Discerner Q&A: How do age (and other) requirements for entering religious life fit with God’s will?

Human requirements and limitation can be like fences that direct us to our specific path

Requirements and human limitations can be like a fence directing us toward our specific path

Over the past few months, I’ve received a number of questions or areas of interest that mid-lifers or those with more life experience have asked with regard to discerning religious life. One of the most frequently raised is the question of the requirements that most religious communities have, especially age limit and good health. Nowadays, many communities have shifted their age requirements. Vision Vocation Network has done a good job of gathering a helpful list of communities that accept candidates who are are older. (In general, contemplative communities are often more flexible about age requirements.) The same webpage also offers a few suggestions for people who have disabilities who feel called to religious life.

Actually, all vocations have requirements, especially when it comes to specifics. Potential spouses have certain requirements for marriage to each other. Diocesan seminaries are governed by Church law. What’s important to remember is that our vocation is a gift that comes from God. No one has a “right” to a particular vocation—because it is God who grants us our vocation as pure and gratuitous gift.

Every religious community or institute has a number of requirements contained in its rule of life—a rule approved by the Church. For example, most communities require good health because they have a demanding lifestyle and mission that require it. But other qualities are just as important in discerning whether someone might be happy in a particular community; however, these are less obvious and take more time to discern. These qualities might include: the desire and ability to grow spiritually; a character that is open, generous, sincere, willing to learn, and flexible; the ability to collaborate with others; a desire to serve; sociability; the desire and ability to live as a member of a community; sufficient maturity and self-awareness. There are many good reasons for setting specific requirements for a particular community—the unique way that the institute carries out its mission and life together requires certain qualities for the individual to be happy and for the community to thrive. A religious community usually knows best what a new member needs in order to be able to fully live and happily embrace their new life and mission. Most religious communities keep their requirements to the minimum—the absolutely necessary—because they are eager to share their life and charism with new members.

Requirements don’t always seem fair, and in rare instances where a candidate lacks one requirement and both the individual feels deeply called and the community sees extraordinary potential for a good “fit” with their community, vocation directors and superiors will consider, consult, and pray if an individual’s situation or case could justify making an exception. (In some cases, such an exception can be granted only by the Holy See.)

But ordinarily if a person lacks something that is seen as necessary by the community for new members, this is usually a genuine indication of God’s will—that God is calling the person elsewhere. Discovering that God isn’t calling us in a particular way may be disappointing at first, but in truth it’s a step forward in our discernment. As various paths are eliminated, God’s path for us becomes clear. God uses human limitations—even something that seems arbitrary—to direct us towards his will for us: what is best for us, where we will thrive.

Discerning God’s will in the concrete circumstances and limitations of our lives is not easy. It requires a deep spirit of faith and prayer. Opening ourselves to seeking God’s will makes us vulnerable to hurt and disappointment. But no matter where our discernment leads us, no matter how hurt, disappointed, or confused we become, we want to cling to God through the ups and downs of our discernment journey; to allow the “bumps in the road” that we experience to purify and free our hearts so that our desire to do God’s will grows ever greater in us.

Discernment: A Call within a Call

silhouette-691522_1280Many women saints—like Jane Frances de Chantal, Elizabeth of Hungary,  Rita of Cascia, and today’s saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton—were wives and mothers who, after the death of their husbands, entered religious life. They did so after a period of grieving, discernment, and taking care of their children.  Their midlife discernment of God’s call to enter religious life was dramatic.

Whether or not we face such dramatic change in our life circumstances, we may still receive a new call from God that transforms our lives into something new: “a call within a call.”

“A Call within a Call”

Born the youngest child of her parents, she lost her father when she was eight years old. By the time she was twelve, she felt the call to become a missionary. When she turned 18, she left behind her beloved family and traveled to a foreign country to join a missionary community of teaching sisters. A year later she was sent as a missionary to another country, professed her vows, became a teacher and eventually principal of the school where she taught. Loved by her students, she experienced great joy as a religious sister and was respected by her community for her profound spirit of prayer, generosity, and compassion.

When she was thirty-six, on her way to making her annual retreat, she received another inspiration from God, what she called “a call within a call.” During her retreat and afterwards during her prayer, she became urgently convinced that Jesus was calling her to radiate his love in a new mission to those in the slums. She shared her inspiration with her spiritual director and her superior. Although eager to begin, she waited obediently for two long years for the Church to confirm her inspiration and new mission. Finally, she began her new mission all alone, choosing to wear the native dress of the local women rather than a traditional religious habit. She had to learn by trial and error how to best help the people in the slums, always seeking to discover Jesus in the unwanted, the unloved, and the uncared for.

