#Discerning Obedience: Path To Freedom

riding-768586_1280Freedom

“No one else can tell me what to do: I value my freedom too much.”

Obedience is not popular today, although everyone is called to practice this virtue. In terms of religious life, it’s probably the hardest vow to understand in our individualistic culture when resistance to or rebellion against authority is so often seen as a virtue. Mistrust of institutions and of authority, due to a heightened awareness of the abuse of power, makes it hard to see the value of promising to obey any superior. In addition, true freedom is often misunderstood, equated with no limitations.

Genuine freedom is not:

  • living without restrictions or constraints
  • the ability to cater to every personal whim
  • doing whatever we feel like doing whenever we feel like doing it.

Genuine freedom is the ability to make choices in accord with our deepest identity as God’s beloved one, no matter what our situation is. Real freedom is choosing to love, no matter what external constraints or inner pressures we face.

The Paradox of Obedience

The vowed obedience of priests and religious conforms us to Christ, who sought only to do the will of the Father. With this vow, we, like Christ, seek to live God’s will.

Ironically, the greatest limits to our freedom often come not from outside of us, but from within us. We are driven by self-serving needs and wants, often without knowing it. We say we’re doing something because “it’s what God wants,” or “it’s the right thing to do,” but actually most of what we do is at least partly self-serving. I may pray and work really hard to prepare a retreat or book that can change lives, and this is mostly a labor of love. But sometimes I find I also have a few motivations “on the side,” including a desire for appreciation. To want a little appreciation is a normal human desire. But when this desire is exaggerated so that we become driven by it to the  point that it shapes our choices, we have become enslaved by our need for the good opinions of others.  Our sinfulness, our pride, our weakness, our greed, the need to be right or useful or to dominate others often drive us to take certain actions. In reality, these interior forces are chains binding us, preventing us from living full freedom!

The paradox of obedience is that, in “giving up” our will, or seeking to align our will to God’s will, we become most fully free.

Obedience frees priests and religious from both external and internal constraints that would prevent us from fully living God’s will. With the vow of obedience, God’s will becomes ours.

JesusMasterCAIMG_20150128_115949266Conformity to Christ

Like the other vows, obedience is a journey, freeing the priest and religious to follow Jesus more wholeheartedly, to do God’s will completely, in every aspect of his or her life. In a most profound way, the vow of obedience enables the religious to live in union with God, completely offering their whole being—including their will—to God.   

In popular culture, a sister’s, brother’s, or priest’s obedience to God directly or through religious superiors is often portrayed as mindless. But mindless obedience is not genuine obedience, which is the submission of our whole being to God–mind, will, heart, and strength! However it is true, as any believer can attest, that God’s ways don’t always make sense to us. Human beings will always experience an element of mystery in God’s plan for creation. In his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul wrestles with the question of why his fellow Jews rejected Christ, but he concludes his two chapters of anguish and attempts to understand with one of the most beautiful hymns of praise to God’s inscrutable wisdom.

“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33-36).

It’s also true that obeying God through human authority sometimes doesn’t seem to make much sense. I have to confess that, even after 25+ years of vowed obedience, my opinions and way of doing things almost always seem better to me. The vow of obedience of priests and religious often takes more faith to live, because many aspects of our lives are decided by superiors who speak with the authority of God.* More than once, my transfer or apostolic assignment made no sense to me until later. I’ve also  found that when I’ve obeyed in something that I’ve been asked to do, it may not have been easy, but I’ve learned more and been pushed to be more creative and industrious than I would have otherwise. And, I often see that it brings great spiritual fruit to others.

Finally, there are also the times when the faith and suffering that accompany obedience become a means God uses to bless others. We are the Mystical Body of Christ, and obedience to God is always blessed.

Obedience is still the hardest vow for me to live well. But it’s also the vow that gives me the greatest freedom. And I treasure this vow in a special way because of how directly it helps me to live in union with Christ who said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (John 4:34).

*As I’ve covered elsewhere, if a superior tells a sister or priest to do something wrong or sinful, they are obviously not speaking with God’s authority.

