The young man asked Our Lord: “Good Master, what good shall I do that I may have life everlasting?” It was the question of one blessed with wealth, but who realized that life eternal was a far more precious treasure.
“If thou wilt be perfect,” came the answer, “go sell what thou hast and give to the poor, and come, follow Me?” There was a painful pause: nature and grace were struggling for the mastery. He hesitates, wavers, and then sadly turns away, for love of his “great possessions” had wrapped itself round his heart – a vocation had been offered and refused. [Matt. XIX, 16-22]
“What a cloud of misgivings,” says Fr Faber, “must hang over the memory of him whom Jesus invited to follow Him. Is he looking now in Heaven upon that Face from whose mild beauty he so sadly turned away on earth?”
Two thousand years have passed, but unceasingly that same Voice has whispered, “Come, follow Me.” Some have heard that voice with joy, and have risen up at the Master’s call; others have stopped their ears, or turned away in fear; while not a few have stood and listened, asking themselves whether such an invitation could be for them, until Jesus of Nazareth passed by, and they were left behind for ever.
WHAT IS A VOCATION?
“How do I know if I have a vocation?” Often this question is brushed aside with an uneasy “I am sure I have not.” How little these people know the happiness they are throwing away, for such a question is often the sign of a genuine vocation!
A vocation, or “a call to the Priesthood or the Religious Life,” is a free gift of God bestowed on those whom He selects: “You have not chosen Me,” He said to His disciples, “but I have chosen you.” Often that invitation is extended to those whom we would least expect – Magdalene, steeped in iniquity; Matthew surrounded by his ill-gotten gains – for a sinful life in the past, St Thomas teaches, is no impediment to a vocation.
But though this gift is of surpassing value and a mark of very special affection, God will not force its acceptance. Timidly He whispers a word. If the soul turns away, He often withdraws forever, for He wants only willing volunteers. But if the startled soul listens, even though dreading lest that Voice speak again, grace is free to do its work.
Unconsciously, in that first encounter, she has been deeply wounded with a longing for some unknown happiness. Almost imperceptibly, a craving for a nobler life takes possession of the heart; prayer, self-denial and the thought of sacrifice all bring a new sweetness; the amusements of the world serve only to weary and disgust. “How useless it all is! how hollow! – how unsatisfying! Was I made only for this?” Slowly one comes to understand the excellence of evangelical perfection, the indescribable charm of virginity, and the nobility of a life devoted wholly to the service of God and the salvation of souls. Louder and stronger has grown the faint whisper, “Come, follow Me,” until at last the soul realizes that “the Master is here and calls for thee” – that she has a vocation.
A TRUE VOCATION
A vocation, therefore, speaking generally, is not a mysterious thing, but simply the choice God makes of one for a certain kind of life. Moreover, a vocation to the religious state supposes not only a supernatural inclination but an aptitude, or fitness, for its duties. God cannot act inconsistently. Hence, if real obstacles stand in the way, e.g., serious infirmities, an old parent to support, etc., such a one is not called to enter religion.
God at times inspires a person to do something, which He does not really intend to be carried out. Thus, Abraham was told to sacrifice his son merely to test his obedience and willingness, for, says St Teresa, “God is sometimes more pleased with the desire to do a thing than with its actual accomplishment.”
St Francis de Sales writes: “A genuine vocation is simply a firm and constant will desirous of serving God in the manner and in the place to which He calls me. […] I do not say this wish should be exempt from all repugnance, difficulty or distaste. […] In order to know whether God wills one to be a religious, there is no need to wait till He Himself speaks to us, or until He sends an angel from Heaven to signify His will; […] but the first movement of the inspiration must be responded to, and then one need not be troubled if disgust or coldness come later.”
SIGNS OF A VOCATION
The following is a list of some of the ordinary indications of a vocation. No one need expect to find all these indications:
1. A desire to have a religious vocation, together with the conviction that God is calling you. This desire is generally most strongly felt when the soul is calm, after Holy Communion, and in time of retreat.
