When I took a poll to discover what prevents readers from considering religious life or priesthood, I was surprised by some of the results. I was especially surprised to see that over 1/3 of those who answered felt unworthy, and so I immediately addressed that in this blog post. I also addressed some of the issues regarding family (about 9% were concerned either about family responsibilities, or the disapproval of family members if they seriously considered religious life or priesthood).
Another obstacle that came up repeatedly (13%) was the fear of commitment (“I can’t be tied down”).
Fear of Commitment
Making a commitment is perhaps harder today than ever before. With massive technological and cultural changes that continue to sweep over our lives, constantly changing the ways we think and do things, combined with a hectic pace of everyday life that makes it difficult to reflect and process our experience, the future seems to be ever-shifting, insecure, and unstable. How can we possibly commit to something in such a shifting environment? Won’t we need to adapt in order to survive?
Commitment might seem like tying ourselves to a tornado, which can ultimately end in our destruction.
But commitment is not tying ourselves to something that is unstable. Commitment is, ultimately, to a person. To ourselves, to another, or, in the case of one’s religious or priestly vocation, to God. In a world that is endlessly changing, God is the Steady, Faithful One whose love we can always count on.
Truly committing allows us to deepen and to grow
in ways that we cannot before we commit.
I had a personal taste of this during my years as a temporary professed sister. The Church only allows religious to profess their first vows as temporary vows—usually for one year at a time. This is to give the religious the opportunity to really experience the life before making a definitive commitment. In our community, the period of temporary profession lasts from five to six years. I remember vividly during the last years of my temporary vows how I felt something was missing. I longed to go deeper, but because every year I discerned whether to renew my vows, I felt I was starting over every year. When I was finally blessed to be able to make my perpetual profession, I deeply rejoiced. And afterwards, I could feel my commitment, my relationship with the Lord as a religious sister, deepen and strengthen in a way that was not possible as a temporary professed. To fully embrace my vocation, I needed to make a lifelong commitment.
Perhaps fear of commitment is really another way of admitting that we cannot yet trust ourselves: we’ve been so busy adapting and responding to our changing world, we do not yet have a deep sense of ourselves and what we truly want. What will we do in ten years if our desires change? What if we grow tired of the life we are living and want to try or do something new?
Just because we make a vocational commitment doesn’t mean that all the doubts and struggles disappear. And making a vocational commitment doesn’t mean we stop changing and growing, but we do so within the gift of our commitment.
Limits and Freedom
There is a paradox within the creative life that may be helpful here. Most of the time, artists are seen as “free spirits” who rebel against boundaries and limits. And there is a lot of truth to that. Gifted with seeing reality shaped by their special relationship with truth and beauty, artists are often free of conventional restrictions.
At the same time, art is only created within the boundaries of a specific art form. The boundaries of an art form restrict the artist in a very real sense—and it’s in that very specificity of the restriction that often elicits the greatest creative expressions. Think of the sonnet. One of the most structured of poetic form, the sonnet has precise rules. Yet some of the most beautiful and timeless poetry are sonnets. Pushed to their limits by the sonnet’s rules, poets have been brilliantly creative and expressive. (If you have any doubts, read William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. I have my favorites, but each one is an exquisite masterpiece.)
How many of us have witnessed the “flowering” of a married couple into parents when their first child is born? And yet, their lives are now defined by taking care of an infant, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Our society often views vocational commitments as a restriction of a person’s freedom. But if we truly believe that love is the fulfillment of the human person, then our true vocation—which is when we will give ourselves the most fully in love—is the gift that will give us the greatest freedom.
Our true vocation is not a burden or a restriction,
but a gift and a path to love, joy, and freedom.
Everyone has times when they feel burdened by the challenges of their vocation. It is then that we need to rely on the gift of commitment to strengthen us. First, the power of the commitment encourages us to persevere. It also allows us to discern: what is the essence of our commitment, and what are the nonessential “trappings” that I have added “on top of” that commitment”? Are we perhaps being called to change or let go of some of these nonessentials? How is God calling me now to live my vocation in all its fullness?
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One last thought for those who are fearful of a possible commitment. In discerning a priestly or religious vocation, we aren’t yet making a commitment, but simply trying to discover how God is calling us. The future is impossible to predict. While it is possible that we will make a commitment that we will someday have regrets about, it is also possible that the same commitment will become a source of great joy, strength, and fulfillment. Wouldn’t it be sad if the fear of commitment would prevent us from discovering the deep joy and fulfillment of living God’s call to us?