#Discerning the Vow of Poverty

“I couldn’t do without my…car, own place, movie collection, ____________.” In the poll I ran recently, this statement was checked off by a number of people as a main reason that they don’t consider religious life. That’s not surprising in our culture, which is materially obsessed.

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When I entered the convent, I was too young to own a house or a car. But I did give away my music collection, my books, and pretty much everything I owned except a few clothes and some holy cards which I brought with me. Was it easy? Not at first. But it was incredibly freeing. I see the vow of poverty as an amazing trade: as religious, we “trade in” the right to possess material goods, and we receive the gifts of a unique intimacy with and a closer following of Christ.

(As an aside, poverty has many practical benefits for a religious too—for example, poverty helps me to be available to be sent on mission anywhere, because I’m not tied to personal possessions or particular places.)

I think that the vow of poverty is perhaps the easiest vow to understand today. People are more aware of the extremes in the lifestyles of the minority who are wealthy and the vast numbers of people who are poor. The stats for global hunger and poverty are shocking:

  • nearly half of the world’s population (3 billion people) live in poverty
  • over 1 billion of the people living in poverty are children
  • 22,000 children die every day because they are too poor to receive what they need
  • hunger is the #1 cause of death in the world today
  • more than 750 million people do not have adequate access to clean drinking water*

* These statistics are taken from the website: https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-global-poverty, accessed June 9, 2016.

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Sharing what we have with others is the only way that everyone will have what they need. Choosing to make sacrifices—giving up material possessions—in order to provide necessities of life for others is fairly common, but it needs to become part of the everyday life of every Christian—actually, of every person in the world who has a secure place to live, and enough to eat and drink. Religious life is not just a helpful witness to encourage others to share like this, but as religious, we live in genuine solidarity with those who live in material and spiritual poverty.

Other easily-understood motivations for living a poor or simple lifestyle are:

  • Living the vow of poverty is a way of life that preserves or restores the resources of the earth, which is part of the Church’s official social teaching.
  • Pop culture today advocates the wisdom of simplifying or de-cluttering our lives as helpful in living with greater focus and purpose.

The Religious Vow of Poverty

Sr. Carly Paula, FSP, making her first profession

Sr. Carly Paula, FSP, making her first profession

The main reason a religious takes the vow of poverty is to more closely imitate Christ, the Poor One, both in his poverty and in his absolute trust in the Father. For me, the vow of poverty is not always easy, but I have found it helpful and freeing on so many levels:

  • A religious has nothing of his or her own, but shares everything in common with his or her community. The community then provides for the needs of each religious. It’s not that I’m completely free of financial concerns, because I am a responsible member of the community. Rather, it’s that I share this burden with my superiors and my community in discerning expenses together.
  • Most of my community’s resources go into our mission of evangelization with the media, but we share whatever we can with those who suffer from genuine want. With my vow of poverty, I live in solidarity with those who are “on the margins” of life—those suffering from spiritual and material poverty.
  • There’s a certain comfort and security in possessing materials goods, but this very security can become like a fog blinding me, preventing me from taking risks, and restricting my freedom. The vow of poverty clears away the “fog” of  today’s materially obsessed culture and enables me to focus on Christ as my Treasure.
  • On a spiritual level, poverty helps me to continually renew my trust in God, so that I learn to rely on God for everything, in every situation.
  • Poverty is very freeing spiritually: it frees my heart from possessions, from the need to possess, from greedy grasping for stuff, and from attachment to even interior things like my opinions and pride. Poverty helps me to be grateful for the most valuable things in life—which are certainly not material possessions—but my relationship with God, the sacraments, the people in my life, and my vocation.

My Personal Confession

My two biggest ongoing struggles with living authentic poverty are books and tools for our mission. Books—especially books of theology and spirituality—are a real weakness of mine. Not only do I love to read, but we are encouraged to have a shelf or two of books—the writings of our Founder, the resources we need to do our mission, books that we have used in our studies that we foresee using again in the near future. With my work of writing and giving workshops on a variety of subjects, it’s handy to have a large library. So every couple of years I need to re-discern the choices I’ve made with regard to books, and give away what is truly not needed.