2. A growing attraction for prayer and holy things in general, together with a longing for a hidden life and a desire to be more closely united to God.
3. A hatred of the world, a conviction of its hollowness and insufficiency to satisfy the soul. This feeling is generally strongest in the midst of worldly amusement.
4. A fear of sin and a longing to escape from the dangers and temptations of the world.
5. It is sometimes the sign of a vocation when a person fears that God may call him; when he prays not to have it and cannot banish the thought from his mind. If the vocation is sound, it will soon give place to an attraction, though, as Fr Lehmkuhl says, “one need not have a natural inclination for the religious life; on the contrary, a divine vocation is compatible with a natural repugnance for the state.”
6. Zeal for souls. To realize something of the value of souls and to desire to cooperate in their salvation.
7. A desire to devote our whole life to obtain the conversion of one dear to us.
8. A desire to atone for our own sins or those of others, and to fly from the temptations which we feel too weak to resist.
9. An attraction for the state of virginity.
10. The happiness which the thought of religious life brings; its spiritual helps, its peace, merit, and reward.
11. A longing to sacrifice oneself and abandon all for the love of Jesus Christ, and to suffer for His sake.
12. A willingness in one not having any dowry, or much education, to be received in any capacity is a proof of a real vocation.
MOTIVES FOR ENTERING RELIGION
St Francis de Sales writes that many “come into a convent parlour, they see nuns with calm faces, full of cheerfulness, modesty and content, and they say to themselves, ‘[…] The world frowns on us; we do not get what we want there. […] How happy religious are! They have got safely away from all their home worries; from their parents’ continual ordering about and fault-finding; let us enter religion.’ These reasons are worth nothing.”
As the call to religious life is supernatural, a vocation springing solely from a human motive would not be the work of grace. However, if the principal motive is supernatural, the vocation is a true one, for Divine Providence often makes use of the misfortunes of life to fill a soul with disgust for the world and prepare it for a greater grace.
How many eyes have been opened to the uncertainty of life by the sudden death of a dear friend! Thwarted ambition or the disappointment of a loving heart has convinced many a future saint that the only Master worth serving is Jesus Christ. “It matters little how we commence, provided we are determined to persevere and end well,” says St Francis de Sales; while Suarez maintains that “generally the desire for religious life is from the Holy Ghost, and we ought to receive it as such.”
SHOULD WE ENCOURAGE VOCATIONS?
It is a curious fact that many pious persons do not shrink from discouraging aspirants to religious life. “A vocation must be entirely the work of the Holy Ghost,” they say. Willingly they paint the imaginary difficulties and trials, and thus, unintentionally perhaps, but most effectively, extinguish the glowing enthusiasm of a youthful heart. Others calmly assure a postulant who has been found unsuitable for a particular order that this is a certain sign Almighty God does not want him, that he should not try again elsewhere.
It is true that a vocation comes from above, but God’s designs can he hindered or helped by His creatures. The direction of the steps of the young towards the sanctuary is largely in the hands of parents and teachers. Parents constantly put before their children the various professions of life to help them in the choice; is the grandest life of all to be ignored?
The saints realized that God looked to them to aid Him in the work of fostering vocations. St Jerome writes thus to Heliodorus: “Effeminate soldier! What are you doing under the paternal roof? Hasten to enlist under the banner of Christ!”
TRYING A VOCATION
The evil spirit strives to hinder all the good he can. If he cannot turn one away completely from the determination of giving oneself to God, he will work to delay it, knowing that a person in the world is constantly exposed to the danger of losing both the grace of God and his vocation. “O Lord.” exclaims St Augustine, “I said ‘I will come presently; wait a moment’; but this ‘presently’ never came, and this moment did not end. I always resolved to give myself to Thee on the morrow!”
It is well to remember that a person who felt he had no vocation would not sin by embracing the religious state, provided he had the intention of fulfilling all its obligations and serving God to the best of his ability. For, in the opinion of the Angelic Doctor, God will not refuse the special graces necessary for such a life to one who sincerely desires to promote His glory.
