“How do I know whether I have a vocation or not?” How often this question has risen to the lips of many a young boy or girl, who has come to realize that life has a purpose, only to be brushed aside with an uneasy “I am sure I have not,” or a secret prayer that they might be saved from such a fate! How little they know the happiness they are throwing away in turning from God’s invitation, for such a question, and such a feeling, is often the sign of a genuine vocation.
In the first place, a vocation, or “a call to the Priesthood or the Religious Life,” in contradistinction to the general invitation, held out to all men, to a life of perfection even in the world, 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,” and the Evangelist tells us that “Christ called unto Him whom He willed.” Often that invitation is extended to those whom we would least expect. Magdalen, steeped to the lips in iniquity, became the spouse of the Immaculate; Matthew, surrounded by his ill-gotten gains; Saul, “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the Christians,” each heard that summons, 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 on His part, God will not force its acceptance on the soul, leaving it free to correspond with the grace or reject it. Some day the Divine Hunter draws near the prey which He has marked out for the shafts of His love; timidly, as if fearing to force the free will, He whispers a word. If the soul turns away, Jesus often withdraws forever, for He only wants willing volunteers in His service. But if the startled soul listens, even though dreading lest that Voice speak again, and shrinking from what it seems to lead her to, grace is free to do its work and bring her captive to the Hunter’s feet.
Unconsciously, in that first encounter, she has been deeply wounded with a longing for some unknown, as yet untasted, happiness. Almost imperceptibly a craving for a nobler life has taken possession of the heart; prayer and self-denial, the thought of sacrifice, bring a new sweetness; the blazing light of earthly pleasures, once so dazzling, seems to die away; the joys, the amusements, of the world no longer attract or satisfy; their emptiness serves only to weary and disgust the more, while through it all the thirst for that undefinable “something” tortures the soul.
“Sweet and tender Lord!” exclaims the Blessed Henry Suso, “from the days of my childhood my mind has sought for something with burning thirst, but what it is I have not as yet fully understood. Lord, I have pursued it many a year, but I never could grasp it, for I know not what it is, and yet it is something that attracts my heart and soul, without which I can never attain true rest. Lord, I sought it in the first days of my childhood in creatures, but the more I sought it in them the less I found it, for every image that presented itself to my sight, before I wholly tried it, or gave myself quietly to it, warned me away thus: ‘I am not what thou seekest.’ Now my heart rages after it, for my heart would so gladly possess it. Alas! I have so constantly to experience what it is not! But what it is, Lord, I am not as yet clear. Tell me, Beloved Lord, what it is indeed, and what is its nature, that so secretly agitates me.”
Even in the midst of worldly pleasure and excitement there is an aching void in the heart. “How useless it all is! —how hollow! —how unsatisfying! Is this what my life is to be always? Was I made only for this?”
Slowly one comes to understand the excellence and advantage of evangelical perfection, the indescribable charm of virginity, and the nobleness 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,” till at last, with an intense feeling of joy and gratitude, or even at times, a natural repugnance and fear of its responsibilities, the weary soul realises that “The Master is here and calls for thee”—that she has got a Vocation.
A vocation, therefore, speaking generally, is not the mysterious thing some people imagine it to be, but simply the choice God makes of one for a certain kind of life.
“A person is known to have a true vocation to enter a particular career in life,” writes Father C. Coppens, S.J., “if he feels sincerely convinced, as far as he can judge with God’s grace, that such a career is the best for him to attain the end for which God places him on earth, and is found fit by his talents, habits, and circumstances, to enter on that career with a fair prospect of succeeding in the same.”
Père Poulain, S.J., the great French ascetical writer, adds: “In order to judge whether we have a vocation that is inspired by God, it is not usually sufficient to satisfy ourselves that we have a persistent attraction for it. This mark is not certain unless a natural condition is fulfilled, namely, that we have certain physical, moral, and intellectual qualities also.”
A vocation to the religious state supposes, then, not only a supernatural inclination or desire to embrace it, but an aptitude or fitness for its duties. God cannot act inconsistently.
If He really wishes one to follow Him, He must give him the means of doing so, and 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 wish or intend to be carried out. Thus David longed to build the Temple of the Lord; Abraham was told to sacrifice his son, merely to test their 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 regards “a firm and decided will to serve God” as the best and most certain sign of a true vocation, for the Divine Teacher had once said, “If you wish…, come, follow Me.” He 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. Hence a vocation must not be considered false because he who feels himself called to the religious state no longer experiences the same sensible feeling which he had at first and that he even feels a repugnance and such a coldness that he thinks all is lost. It is enough that his will persevere in the resolution of not abandoning its first design.
“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; nor is there any need to have revelations on the subject, but the first movement of the inspiration must be responded to, and then one need not be troubled if disgust or coldness supervene.”
The following is a list of some of the ordinary indications of a vocation, taken principally from the works of Father Gautrelet, S.J., and the Retreat Manual. No one need expect to have all these marks, but if some of them at least are not perceived, the person may safely say he has no vocation:
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. To have 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, into which it is easy to fall, 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 them; 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 Father 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. To have zeal for souls. To realize something of the value of an immortal soul, and to desire to co-operate in their salvation.
7. To desire to devote our whole life to obtain the conversion of one dear to us.
8. To 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.