By Jorghex (Own work) [ CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jorghex (Own work) [ CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Because our mission of evangelization involves the media, using technology is essential. Our Founder wanted us to have “the latest means” so that we could reach the greatest number of people with the Gospel. But sometimes certain aspects of our mission would be easier with the “latest gadget.” For example, a smart phone is essential for my work in social media. But do I really need the latest iPhone model? The discerning answer to this for me is: I need a solidly functional smart phone to effectively use social media, but I certainly don’t need the latest model.

The Vow of Poverty in 5 Words:

Blessed James Alberione, the Founder of the Pauline Family, said, “Poverty is the greatest wealth.” I have found this to be true because living the vow and virtue of poverty enables me to consistently focus on Christ Jesus as my greatest Treasure—my only Treasure—and to dedicate all my efforts to living my vocation of growing in union with Christ and in serving his people.

#Discernment: Is the Vow of Chastity Too Hard To Live?

In the responses to the poll about obstacles to considering priestly or religious life, the obstacles that came up repeatedly were the vows.  Although we looked at them briefly in the post about religious life, I thought that perhaps sharing some personal experience of living these vows could show the beauty and value of consecrated life.

Religious life is meant to be a life directed towards a closer following of Christ—carrying the cross with Jesus here on earth, trusting in God’s loving providence to draw us closer to himself, both here and in eternity. Every vocation has its call to sacrifice and heroism, but the constancy of the sacrifices in religious life have led some to call it  “a slow martyrdom.” That has less to do with the conspicuous sacrifices of the vows, and more to do with laying down lives in service to others. It’s the vows that give religious the freedom to love with an undivided heart.

“Celibacy is too hard.”

Celibacy is hard. I don’t deny it. Every human being is created for the intimacy of spousal love, and celibacy is giving up the physical expression of spousal love. Renouncing the physical intimacy of sex for the sake of Christ and his kingdom is a real sacrifice. Celibacy means not having the unconditional support of one’s spouse, nor having someone in your life who is always there for you. Celibacy (or consecrated chastity as it is often called) means times of loneliness.

However, celibacy doesn’t mean giving up all emotions and relationships. It  mean that our exclusive relationship is with God. So the wise celibate is attentive to nurturing meaningful relationships with other people in his or her life—with family, community, and friends—so that they remain emotionally healthy and can rely on a certain level of human companionship. For me personally, sharing life with my sisters in community is one of my greatest joys and supports in living religious life and the vows.  

IMG_0590What does it mean to have an exclusive relationship with God? It means that the “Someone” whom we go to first, the One is always there for us, the One to whom we give ourselves completely, is God.  As we grow in our exclusive relationship with God, we find ourselves falling more and more deeply in love with him: we rely always more on him, becoming more aware of his presence in the tiny details of our day; our desire to do God’s will and to serve God’s people always more deepens; and our love continually grows. A special intimacy develops between us and God.

For priests and men religious, the “spouse” is the Church. For women religious, our spouse is Christ himself. For both men and women religious, spousal love is expressed primarily in loving all of God’s children, and especially Christ in his members, the Church.

One key aspect of spousal love is fruitfulness. Just as married love is to be open to the creation of new life, so the love of religious and priestly life is to be fruitful, as spiritual fathers and mothers of God’s People. This spiritual parenthood is expressed in countless ways.

I was recently at a faith sharing with a number of other Catholic women who were talking about the joys and challenges of being married. I’m sure they just thought I was listening, but I added my comment in the end—a comment that I borrowed from Sr. Helena Burns. “My Spouse is perfect. The only problem is that, when we disagree about something, he’s always right.”

Our Founder, Blessed James Alberione, called chastity the greatest love. I think part of what he meant by that is that our spouse is the perfect Lover; but perhaps he also meant that chastity is a very self-sacrificing love, with fewer tangible rewards here on earth. For me, chastity is a treasure that keeps my gaze and my attention focused exactly where it should be: on God and his People.

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

StTheclaArches

(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.

National Catholic Sisters Week & Cinema Novena: The Young Messiah

Last week, I was away working on finishing the first draft of my book. Now that I’m back, I’m busy catching up with the stuff that piled up while I was away.