St Ignatius teaches that there is more need for deliberation about remaining in the world than leaving it: “Our Lord […] has laid before us the great dangers of a secular life, so that […] revelations and extraordinary tokens of His Will are more necessary for a man entering upon a life in the world than for one entering the religious state.”
Endless harm has been done by well-meaning people, who, under the pretext of ‘trying a vocation’, keep their children from entering a religious house for years. They urge that ‘getting to know the world’ will enable them to understand their own mind better; that a vocation which cannot stand such a trial had far better be abandoned!
“One could not give a more pernicious counsel than this,” writes Fr Lessius. “What is it in reality except the desire to extinguish the interior spirit, under the pretext of a trial, and to expose to the tempest of temptation him who was preparing to gain the port of safety? […] Whosoever wishes to preserve and see grow in his heart the seed which the Divine Sower has cast there ought to fly from the world and reach a safe refuge as soon as possible.”
The Church prescribes at least a year of probation – the novitiate – before admitting candidates even to the first, temporary vows of religion. There, safe from the contagious atmosphere of a corrupt world, with abundant time for prayer and thought, each one can test for himself the sincerity of the desire he felt to abandon all things and follow Christ. And, after the first profession, follows the years of temporary profession, before one binds oneself perpetually by final vows.
AGE FOR ENTERING
Realizing that the pure hearts of the young receive the impressions of virtue without difficulty, the Church has always encouraged her children to give themselves to her service from their tender years. The Council of Toledo states that “as soon as a child has arrived at adolescence, that is to say, at the age of 12 for girls and 14 for boys, they may freely dispose of themselves by entering religion.” The Council of Trent ordained that no-one should be admitted to profession before the age of 16 years completed, but it did not forbid entrance before that time.
St. Benedict was only 12 when he entered the cloister, and St Thomas of Aquinas barely 14. Blessed Imelda died in a Dominican Convent at the age of 11, and St Thérèse was scarcely 15 when she entered the Carmelite monastery at Lisieux.
So jealous is the Church of this liberty for her children that the Council of Trent excommunicates those who, by force or fear, hinder anyone from entering religion without just cause. St Alphonsus quotes a number of theologians who hold that parents who prevent their children from entering religion sin mortally. “To turn one from a religious vocation,” says St Jerome, “is nothing else than to slay Jesus Christ in the heart of another.”
FOLLOWING A VOCATION
There is no more important moment in the life of a young boy or girl than when he or she stands at the parting of the ways. The young are face to face with the question of what to do with their future life, a choice upon which may depend, not merely their happiness on earth, but even their eternal salvation.
They have been given a precious gift, marked out from all eternity by Divine Providence. On the one hand comes the call of the world to a life of ease and pleasure; on the other, the Voice of Christ: “Come, follow Me – I have need of you – I have work for you to do.”
Is the young man or woman free to hesitate, now that their call is certain? Though one would not sin mortally by refusing to follow a clear vocation, since it is an invitation and not a command, such a person would run a great risk of imperiling his salvation. God foresees the temptations and dangers of each: some He knows, would never save their souls in the midst of a sinful world, and these He calls away to protect them. To this vocation He has attached helps and graces, but deprived of this help, many will find salvation extremely difficult.
Can it be wondered at, then, that the lives of those who have abandoned a decided vocation are generally unhappy and often sullied with great and numerous sins.
Seeing the immense importance of a vocation, it is only natural to expect that the evil one should stir up a hornets’ nest of opposition, striving by delays, disappointments, and interior trials to turn the soul from its resolve. Truly, we never realize the number of enemies we have to contend with until the moment we decide to serve God!
When a young man resolves to renounce the world, his so-called friends rally round him. They remind him of all the good he might do by staying where he is. They ask him if he is not a fool to give up all the pleasures he might lawfully enjoy; they call him hard-hearted to desert loving parents in their declining years.
