Last week on VP, I took the opportunity to write a post on marriage and a recent experience I had, witnessing a friend give himself to his new bride through the Sacrament of Matrimony.
One of my blogging buddies, and VP contributor, Elizabeth Hillgrove commented on the post, saying, “I love reading a reflection on marriage from your perspective as one in the religious life.”
I commented back a challenge, with a supposed wink, “Thank you, Elizabeth. It would be interesting too, to read a post from you on the ‘possibility of religious life today’.”
And so a brief exchange in posts began. First with an entry here at VP (now Ignitum Today) by Elizabeth, where she takes a look at religious life through what is probably many people’s view, via movies. Ah, but before I could respond, mutual friend and blogger, Anthony S. Layne, stated “Somebody’s evading …. :^)=) … I’d like to see a post that digs into this a little further … but only if that’s not asking for more than you’re willing to share…In fact, I may post on that myself.”
And post on it, he did. Well worth the read if you haven’t already!
My admiration goes out to Elizabeth for stepping up to Anthony’s challenge, for she wrote a second post on the topic, this one digging a lot deeper, honestly admitting the difficulty of DISCERNMENT. Yes. That’s what it is.
And, what is discernment? We discern every day. That is, we make choices every day, so what makes us go into panic-mode when considering religious life? Ok, so we’re not exactly making a decision about what to eat for dinner; these daily discernments, we know, will not change our life drastically.
One of the biggest difficulties of considering religious life is an emotional barrier. Well, we’re human. We were created for relationships. Elizabeth expresses this reality really well in her post (and oh, how it brings me back to the days when I was floating around the idea in my head of being – do I dare think it – a nun!):
“As I lay in bed, having listened to the sermon (on discernment), I wept. I wept when I became aware of a darkness filling the void where discernment belonged…I ached, a violent, physical pain in my chest, at the idea that choosing a religious vocation meant my children would never exist… I cried thinking about writing letters to my family and friends instead of seeing them… My tears fell because the religious life has rarely been a serious consideration and I realized that meant I had walled up a path to God.”
For me, it was a wanting to know God’s will, while at the same time NOT wanting to know it, because I was afraid I was standing on a precipice, and the next step would bring the world I knew into chaos. Sure, I could rationalize “if it’s God’s will, he will take care of everything.” And of course, I believed that, but my humanity being what it is, still felt a bit uncertain; would I bear up under the pain of separation from family (not to mention a letting go of my independent lifestyle)? I wasn’t sure I was ready for that.
Some good advice I found, which is helpful for whatever decision is before us, we must recognize that our feelings can deceive us. We live in a society that feeds on emotions and, at times, forgets we are rational creatures too. It is best, then, that as we discern the possibility of religious life or priesthood (for you guys out there), we must involve our rationale and not allow our emotions to get the best of us. Our emotions are important, but they can block us from opening up the doors to new opportunities, or, as Elizabeth said, “wall up a path to God.”
That is why religious communities call brief visits by inquirers “come and see” rather than “come and stay.” They are open-ended, with the purpose of such opportunities to help a discerner have a glance at ‘real’ religious life, and help tear down the walls of any preconceived notions of that life (you know, like that of the singing nun and lovely Sister Bertrille, the flying nun). At the same time, no obligations are placed on the inquirer. They may participate in prayer, meals and other communal activities. They may go with a professed to observe them in action in their apostolate, and see if they can find themselves doing the apostolate too. There is time built into these days for the inquirer to ask questions about the community’s life and rule. And there is time for personal prayer.
Prayer is key, both on visits but even more so in our day-to-day life discernments. Before even thinking about religious life, I recommend these things:
- Ask Mary the Mother of God to help you. Consecrate yourself to her Immaculate Heart. Let her guide you where her Son desires. She will not lead you astray.
- Stay close to the Sacraments of reconciliation and communion. These help purify the heart so to hear God better in His word, and to prepare the heart to desire God’s will in our own lives.
- Develop a deeper relationship with God through prayer. Create discipline in your own daily routine that gives time for prayer and meditation (or, try living as a religious in the world as much as you can).
- Act. Go and see. Inquire with communities whose spirituality is close to your own. If you have a spiritual affinity for a saint, what order did she belong to? Are there communities nearby that are of the same religious family?
As a friend of mine who was discerning at the same time as I said, “what are you waiting for? If you don’t like it, you can leave. But at least you can say you tried.”
I tried, hoping I wouldn’t like it. My friend didn’t enter religious life in the end. Fortunately for me, I found myself drawn deeper into the mystery of religious life and persevered.
Is it painful? Do I miss my family? Yes, at times – especially holidays and birthdays – I long to be with them (my first Christmas in the convent deserves a post of its own). Yet, God in his patient love has shown me that he has prepared me all my life for this. He has made me His own, and this has made all the difficulties worth it. Yes, I have found my calling. I have found my path to God.
Some helpful resources for the discerning soul:
Institute on Religious Life
A Vocation Prayer
Some inspiration from a hidden pearl of the Church, Saint Magdalene of Canossa, who shares her own discernment of her vocation:
Magdalene became a foundress of a new type of religious life for women in founding the Figlie della Carità, Serve dei Poveri, known in the States as the Canossian Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor (Canossian Sisters).