1500x500-cinema-novenaOne of the things that I’ve been helping with is getting the word out about the new film opening on Friday (March 11), The Young Messiah (you can find my review here), and also inviting people to make the online Cinema Novena: The Young Messiah, either as a novena to St. Joseph (if you start on March 11th and finish on March 19th, the feast of St. Joseph), or as a novena to the Holy Family which you can make anytime. The novena uses clips from the film, a Scripture reading, a reflection question, and a prayer. You can sign up here!

Since this is National Catholic Sisters Week,  through the week I’ll try to post and tweet interesting resources for those discerning religious life as I find them. My favorite so far is Sr. Clare Hunter’s Top Ten Reasons “I could never become a nun”,  a wonderful article that briefly addresses some of the reasons I’ve heard most often.

If you’re looking for a Lenten Discernment Retreat, it’s not too late to sign up for our Holy Week Retreat at the Daughters of Saint Paul in Boston, MA.

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Considerations on Discerning Consecrated Life

Christ with Martha and Maria by Henryk Siemiradzki, Public Domain

Christ with Martha and Maria by Henryk Siemiradzki, Public Domain

“In the unity of the Christian life, the various vocations are like so many rays of the one light of Christ…. It is the duty of the consecrated life to show that the Incarnate Son of God is the eschatological goal towards which all things tend, the splendor before which every other light pales, and the infinite beauty which alone can fully satisfy the human heart… By professing the evangelical counsels, consecrated persons not only make Christ the whole meaning of their lives but strive to reproduce in themselves, as far as possible, ‘that form of life which he, as the Son of God, accepted in entering this world….’

“By embracing chastity, they [religious] make their own the pure love of Christ and proclaim to the world that he is the Only-Begotten Son who is one with the Father (cf. Jn 10:30, 14:11). By imitating Christ’s poverty, they profess that he is the Son who receives everything from the Father, and gives everything back to the Father in love (cf. Jn 17:7, 10). By accepting, through the sacrifice of their own freedom, the mystery of Christ’s filial obedience, they profess that he is infinitely beloved and loving, as the One who delights only in the will of the Father (cf. Jn 4:34), to whom he is perfectly united and on whom he depends for everything. By this profound ‘configuration’ to the mystery of Christ, the consecrated life…acknowledges with wonder the sublime beauty of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and bears joyful witness to his loving concern for every human being” — Vita Consecrata by Pope St. John Paul II, #16.

The Vocation to Consecrated Life

Consecrated life is a vocation in which the person commits themselves to Christ in a radical way—by vowing chastity, poverty, and obedience as a way of following Jesus more closely and more fully living their baptismal consecration. In Vita Consecrata #16, Pope St. John Paul describes religious life as “conforming one’s whole existence to Christ in an all-encompassing commitment.” For religious men and women, this total dedication of self to God through prayer and the service of others is lived together in community, sharing everything in common. Consecrated life also means that one’s love for God extends to God’s people: a religious must have the gifts of generosity and a universal heart, as the consecrated person is called to become a spiritual father or mother of many people.

To sum up: Consecrated life is a lifestyle of deep faith and a closer following of Christ, where one offers one’s whole self to God, serving others wholeheartedly without expectation of reward on this earth, living a poor, chaste, and obedient lifestyle which has its reward in heaven.

Diverse Forms of Consecrated Life

Consecrated life has many diverse forms, from cloistered religious nuns and monks, to active communities of religious men and women, to less familiar forms such as consecrated virgins and secular institutes. Some male religious communities are priests; others are a mix of  priests and brothers. The Catechism of the Catholic Church briefly describes each form of consecrated life, which I’ve referenced below according to paragraph numbers.  A more complete description of the different forms of consecrated life can be found in Pope St. John Paul II’s Vita Consecrata, paragraphs 6-12.

