What is a Vocation?

Discerning a Religious Vocation

Fr. Joseph Bolin

What is a vocation?
Vocation is a free choice
Vocation is an invitation to devote oneself wholeheartedly to love of God and neighbor
The Value of Religious Vocation

The Call of the Lord

He was a man who had everything going for him. He was still young, came from a good family, and had been given abundantly of the wealth of this world. But his heart was restless, and impelled him to search for something more, something that would truly satisfy and that could never be lost. He came to the Lord seeking the way to attain his goal. “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" It is a question that arises in many young hearts that dream of a happiness unclouded by the possibility of losing it.

“If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” Hearing this response, the young man is still not satisfied. Though he can honestly reply that he has kept them from his childhood, he feels the need for something more. “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?" Jesus looks upon him with love, and answers, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

At this, there is a pause; a struggle arises in the young man between his desire for a better way and his attachment to his “great possessions.” Can he really go so far as to sell all that he has and give everything away? Finally the love of this world’s goods wins out, and he goes away sadly. He is given a vocation – and rejects it.

Through the centuries, Jesus has continued to speak to many a young man and woman, “One thing is lacking to you… come, follow me.” Some, responding joyfully to the call, have followed immediately. Others have refused to listen, or turned away as that young man did. But many others have stood wondering, unable to believe such a call could really be for them, until the opportunity had passed; Jesus had gone by and they were left beyond. This book is written for these young people, in hopes that they may recognize the divine call offered them, and for all who may instruct or guide them. All too often God’s call goes unheard or is misunderstood simply because there is no one to explain to young people what it means.

What is a vocation

“Do I have a vocation to religious life?” Many people ask themselves this question, but have no clear idea of what a vocation is, or how to determine whether they have one. If they seek advice, they may be told that a vocation is a very personal thing; that God will make it clear to them, and leave no room for doubt as to what their vocation is; they will just know when they have found it. They may be told to pray, and to listen quietly in order to hear what God’s will is for them. Just what a vocation is, and how to know if one has it, remains very mysterious. Nevertheless this question often causes them a great deal of worry, and even fear.

These people are not alone in their search. Almost everyone at some point in his life asks the question: what should I do with my life? Christians often put it in the form: what does God want me to do with my life? What is my vocation? However, for the most part these questions cause more anxiety for those who want to enter religious life than for those who want to marry. Is God really calling me to this life? How can I be sure?

This should not surprise us if we consider some of the common opinions about religious vocations. Many people think a vocation means God coming to someone and telling him what to do. They may not put it in so many words, but that is what it comes to. For example, someone may expect to receive a sign that is evidently from God, and clearly shows him what to do. This is basically the same as expecting a voice from heaven to speak to him. God can do such things, of course, but it is unusual. “Sometimes a vocation is an obvious call from God, as in the case of Abraham... God speaks directly to him... Usually, however, the Lord must wait for the person's response.”[1] For the most part, God does not give such evident signs.

So what usually ends up happening when someone expects such a sign? In the end, he has to make a decision without the sign he was looking for. And since few people enter religious life, it would seem that a sign is more necessary in order to enter religious life than in order to do something else, such as to marry. Thus someone who wants to enter religious life, but thinks that he should receive a sign from God first, will be stuck. He may wait for quite a while, hoping for such a sign. But in the end he will usually assume that he should follow the ordinary Christian path of marriage. If he doesn’t meet anyone with whom he falls in love, he may simply continue a single life in the world, without directly choosing that way of life as a specific way of serving God.

Not everyone thinks about God’s speaking or giving signs in such a superficial way. Some say that God speaks through the circumstances of one’s own life, and that one should look there to discern God’s will. In a way that is right, but on its own it does little good. It is difficult to determine what God is saying through the ordinary circumstances and events in our lives, and trying to do so can lead to serious mistakes. For example, if someone were to schedule a visit to a seminary or religious house, and then be unable to make it due to circumstances beyond his control, he might take that as a sign that he is not called at all. But the event might not really be a sign of that. It might rather be that God wants to test his perseverance. In general, coincidences and other unlikely events that seem to point us in a particular direction are not necessarily signs from God to go in that direction. It may be that God wants us to “go against the flow,” to follow a certain vocation in spite of all sorts of obstacles and contrary factors.