How terrific a struggle it all is only he knows who has been through it. To be told one is selfish when one wants only to be generous; to meet with nothing but discouragement when there is an agonizing cry in the soul for kindness and sympathy, is hard indeed to bear. God, too, sometimes seems to hide His face. “It seemed to me,” the holy Mother Kerr said, “that all my wish for religious life vanished from the moment I decided to follow it.”
And yet St Teresa tells us not to fear, for this trial, if bravely borne, leads to greater happiness: “When an act is done for God alone it is His will before we begin it that the soul […] should be afraid; and the greater the fear, if we do but succeed, the greater the reward. […] There is no reason of being afraid of failure since God is omnipotent.
“Though I could not at first bend my will to be a nun, I saw that the religious state was the best and safest. And thus, by little and little, I resolved to force myself into it. […] I remember perfectly well that the pain I felt when I left my father’s house was so great (he would never give his consent to my entering) that I do not believe the pain of dying will be greater. […] When I took the habit, Our Lord at once made me understand how He helps those who do violence to themselves in order to serve Him. I was filled with a joy so great that it has never failed me to this day.”
We play into the hands of the Tempter by building up for ourselves imaginary difficulties, forgetting that, with the call, come special graces, which enable us to do what God asks of us.
1. “I may not persevere.” – Instead of being frightened over a few who have been inconstant in their vocation, why not consider the great number of those who find in the religious life peace, happiness and salvation?
2. “My health may break down.” – Fr Surin, S.J. advised his mother to become a Carmelite nun at the age of 56. So delicate had she been that she had required the constant attendance of four nurses, yet during the 15 years she lived in the convent, observing all the austerities of the Rule, she never once entered the infirmary.
3. “I should break my parents’ hearts.” – Though it might mean a big sacrifice, no right-minded father would dream of forbidding a marriage which would bring to his child joy and good fortune; why then interfere with that holy alliance made in Heaven which brings far greater happiness?
4. “I could do more good in the world.” – In a very exceptional case, this might be true, but such a statement generally shows a lack of realization of the immense advantages of religious life and the merit which comes from the living of vows. Would St. Francis, St. Dominic, or St. Ignatius have done more for God’s glory had they led the life of pious laymen?
5. “Good people are wanted in the world.” – But does God want me there? If so, why did He call me to leave it? Surely I must assume that He knows what is best for me and for His glory!
6. “I may be unhappy in the convent.” – Is the world, then, such a paradise that no sorrow is found there? “Father,” said an old Trappist monk, “I have so much consolation here amid all our austerities, that I fear I shall have none in the next world.”
7. “Perhaps I never had a vocation.” – Theologians state that even if one should enter religion without a vocation and persevere through the novitiate, God will certainly give that vocation at the moment one makes one’s vows.
8. “Wait! Wait! Wait!” – But Jesus would not let the young man delay: “Let the dead bury their dead,” He said. “Make haste and tarry not!”
ADVANTAGES OF RELIGIOUS LIFE
“What a glorious kingdom of the Holy Ghost is the religious state!” writes Fr Meschler, S.J.; “It is like an island of peace and calm in the middle of the fleeting, changing, restless flood of this earthly life. […] It is like a lofty mountain where the last echoes of this world are still, and the first sounds of the blessed eternity are heard. What peace, what happiness, purity and holiness has it shed over the face of the earth!”
Peter said to Jesus: “Behold we have left all things, and have followed Thee: what, therefore, shall we have?” And Jesus said to them: “You shall receive a hundredfold and possess life everlasting” [Matt. XIX, 27-29].
Many caricatures have been painted of monks and nuns, but no artist has ever drawn them as sad-faced, melancholy beings. Safe from the troubles of the world and the insatiable desire for wealth, free from the cares of a home and family, they have found true happiness, which consists in peace of soul and contentment of heart.
The world cannot give happiness. Solomon sadly exclaimed: “Whatsoever my eyes desired, I refused them not, and I withheld not my heart from enjoying every pleasure, but I saw in all things only vanity and vexation of spirit, except to love God and serve Him alone” [cf Eccl. II].
