Questions for those discerning a religious vocation

Fr. Philip Powell gives some good practical points, and questions that those discerning a religious vocation should ask themselves. These questions to ask when discerning a vocation may be found, together with comments on the Anti-Christ, and the difference between magic and prayer, at his blog Domine, da mihi hanc aquam!

Predestination and hope in St. Paul

I've recently had the occasion, in working with a student on predestination, to consider once again the role of predestination in St. Paul's letter to the Romans. It seems to some that the doctrine of predestination is at best useless, and at worst a dangerous doctrine, which tends to produce either presumption or despair. There are perhaps some grounds for that. When predestination is interpreted to mean that what one does is irrelevant to whether or not one is saved, or that God chooses out men for damnation, and makes them sin so that they will be damned. I give here an example of such an interpretation by a man named Darwin Fish. I don't give a link to the website because as a whole it's not particularly worth reading.

Although it is true that God loves both the wicked and the righteous (Matthew 5:43-45; John 3:16), it is also true that before the world was created, God chose to love only a few people and destine them to eternal life in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:13-14; Romans 9:6-23; Ephesians 1:4). He chose to hate the rest of mankind and destine them to hell for eternity (Matthew 7:13-14; Romans 9:6-23). This choice was not based on any action on the part of those whom God chose (Romans 9:11, 16, 18), but rather it was based on God's own good pleasure and purpose (Ephesians 1:4-5). It was not based on works (Romans 9:11, 20-23; Ephesians 1:5; Philippians 2:13; Psalm 115:3).

It is not surprising that this way of interpreting and describing predestination can lead to spiritual apathy or despair!

Predestination in St. Paul

But how does St. Paul see predestination? As the eternal plan of the loving God, the fundamental initiative in our salvation by God, who "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," Paul sees predestination as a cause for humility before the God who grants us all the good we have, even whatever good is in our own wills–"Do not become proud, but stand in awe" (Romans 11:20)–but also as a reason for confidence, gratitude, and spiritual activity.

God's gift does not remove human freedom, but calls for human cooperation

To emphasize that God's good will and grace precedes everything good we do, St. Paul says "by grace you have been saved through faith; this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:8), but to show the connection between God's initiative and man's cooperation, he says: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil 2:13) The fact that God is at work even in our very wills is no reason for apathy, but rather a reason to earnestly cooperate with him. Since God "wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:4), his chief work in the human spirit is "faith working through love" (Gal 5:6); one who would refuse or neglect to "work out his salvation" would thus be closing himself to God's movement. The more God works in us, the more (not less) necessary is our own willing and working.

Predestination brings confidence and trust

St. Paul does not only see the priority of God's work over ours as an incentive to cooperate with God, he also sees it as a cause of confidence. Because God loves us far more than we love ourselves (Cf. Rom 5:6-10), and his wisdom infinitely surpasses ours (Cf. Rom 11:33-34), St. Paul's teaching that it is always God who has the initiative in salvation is intended to, and ought to inspire a great confidence in God. Having recalled the working out of God's foreknowledge and predestination in calling, justifying, and glorifying, Paul goes on to say: "If God is for us, who is against us?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Rom 8:31, 35, 37). If we had to rely upon ourselves, we would surely be in a sorry state. But we have an infinitely more sure foundation on which to rely, God himself. From God's side, his love and grace will never fail; he will never fail nor forsake us (Cf. Heb 13:5), and will never permit us to be tempted beyond our strength (1 Cor 10:13). The only thing that can separate us from Christ is our own refusal to accept and bring his love into our lives; only "if we deny him, he also will deny us" (2 Tim 2:12)

It is true, as St. Peter says, that in the writings of St. Paul "There are some things hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16). But when we rightly understand the doctrine of predestination, it is a source of humility, simplicity, trust, and gratitude towards God.

Naturally this post is not intended to explain all aspects of predestination, but only to point out some of the spiritual benefits the doctrine is meant to bring.

Consequences of failing to follow a vocation

Is not following a vocation a sin? If someone does not follow his vocation, is it more or less impossible for him to live a holy life? Sometime ago I received such questions by e-mail, and now post them here (in edited form), with responses, with the hope that they will be helpful to others.