Another mistake people sometimes make is trying to force God to give them a sign, by taking one of two necessary outcomes as a sign one way or the other. For example, someone may resolve, “if I get a response with information within a week, it is a positive sign, otherwise it is a negative one.”

The general problem that arises when looking for a sign from God is that we expect such a sign to be quite certain. Many people say that when one has found his vocation, he will be completely sure, and no doubt will remain in his mind. This is not always a realistic expectation, as can be seen by reflecting on other major decisions in life. Should I accept this job offer? Should we move to another state? These are prudential decisions. Unlike mathematical questions such as, what is five plus six, or physical questions such as, how much oxygen does it take to burn so much carbon, they do not admit of complete certainty. We cannot always be absolutely sure that we are doing the right thing rather than the wrong thing, and much less can we be sure that we are doing the best thing rather than second best. We should do what is most reasonable, and not expect anything like scientific certitude. Sometimes young people, seeking that kind of certitude, will look at one religious group after another, unable to settle on one. It is certainly praiseworthy of them to desire to join the group where they can best serve God and the Church; however, it is not possible to have absolute certainty about such matters. We must accept this uncertainty as part of our human condition.

Another way people look to find their vocation is in feelings. Sometimes this is linked to the idea that attraction to some way of life is a sign from God that one should choose it. But whether or not it is connected with the idea of a sign, many people do think that God calls people by their feelings, that someone should choose the way of life to which he feels most attracted, rather than the one he determines to be best for him. Sometimes, if they are not attracted to religious life, they will never seriously consider it. Other times, they may consider it, and may even want to enter, but not do so because they do not have this attraction. Or they may be unable to decide whether they have this attraction; and spend long periods looking with themselves to discern just where their attractions lie. Their search is not focused outwards, on how they can best serve God and the Church, but on their own selves. This way can also have difficulty in the decision. What if I have only a slight attraction? Or if I am attracted at times, but not all the time? The theory of attraction takes away some of the vagueness from vocation, yet still leaves it something quite mysterious. But in reality, it is not necessary to have an attraction to religious life. In fact, in many ways it is better to enter religious life only because it is more perfect, and not to have an attraction to it. St. Thérèse of Lisieux tells her sister Céline how glad she is that Céline feels no attraction to the Carmel, because that is really a mark of God’s favor. St. Teresa of Avila also speaks of the happiness God gives to such people.

Though I could not incline my will to being a nun, I saw that this was the best and safest state, and so, little by little, I determined to force myself to embrace it....

When I took the habit, the Lord at once showed me how great are his favors to those who use force with themselves in His service.[2]

Still others think that only extraordinarily virtuous and holy people are called to religious life, only they are able to live it. Few people, of course, would presume that they are extraordinarily virtuous and holy, and thus this is an obstacle to choosing religious life, or deciding they have a vocation to it. Sometimes it will make someone immediately choose against religious life; other times it will make him wait, “until good enough.” Now, it is true that religious life is a difficult way, and a way of perfection. However, while it is difficult, we look to God for the strength we need. And being a way of perfection does not mean that those who enter it must be perfect, but that it is aimed at acquiring perfection; it is a “special path to holiness”[3].

In connection with this or with the attraction theory, some people think that a true vocation must exclude attraction to persons of the opposite sex, e.g., “I fell in love with Joseph… Clearly, a vocation that could not withstand the temptation of Joseph was not very strong… There has not been one day since the day I knew I was in love with Joseph when I thought it possible that I would become a nun.” The mere fact of being attracted to a boy is taken as a sign that she had no vocation.

Any anxiety or worry thus arising from difficulty in deciding on a vocation is not allayed by some of the teachings about the choice of vocation: on the one hand, that each person has one definite vocation, and whether he follows it practically determines whether he will be saved. E.g., “As with a watch, when the master wheel is broken, the whole watch ceases to function, so in the order of our salvation, when the choice of a state of life is mistaken, the entire life is mistaken.” “Each boy and girl has his own particular ‘vocation’ to fulfill in life.” “Once a person errs in his vocation, everything in his life is in error, everything goes badly.” And then on the other hand, that one must not delay following a vocation. “One cannot dally with a vocation… It is offered, and can be withdrawn even at the first delay, with grave consequences for us, and causing great displeasure to our Lord.”

