Friday Q & A Discerning Religious Life: After You Enter the Convent

stairs-96937_1280My response to the second part of a question from a reader who is preparing to enter a religious community:

2. What does discernment look like once you’re in the convent? I’m sure it’s different for each community and individual but it’s just been interesting taking this ‘big step’ but also knowing that God could just be calling me to the convent for a time (though I do think He is calling me forever). Is it normal to assume that I’ll be there forever, or do you think there’s prudence in speaking of it as ‘the next step’ on a long journey?  I’ve just been curious about that…how does one look at the vocation once they’ve been accepted or once they’re in the order?

Discernment is a step-by-step journey and God works with us as individuals. Each of us gains more and more clarity through each stages of our vocational discernment and formation. While it is extremely helpful to do most of our discernment before we enter a religious community, the initial stages of formation are meant to be times of continued, deepening discernment—both for the individual and for the community. (The “initial” or beginning stages of formation, when we prepare to make perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, are: postulancy, novitiate, and, to some extent, the years of temporary profession. Each stage offers a confirmation of God’s will, through the growing desire of the person discerning, and through the continued acceptance of the person into the community—usually expressed through the superiors). Our novices, for example, always add the phrase “God willing” when they talk about making their vows, because they are still discerning God’s will for them, and they also trust in the community’s discernment.

In part, this time of discernment is needed because only now can the community truly get to to know the person who is discerning. Religious life requires a deep faith, an ability to grow spiritually, in self-awareness and maturity, a compatibility to live in harmony with others in close quarters, and an intense dedication to a specific mission. Religious life is really a completely different style of life that most people can’t experience until after they’ve entered, and thus a lived exerience is ordinarily required for a full discernment. For example, you don’t choose where you live, who you live with or what you do. This lived experience of sharing life with the community is really helpful in confirming one’s vocational discernment—both for the individual and for the community.

However, living in a spirit of discernment doesn’t mean that we enter a community casually, ready to leave at the first difficulty or struggle. That’s why the formation process and spiritual direction are essential: they help us understand the nature of the difficulties we face. All vocations have particular struggles and gifts; having a difficulty doesn’t mean that we are not called. (There will always be some aspects of religious life that will be hard for me to live fully! Just as married couples can never stop working at their marriage.) Those called to religious life are called to live a very radical faith that sees and obeys God’s will in very ordinary things, even such human things as a superior’s seemingly arbitrary decision. The call to live a radical poverty requires detachment and deep trust that the Lord will provide for us in every circumstance. Living the vow of chastity requires a human maturity that can cope with loneliness as well as open one’s heart to spiritual parenthood. Living in community means that we need flexibility, openness to to others, the ability to grow in self-knowledge, etc.

With the help of their formator, a postulant or novice will examine not just their individual struggles, but also their overall experience of religious life, noticing whether they are thriving and whether they are at peace even amid challenges.  As the individual discerning goes forward in the formation process, both the individual and the community become more and more sure of God’s will for the person. On my journey, I had moments of clarity and grace—even amid times of darkness—where God clearly invited me to go forward to the next step.

As I was going through the formation process, I didn’t assume that I would become a Daughter of Saint Paul, but I always greatly desired and hoped that God truly was calling me. And this great desire helped along the way—especially when I hit “bumps” on the road where I doubted or wondered if Pauline religious life was truly God’s call. My consistent, deep desire to be a Daughter of Saint Paul forever was key throughout my entire discernment.

This discernment process was not just helpful to me in discovering my vocation, but also to live that vocation more fully. One of the most wonderful things about my discernment journey is how it helped me prepare to say a much fuller “yes” to God’s call—not just when I made my vows—but also every day since.

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