Will My Family Disapprove If I Discern Consecrated Life?

Ferguson Slide by Eeekster (own work) [CC by 3.0]

One response that came up high in the results of the poll, What’s the Biggest Obstacle to Considering Consecrated Life, was a written-in answer that had a common thread:

  • Fear of what others (especially family) will think of me
  • Fear of disappointing family or parents
  • Fear of disapproval or lack of understanding

All of these answers are about what others think and expect of us, especially family and loved ones. This fear is very understandable. But, being overly concerned or fearful about others’ opinions impinges on our freedom to discern. Yet in our discernments we are to consult with those who know us well. How are we supposed to take into account our family’s and friends’ advice when we are discerning something that they don’t expect, such as an unusual vocational choice? Should we even consult them?

Several Factors To Consider
1) Discerning our vocation is sacred, and if we truly feel that we might be called to religious life or priesthood, it’s important to discern it without letting our families’ or friends’ opinions prevent us from doing so. Our vocation is a sacred calling that is too important to let the resistance or disapproval of family and friends stand in the way of even exploring it. This doesn’t make it easy. But it is very freeing to seek our true calling, and if God is calling us to religious life or priesthood, he will give us the grace to work through our fears and all other obstacles.

2) When we are discerning, the people we seek advice from should above all be living a spiritual life, otherwise they may not understand or be able to support us in seeking God’s will. (Other qualities, such as wisdom and knowing us well, are helpful. But above all, they must also desire that we follow God’s will.)

3) Seeking advice or counsel is not the same as seeking approval. In consulting others, we are looking for greater knowledge and insight about ourselves, our situation, and how God is inviting us, but we are not seeking to please the person we are consulting with.

4) To know our fears when we discern is really helpful because fear can help us to reflect and to bring our discernment to prayer. However, fear in itself is not a sufficient motivation to decide whether or not to discern something, especially when it’s something as important as a vocation. Instead, we can make our fear part of our discernment by exploring why we are afraid, and then, offering our fears to the Lord and moving forward.

If we feel the need to discern something which we know someone important in our life (such as a parent or friend) is probably going to disapprove, then we need to seek greater interior freedom. Becoming free is the hardest part of discerning! In these cases, it is really important to detach ourselves from others’ opinions about our discernment, so that we don’t allow fear to control us and so that we can more freely listen to God’s invitation. This detachment is often a gradual journey that happens as we discern and God’s call becomes clearer to us.

Sorting Through Others’ Opinions
Sorting through others’ opinions—whether favorable or unfavorable to our discernment—can sometimes be helpful in detaching ourselves from them. We may want to ask ourselves a few questions:

A) Why do we think they would oppose a particular decision? Are we just unsure, or are we pretty certain that they will be disappointed? Will the lack of support be permanent, or is it just that what we are discerning is new, and they will need time to get used to the idea?

B) If we are pretty sure that this person(s) will not understand or be disappointed in our decision, do we know why? For example, some parents are hesitant about their daughter becoming a sister because they think they will never see her again, and they love their daughter and want to stay close to her. (Different congregations have different practices about their sisters visiting their families, so this particular concern may not even be real.) At other times, a parent might resist a child trying to follow a certain career (such as becoming an actor or an artist) because they know how hard it is to earn a living in the arts, and they want their child to have security.

These kinds of questions can help us to see past our own fears into the real concerns of our loved ones—concerns that we need to think about and perhaps address with them, if and when we tell them about our discernment.

Discerning Our Vocation Is Sacred
Ideally, we’d want to share our vocational discernment at least in part with our family, because we want our family’s understanding and support throughout our life. But sometimes a parent or family member will be so resistant to a particular vocation that we simply need to wait to tell them about it until after we have completed our discernment.

Our vocation is a sacred calling that is too important to let the resistance or disapproval of family and friends stand in the way. Countless priests, brothers, and sisters had to go against their parents’ wishes to follow their vocation. (The family of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s family kidnapped and imprisoned him to prevent him from following his vocation in the Dominican Order.) This is not an easy path to walk, but if we possess sufficient maturity and have discerned well, it is more important to follow God’s call than to give in to our family’s opinions. Jesus himself called his disciples to leave their parents and families behind to follow him.