Secular institutes are lay people who live in and evangelize the world by living the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, acting as “leaven of the Gospel” in the world. (See CCC #928-929)

Consecrated virgins and widows are called to serve the Church in a life of consecrated virginity or celibate chastity for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. This was an ancient way of life in the Church that was recently restored. (See CCC #s 922-924)

Hermits may or may not live the evangelical counsels but strictly separate from the world in order to live in union with Christ. (See CCC #s920-921)

Religious life has a variety of forms but each has the following characteristics: religious make a public profession of the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, live community life together, and witness to the spousal union of Christ with his Church. (See CCC #s925-927)

The Vocation to Religious Life

Religious life is the more common and visible form of consecrated life. There are two basic kinds of religious life—although they are not always clearly divided. Cloistered nuns and monks live a monastic religious life, usually structured around praying the full Divine Office. Their main apostolate or mission is to pray for the world, but they often take on certain tasks or apostolates that they can carry out on the side, in order to evangelize and to support themselves while still giving priority to the liturgy. “Cloistered” means that they live a hidden life, separated from the world, in order to pray and offer their lives for the salvation of others.

Active religious life includes the communities of sisters, brothers, and priests who are more visible and active in serving the world and the Church. These communities usually structure their prayer and life in common around their mission. Communities that dedicate themselves to nursing, teaching, and social work are usually active communities.

Some communities—like my own, the Daughters of Saint Paul—seek to blend the contemplative aspects of monastic life with the active apostolate of the active communities. Their prayer lives are similar to those of a nun or monk, but their days are dedicated to apostolic service. It’s a particularly beautiful and demanding expression of religious life.

Discerning which congregation or community God calls us to is part of the discernment for religious life. People realize that they are called to religious life in different ways: some will recognize the call and then start to look for a community or congregation. Other people meet a congregation, and on the basis of their attraction to that community’s way of life, will begin to discern a vocation to religious life. Some people are attracted to a particular mission; others focus on a community’s spirituality. What’s important to recognize is that a vocation to religious life includes a call to a particular community. Discerning religious life includes discerning which community God calls us to. In a future post, we’ll look a bit further at some practical steps that can be taken to discern which community one is called to.

In the meantime, browse www.vocationnetwork.org to see the huge variety of religious life and of consecrated life.

Particular Graces & Strengths of Religious Life

The framework for consecrated life, especially religious life, is being dedicated to God for the sake of humanity, being an apostle of God’s love sent to serve all humanity in the particular spirit of one’s community. The service may be primarily that of prayer (for a cloistered contemplative) or a combination of prayer and action. To live a genuine religious life a universal heart is needed: that is, the desire and ability to generously embrace and serve all people—not restricted to one’s family or neighbor or parish. With the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, a religious is called to be a spiritual mother or spiritual father to everyone. This universal love is well-expressed in religious who become missionaries, who go wherever they are needed.

Through their vows, religious men and women live a closer following of Christ with a special intensity. Obedience is a “deep listening” to God together that frees religious from their own egos and wills and unites them to the will of God. (Obedience sometimes requires a deeper faith to see the will of God in the superior’s decisions.) The vow of poverty frees a religious from material goods so that he or she can depend entirely on God, putting all of his or her trust in God, and proclaiming with a poor and simple lifestyle that God is the greatest Treasure. With the vow of chastity, a religious offers his or her heart completely to God. God’s intimate love that the religious contemplates daily becomes the source and impetus for enthusiastic, loving service of others.

Religious live their intense radical following of Christ together, sharing everything in common. “Little” virtues that help life together blossom—such as humility, generosity, patience, and living in ongoing conversion—can make community life a tremendous support on the journey.

As a lifestyle on a human level, religious life seems to include many sacrifices and fewer satisfactions. But the joys of belonging to Christ completely, of knowing the love of God so fully, and sharing the love of God with others, overshadows the sacrifices. This special witness to joy is a frequent characteristic of authentic religious life, and it’s a reminder to all Christians—including the religious—that the joy of heaven is the only true lasting joy.

