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.

TheLettersPoster

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.