just did. If you talk to other men and women discerning their vocation, get their stories too. They’ll all be different, but you’ll start to see similar elements begin to emerge, you’ll begin to see how different people were able to “draw the line” as you put it, to figure out if it truly was a vocational call or just a passing interest. You’ll be able to see how your own story is starting to play out as well.

I know someone else who also ended a relationship to apply to religious life, but he couldn’t even bring himself to complete the application. He knew pretty quickly that it just wasn’t right… he is now getting married, and couldn’t be happier; different vocation than he thought, but I know he’ll be a better husband and father because of it. So the answer to your question is there, but it isn’t very clear. It’s not a clear line. You can’t say “if the signs are XYZ then it’s married life, or ABC religious life”, or “feelings 1,2, and 3 are from God, but 4, 5, and 7 is my own petty nervousness”. It’s a personal process, and learning to distinguish these things takes time, prayer, and it definitely takes experiencing it. It’s helpful to have a guide too (i.e. spiritual director!).

I’m only in early formation, and haven’t even made first vows yet, so my story is still being played out…but I will say I’m very happy with my decision so far.

Ultimately though, we just have to trust God. He’ll let you know. He is VERY generous.

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you draw the line by honestly answering one question each and every single day: “Am I willing to die to myself to live this religious life today?”

the other indication is a true experience of joy (not happiness) in living the Religious life. Lack of joy is probably a clear indication that Religious life (or perhaps that particular community) is not for you.

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