Some Reflections on Religious Life

“Poverty is the greatest wealth, chastity is the greatest love, obedience is the greatest freedom.” — Blessed James Alberione

“Religious life is a life of more vivid faith.” — Blessed James Alberione

“Religious life has its roots deep in the Gospel… The religious state, which is a perfecting of the Christian life and the integral practice of the Gospel, seems all the more a paradox: the sacrifice of one’s own life in order to save it, giving up everything in order to gain everything. And in culmination of this paradox, poverty becomes wealth; abasement leads to exaltation; virginity bears life; servitude becomes freedom; sacrifice, beatitude; service, apostolate; death, life. “I have been crucified with Christ, and if I am alive, it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” The mystic crucifixion of the religious is accomplished by the three nails of poverty, chastity and obedience. And this, after the Mass and martyrdom, is the greatest and most meritorious act.” — Blessed James Alberione

“Invited to leave everything to follow Christ, you, consecrated men and women, no longer define your life by family, by profession, or by earthly interests, and you choose the Lord as your only identifying mark. Thus you acquire a new family identity.” —St. Pope John Paul II, Homily at the Jubilee of Consecrated Life, February 2, 2000

“To have your heart, affections, interests and feelings centered on Jesus is the most important aspect of the gift that the Spirit works within you. He conforms you to the chaste, poor and obedient Jesus. And the evangelical counsels, far from being an impoverishing renunciation, are a choice that frees a person for a fuller realization of his potential.” —St. Pope John Paul II, Homily at the Jubilee of Consecrated Life, February 2, 2000

“The life of prayer and contemplation founded on the Eucharistic mystery is also at the heart of the vocation of consecrated people who have chosen the path of the “sequela Christi,” to give themselves to the Lord with an undivided heart in an ever more intimate relationship with him. By their unconditional attachment to Christ and to his Church, they have the special mission to reminding everyone of the universal vocation to holiness … Consecrated men and women proclaim that God alone can give fullness to human existence.” —Pope Benedict XVI, 2006 Address to Canadian Bishops

“Is Jesus really our first and only love, as we promised he would be when we professed our vows? Only if he is, will we be empowered to love, in truth and mercy, every person who crosses our path. For we will have learned from Jesus the meaning and practice of love. We will be able to love because we have his own heart.” —Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter to All Consecrated People for the Year of Consecrated Life

“Be men and women of communion! Have the courage to be present in the midst of conflict and tension, as a credible sign of the presence of the Spirit who inspires in human hearts a passion for all to be one (cf. Jn 17:21). Live the mysticism of encounter, which entails ‘the ability to hear, to listen to other people; the ability to seek together ways and means.’ Live in the light of the loving relationship of the three divine Persons (cf. 1 Jn 4:8), the model for all interpersonal relationships.” —Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter to All Consecrated People for the Year of Consecrated Life

“We are called to know and show that God is able to fill our hearts to the brim with happiness; that we need not seek our happiness elsewhere; that the authentic fraternity found in our communities increases our joy; and that our total self-giving in service to the Church, to families and young people, to the elderly and the poor, brings us life-long personal fulfillment.”—Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter to All Consecrated People for the Year of Consecrated Life

Scripture Passages To Pray With:

  • Genesis 12:1-9 Call of Abraham
  • Matthew 19:16-30 The Rich Young Man
  • Luke 1:26-56 The Annunciation
  • Luke 5:1-11 “Put out into the deep”
  • John 1:35-51 “Come and see”
  • John 15:1-17 “You did not choose me but I chose you”

Discernment Opportunities with the #MediaNuns

As we conclude the Year for Consecrated Life tomorrow (February 2, 2016), I wanted to share a few things about my community, the Daughters of Saint Paul, for those of you reading this blog and discerning religious life.

First, here’s a little video about our community and our spirit:

Secondly, our annual #Discernment Retreat during Holy Week is coming up, if you’d like learn more about our Pauline life and mission:

HolyWeekRetreat2016

Third, if you are interested in learning more about the Daughters of St. Paul, you can connect with us in many ways, including our website, which has many discernment resources: www.daughtersofstpaul.org/vocations

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.

Friday Q & A: Should I delay entering religious life when I feel called?

Here are a couple of great questions from another young woman discerning her vocation to religious life:

“It’s been a year since I discovered my call to religious life, and even though I’ve had a few ups and downs, It has mainly been all the time upwards, and I’ve been maturing the idea, thinking it through and everything seemed to work out well.