St. John Paul II had this to say about following one’s vocation:

“Do not be afraid of the radicalness of Christ’s demands, because Jesus, who loved us first, is prepared to give himself to you, as well as asking of you. If he asks much of you, it is because he knows you can give much.”                                                                                                                – Sept. 8, 1992

Photo credit: Ferguson Slide by Eeekster (own work) used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license

What if I don’t think I’m “good enough” to become a sister?

Anton Robert Leinweber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Peter’s Denial” by Anton Robert Leinweber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Being Worthy

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.

Tips for the Discerner

PraySeveral people have sent in questions or comments, which I will be delighted to address tomorrow or Friday. But in the meantime, I have run across a number of wonderful reflections and tips for those who are discerning, and I couldn’t wait to share them with you. Check these out!

From Sr.  Margaret Michael’s video, Discernment Tip #2: He who is the Way will show us the way for our life. Pray! (Check out her video on facebook here on our Daughters of St. Paul Facebook Page–and keep checking back all week!) Actually, if you are discerning religious life, I would recommend you visit the discernment section on our Daughters of Saint Paul website, too. No matter what community you are called to, you will most likely find the discernment tips offered there very helpful. (Yes, I wrote some of the material that you will find there.)  

Sr. Christina Neumann, OSF, who has a lovely blog that offers an “inside view” of religious life from the Franciscan perspective, offers her reflection for how we can all live #NationalVocationAwarenessWeek

The Heart of Mary’s Women’s Fellowship occasionally offers “self-studies” or “mini-retreats.” They recently posted a beautiful nine-day series of Scriptural reflections on call, vocation, and discernment, which you can find here. This series of reflections make a beautiful Scriptural novena with lectio divina for anyone who is seeking to discern how to follow God more closely in their life. 

The Coffee Spoons Blog posted a lovely reflection, “Everything is grace,” about St. Thérèse’s Garden: that living our true vocation is not necessarily living whom we think we’re supposed to be, but whom God calls us to be! St. Therese’s words are a joyful reminder of God’s loving call to us to be ourselves–our best selves.

How To Promote Vocations to Consecrated Life in the Family

woman-591575_1280When I was growing up, my parents always encouraged me to think of the future with freedom and hope. Although my parents had high expectations regarding my behavior and my schooling, they gave my siblings and I great freedom in deciding what we would do with our lives. I knew they wanted me to be happy and holy, but I also knew that I could aspire to be a nurse, a veterinarian, a musician, or anything else, and they would support me in following my dreams.

So, when I asked permission to enter the convent while still a teenager, I was thrilled but not super-surprised that they said “yes.” (I expected support but wasn’t sure if my parents would ask me to wait.) Only later did I realize how unusual their decision was, how hard it must have been for them, and how much flak they received from family and friends in allowing me to follow my dreams.

Helping a child discern his or her vocation in life is one of the most important responsibilities of being a parent. Why? Because we find our most complete fulfillment and happiness possible here on earth when we are living our vocation. In creating us, God has gifted us with a mission that, when we carry it out, fulfills our deepest desires and allows us to develop our gifts. Helping a child to discover and follow their unique, God-invited path is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give to a child; such a gift becomes foundational to that child’s happiness for the rest of his or her life!

The most important way to help a child follow his or her vocation is, of course, to nurture their life of faith and their call to holiness. But how can parents specifically foster in their children an openness to every vocation?

Openly talk about the various vocations with your children.
If your child is old enough to be seriously thinking about his or her future, invite him or her to consider the various options. Talk about the advantages and gifts of each state in life. If they make a preemptive choice for a particular vocation or career, talk it over with them reasonably. Even if their choice seems ridiculous, find out why they are drawn to it, and help them to see the practical consequences. By encouraging them to think through their choices, you free them from the pressure of choosing something simply to please you or someone else.

WhatDoesaPriestDoOne resource to begin a conversation—even at a young age— is this flip book published by Paulist Press entitled What Does a Priest Do? / What Does a Nun Do? by Susan Heyboer O’Keefe. (The back cover is the front of the second book, What Does a Nun Do?)