Perhaps by now you recognize that this missionary sister was Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, soon to be canonized. (The second miracle attributed through her intercession has been recognized as truly miraculous.)

The new film, The Letters, beautifully shows the story of Blessed Mother Teresa’s discernment. It’s not unheard of for a sister to begin a new congregation, but it’s very difficult and almost always very painful. Note that Mother didn’t change her vocation, but discovered that God was calling her in another direction within her calling, even though she was a perpetually professed sister in the Sisters of Our Lady of Loretto.

All of Mother Teresa’s life is inspiring, but this particular aspect of her story can give courage to us who—because of or despite our already-existing commitments—feel God’s invitation to “something more,” or “something new,” especially when we’re not sure how to go forward.

Those with the benefit of some years of life experience have some advantages in discernment that younger people don’t have:

* We know ourselves well, and so we may be able to discern more easily between the voice of self-deception and God’s voice. With greater self-knowledge, it might be easier to discern how God is calling us. With greater experience, we can respond to God’s invitation with insight and perhaps greater resolution. Already knowing what it means to make a commitment, it’s less likely we will be  easily discouraged.

* We already have mentors who know us well and can offer us their advice and wisdom from the years that they have known us

* We have a lived history of our relationship with God, and so we can more easily perceive continuity between how God has called us in the past and how God is calling us now. (For example, Mother Teresa always felt called to be a missionary. Beginning the work of the Missionaries of Charity wasn’t really a change from her fundamental vocation of being a religious missionary, but extended that call further.) This continuity in how God works in our lives is another sign to look for that can help affirm that the call we are receiving is truly from God.

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If you didn’t catch The Letters in U.S. theaters this December, keep an eye out for its release to DVD. I’ll try to post when it comes available again.

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A True Story: Discerning During Midlife

A few years ago, a wonderful wife and mother named Catherine came to see me.

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Catherine is a loving and generous woman who has inspired the many people at her parish who know her. She constantly seeks God’s will amidst the usual and sometimes unusual challenges of married life, and puts herself at the service of the needs of her parish. But recently, she underwent a particular experience of change, accompanied by darkness: her children were growing up and leaving home and didn’t seem to need her as much; her relationship with her husband felt routine; her daily life gave her little satisfaction. At one point, Catherine confided to a friend, “I was attracted to religious life when I was younger, and being a sister is so much more peaceful and holy. Maybe I missed my vocation. What if God really called me to religious life?”

This thought that she might have “missed” her vocation was a scary one for Catherine (and for anyone serious about seeking God’s will–more on that later). However, because she still had commitments to her husband and children, it was clear that God’s will for Catherine was to continue in her vocation as a loving mother and wife. If Catherine had indeed chosen a path other than what God originally willed for her, God’s will for her at his point in her life was clear: to continue in her vocational commitments. Her doubts were almost certainly not a call to switch vocations in midlife. But at her age, repeatedly experiencing these doubts could be an important part of Catherine’s midlife journey: she may have needed to re-evaluate certain decisions and how she was living her vocation. Rather than something to discourage or scare her, Catherine could use these troubling questions as an invitation to reflect on her life, bringing them to prayer and spiritual direction.

When we talked together, I encouraged Catherine to consider these possibilities:

A) It was possible her doubts were a temptation, especially because the doubts seemed to be making Catherine lose some of her interior peace. Perhaps the devil wanted to distract this loving, goodhearted woman from her true vocation—that of being a loving mother and wife. By putting the “holier” life of a religious sister on a pedestal and entertaining doubts about her own vocational discernment, Catherine could have been letting the devil gain a foothold in her thoughts, blurring her perception of the unique beauty of her call and gradually weakening her commitment to her vocation.

Instead of allowing these doubts to distract her, Catherine could use them as an opportunity to recommit more deeply to her life of self-giving love as a mother and wife, perhaps discerning new ways in which she can express her love in her changing situation.

B) Catherine might have been going through a time of desolation where, through her doubts and longing for “more,” God was inviting her to purify her motivations and deepen how she lives her true vocation. Catherine could take time to examine how she was living her vocation and how she could grow in her call to love as a wife and mother.

