“Do I have a religious vocation?”
This is a question that often haunts the minds of young Catholic men and women as they think about their future, either because they have heard about religious life in books or sermons, or have been in contact with religious in one way or another. Unfortunately, most of the time they don’t really understand what religious life is and even less what a vocation to the religious life is, so often this question is posed badly and so literally “haunts” them like a sort of threatening spectre that they instinctively flee, all the while feeling guilty about doing so. They worry about whether they might “have” a religious vocation as one might worry about whether one “has” some sort of disease, disease all the more frightening since its real nature seems to be unknown. On top of this, it is not at all clear how one goes about knowing whether one “has” this disease or not, which just makes things worse.
In an excellent book on the subject entitled Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery (TAN reprint, 2005), Fr. Richard Butler, O.P., explains that the problem is that in modern times a religious vocation has come to be considered as a sort of special calling for a privileged few who, consequently, must receive a special interior revelation of this fact by some ineffable experience that is shrouded in mystery.
“We have to sympathize with the perplexed young soul, pondering an eternal future and seeking a safer route, who is vaguely instructed: “‘My dear friend, in your heart of hearts, ask yourself if God is not calling you.’ The anxious reader of such advice is sent out on a scavenger hunt for a divine communication. His search is bound to be futile. He is not sure, and neither am I, exactly what one’s ‘heart of hearts’ is. He does not know where to look, or, for that matter, what to look for. What is this ‘call’? How do you get it? And how do you know when you have it?
There is a definite intimation of a heart-stir because they use such phrases as ‘feeling drawn,’ ‘is attracted,’ ‘feels within himself a desire’…No wonder the ordinary aspirant seeks a vocation inside himself, like a doctor probing for an inflamed appendix?”
When the world was Catholic, this sort of silly soul-searching was not considered necessary. St. Thomas Aquinas sums up all of Tradition by saying quite simply that the call to follow Christ in the religious life is universal, that is to say, Christ invites everyone to follow Him in the religious life. The proof he gives for this outrageous statement is taken from the explicit words of Our Lord Himself in the Gospel: “If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me (Mt. 19:21).”
Thus, Fr. Pègues, O.P., in his commentary on this question in the Summa, remarks that St. Thomas does not entitle it: “On religious vocation” but simply: “On entering religion.” He writes:
“In order to enter into religion there is no need of a special vocation from God, distinct from the vocation or call that Christ addressed to all in His Gospel: ‘Si vis perfectus esse: if you want to be perfect.’ Entrance into religion is a question of good will and the possibilities of execution.”
It is not necessary, then, to have some private revelation or “calling” to enter religious life. The door is open for everyone: all they have to do is go in. As Fr. Butler says, right up until the nineteenth century, people never even bothered to ask themselves this anguished question: “Do I have a vocation?” They just went to the monastery and most of them stayed.
The fact that there is a universal call to religious life does not mean, however, that concretely every single Catholic has a religious vocation.
The theologians make a distinction here between:
They make a parallel with a similar distinction between:
Similarly, there is an antecedent, universal call to all to enter religious life, but a consequent, concrete call for certain souls only.
This is where the idea of “being drawn” or “attracted” has its proper place, as Fr: Butler explains:
“While it is true to say that Christ invites all to the better means of observing the precepts by practising the counsels, the fact is that God does move some to respond and others He does not. For, in every inducement to the practice of the counsels, such a suggestion has no efficacy unless one is drawn interiorly by God…and so the religious resolve, by whomever it is suggested, is from God. Jesus said: ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him’ (Jn. 6:44).”
The discernment of whether one “has” a religious vocation, then, is concerned primarily with the consideration of these personal dispositions and circumstances. For, if God is concretely calling this particular person to the religious life, He will obviously give him or her the dispositions required for it and arrange the circumstances so it be possible. As Fr. Pègues says, it is simply “a question of good will and the possibilities of execution.”
These are, in fact, the conditions mentioned in canon law, which says simply, with regard to the question of entrance into religion: “Any Catholic who is free from legal impediments, has the right intention and is capable of bearing the burdens of the religious life can be admitted (1917 CIC, Can. 538).”
We can note here first the traditional notion of the universality of the general call to religious life: “any Catholic” who meets the conditions “can be admitted.” No mention here of some special revelation or “call,” no “unnecessary mystery,” but just a matter of fact description of what is necessary. The “call” indeed exists, but it is objective. It consists in the action of God, which is necessary, first of all, to ensure that the person is not impeded by some circumstance, either exterior or interior, that would make him unfit for religious life. Secondly, and above all, this action is necessary in order that the person have the “right intention.” Fr. Butler writes:
“We hold to a general, objective invitation to the religious state through revealed counsel, and, at the same time, to God’s free choice and necessary causality in influencing some to respond to this counsel. [The universal] counsel, objectively, is static and sterile of itself, and so the divine operation in the subject is required; for vocation has efficacy only by an internal impulse of the Holy Ghost that causes to rise in the heart an appreciation of and a desire for the religious life....The right intention, most important of these requirements in an otherwise fit subject, involves the act of response which St. Thomas simply calls propositum religionis.”
This “right intention” is what St. Benedict asks for already 1,500 years ago in his Rule, where he says that when someone knocks at the door of the monastery the abbot must discern “si vere Deum quaerit: is he is truly seeking God?” Fr. Butler warns those who must make this discernment that this right intention is not some passing emotion but an act of the will:
“Remember that the propositum religionis is a deliberate act of will, motivated by true knowledge. An efficacious act of the will includes the intention of using the means necessary to achieve the desired end. Otherwise, a person possesses only a velleity, an inefficacious wishing rather than an efficacious willing. Therefore, it is not enough to hear a candidate express a desire to ‘save my soul and help save the souls of others.’ This is the normal and necessary desire of every devout Christian. The point is does this Christian intend to attain this purpose through these particular means of religious life? Furthermore, he must be ready to use these means as they are proposed by the institute and confirmed by the Church, not as they are practised by particular religious or as he himself would prefer them to be.”
To conclude, we can simply give a classic example of an authentic religious vocation, that of St. Anthony of Egypt as described by St. Athanasius in his famous biography of this great Father of monasticism. Note how it includes both the exterior, universal call found in Scripture and the interior, particular grace to respond to this invitation concretely:
“Now, it was not six months after the death of his parents, and going according to custom into the Lord’s House, he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Saviour; and how they in the Acts sold their possessions and brought and laid them at the Apostles’ feet for distribution to the needy, and what and how great a hope was laid up for them in heaven. Pondering over these things, he entered the church, and it so happened that the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, ‘If thou wouldst be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor; and come follow Me and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.’ Anthony, as though God had put him in mind of the saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers [to the poor]. He henceforth devoted himself outside his house to discipline, taking heed to himself and training himself with patience.”