HeSpeaksToYouFor young women (teens and young adults)  He Speaks to You by Sr. Helena Burns, FSP is a daily meditation book directed specifically to teens with super-short meditations, prayers, and activities that encourage a young woman to root her life in Christ and discern how she can follow Jesus in her daily life and in the future.

Help to make deacons, priests and sisters familiar to your children whenever possible.
Find ways to be active at your parish, and encourage your children to participate as well, as a singer in the children’s choir, as an altar server, as a member of the Junior Legion of Mary, etc. In addition to helping them engage in parish life, they will also see the priest(s) at the parish more often.

If you have a friend who is a sister, deacon, or priest, invite them over for a family dinner.

Encourage your child to become a pen pal of a religious priest or sister. (Sr. Christina Marie Neumann, OSF, has offered to match up a few pen pals with sisters in her community, the Franciscan Community of Dillingen-Hankinson, North Dakota Province. (Website home at www.ourfranciscanfiat.wordpress.com)

Sister-Softysmall-683x1024Another resource for young children is from ABCatholic, who has created a unique series of dolls, among them “Sister Softy” who can help to make religious life more familiar for young girls. Unfortunately, many young people never have the opportunity to meet religious sisters, especially sisters in habits. Sadly, the habit, which is meant to be a sign of consecration to God but also a sign of God’s loving care, can even make some people feel a bit intimidated to approach a sister. This doll—and others in the series, such as the Carmelite Sister or the Dominican Sister—can help make religious sisters accessible.

Share the lives of the saints with your children.
Share with your children of all ages stories of your favorite saints, planting the seeds for their vocation even at a young age. Use a Catholic calendar to note and celebrate feast days of your favorite saints. Perhaps you can pick a patron saint for your family every year, or choose a patron to celebrate every month.

encounterthesaintsseries

Our sisters at Pauline Books & Media produce fantastic saints’ books for children. My favorite is the Encounter the Saints series (pictured above), which is awesome for middle grade children and young teens. (Sometimes older teens and adults will pick up an Encounter saint book because they want a quick and engaging introduction to a saint’s life.)

SaintsoftheAmericasFor younger children, Saints of the Americas Coloring Book was recently distributed at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia as a way to encourage vocations in families.

Our sisters also have a Catholic book club for Catholic schools called JClub (“J” is for Jesus), which provides not just books and resources, but can sometimes include a visit from a sister to the school, if one of our convents is local: www.jclubcatholic.org/

Watching movies on the saints can become a monthly family night. These dramatic portrayals of the lives of the saints not only inspire growth in the faith and knowledge of Church history, but also provide an “inside view” of how different individuals have lived their unique vocations. For recommendations of great saint movies, check out this post on my media blog. 

Perhaps the cutest option for encouraging younger children to encounter the saints for themselves is from the Kiczek family at www.DollsfromHeaven.com:

DollsfromHeavenT

The Kiczek family have created a lovely doll of St. Therese of Lisieux, which comes with accessories: several costumes and a children’s book about her life. The Kiczek family are hoping to create a whole series of saint dolls at www.dollsfromheaven.com. Dolls are a warm way to encourage a child’s relationship with individual saints, as well as introduce the universal vocation to holiness, and the various vocations.

Creatively Use Holy Days and Holidays To Engage Your Children’s Imaginations
Dressing up is a favorite childhood pastime. Halloween gives children and families the opportunity to dress up imaginatively for a night. If your parish, Catholic homeschool group or Catholic school has a themed party for Halloween or All Saints Day, this is a perfect opportunity for your child to dress up as a monk, nun, priest or deacon. An “All Saints Day” party offers the chance to research a saint and dress up as well. A “Dress Up As Your Favorite Saint Contest” at home could also be an opportunity to explore what it means to live a particular vocation to holiness.

Celebrating the feast day of a favorite family saint can include reading the life of the saint aloud together, dressing up, and preparing a meal or dessert that reflects that saint’s nationality. (For more creative ideas about celebrating the saints in your family, check out Catholic Family Fun by Sarah Reinhard.) 

Encourage Retreats and Visits to Shrines, Convents, and Monasteries
There is nothing like seeing religious life in action, to better understand it firsthand. Make a family pilgrimage to a convent, monastery, or seminary during an “open house” or special celebration. If an opportunity arises for an older child to make a retreat, go on a “nun run” (a visit to a series of convents for young women), or something similar, encourage him or her to go.