The things I have to discern about are mainly two. Firstly, I was thinking of entering a congregation next summer (2015) once I was 18. But my family has advised me and asked If I could delay it one or two years in order to be able to experience and live those first years of university outside of the congregation, in a “normal lifestyle”. I am really looking forward to entering and I’m not sure what I should do, experience life and “freedom” and then enter into a congregation or start straight away. It’s something I’m trying to discern. The next decision I have to make is which congregation apply to; the school I’m in is run by nuns, and I’ve always thought that I would like to be one of them…but lately I’ve been wondering if It’s the correct decision or I should look for another one. I like their mission and how they work, I also like the nuns; on the other hand sometimes I feel I don’t agree in certain aspects with them and It would be difficult for me to follow their instructions.

I would really appreciate if you could throw some light into those decisions and help me understand what God wants me to do. Any advice on how to listen to his call and his plans for me would be great.”

First of all, I just want to thank you for your courage in seeking to do God’s will in your life, and I encourage you to continue to be open to the Lord as he calls you!

With regard to your first question about whether to enter after you turn 18 or wait a year or two, there is wisdom in doing both, so it really depends on how God is inviting you in the concrete circumstances of your life. Obviously, if you have already gone through a significant discernment process, and both the community and you feel that God is inviting you to take the next step to enter the community, that is definitely the best choice.

But a significant discernment process requires a number of elements, just a few of which I’ll list here:

  • Taking the time to prayerfully discern God’s will in a way that you are not rushed or pressured. Above all, this means sufficient maturity, interior freedom from expectations, pressures, etc., and freedom from external pressures (such as financial, security, etc.)
  • Accompaniment by a spiritual director
  • A full understanding of what religious life entails
  • Dialogue (or discussion) with close family and friends
  • Discerning which community you are going to enter—which usually means visiting at least two other communities besides the one you plan to enter
  • Getting to know the community you are planning to enter well with (ideally) several live-in experiences of a weekend to a week—not just for you to get to know them, but for them to get to know you.
  • After making a decision, taking the time to evaluate it and continue to pray with it.

This can take six months…but it can also take two or three years. It requires an attentiveness not just to external events, but to the ways the Holy Spirit is working within the person discerning.

Since we are seeking God’s will in our discernment, if we truly discover it is God’s will that we enter sooner rather than waiting a year, then that is best.  But there are good reasons to wait for a year or even two:

  • To make sure our discernment isn’t rushed; to more fully understand and purify our own motivations so that our decision is fully free
  • To journey with our family and friends in our discernment when possible, so that they can be at peace and continue to support us on our journey
  • To be ready for the transition and challenges that we will face as we enter religious life
  • To discern well to which community we are called, and to get to know it well. (We are not called to “generic” religious life, but to a particular community. If we only visit one community, we may not realize whether the attraction is for religious life in general, or for that particular community.)
  • To grow in maturity to be ready to give a fuller gift of ourselves when we enter

Growing in maturity can include living certain life experiences. For example, if a young person has just turned 18 and has led a very sheltered life and never lived away from home nor had any experience in ministry, that might be a situation where gaining some life experience would enrich her discernment or clarify it (e.g. spend a year studying or working, being more involved in her parish or another form of ministry). This is not so that she experiences the “freedom” of doing her own thing, but so that her discernment is colored less by a decision to leave home for the first time and more about how God is calling her. But it depends on each young person’s circumstances. I entered the convent as a teenager with relatively little life experience and I have no regrets: I was eager to get started in my new life! But I know others whose time after entrance would have been easier if they had waited a year to enter. Every situation and every person is unique. And the requirements of each community are different as well. The important question is: How might God be inviting you through your circumstances?

We’re always seeking God’s will…and if we’re not sure of the course of action, it can be wiser not to rush in. But when we are discerning a big step such as entering religious life, we also want to make sure that we’re not using a good reason as an excuse to delay.

For your second question about which community to apply to, I think answering that question may influence the length of time you feel you need to discern. You could be called to the community which has taught you for years; but it’s also possible that you are simply drawn to their goodness and consecration, and you need to find the community to which God is calling you.

