How to Know You Have a Vocation To The Religious Life

Martin Pable, OFM Cap.

I was asked to share with you some thoughts on how a person knows he has a vocation to the religious life. It is difficult to pin that down because a vocation is first of all a mystery. God does not just jump out of the sky and tap us on the shoulder or knock us off a horse the way He did some people in the Bible. Ordinarily, God uses very ordinary instrumental means to let us know that He is calling us. This is always a mysterious thing. It is always very personal to each one of us. I can't give you any absolute rules for this. I guess in one sense, that's a wonderful thing - - that God respects our individuality and treats us all as persons. He respects our freedom and He wants us to use our heads in trying to discern our vocation. Remember that famous line in "A Man for All Seasons," where Thomas More says something like, "God made the animals to serve Him by instinct blindly, but He made man to serve Him wittingly, that is, to use his wits." We have to use our wits to try to discern what God is asking of us.

In the history of the Church you will consistently find spiritual writers and theologians saying that there are certain natural signs that God uses by which He inclines us and draws us toward a vocation. The Church has always looked for these signs. If a person has those signs to some degree, then there is a good chance he is being called. You never know for sure...but all the way along the line you will be asking yourself if there are present, several discernible signs by which you can judge whether or not you are called.

Three Basic Signs of a Vocation

There are THREE basic signs and they are really very simple. The three signs are (1) a desire for the life, (2) the right motivation for the life, and (3) fitness for the life. Let us take each one separately.

THE FIRST SIGN I look for in myself or in anyone else looking for a vocation is "Do I have a desire for the life?" Am I inclined, am I drawn toward it? Does it give me a certain amount of satisfaction to think about it...a certain amount of enthusiasm or joy or some kind of positive feeling? I want to stress that, because God does not want to draw us to a vocation against our will; it is something that is extremely important. I have talked to people who said "I want to be a priest, or brother, or sister, not because I want to go but because I think I should, because I think God wants me to." If I don't go, I'll be punished in some way or I will be miserably unhappy -- something like that." God does not operate that way. He draws us according to our natural inclinations and if we are inclined to a religious life, that is a good sign. If we are repulsed by it and are thinking about it only because we have to, I call that a "monkey-on-your-back-vocation" and you carry it around like some kind of heavy load -- that somehow God is zapping you and you "gotta go or else." God doesn't zap people that way. The one thing God wants us to be is free. He wants attraction ... and it is one indication that a person is called. But that is not enough, because a lot of people have an attraction to religious life --so that other two signs are also important.

THE SECOND SIGN is "I want the life for the right reasons." This is a question of motivation. What motivation is behind my interest and attraction? Here the Church looks for some positive spiritual reasons. For example, "I want the religious life because I want to serve God in a very direct way or I want to further the love and knowledge of God or I want to extend the Kingdom of God or I want to live the Gospel life as fully as possible or I want to work for the betterment of the world or I want to share a common vision of faith and spirituality with other like minded people and somehow further the project of God's designs." Any or all of these spiritual religious reasons are adequate motivations. That is what we look for -- something based on faith, not just some kind of natural desire, but something based on faith -- that is, a spiritual motive -- not because I see this as a very groovy outfit which I want to join -- like joining the K of Cs -- or because they are a neat bunch of guys and I'd like to be a part of them. That is not yet a faith vision. Something has to touch us at the level of the Gospel -- that we want in some way to profess a life based upon a core of very solid Christian religious principles.

A number of inadequate reasons can creep in here. For example:

1) A person sees religious life as some kind of security blanket. Religious life does have some security: you know where your meals are coming from, you have a bed, a certain kind of life insurance, social security in your old age, a place to live, a roof over your head, lots of things that people in the world have to grub for. If a person has lots of doubts about whether he can hack it in the world and therefore he thinks the monastery is the place to go, chances are he is not called. That is not an adequate reason for applying. As life gets more complicated and more demands are made upon us in the world out there, some persons may be drawn to religious life for that reason, but security is not an adequate motivation.

2) Another inadequate reason is loneliness. A person has a very difficult time making friends and he feels very alone most of the time. He might see religious life as an instant friendship establishment, where all he has to do is walk in and he has a whole bunch of instant friends and that protects him from all the hard knocks of being a lonely person in the world. Again, that is not a faith or spiritual reason; a very understandable reason, but not enough.

3) Or say a guy has had some unhappy love affairs or difficulties with girls and he figures women are no damn good and so the best thing to do is get away from them and flee to the monastery. "If I can't be happy, at least I'll save my soul." So if a guy is afraid that he can't hack it with the opposite sex, he might be inclined to look to the monastery for salvation or protection or something. Again, that would be an inadequate reason.

4) Another inadequate reason: instant status symbol. It's kind of neat if you were a religious with built in status of recognition. Think of all the gratification you get for being a priest. You stand up there and say "The Lord be with you," and the whole Church has to say "And also with you." Look at all that power-experience! You can control the whole group out there just by your presence. So if you are an ego-tripper, that's a neat way to do it. To be the center of attention at the altar is really kind of satisfying. If that's what motivates a person, the Church will blow the whistle and say that's not enough. Instant status-seeking or instant ego-tripping or controlling people is not an adequate motivation for the religious life.

Mixed Motivation

It should be obvious that we can have some of these reasons somewhere in the back of our minds. None of us have pure spiritual motives for most things we do. There is always a mixture of this kind and inadequacy in our lives and that' s O.K. There may also be a mixture of motivations in one's desire for religious life too, but the primary driving force ought to be something deeper. It's not always easy to discern our motives and that's why it is important to have a spiritual director who can help us sort out things.

THE THIRD SIGN IS FITNESS -- the ability to live religious life, to live it comfortably, cheerfully, generously, without going to pieces or without a constant drain on your inner resources or without a whole lot of tensions. Somehow the life must suit you and you must suit the life. Somehow there must be a meshing of your interests, ability and competency with those of religious life. Lots of good people have tried the life but found they just didn't fit. Some people are just not cut out for it anymore than some people can't teach or be airline pilots or engineers or whatever. God does not do violence to the person and He respects the individual gifts each person has.

Likewise, there are lots of people fit for religious life but who don't want it - they are not attracted to it. A lot of your married friends or your brothers and sisters could live religious life but they are not drawn to it. The fitness is there but the desire isn't. All three requirements have to be there at the same time: ATTRACTION, MOTIVATION and FITNESS.