Encourage Active Participation in Mission Outreach
Encourage your teens to actively participate in mission outreach sponsored and supervised by the parish, diocese, or religious communities. Being sent on mission is a great way for a young person to experience the mission of the Church—a mission they are called to participate in, no matter what their vocation is. Mission experiences can help a young person understand that God has a mission for them to fulfill, and how important it is to correspond to God’s call.

Here are some additional ideas for ways to promote vocations in your family:

How To Promote Vocations in Your Family A comprehensive list of ideas downloadable as a PDF from the Diocese of LaCrosse.

7 Ways Families Can Foster Vocations is a brochure that can be purchased and shared—but also simply read online here.

Catholicmom.com has the most comprehensive resource online that I found for encouraging vocations in the family. I highly recommend checking it out—both for encouraging vocations, but also for great resources on nurturing holiness in our families.

Guided Lectio Divina for Discerners: He Loved Me and Gave Himself for Me

“He Loved Me and Gave Himself for Me!”

453px-Caravaggio-The_Conversion_on_the_Way_to_DamascusIntroduction: St. Paul, who was known as “Saul” before his encounter with Christ, was a good man and a devout Jew who was quite conscientious about keeping the Law of God. He desired to serve God, but was too focused on what he wanted to do for God, rather than on what God was doing. Saul’s zeal was so misguided that he sought to persecute the Christians, whom he felt were destroying the Jewish religion. On his way to Damascus, instead of accomplishing this task, he encountered Jesus the Savior, who revealed to Paul the depth of God’s mercy and love. Paul’s foundational experience of Christ’s saving and merciful love for him and for the people to whom he would send Paul shaped Paul’s entire life and mission. It was an experience of love, light, and beauty to which Paul returned to over and over again.

For this lectio divina, we’ll pray with one of the Scriptural accounts of Paul’s encounter with Christ from Acts, followed by a short description of the experience from a letter of Paul.

Lectio: Acts 9:1-19 and 1 Tim. 1:12-17

Acts 9:1-19 (Read from your Bible or click here for this first reading.)

1 Tim. 1:12-17

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Meditatio

The Acts of the Apostles gives three different accounts of the conversion of Saint Paul because of its importance in the early Church (see Acts 9:1-19, Acts 22:3-16, and 26:2-18). In his letters, Paul often refers to his encounter with Christ, although often indirectly (see 1 Cor. 15:8, Gal. 1:11-16, 2 Cor. 4:6).

Initially, Paul had found fulfillment in living the Law to the point of perfection. But his encounter with Jesus changes all that. The brilliance of Jesus’ love and truth blinds Paul initially. He thought he had been able to see, but his temporary blindness enables him to see himself and his relationship with God and others in a whole new way. Paul must have felt great distress for being so wrong, for recognizing that he was persecuting the followers of Jesus, whom he now recognizes as the Messiah, the Son of God, his Light.

In his encounter with Jesus, Paul truly listens. He discovers that God’s merciful love in Christ gives the deepest meaning to his life, and he doesn’t have to do anything to win or earn that love. He just has to believe in it and receive it. Paul’s response is the beautiful and moving response of a discerning disciple, even though his world has just been turned upside down: “Lord, who are you? What do you want me to do?”

Praying with Paul’s dramatic encounter with Jesus, we can see that God may communicate to us in many ways: through an interior whisper or an insight, through others such as Ananias, or through an unexpected event that shakes us up. Jesus’ gaze of mercy on Paul transformed his life forever. But this profound transformation in Paul is not easy, nor is it over in three days. Paul’s growth in Christ and carrying out the call of Christ was lifelong.

