Religious vocation—the call to follow Christ by observing His counsels as well as His commands—is a matter of public revelation. The human response to this divine invitation is a matter of public history. And yet an aura of mystery has beclouded this simple invitation in the popular mind to the point of complication and confusion for both the observer of and the participant in religious life—an established state in which one can achieve, more safely and securely, the common Christian goal of perfection in charity. (page 5)
... The mystery, and consequent confusion, which has been added to the essential notion of religious vocation is unnecessary and dangerous. (page 7)
We have to sympathize with the perplexed young soul, pondering an eternal future and seeking a safer route, who is vaguely instructed: “My dear friend, in your heart of hearts, ask yourself if God is not calling you.” The anxious reader of such advice is sent out on a scavenger hunt for a divine communication. His search is bound to be futile. He is not not sure, and neither am I, exactly what one’s “heart of hearts” is. He does not know where to look, or, for that matter, what to look for. What is this “call?” How do you get it? And how do you know when you have it? (page 8)
“Father, how can I tell whether or not I have a religious vocation; how can I be sure?” The question must go unanswered if the idea of vocation is hazy and indefinite in the mind of the director. Too often the question is treated with impressive circumlocution and the injunction to pray over the problem, as though the sincere inquirer had not considered such a fundamental Christian course and as though confirming his false expectation of a direct divine communication. Later the puzzled petitioner realizes he is back where he started, as mixed up over his problem as he was before. (page 13)
The older theologians never treated this problem precisely as it is proposed today. The insinuation of the moderns that one should subject himself to deep self-analysis (even the canned psychoanalysis of prepared tests today), and the prolonged deliberation over whether or not one has “the call,” represents a definite departure from the sound teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas that no one should delay, or even deliberate over, a simple resolve to enter religious life. In fact, he says, don’t seek advice except from those who will encourage you! (page 26)
It is important to see this position of the religious state as an integral part of the whole framework of the Christian life and pursuit of perfection. Religious vocation cannot be considered apart from the universal vocation to sanctification. And when it is considered, as it should be, as a dispositive and instrumental means to the unique end of perfection in charity, religious vocation will lose the hazy aura of “special-strange-something” which modern writers on the subject tend to give to it.
And in view of this assignment of religious vocation to its proper place in the direct line of salvation, which is the Christian vocation common to all, one will not be shocked (merely enlightened) by St. Thomas’ enthusiastic insistence on inviting, even urging, all to consider, even try, the benefits of religious life. “For the religious,” as one Thomist has succinctly put it, “makes a special vocation of the general vocation to sanctity... they are, so to speak, professional perfectionists.” (Fr. J. M. Egan, O.P., “The Religious Vocation Today,” Integrity, Oct., 1949, p. 31.)
Only in a broad sense, therefore, is there a special gift involved in religious vocation. But we cannot discern these interior graces sufficiently to ask aspirants to look for them—in their “heart of hearts” or elsewhere. Even a recognition of grace through its effects, says St. Thomas, is imperfect knowledge.... Nor should the objective appeal to accept the challenge and follow the evangelical counsels be addressed to a select few. As with Christ, the exhortation should be made to all on the basis of manifest sincerity.
Ordinarily the grace influencing the response to religious vocation is not uncommon, rare or extraordinary, but within the ordinary economy of salvation. Otherwise St. Thomas would not have been so enthusiastically insistent on encouraging all to enter the religious state... Nor does the Church, in her legislation and practice, seek any extraordinary supernatural gift in those who seek admission into the religious state. Only an unwitting, and untheological, counsellor would advise an aspirant to search within himself for some special sign. (Pages 81-82)
Much of the popular propaganda on the subject of religious vocation veers towards one or the other of two erroneous extremes. On the one hand there is the almost exclusive concern with the objective counsel, minimizing, at times even excluding, the necessary subjective disposition which must involve divine preordination and premotion. On the other hand, the attraction theory, which has been so thoroughly discredited, continues to exert an even more virulent influence on contemporary vocational discussion and expression. This dangerous emphasis on subjective, even perceptible inspiration perdures in vocational literature.
The Thomistic position stands in the middle way of truth, avoiding the opposite extremes of error. We hold to a general objective invitation to the religious state through revealed counsel, and, at the same time, to God’s free choice and necessary causality in influencing some to respond to this counsel. Father Maggiolo succinctly sums up the doctrinal position of St. Thomas: “Religious vocation is not an exceptional grace reserved to a privileged few but ... an invitation extended by Jesus Christ to all without distinction.” Counsel, objectively, is static and sterile of itself, and so the divine operation in the subject is required; for vocation “has efficacy only by an internal impulse of the Holy Ghost that causes to rise in the heart an appreciation of and desire for the religious life.”
... The right intention, most important of [the Church’s] requirements in an otherwise fit subject, involves the act of response which St. Thomas simply calls propositum religionis. This is an act of the rational will, following and deliberating upon true knowledge, and has no necessary connection with emotional response except by accidental natural redundance.
...As a positive conclusion, therefore, a complete descriptive definition, including all of these essential elements, can be proposed:
Religious vocation is a divine invitation, extended to all by Jesus Christ, to the practice of the evangelical counsels in the religious state, to which a capable subject, under the impetus of grace, responds through generous devotion. (pages 149-52)
The writer or speaker discussing religious life, therefore, should make his appeal general and objective. His approach should not be: “Is God calling you—look into your heart of hearts, etc.” Rather, the approach should be the Christlike challenge to all, appealing to personal courage and generosity to effect a response: “God is calling you, daring you to follow Him. Are you generous enough, etc.?” (page 154)
The director ordinarily cannot perceive the inscrutable movement of the Holy Ghost. He cannot discern grace other than by its effects... The director must, as best he can, judge the subject’s propositum religionis. He must discern a true intellectual consideration of the nature of the object of the aspirant’s resolve, and recognize a firm resolve of the rational will. (pages 160-61)