After seeing the results of the recent poll that I posted (“What’s the biggest obstacle to considering consecrated life?”) one reader asked a series of really great questions about feeling that we are not good enough to be a religious:
Hello Sister, thank you for your posts! I love your blog.
I can see from the poll results a lot of us feel like we are not good enough to be religious.
What would you say to young women with a history of sinful behavior or who think they aren’t devout or prayerful enough?
Are devotion and prayerfulness things that can be nurtured?
If we are called to religious life will sins from our past be an issue?
Thank you! 🙂
Thanks for the great questions! I think we can start by making a couple of clarifications that can help with some false assumptions that many of us share.
1) God’s love is gratuitous and unconditional. None of us are “worthy” of the kind of relationship with God that God seeks to have with us. God’s love is gratuitous; he simply wants to be with us, no matter where we are. But that doesn’t mean that God leaves us where we are, especially if we are trapped in a cycle of sin or deeply unhappy.
God’s love is multi-faceted: first, God simply loves us for who we are, no conditions. But God’s love is not idle. God works actively to bring about our greatest good, whether within us by inviting us to grow in a the way we need most, or externally through circumstances and people who help us to grow in the area we need the most (or both)! No matter where we are in our lives or spiritual journeys, God is inviting us to grow, to become more Christlike, to grow into our best selves.
Think of Jesus’ Apostles. They were far from perfect, but Jesus loved them and called them as they were, even with their dramatic failures. (Think of Peter’s denial.) But Jesus also formed them, taught them, called them to live in him, to share in his life, to receive the power of the Holy Spirit so that they could witness to him.
2) Priestly, diaconal, and religious life, because of their visibility, lifestyle, and dedication to prayer and ministry, can certainly seem “holier” or “better” in a theoretical sense. (For example, religious life is described as the call to perfection; priestly ministry is talked about as in persona Christi: “in the person of Christ.” But keep in mind also that all vocations are described by the Church in spousal terms that relate to the God-instituted gift of marriage.) So the true question to ask in discerning one’s vocation is not, “Which vocation is better?” because all vocations, all states in life, are good; each has its own strengths, appeals, and charism; all of them are calls to great holiness. Instead, the true question is: “Which vocation is God calling me to? Which vocation is the best for me? Which vocation is the path where I will most grow in holiness?” Wherever God is calling me, that vocation is the “holier” one, the “best.”
Just as none of us are worthy of God’s love, none of us are “worthy” of the call to holiness (relationship with God) in the various states in life. Each vocation is mind-blowingly beautiful and exalted when understood in all its God-given glory.
When we remember that the “best” vocation is the vocation God intends for me, we are ready to truly discern.
Past Sins and Being Called
With regard to sinfulness in general, it’s important to know that everyone struggles with sin, including priests and religious. I remember when I entered religious life, I naïvely thought that my temper would disappear without much effort…or even all by itself! Unfortunately for the sisters I live with, that was not true. However, my personality—while at times challenging for the sisters with whom I live in community—is generally drawn towards community: I’m truly, deeply happy in sharing my life closely with the other sisters in the convent. So even though I still have to examine myself frequently on my temper (especially when I’m tempted to speak sharply to someone), it doesn’t make community life unbearable for me nor prevent me from being called to religious life.
When discerning, it’s really good to review our personal history and what our choices tell us about our deepest desires. The most obvious example here (and a frequently asked question) is about celibate chastity. If we have not lived chastely as a single lay person, can we still be called to priesthood or religious life? The answer is a definite “Yes, it’s possible.” But it’s important to look at our struggles and history closely and prayerfully. If someone has not lived chastely for a lengthy period of time, then they may not be called to live vowed celibate chastity for the rest of their lives as a priest, brother, or sister. Their attraction to marital intimacy—even when acted upon outside of marriage—could be an indication that the person is called to marriage. On the other hand, Saint Augustine, who struggled with living a chaste life for decades, became a priest and then a bishop. Why? Augustine’s radical conversion, focused Christian discipleship and chaste lifestyle for a number of years, convinced his bishop that Augustine was indeed called to be a priest and later, a bishop.
Praying over our history—the graces, the joys, the sorrows, and our sinfulness—helps us to discern what our deep desires are, which in turn often give us important clues about how God might be calling us.
“I Don’t Pray Enough”
The final question, that someone may not feel worthy to be a priest, deacon, or religious because they don’t have enough devotion or don’t pray enough, is answered by the questioner. Yes, devotion and prayer can be nurtured—and all of us, not just priests, deacons, and sisters, need to continually nurture our prayer life!
In addition to Mass, lectio divina is the form of prayer that I’ve encouraged most on this blog because praying with the Word of God is so powerful and is really a primary way of praying for all Catholics. Other forms of prayer that I recommend include: Eucharistic adoration, devotion and prayers to the Blessed Mother, meditation, morning and evening prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours. Most people have several ways that they pray regularly. At certain times in their lives, they’ll probably feel called to shift or try another form of prayer. If someone feels their prayer life is lacking, then it’s easy to make a little plan to grow in prayer: in scope (the time we spend) or in depth (the quality of our prayer), or both! Advent and Lent are great times to do this each year—they are the “retreat seasons” that the Church offers to all of us to focus on growing closer to Christ.
In this blog, I’ve tried to include a little of how to grow in various forms of prayer. As Catholics, we have lots of great resources that can help us to grow in our prayer life, whether we are just learning how to pray for the first time, or whether we want to expand and try something new or more contemplative. I’m curious if you as a reader would find it helpful for me to include a list of great books to begin, nurture, and develop your prayer life. Or perhaps you wonder about your prayer life and would find it helpful for me to include a short “primer on prayer” in the book/blog. Please let me know—in the comments or via email.
When we get to the section about specific kinds of discernment, I’ll respond to some of the other obstacles to discerning religious life, diaconate, or priesthood that came up in the poll–they were some great answers there! (If you have a specific burning question or obstacle, let me know and I’ll try to answer it sooner.) And if you haven’t taken the poll yet, you can still do so here.