In our times of discernment, we may experience similar moments to Paul in his encounter with Christ:

  • disturbance/shake-up (Paul fell to the ground)
  • great light
  • listening/attentive (light and voice)
  • dialogue
  • fasting (from both food and human sight)
  • absorbed in prayer and in one’s relationship with Christ
  • obedient to Christ’s call
  • receiving grace through the community and the celebration of the sacraments
  • guidance of an “elder” of the community
  • community confirms God’s call
  • obedience to the community
  • commitment to the entrusted mission of proclaiming/witnessing to Christ

How do we experience Christ’s invitations in our lives? When we are confronted with interruptions, unexpected changes, or times of transition, it can be difficult to see God’s light or invitation. But suppose we “refocused” our gaze from the distress of the unexpected experience to seeing it as an invitation from God, as Paul did? What insights would we receive if we did this? Discovering that we need to convert, change, or grow is an inherent part of receiving God’s call. How do I want to respond to God’s invitation?

Contemplatio

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because…I received mercy. (See 1 Tim. 1:12-13)

From the second reading (from 1 Timothy) it’s clear how Paul’s encounter with Christ on the way to Damascus shaped his whole life. Paul’s descriptions of his relationship with Christ are marked by thanksgiving for Christ’s merciful love. It’s a deeply warm and personal relationship. This invites us to reflect:

  • What are our earliest memories of our relationship with God?
  • How have our encounters with Christ “marked” our lives, transformed us? How have I experienced Christ’s mercy, and how have I responded?
  • How would we characterize our relationship with Christ? How do we feel Jesus is inviting us to grow in our relationship with him?

Oratio

My favorite prayer posture is to sit or kneel on the floor near the tabernacle. As I was praying, I suddenly realized that this receptive and adoring posture–sitting at the feet of the Master–characterizes my relationship with Christ. At the feet of the Master, I am receptive to his call and his sending me; I listen, adore, love, receive his love, learn his way of gentleness, plead with him, receive forgiveness. I am blessed to be at his feet.

Sometimes when I’m coming to the end of my prayer time, I will joyfully remind Jesus, “I’m not going anywhere” — meaning that I will stay at his feet always. It’s a little renewal of my fidelity to the All-Faithful One.

Renew your relationship with Jesus in your own words. 

Actio

Be mindful of Jesus’ merciful love for you throughout your day today, choosing at least three times throughout the day where you will stop and thank Jesus for the gift of his love for you.

Living Our Vocation “to the Full”

"The Good Shepherd" by Joseph Ritter von Führich, c. 1840

“The Good Shepherd” by Joseph Ritter von Führich, c. 1840

Yesterday, “Good Shepherd” Sunday, was the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. If you are discerning your vocation, I hope that you could feel the support of the Church’s prayers for you, lifting you up from all over the world!

Pope Francis offered a really beautiful reflection for the day in his Message for the 52nd World Day of Prayer for Vocations.  One of the coolest things about it is that he describes “vocation” in such a dynamic way, comparing the living of our vocation with the exodus experience. Thus, Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations isn’t just for those discerning their vocations, but an invitation for all of us to live the gift of our vocations fully. I’d like to share three points that particularly struck me and that I’ve been praying with:

 

Following One’s Vocation (whether for the first time, or as a renewal of our commitment): 

Belief means transcending ourselves, leaving behind our comfort and the inflexibility of our ego in order to centre our life in Jesus Christ. It means leaving, like Abraham, our native place and going forward with trust, knowing that God will show us the way to a new land.

Living One’s Vocation “To the Full”:

The exodus experience is paradigmatic of the Christian life, particularly in the case of those who have embraced a vocation of special dedication to the Gospel. This calls for a constantly renewed attitude of conversion and transformation, an incessant moving forward, a passage from death to life like that celebrated in every liturgy, an experience of passover…. Vocation is always a work of God. He leads us beyond our initial situation, frees us from every enslavement, breaks down our habits and our indifference, and brings us to the joy of communion with him and with our brothers and sisters. Responding to God’s call, then, means allowing him to help us leave ourselves and our false security behind, and to strike out on the path which leads to Jesus Christ, the origin and destiny of our life and our happiness.

The Model for Every Vocation:

The Virgin Mary, model of every vocation, did not fear to utter her “fiat” in response to the Lord’s call. She is at our side and she guides us. With the generous courage born of faith, Mary sang of the joy of leaving herself behind and entrusting to God the plans she had for her life. Let us turn to her, so that we may be completely open to what God has planned for each one of us, so that we can grow in the desire to go out with tender concern towards others (cf. Lk1:39).  