Are the harsh conclusions [drawn by St. Alphonsus de Liguori and Hans Urs Von Balthasar] that we risk even our salvation if we do not respond to a vocation (which seems to imply that it is a sin to say no to a vocation) is really a consequence of taking the personal approach to vocation? Don't these conclusions rather overlook a distinction that should be made within the personal approach? Don't they somehow present a unilateral idea of God's will or God's call? Even with God, there is a difference between His commanding something and offering something, between an invitation and a law. This is a rudimentary distinction and obviously these authors knew this: perhaps rejecting even an invitation from God, whose knowledge and will are perfect, must somehow come from a preference for something other than His will. But then what is the difference between a commandment and an invitation? There is clearly a difference in kind? One must be done and the other may be done. What does "may" really mean if rejecting it is saying no to God's will or loving something else in place of God's will? How can anything that comes from God really be an invitation?

Those conclusions don't really follow from the "personal approach" to vocation, but follow from misunderstandings that are often associated with the personal approach. But indeed, the mistake is not as simple as overlooking the distinction between a command and a invitation. (St. Ignatius is the only one I've seen who suggests that the words, "he who can take it, let him take it," may be a precept, rather than an invitation. This is possibly just an inexactness of language–something he said on the basis of a kind of intuition regarding the matter, but because he was not a learned theologian, articulated without the most precise terms.)

The severe conclusions seem to follow from a twofold narrow view of God: first, thinking of God as though his plan's for man were made independently of men's choices, and so are "ruined" by them; secondly, thinking of God as a human lover, who is really moved by disappointment or anger, and acts on this basis.

Both Alphonsus and Von Balthasar suggest strongly that it is often a mortal sin to knowingly reject a vocation. But even supposing this to be true, it would not follow that such a rejection would have the severe consequences they speak of–God could forgive this sin just as he forgives other sins, if one repents. Actually, for Alphonsus it seems to be rather the other way around: it is not so perilous because it is a sin, but it is a sin because it is so perilous for our salvation.

The difference between a commandment and an invitation is that a commandment is something imposed as necessary in order to be in loving union with the one commanding, an invitation is something presented as a way to be better united with the one inviting, but not necessary for such union. And therefore disobeying the commandment implies that one values something else more than one values union with God, and is a mortal sin, while rejecting the invitation implies only that one values something other than God without entirely referring its value to God. In itself, this is only a venial sin, or even only an imperfection.

The positions of Alphonsus de Liguori and Von Balthasar are presented in the book Paths of Love: The Discernment of Vocation According to Aquinas, Ignatius, and Pope John Paul II. You can also read more texts of Alphonsus on vocation and Von Balthasar on Vocation.

See also the post on Commandments and Counsels.

My Vocation is Love!

"O Jesus, my Love, finally I have found my vocation: my vocation is Love!… Yes, I have found my place in the Church, and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place… in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love!…. Thus I shall be all things: thus my dream shall be realized!!!"

Has St. Thérèse just found the vocation common to all men and women–the vocation to love–or has she found her own unique vocation? Or both? I propose that it is both: her special vocation is to devote herself entirely to that which is the common vocation of us all–to live love. I've posted her words in context, with further reflection on the common and special vocation to love.

Single vocation?

Someone was asking recently whether it is true that there are only two vocations–marriage and religious life–and that being single isn't really a vocation.

Actually, when you get down to it, there is only one vocation: the vocation to love. In Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul says:

11. God created man in His own image and likeness(20): calling him to existence through love, He called him at the same time for love.God is love(21) and in Himself He lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in His own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion.(22) Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.

The last sentence is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2392.

Now, what are the basic ways we fulfill that vocation? Love has to be self-giving, and if it is to be complete, it has to involve the whole person, body and soul. So our sexuality has to be included in the way we live out our vocation to love. Moreover, self-giving is most complete when we give not only the present moment, but also our future lives, so far as we can–the love should include commitment.