The Traditional Understanding

These are some of the current ideas about vocations. The traditional ideas were quite different. In past times, someone who wanted to enter religious life might have been given advice like this: if you are determined to do the most that you can to serve God, and you don’t have serious obstacles such as poor health or obligations towards others, then you can go ahead and enter religious life. The question of a vocation to religious life might not even be brought up. If it were brought up, it would only be in order to give a reason why someone in the aforesaid situation should enter religious life. It was understood that when one sincerely intends to serve God in the religious life, and has no prohibitive impediments, it is a sufficient sign of his vocation, and he need not fear being deceived about it. Long deliberation before entering religious life, or a sensible attraction to the life, are unnecessary.

These principles can be seen in the following text of St. Alphonsus.

How singular a thing it is, when there is question of entering religion (i.e., religious life) to lead a life more perfect and more free from the dangers of the world, the men of the world say that it is necessary to deliberate a long time before putting such resolutions in execution, in order to ascertain whether the vocation comes from God or from the devil.…

The saints, however, do not talk thus. St. Thomas says that if the vocation to religion should even come from the devil, we should nevertheless follow it, as a good counsel, though coming from an enemy. [One who enters religious life with a sincere motivation cannot be deceived.] St. John Chrysostom, as quoted by the same St. Thomas, says that God, when he gives such vocations, wills that we should not defer even a moment to follow them. Christ requires from us such an obedience that we should not delay an instant… [It is not necessary to deliberate for a long time.]

Let us also hear what St. Francis de Sales writes in his works on religious vocation, because the whole of it will go to confirm what has already been said, and what will be said hereafter: “To have a sign of a true vocation, it is not necessary that our constancy be sensible, it suffices if it be in the superior part of our soul. And therefore we must not judge that a vocation is not a true one, if the individual thus called, before putting it in execution, does not feel any longer those sensible movements which he felt in the beginning. [It is not necessary to have a sensible attraction to religious life.] Even should he feel a repugnance and coldness, which sometimes bring him to waver, and make it appear to him that all is lost. It is enough that the will remains constant in not abandoning the divine call, and also that there remains some affection[4] for this call. To know whether God will have one become a religious, one ought not to expect that God himself should speak or send to one an angel from heaven to signify his will. And as little necessary is it that ten or twelve Doctors should examine whether the vocation is to be followed or not. But it is necessary to correspond with the first movement of the inspiration, and to cultivate it, and then not to grow weary if disgust or coldness should come on; for if one acts thus, God will not fail to make all succeed in his glory. Nor ought we to care much from what quarter the first movement comes. The Lord has many means to call his servants. Sometimes he makes use of a sermon, at other times of the reading of good books. Some, as St. Anthony and St. Francis, have been called by hearing the words of the Gospel; others by means of afflictions and troubles that came upon them in the world, and which suggested to them the motive for leaving it. These persons, although they come to God only because they are disgusted with the world or out of favor with it, nevertheless, failing not to give themselves to him with their whole will, [The first principle again: the essential thing is to try to serve God in that way of life.] become sometimes greater saints than those who entered religion with a more apparent vocation…”[5]

This was written centuries ago, but the problem St. Alphonsus was addressing still exists today. In fact, it is now even worse. In our times it is not just the “men of the world” who say that it is necessary to deliberate for a long time before entering religious life, but even many orthodox and devout Catholics, both lay and religious, take this position.

The view presented in this passage concerning the choice of religious life is quite opposed to our modern[6] view. It would now be considered rash to choose to enter religious life without having thought about it for a long time. But if St. Alphonsus and the other saints were right about these things, then the modern view is wrong, and there is no need for those who desire religious life to have much anxiety about choosing it.

The basis for the traditional understanding

The traditional understanding of a vocation is quite simple. It is based upon just three premises. First, the choice to enter religious life is essentially a normal choice, which is made according to the mind’s judgment of the good. It is fundamentally the same kind of choice as the choice of which college to attend, or which job to take, although it is usually a more important choice. Second, religious life is in itself the better way of life. Thus if there is no reason why something else would be better in a particular case, and religious life is a possibility, it is the better choice. Third, since the strength is to be looked for from God, the presumption is, if a normal person has no obstacles to religious life, he is suitable for it.[7] The conclusion from these three principles is that if someone is firmly resolved to embrace religious life and all the difficulties it entails, and has no insuperable obstacles to doing so, he has a vocation to religious life.