If you can, go and read the entire message here. It’s not just beautiful, but challenging and encouraging, reminding us that the Christian vocation is to love, and that living the fullness of the Gospel message does not limit us but leads us to the fullest possible freedom. I also was struck by his comparing each Christian’s vocation to the Exodus experience, because in doing so, Pope Francis is indirectly validating the “storytelling” lens that I’m using on this blog to talk about discernment!

“Old Fashioned” Movie: Dating as Discernment!

For those discerning their vocation, and those specifically discerning marriage, Old Fashioned, the new film being released this Valentine’s Day weekend, is an interesting choice. The film presents an alternative approach to dating that doesn’t just respect each person as made in the image of God, but is also unambiguous in seeing dating as an essential part of vocational discernment! (Yes, even a first date is an opportunity to discern!)

For my commentary about the film, visit the Pauline blog: The Art of Being “Old Fashioned.”  Enjoy the trailer posted below, and if you feel like a quirky romantic comedy this weekend, support the filmmakers (and hopefully more Christian films) by going to see it in the theater.

 

God’s Story for Us

01A choice 2 (me)Oops! There’s a catch there in my last post when I said I love my plans. The catch is that I don’t just enjoy making plans and rejoicing when they work well. I actually become invested in my plans, to the point that I can make my security revolve around my plans–how well they are working, etc. If you are one of those people that rejoice in saying, “It’s all going according to plan,” then you might also be in danger of absolutizing your plan…or at the very least, making it more important than it was ever meant to be.

Because a plan is a very temporary thing, meant to serve the needs of the moment. It’s not meant to be something that takes over our lives, that becomes more important than its purpose, or the people it involves, even ourselves.

Yet plans can be incredibly helpful and important–in keeping a group on track, in juggling many things at one time, in achieving goals that, without a lot of careful planning, might otherwise be impossible.

Whether you are a pantser or a planner, whether you love plans or hate them, or whether you are somewhere in-between–loving the organization that plans bring, but longing for more spontaneity–you probably aren’t neutral to plans.

The problem with any plan is that it isn’t perfect. No matter how many contingencies we anticipate, it’s likely that something will come up that we couldn’t foresee. And then the plan must be adjusted or replaced with another.

The good news is that the most important plan for you is perfect: perfect for you wherever you are, and flexible when your situation changes, or when you want to shift directions. What plan is that, you wonder? God’s plan.

* * *

Vocational Insight: Religious Life*

For all of us, the future is unknowable. As a religious with the vow of obedience, I don’t have the stability of creating my own plan, of knowing where I’m going to live, or the work that I’m going to be doing. While others can take this stability and this sense of control for granted, they are not part of my life. Often, I have no clue of what’s coming next. I cannot count the times when I’ve needed to change plans for the mission that I’m carrying out midstream. And I honestly never know for sure where I will be or what I will be doing a year from now. Although this might sound difficult to live, the security I have in living the vow of obedience is worth it:

Living well the vow of obedience offers me the certainty that I am doing God’s will, however unexpected it may be.

My vow of obedience demands that I trust in a larger plan that is not my own: in God’s plan for me, as mediated through my superiors. Though at times I may struggle in the moment (or the first weeks or months) to accept God’s plan for me, the truth is that every time I’ve been able to step back and look at my life, it’s clear that God’s love guides the story of my life. God’s plan has proven  over and over again to be the best for me.

*For those who are  discerning their vocations, I’ll occasionally offer an insight from the various states in life. Naturally, since I’m a religious sister, my personal insights will most often be about religious life. But I’ll try to find others to offer spiritual insights into the vocation to marriage, priesthood, and the single life too.

The Sisterhood Finale: Discernment Glimpsed

TheSisterhoodPhotoSeriesThe last two episodes of Lifetime’s reality TV show, The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns, broadcast last night. Because of the nature of a reality TV show which needs an ending, the young women were asked to share their decisions at the end of the six weeks. This superficially imposed time frame was not necessarily helpful to the discernment process of these young women, but it gave the show some closure. I won’t give any spoilers here, but I’d like to offer some last reflections on topics that came up in the show.

I’ll begin by noting that once again, the insights offered into religious life were positive and marvelous. Mother Christina and the Sisters of St. Joseph the Worker were real, compassionate, and inviting.

