“I can’t discern consecrated life because I don’t want to be tied down”

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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.

Photo: Sr. Mary Emmanuel Alves, FSP. © Daughters of St. Paul

Photo: Sr. Mary Emmanuel Alves, FSP  © Daughters of St. Paul

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?

* * *

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?

How Do I Find the Community I’m Called To?

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(Here is the second in a three-part series of posts about discerning religious life. You can find the first post about discerning religious life here.)

People discover their call to religious life in different ways. Every vocational journey is unique, as we are each unique, and God’s relationship with us is unrepeatable.

Sometimes someone will realize that they are called to religious life and then they will start to look for a congregation. Other people encounter a congregation or order, and on the basis of their attraction to the community’s way of life will begin discerning a vocation to religious life.

Both ways are fine. However, what’s important to recognize is that discerning which congregation or order is part of one’s discernment of his or her vocation to religious life. It’s not that a person receives a generic vocation to religious life in the abstract. A vocation to religious life includes a call to a particular community.

* * *

If someone feels the call to religious life but doesn’t know any religious, or doesn’t think they have met the congregation they’re called to, how do they discern which congregation God is calling them to?

Prayer is essential as always, first and foremost. There are many ways to get to know various congregations. As a discerner browses websites and youtube videos, meets different communities, and starts to read up on them, it’s most important to keep bringing one’s experience to the Lord, always seeking the Lord’s direction.

Tips for Finding an Order or Congregation

* If there is a vocation fair in your area, go to it. Many dioceses have a vocation fair every year or every other year.

* Attend events in your diocese that will have religious men and women present.

* Contact the vocation director for the diocese, or the vicar for religious for the diocese, and ask them if there are any discernment groups meeting in the diocese.

* If there are no religious in your area, visit www.vocationnetwork.com, pick a couple of communities that you feel drawn to, and write, email, or call them.

* Browse the websites and available literature about different communities.

* Ask for and listen to recommendations of vocation directors, spiritual directors, and others who know various religious communities (and you) well.

* Look for priests, brothers, and sisters on social media, and contact them there.

* Once you have found a couple of communities you are drawn to, try to connect over the phone, letters, or email. If your interest persists, arrange for a visit.

How To Discern Between Communities

How does one approach looking for a religious congregation in a discerning way? You may wish to make a list of essential characteristics that you are looking for in a community, such as fidelity to the Church’s teaching, or a particular mission, or a specific way of praying.

It may be helpful to look at the orders or congregations by dividing what you see or experience into three key elements: spirituality, mission, and lifestyle. Many religious congregations seem very similar on the surface, or share particular characteristics, but the Church has approved the rule of life of each order or congregation because it is unique.

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* Spirituality

A congregation’s spirituality is more than their practices of prayer; it’s their whole approach to God, to Christ, to the Blessed Mother and the saints; it’s how they approach the journey to holiness. You can usually get a strong sense of how a congregation’s spirituality is well-expressed by how the community prays together.

Every community approaches prayer a bit differently and emphasizes different mysteries of faith—for example, different mysteries or events in the life of Christ. A community usually fits in with a particular school of spirituality. If you are not familiar with various spiritualities—such as Franciscan, Jesuit, Benedictine, etc.—you may wish to become familiar with them, even trying out a few different prayer styles. You may wish to ask your spiritual director what “school” of spirituality might be a good fit for you. Or perhaps you already know that you are especially drawn to Eucharistic adoration, or to praying the Liturgy of the Hours, or to praying in nature. This affinity may guide your initial choice of visiting a community. (You can also find books and other resources on these different schools of spirituality. Sister Kathryn Hermes has written a wonderful book that I highly recommend.)

Although a community’s way of praying may be new or unfamiliar, if you are called to this community, you will most likely feel deeply drawn to it over time.

* Mission

Every congregation has a particular mission. To be fully engaged in mission is a dynamic sign of the health of a community. The mission of each community has a certain urgency, because the members are aware that no one else will fulfill the mission God has entrusted to them; God’s people need what the community offers, and are counting on them! Usually the mission will entail certain spiritual and corporal works of mercy, done in a particular way. Caring for spiritual needs by teaching, counseling, evangelizing, guiding, instructing, praying, etc., and/or caring for physical needs by providing health care, material sustenance or resources, visiting those who are on the margins—either physically, spiritually, socially, morally, or some combination.

Perhaps you have particular gifts or training that will help you to carry out this community’s mission. Or perhaps you share the urgency of the congregation to respond to the needs of the world in this particular way. Sometimes it helps if you can imagine yourself doing what you see the full members doing. Other times, it’s unimaginable but you still feel deeply drawn to the community.

A visit during which you share in the mission of the community can be invaluable for your discerning for this particular community.

* Lifestyle

The unique way that the community integrates their spirituality, prayer, vows, community life, and mission is a concrete expression of their charism—the gift of the Spirit that animates the community in its life and mission. A congregation’s “lifestyle” is hard to define, in part because it’s a combination of a lot of factors, but it can be the most powerful witness for a visitor discerning that community.

Some communities live a more formal, structured lifestyle. Other communities might have similar structure but more simplicity and expressions of individuality. Some communities could be characterized as having a “family spirit.” Some communities will focus on living poverty in a very strict way; other communities will focus more on hospitality or outreach. Some communities will have a more structured schedule; others will be structured more flexibly around the needs of individuals encountered in the mission.

Every congregation will have its own particular way of living the vows, prayer, and mission. A community’s unique way of life may draw you to feel particularly at home. If you have an experience of feeling that you are “coming home,” this is an important aspect of your discernment to bring to prayer.

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Questions To Reflect on When Visiting a Community

When preparing to visit a community, bring these questions with you, and make sure to take the time to reflect on them daily during your visit and overall afterwards.

  • How did your day go?
  • What happened today that impressed you?
  • What was your experience in prayer today?
  • How did you feel today?
  • What did you find challenging?

DISCERNMENT TIP: Don’t look for the “easy” fit, but for the “deep fit.” Remember to keep bringing your experiences to prayer. It’s not just that someone can picture themselves in this particular community, doing what the members of this community do. No, it’s in discovering or knowing that in this community or this congregation, God is calling us closer to himself.

Often, before someone enters a community, they will recognize certain things about religious life in the community that they know they’ll have a hard time with. But that cannot discourage us from following our vocation. Following God’s call means we are challenged on the deepest levels of our being. Another community may feel “comfortable,” or welcoming, but the community to which we are called should make us feel at home to give our all, to try our very utmost, and to be challenged in ways we never expected or dreamed of.