C) Perhaps God was inviting Catherine to dig deeper into what attracted her about religious life. Catherine’s feelings of dissatisfaction could have been reflecting a desire placed in her by God for greater union and intimacy with him—something that she previously thought was reserved only for sisters. God could have been using her feelings of desolation to call her to a deeper spiritual life of union with him. Perhaps deep within her restless longing, God was calling Catherine to offer herself to him in a special way: for example, in a particular ministry or consecrated lay institute.

Every person’s individual experience and discernment has specific details that God uses to lead them. Catherine never shared the fruits of her prayer after we talked, but she chose to continue in her vocation of love. She is now a happily devoted grandmother.

How Do We Avoid Discouragement?

landscape-mountains-nature-mountainIn times of deep desolation, what can we do? St. Ignatius encourages us to be faithful to our commitments,  to rekindle our prayer and our longing for God, and to wait until the Lord lifts the fog. As our time of deep desolation passes, we will gain a renewed perspective to see the beauty and potential for love, even in the suffering we are undergoing; we will be able to recognize how God is inviting us and how God makes even times of desolation bear fruit. But in the meantime…

How To Avoid Becoming Discouraged by the Darkness
When we are going through great desolation and the darkness is so intense that we really want to give up, this is the time to pull out and use the tools that our Catholic spiritual tradition—especially the tradition of discernment—have given us.

* Continue to pray—be faithful to your usual prayer time. Even if it feels like your prayer is “wasting time,” and that you’re “not getting anything out of it”, remember that times of dryness or desolation in prayer are often the times when God can do the most work in us. If you aren’t doing anything or getting anything out of your prayer, and you continue to faithfully show up and trust in God, God will take over…and work within you in ways that you cannot imagine. (And you may only recognize this afterwards, sometimes years later.) You may wish to vary your prayer if it’s dry: one day, pray the Rosary, another day simply sit quietly with the Lord in Eucharistic adoration.

* Hold fast to your convictions, and the resolutions or course of action you made when you weren’t experiencing such profound desolation. A time of deep discouragement is not usually the time to make big changes in your life. Instead, if you are overwhelmed by the challenge of staying with your convictions and way of living, make small changes in how you live your long-held convictions. Experiment with how you live your convictions, rather than giving up on your actual convictions.

* Don’t get discouraged—or at least, don’t let discouragement grip you too tightly. To gain insight on desolation and darkness, you may want to read what Saint Ignatius has to say about desolation and consolation. (I recommend Discernment of Spirits by Father Timothy Gallagher, OMV)

* Don’t be afraid of the unknown. God is already there. If you are receiving new—even uncomfortable—insights about your life, evaluate them one by one. Could these be possibilities for growth or invitations from God? If you feel your values are shifting, take time to pray with these new insights and desires so that gradually you can discern if or how to act on them. Perhaps take some time to go back to and re-visit your first real encounter with God. Remember his love for you, his invitations to you, his affirmation of who you are. Rest in his loving gaze, and renew your commitment to him, wherever he is leading you.

* Read and pray about God’s love for you and how trusting in God—who is almighty, who loves us, who is faithful—is the best choice you can make every day. Because you are in a spiritually dark or even dry place, find resources that you can read more easily. Read a favorite book of the Bible or a spiritual writer whose insights resonate with you.

*  Seek advice from your spiritual director or other mentors; go back to the spiritual wisdom you have already received and have striven to live by. What does it tell you about your current situation?

* Seek support from good friends you trust who share your values, might understand your struggles, and always want what is best for you. Seeking support and comfort can strengthen us in the deep loneliness and suffering that accompanies desolation.

* Make the time to do something that you love to do, that you feel drawn to doing now. Doing something you truly enjoy can give you a place to find a break or comfort from the darkness that you are undergoing. Truly enjoying something can relax you and also give you a safe place to “process” or “connect” the pieces of what you are undergoing.

Discerning in Times of Desolation and Change

sunset-cloudsWhen we are going through a midlife transition or another big change in our lives—a change that means a long transition and many days of desolation and darkness—we often feel a sense of urgency to discern God’s will for us because so many things in our lives are changing and we need to make decisions about how to move forward with our lives. Yet, how do we discern God’s will for us in the midst of a big transition when it is accompanied by a sense of confusion, loss, darkness, and even desolation (as big transitions often are)?