But the process of discerning religious life is not so realistically portrayed.

Discernment Glimpsed, Not Portrayed

Having finished the show and guessing at some of what happened “behind the scenes” and interiorly in the young women, it seems to me that this show offers only glimpses of what it is like to discern religious life, and some of those glimpses are misleading.

Above all, the superficial timeline of six weeks—that is, trying to discern a vocation according to the constraints of a reality TV show rather than according to God’s timing—led to a lot of unnecessary stress and even distress for the young women discerning. While discernment can involve moments of turmoil, it’s really  important to be at peace during one’s discernment.

The decisions that were made by the young women were not final decisions, although that’s not really made clear on the show—especially for the young women who chose to continue their discernments with a particular community. First, they need to continue discerning, as one two-week visit is not enough time to discern. In addition, the sisters—especially the vocation directors and superiors—will now actively engage in discernment with the young women. Discernment doesn’t just involve the individual’s choice, but also the choice of God, which is revealed in the affirmation or confirmation of the Church—in this case, of the congregation. A young person doesn’t discern their vocation on their own, but within the Church.

Chastity for the Sake of the Kingdom

Not surprisingly for our sexuality-obsessed culture, the discerners talked about chastity and the question of “who is a virgin” in three separate conversations during episodes four and five. (Note that neither poverty nor obedience really came up as points for discussion.) I’d like to respond to a couple of points that came up in the conversations:

1) Our sexuality is integral to who we are as human beings, but actually having sex is not the only way  of expressing our sexuality. The love between a man and a woman is a sacred, beautiful thing, and most people are called to holiness as married people. For them, the act of making love is the fullest expression of their sexuality. Making love is meant for that one, intimate, permanent relationship.

2) God intends that the sacred act of making love be reserved for those who are married. The rest of us are called to live a celibate chastity. Having sex is not a “test” for a relationship. Nor is it necessary to have had sex in order to discern one’s vocation—to marriage, priesthood, or religious life. In discerning one’s vocation it’s helpful to have a certain level of maturity, but it’s not necessary to experience everything in order to make a good discernment.

One’s vocation to religious life does not depend on whether one is a virgin or not. However, the person discerning religious life needs to experience the capacity to live a celibate chastity—not just think about it. (For example, Claire deciding to live “sacred singleness.”) If we are beginning to discern our vocation, or even if we simply want to discern God’s will more deeply in our lives, we will want to look seriously at the call to live chastely according to our state in life.

3) Living the vow of chastity requires both faith and the continuous effort to grow as a person. As human beings, we are made for marriage! So it requires a special call, a special grace of God, to live a celibate chastity as a religious.  And sometimes that’s hard to understand for those who are not called in this way.

Having healthy relationships with people of both sexes is an important part of personal growth for someone committing (or thinking of committing) to the vow of chastity. On our part, actually living a celibate lifestyle requires faith, emotional and personal maturity, the desire to give all of one’s self to God in a radical way, and an openness to let God’s grace work in us.

Reconciliation

Just as we are all called to live chastely according to our state in life, we are also called to live in charity. Discernment has a communitarian aspect, and this was hinted at in the show by showing how five very different young women share such an intense journey—supporting each other, but also sometimes very tense with each other.

Several times during the show, one or more of the young women behaved in a way that didn’t reflect Gospel values. In response, one or more of the group of discerners tried to talk about it with the others. The motivation to talk about it always included charity—to help the person(s) whose behavior was problematic to the other discerners. The motivations also seemed to include a desire to grow in harmony and unity, or simply a desire to stay “on track” with a discerning spirit—which was another way of expressing the need for support for a faith-filled atmosphere during the days of discernment.

As we’ve all experienced, these kinds of discussions or confrontations can break down into blame, accusations, defensiveness or judgments. In episode 5, Mother Christina guides what could have become a divisive fight into an experience of reconciliation. Living in reconciliation—asking for forgiveness and extending forgiveness wholeheartedly—is not about being right, or even being fair. Nor is it simply “giving in.” Instead, reconciliation is about seeking to grow in love, letting go of judging others, and a letting go of what’s not essential for the sake of love. Learning to live in reconciliation is essential to community living (and to every vocation).