A lot of information is available online about different communities’ missions and spiritualities. (For those in the USA, www.vocationnetwork.org is a great resource for many communities! For those in Canada, www.vocations.ca is a great online resource.) You might want to spend some time browsing these sites and see where it leads you. Pick a few communities that attract you and research them. Email them with questions you have. Then, when you’ve narrowed your choices down, make arrangements to visit a couple of them—I’d recommend at least two; perhaps even three. Every religious community is made up of human beings—none of them are perfect!—so what you’re looking for is a community where you feel at home, living a lifestyle where you feel God is calling you to follow him more closely.

I hope this is helpful! You will be very much in my prayers as you continue your discernment!

Friday Q & A Discerning Religious Life: After You Enter the Convent

stairs-96937_1280My response to the second part of a question from a reader who is preparing to enter a religious community:

2. What does discernment look like once you’re in the convent? I’m sure it’s different for each community and individual but it’s just been interesting taking this ‘big step’ but also knowing that God could just be calling me to the convent for a time (though I do think He is calling me forever). Is it normal to assume that I’ll be there forever, or do you think there’s prudence in speaking of it as ‘the next step’ on a long journey?  I’ve just been curious about that…how does one look at the vocation once they’ve been accepted or once they’re in the order?

Discernment is a step-by-step journey and God works with us as individuals. Each of us gains more and more clarity through each stages of our vocational discernment and formation. While it is extremely helpful to do most of our discernment before we enter a religious community, the initial stages of formation are meant to be times of continued, deepening discernment—both for the individual and for the community. (The “initial” or beginning stages of formation, when we prepare to make perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, are: postulancy, novitiate, and, to some extent, the years of temporary profession. Each stage offers a confirmation of God’s will, through the growing desire of the person discerning, and through the continued acceptance of the person into the community—usually expressed through the superiors). Our novices, for example, always add the phrase “God willing” when they talk about making their vows, because they are still discerning God’s will for them, and they also trust in the community’s discernment.

In part, this time of discernment is needed because only now can the community truly get to to know the person who is discerning. Religious life requires a deep faith, an ability to grow spiritually, in self-awareness and maturity, a compatibility to live in harmony with others in close quarters, and an intense dedication to a specific mission. Religious life is really a completely different style of life that most people can’t experience until after they’ve entered, and thus a lived exerience is ordinarily required for a full discernment. For example, you don’t choose where you live, who you live with or what you do. This lived experience of sharing life with the community is really helpful in confirming one’s vocational discernment—both for the individual and for the community.

However, living in a spirit of discernment doesn’t mean that we enter a community casually, ready to leave at the first difficulty or struggle. That’s why the formation process and spiritual direction are essential: they help us understand the nature of the difficulties we face. All vocations have particular struggles and gifts; having a difficulty doesn’t mean that we are not called. (There will always be some aspects of religious life that will be hard for me to live fully! Just as married couples can never stop working at their marriage.) Those called to religious life are called to live a very radical faith that sees and obeys God’s will in very ordinary things, even such human things as a superior’s seemingly arbitrary decision. The call to live a radical poverty requires detachment and deep trust that the Lord will provide for us in every circumstance. Living the vow of chastity requires a human maturity that can cope with loneliness as well as open one’s heart to spiritual parenthood. Living in community means that we need flexibility, openness to to others, the ability to grow in self-knowledge, etc.

With the help of their formator, a postulant or novice will examine not just their individual struggles, but also their overall experience of religious life, noticing whether they are thriving and whether they are at peace even amid challenges.  As the individual discerning goes forward in the formation process, both the individual and the community become more and more sure of God’s will for the person. On my journey, I had moments of clarity and grace—even amid times of darkness—where God clearly invited me to go forward to the next step.

As I was going through the formation process, I didn’t assume that I would become a Daughter of Saint Paul, but I always greatly desired and hoped that God truly was calling me. And this great desire helped along the way—especially when I hit “bumps” on the road where I doubted or wondered if Pauline religious life was truly God’s call. My consistent, deep desire to be a Daughter of Saint Paul forever was key throughout my entire discernment.

This discernment process was not just helpful to me in discovering my vocation, but also to live that vocation more fully. One of the most wonderful things about my discernment journey is how it helped me prepare to say a much fuller “yes” to God’s call—not just when I made my vows—but also every day since.