The life of a religious, like that of every human being, must be a warfare; they have their crosses and tribulations, yet through it all they feel the presence of Christ’s most precious gift, that peace of heart which the world knows not, and earthly pleasures cannot bestow.
“Almighty God”, says St Lawrence Justinian, “has designedly concealed the happiness of religious life, because if it were known all would relinquish the world and fly to religion!” And the writer of Récit d’une Soeur calls it “happiness in Heaven purchased by happiness on earth.”
Spiritual writers say that life in religion surpasses all others because it removes the obstacles to perfection and consecrates one to God. The world, with its round of amusements and distractions, is the deadly enemy of piety. In religion, however, care of the soul is the first and most important duty. Religious can devote four or five hours a day to meditation, prayer, visits to the Blessed Sacrament and the recitation of the Divine Office, and all this is so well distributed that no burden is felt. The company of so many chosen souls and their generous example and saintly lives spur one on to nobler things; saved from all worldly anxieties, religious can give their whole heart to the service and love of God. “I hold it for certain,” says St. Alphonsus, “that the greatest number of the vacant thrones of the fallen Seraphim will be occupied by souls sanctified in the religious state.”
But that which constitutes the essence of religious life is the observance of the three vows of Evangelical Perfection: Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. A vow is a solemn promise made to God, after serious deliberation and having fully grasped the responsibilities involved, by which the soul engages to perform something, under pain of sin, which is better to do than to omit.
It is more perfect and more agreeable to God to do a good work after having obliged ourselves to do it by vow than to do it freely without this obligation. All the actions performed in virtue of the vows of the religious life are elevated to the dignity of acts of the virtue of Religion, giving them not only greater value in the eyes of God, but immensely increasing the holiness of the person.
Of all the vows, the three of the religious state are the noblest and best. The three great obstacles to perfection are, according to St John, the concupiscence of the eyes (for riches), the concupiscence of the flesh (for the pleasure of the senses), and the pride of life (in seeking after honours) [I Jn II, 16]. The vow of poverty destroys the first, chastity the second, and that of obedience the third.
By these vows, man makes of himself a perfect sacrifice to God, surrendering into His hands his liberty and will. Seeing how pleasing is this lifelong sacrifice, the Fathers of the Church and many others have called religious profession a ‘Second Baptism’, by which the guilt and punishment due for past sins are entirely remitted.
One can easily understand, then, the determination of those who have been obliged to leave a religious house to enter it again. Like Isabella of France, who refused the hand of the Emperor Frederick to become a humble nun, they exclaim: “A spouse of Jesus Christ is far more than even an Empress!”
THE HARVEST OF SOULS
Once Our Saviour sat by a well, weary from His journeying, and His gaze fell upon the waving cornfields stretching far out of sight. It was an image of the vast multitude of human beings He had come to save. Watching the solitary husbandman slowly gathering the sheaves of corn, He said sadly, “The harvest indeed is great, but the labourers are few. Pray ye, therefore, the Lord of the harvest that He send labourers into His harvest” [Lk. X, 2].
The echo of these words has never ceased to sound. Turn where we will, in no matter what part of the globe, we shall see the souls waiting to be garnered into the Master’s granaries. Boys and girls, young men and ladies, with your lives so full of promise, have you no nobler ideals, no loftier ambition than to spend your days in pleasure and amusement? Lift up your eyes and see the harvest awaiting you – the saving of immortal souls!
Are you one, dear reader, at whose heart Jesus has been knocking, inviting, pleading, urging? “The Master is here and calls for you;” He has need of you for His work. Follow Him bravely and trustfully and you will never regret it. But if you have not yet heard that voice, then remember His words: “Ask and you shall receive.” Ask Him for a vocation, not once but daily, so that you may share the happiness of those who serve the Lord, and that “your joy may be full.”
(Abridged from the writings of Rev. Fr. William Doyle, S.J., M.C. 1873-1917)