Sacred Silence

The discerners’ response to the nighttime “Grand Silence” in the convent? Writing notes to the camera!

I had to laugh at this. Silence can seem to be a scary thing, especially when we’re not used to it. As Daughters of Saint Paul, we too have many times of silence built into our lives, especially the night and early mornings, so that we can be more attuned to the voice of God. Our monthly one-day retreats and our eight-day annual retreats are special times of silence, which open us up to deeper intimacy with God.

If we are struggling to discover God’s will for us, then we might also be struggling to see or experience God’s presence in our lives. Building in some times of silence into our day—even just 15 minutes in the morning with no music, no news, no checking the internet—can make a huge difference in our ability to listen.

When we are surrounded by noise, we start to “tune out” because we can’t possibly hear everything going on around us. When we take time for quiet, we can start to hear the noise inside of us, and let it gradually quiet down. Once we are immersed in silence—both external and internal—we can “tune in” to what’s going on deep within us, and we can hear the Lord’s whispered invitations.

Silence and listening are keys to discerning well.

Family & Discernment

I was pleased to see that, in this show, each discerner shared her discernment with her loved ones, who were mostly supportive. When someone discerns a big life choice—a vocation, a job change, moving away, etc., this can be hard for family members to adjust to. Sometimes a family member will express misgivings. A family member who doesn’t share our faith may struggle to understand a young person’s vocation to priestly or religious life. The person discerning needs to follow God’s call no matter the cost, but taking the time to journey with one’s family, to seek their support, and to explain their reasons to those who don’t understand, are all important. If it’s available, we all need the support of our families to live our vocations well.

One of the sisters talked about how, when a young woman enters a convent, her family gains all the sisters of the convent as part of their extended family! This is true, because each sister’s family is now related to the community in a special way. While every congregation has its own customs of how they encourage their sisters to stay connected with their families (frequency of visits, phone calls, letters, etc.), it’s important that each community recognizes the importance of family in supporting one’s vocation, encouraging some kind of connection.

* * *

All in all, the show has been wonderful in its portrayal of religious life, the opportunities it’s offered for discussions about discernment, and the way that it’s allowed me to connect on Twitter and here on this blog with those who are interested/curious/discerning about religious life! I welcome further comments here or via email.

And I entrust the courageous and generous women on the show–Eseni, Francesca, Stacey, Christie, and Claire–and all the viewers, to the intercession of Mary, our Mother and Queen whose “yes” at the Annunciation is the model for our vocational “yes” and our daily “yes” to the Lord’s invitations:

Prayer To Our Lady of the Annunciation
by Blessed James Alberione

May all generations proclaim you blessed, Mary.
You believed the Archangel Gabriel,
and in you were fulfilled all the great things that he had announced to you.
My soul and my entire being praise you, Mary.
You believed totally in the Incarnation of the Son of Godin your virginal womb,
and you became the Mother of God.
Then the happiest day in the history of the world dawned.
Humanity received the Divine Master,
the sole eternal Priest,
the Victim who would make reparation,
the universal King.

Faith is a gift of God and the root of every good.
Mary, obtain for us, too, a lively, firm and active faith—
faith which saves and produces saints,
faith in the Church, in the Gospel, in eternal life.
May we meditate on the words of your blessed Son,
as you preserved them in your heart and devoutly meditated on them.
May the Gospel be preached to everyone.
May it be docilely accepted.
May all men and women become, in Jesus Christ, children of God. Amen.

Free & Wonderful App for Those Discerning Their Vocation

 

For any readers discerning their vocation, check this out: Discern It App Header w words2Deepen your vocational discernment with  Discern It!,  a new, free app from the Daughters of Saint Paul to help those discerning their vocations.

This wonderful little app is a novena that provides the perfect atmosphere for deepening your vocational discernment, to understand how God is calling you to love. With  Discern It!  you will have the opportunity to:

◊ Do something daily to help you discover God’s plan for your life.

◊ Learn how to be more open to the gifts God wants to give you.

◊ Find out ways to move past the hurdles in discernment.

◊ Grow in your intimacy with God.

You can find out more about the app here, which also includes the links to download it for both iPhone and Android. The App is available free for the Year of Consecrated Life.