The invitation of Christ is addressed to each and all who can follow the call. No one is excepted. To all it is said: “He who can take it let him take it,” that is, I force no one, I invite everyone… These words are suited to all men: “If you wish to be perfect, go sell what you have and give to the poor.” If one proposes to enter religious life with the determination to renounce the world and to maintain both interiorly and exteriorly all that religious life demands and prescribes, it may not be doubted that such vocation is from God.[8]

Since our aim is to present the clearest possible understanding of vocation, we will turn to an argument for this position regarding entrance into religious life by the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, who among the Doctors possesses the greatest depth and clarity of thought.[9]

St. Thomas in the Summa Theologiae, at the very end of the treatise on man, considers the question whether it is praiseworthy for someone to enter religious life without long deliberation, and having taken counsel from many people.[10] He answers ‘yes’, with the following argument. Long deliberation is required for great and doubtful things, but not for things which are certain and determined. Now entering religious life can be considered either in itself, or in relation to an individual’s ability. Since Christ counseled entrance into religious life, it is certain that considered in itself it is better. And since those who enter religious life look for the ability to live it not from themselves, but from God, there is also no reason in general for doubt concerning one’s ability to live that life. If someone has specific obstacles such as bodily weakness, great debts, or similar things, then deliberation is required, and counsel from people who can be expected to help and not to hinder him. St. Thomas notes that even in this case long deliberation is not necessary. He adds that counsel may also be taken as to the manner of entering, and which religious order one should enter.

The two premises used in this argument are that religious life considered in itself is the better thing, and that there is no reason to doubt that one who enters it will be able to live it. These two are the same as the second and third principles we gave above.

The first principle is not stated explicitly, but is implicit in the way he argues. St. Thomas does not base this argument upon God’s will or the vocation, or call, by which God calls someone to religious life. He does not argue that a man does not need to deliberate for a long time before entering religious life because long deliberation is not needed in order to know that it is God’s will for him to enter religious life. Rather, he argues that long deliberation is not needed before entering religious life because long deliberation is not needed in order to determine that it is better to enter.

This approach to the question, going from what is good to what we should do, is quite different from the approach many would take. Many would say that we must begin by asking what God’s will is, and that no matter how good entering religious life is, one should not enter unless God wills one to do so. For example, it is said that, “unlike a career, a vocation is a result of the divine initiative. God invites one to a state of life. It is not simply a matter of looking about and ‘choosing what I would like to do in life.’ ”[11]

In the next section we will look at these two approaches to the question of choosing a state of life, and show that St. Thomas’ way is the way we should ordinarily follow.

[1]   Pope John Paul II, Homily of June 8, 1992

[2]   Autobiography of St. Theresa of Avila, ch. 3-4.

[3]   Pope John Paul II, Vita Consecrata (The Consecrated Life)

[4]   This might seem to be contrary to what he just said, namely that the individual need not continue to feel sensible movements. But given the context in which he is writing, it is likely that the point is rather that one should not be entering religious life simply because he thinks it is his vocation. The idea is that God does not force a vocation on us against our will.

[5]   Counsels Concerning a Religious Vocation, St. Alphonsus de Liguori, in The Great Means of Salvation and of Perfection, Redemptorist Fathers, 1927, pp. 381-384

[6]   In one sense it is not modern, since it has been around for a very long time. In the passage just quoted St. Alphonsus refers to “the men of the world”, who hold this opinion. However, it is only in modern times that it has become a nearly universal opinion.

[7]   This third premise is not as universal as the first two, but is generally valid. Because it is not as universally true, it has not been quite as widely held, and has never been directly taught by the Church. In particular, to the extent that fewer people are “normal”, it is less applicable.

[8]   Lessius, de Statu vitae deligendo, n. 28.

[9]   Not only is St. Thomas the greatest of theologians, but we are even explicitly directed to him in regard to the subject matter at hand. “St. Thomas is not less eminent by reason of his ascetical and mystical teaching…. Extension of the precept of divine love, laws of the development of charity and of the gifts of the Holy Spirit which accompany it, the different states of life--the perfect life, the religious life, the apostolic life--the distinctive notes of these states, their nature and their value... fully to possess these questions and others like them in ascetical and mystical theology, it will be necessary to have recourse first of all to the Angelic doctor.” Encyclical Studiorum ducem, June 29, 1923, in The States of Perfection, pp. 239-240.

[10]   II-II 189-10. See the complete article.

[11]   Come and Follow me.

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