Ignatius of Loyola, along with other saints such as Francis de Sales, counsel that in times of desolation, we should stay with our good resolutions that we made before we entered such a time of desolation. In times of great distress it is easy to give in to feelings of discouragement, to give up. It can even be easy to impulsively decide to radically change the direction of our lives because everything feels different or overwhelming.

* * *

When we pursue anything new that requires commitment, we will face multiple crises when we will reevaluate whether it’s worth pursuing. One of our culture’s most frequently used metaphors about perseverance through difficulty is sports movies. Sports films illustrate well the importance of persevering through a particular moment of failure and desolation. (The film Rudy is one of my favorites in this regard.)  As the protagonist goes through their biggest moments of crises and discouragement, we root for them to continue on, because we know that the crisis is temporary, and the person can only make a good decision (discernment) when they base their decision on the entire experience, not just the discouragement and desolation they feel now.

FreedomWritersPosterIn the film Freedom Writers (2007), first-time teacher Erin Gruwell (portrayed by Hilary Swank) chooses to teach in a tough, gang-infested school because she wants to make a real difference in the lives of troubled teens. At first, the kids in her classes ignore her entirely, the other teachers discourage her and even make it more difficult, her father pressures her to teach at a school in a safer neighborhood, and her husband wants her to spend less time with the kids and more time at home. At a certain point, it seems that Erin’s big heart and belief in these kids isn’t enough. She has to face the truth that what she’s doing in the classroom isn’t working. The temptation comes, of course, for her to give up teaching at that school, and perhaps to give up teaching altogether.

Instead, Erin digs deep. As she creatively confronts each obstacle, we cheer her on, because she doesn’t allow failure, isolation, discouragement, and desolation to overwhelm her. Although she has to adjust her attitudes and how she teaches,  she doesn’t give up on these kids nor on her original purpose.

Discerning in Transition: Prayer in Emptiness

emptynotebook-731212_1280As we continue to mature (and our perspective also matures), we have the opportunity to give and nurture life in new ways. But sometimes we experience change as more of an ending than a beginning, more of a loss than a gift.

And in every big change we do lose something. Specifically in the transition of midlife, we lose or are forced to let go of certain life-giving aspects of our life that we’ve given a great deal to. Perhaps our children have all left home, and we have “empty nest” syndrome. Or perhaps we no longer have the energy it takes to run marathons. Perhaps we let go of our dream of becoming an astronaut (or ___________ ) because it’s no longer realistic.

Loss leaves a hole, and that hole can make us aware of a more pervasive emptiness within us. Missing our friends at our old job can open us up to suddenly realizing how lonely we are. From feeling the emptiness of our home after our last child has moved out, we can start wondering if our inner emptiness means that we missed our vocation in life.

Potential for New Ways of Giving Life

Although feeling empty doesn’t feel good, it is something to rejoice in—because God can only fill us if we are empty! When we feel an inner emptiness, when we recognize our insufficiency, we give God room to enter and to fill us with his gifts.

Sometimes God seems to let the emptiness grow—from a small loss to a gaping hole. It’s not that God want us to suffer. What he is really doing is letting our emptiness and longing for him build—either so that he can make us a greater gift, or so that we have the capacity to truly receive what he wants to give us.

Emptiness is a daunting feeling, but it’s actually a part of being human. We are made for God, we are made for eternal beatitude. Living in the “not yet” of life here on earth helps us to prepare our hearts to receive God more fully. Becoming aware that we are incomplete, that there are “holes” in our lives that we long to have filled, enables us to depend or “lean” more on God and to receive fully what he wants to give us.

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When we experience a sense of inner emptiness, we may wish to pray with the Canticle of Philippians (2:5-11)—that celebrates Jesus’ self-emptying in order to redeem us. We might find it helpful to pray with the sentiments of the following prayer.

Prayer in Emptiness (A Kenosis Prayer)

Jesus, I come to You today empty. 

I don’t feel I have anything to bring to You except my poor self.

And today, that doesn’t feel as if it’s enough.

I feel helpless and vulnerable, lost and desolate.

This sharp-edged emptiness reminds me

how dependent I truly am on You,

that I am not self-sufficient,

that I need to learn to trust You always more.

You experienced this emptiness while You were here on earth.

You let go of not just the fullness of divinity but even of the human respect You deserved,

in order to be with us, to teach us, to serve us, and to save us. 

You emptied Yourself for me, so that I can offer my emptiness to You to be filled.

Divine Master, fill me with what I need most:

Your love and Your grace.

Hold me close to Your Merciful Heart

until the day that I am made whole in You,

immersed in the loving embrace of the Most Holy Trinity. Amen.

Midlife & Discernment: Learning To See with God’s Eyes

eye-211610_1280Learning To See with God’s Eyes

Whether it’s transition, gradual growth, or crisis, midlife offers wonderful opportunities to grow in doing God’s will, above all because we start to see with new eyes, with new awareness. Any time we are “shaken out of” a routine or habitual way of seeing or doing things, we become more open to hearing God’s unexpected invitations.

One characteristic of midlife is that we may become tired of doing things the way we’ve always done them. We may start reacting to things in unfamiliar ways—even ways that are the opposite of how we used to react. While earlier in life, we may have put the emphasis on “doing,” now we may feel that “being” is more important. We recognize how unrealistic our earlier high ideals are, and we become more accepting of the reality of human nature. In our 20s, we might have focused our energies on how much we’ve achieved and will achieve; now we may feel that it’s more important to focus on who we are, or becoming a better person, because accomplishment flows from who we are. We might shift our focus from being overly preoccupied with what others think of us to simply seeking to act with integrity. We might feel less patience with things that we consider nonessential, like others’ emotional drama over inconsequential things, or competitive behavior, so we simply ignore them.

The shift in our perspective might be so great that we might even feel that we’re becoming our opposite, because our new perspective is encouraging us to make new and different choices. In midlife, as at any time in life where we are facing big changes, moderation is a good basic principle and practice to keep in mind. If we can bring a discerning attitude into our new awareness, the uncertainty and excitement can help us to find new opportunities for seeking and living God’s will.

Taking Advantage of the Precious Moments of Our Lives

Midlife often brings with it strong new desires—desires that might make us feel less sure of ourselves. We can sense change within, and we might worry that certain values that had been so important to us are not as important any more. As at any time in life where we are facing big changes,  moderation is a good basic principle and practice to keep in mind during midlife.

Because we are increasingly aware that our lives are finite, we may suddenly start to feel that obstacles that used to stand in our way aren’t really obstacles any more. Our thought may be: if I don’t do this now, when will I?

My shyness makes a small personal example, although I don’t know if it’s just a natural maturing process or connected to midlife.

I’m a very shy person. In the past, it was hard-to-impossible to strike up conversations with people I didn’t know. In addition, I’m a small woman raised in the suburbs who had no experience with inner-city life. So perhaps it’s understandable—although certainly not desirable—that during my first couple of years in any big city, if I was walking alone on a city street and was approached by tall, large men who seemed homeless, I would smile, say “God bless you,” and walk away as fast as I could. (I would also pray for them, but they didn’t know that.) I’d feel guilty that I didn’t stop to really talk with them, but my timidity was very strong if I was alone.

Over the years, I’ve interacted with many people “on the street.” I started to realize how deceptive appearances are. I grew in my conviction that as a sister who practices seeing others through the eyes of God, I also wanted to try to respond with God’s heart. But I still had to struggle to overcome my shyness each time. Finally, one day I was out with a friend and witnessed how fearless she was when a someone on the street asked her for money. At that moment, I thought to myself, “I don’t need to let my shyness stand in the way of real encounters with people any more. These encounters are just too precious to let my fear get in the way!”

I don’t know if that was a “midlife” change of perspective, or just a natural maturing process, but I still remember the first time it just seemed natural to stop to talk to a man who was homeless who greeted me. We chatted for about five minutes—about how he was doing and about God. As I was leaving, the man asked me, “Sister, please bless me!” I didn’t even hesitate. I can’t remember now if he bowed his head so that I could put my hands on his head, or if I simply grasped his hands. But I prayed from my heart for him. And I walked away feeling that I was blessed; that I had received more than I’d given. That evening, as I was praying over my day, I was astonished to realize that I hadn’t felt a twinge of shyness–it  just felt that responding to him was the thing I was supposed to do at that moment.

My shyness is not completely gone. I still feel it at times, but fear is much less likely to stop me when I meet people for the first time. The real connection that can happen—even in a two-minute encounter on the street—is too important to miss. Ironically, now people tell me that they can’t believe that I’m shy. I’m grateful that my priorities have shifted through God’s grace and my life experience.