For these reasons, the normal ways of fulfilling the vocation to love are (1) marriage, and (2) dedicated virginity or celibacy–a committed single state.

Pope John Paul II continues in Familiaris Consortio:

Christian revelation recognizes two specific ways of realizing the vocation of the human person in its entirety, to love: marriage and virginity or celibacy. Either one is, in its own proper form, an actuation of the most profound truth of man, of his being "created in the image of God."

I say these are the normal ways, because there might be circumstances that would exclude a full dedication to either way of life: if men or women are unable to marry, yet their spiritual director and confessor urge them not to promise virginity or celibacy. I would think it rare that such advice would be right for a person's whole life, but can't be excluded. God permits some to have bodily sicknesses so severe that they can't live a normal life, and similarly God permits some to have psychological sicknesses of a nature that they can't fulfill their vocation to love in the normal way–it is to be fulfilled in acceptance of their sickness, and in doing what they can to live according to love and grow in it.

So, it is right that as a rule you can't choose as a vocation an uncommitted single life (though in some cases one might have to accept it, at least for a long time). But you can choose a committed single life, by vows or some other promises dedicating one's single state to the service of God, one's neighbors and the Church. Such a life committed to celibacy or virginity for the sake of the kingdom is possible, however, outside a religious community, and therefore it's not entirely correct to present the two alternatives as "marriage" and "religious life." Pope Pius XII writes in his encyclical on consecrated virginity:

While this perfect chastity is the subject of one of the three vows which constitute the religious state, and is also required by the Latin Church of clerics in major orders and demanded from members of Secular Institutes (Cf. apostolic constitution Provida Mater, art. III, section 2), it also flourishes among many who are lay people in the full sense: men and women who are not constituted in a public state of perfection and yet by private promise or vow completely abstain from marriage and sexual pleasures, in order to serve their neighbor more freely and to be united with God more easily and more closely. (Sacra Virginitas, n. 6)

There is of course a connection among all the counsels, and it is quite natural (even to some extent necessary) that a person who commits himself to virginity or celibacy for the sake of love will give himself over to the spirit of the other evangelical counsels, poverty and obedience. Quite possibly he will also embrace the actual practice of these counsels. But this actual practice of the counsels could happen at a later stage, and does not hinder the state devoted "to the Lord" (1 Cor 7:35) in committed virginity or celibacy from being a vocation.

Sometimes the vocation to a single life dedicated to service is discovered only through the fact that marriage is not impossible. In my book Paths of Love: The Discernment of Vocation, I explain it this way:

A second way in which a way of life may be found by divine providence is when providence determines the way of life. Thus, if one believed that one was called to religious life, but due to an incurable case of severe depression, one was unable to enter religious life, then one should accept this as God's will, and turn one's attention to other ways of life. Or again, someone might believe that he should marry, but find himself unable to do so. In such a case, he could then accept the situation as appointed by divine providence, and embrace the single state as a means of serving God and neighbor. Thus Pope Pius XII, speaking of the various ways in which a vocation to virginity may be experienced, includes the example of a woman who wants to marry, but is unable to do so.

When one thinks upon the maidens and the women who voluntarily renounce marriage in order to consecrate themselves to a higher life of contemplation, of sacrifice, and of charity, a luminous word comes immediately to the lips: vocation!… This vocation, this call of love, makes itself felt in very diverse manners… But also the young Christian woman, remaining unmarried in spite of herself, who nevertheless trusts in the providence of the heavenly Father, recognizes in the vicissitudes of life the voice of the Master: "Magister adest et vocat te" (John 11:28); It is the master, and he is calling you! She responds, she renounces the beloved dream of her adolescence and her youth: to have a faithful companion in life, to form a family! And in the impossibility of marriage she recognizes her vocation; then, with a broken but submissive heart, she also gives her whole self to more noble and diverse good works.

The Catechism does not directly speak about this, but it touches implicitly on it, when it speaks about those single persons who are without a family by circumstances beyond their control, and who serve God and neighbor in an examplary fashion.

1658 We must also remember the great number of single persons who, because of the particular circumstances in which they have to live – often not of their choosing – are especially close to Jesus' heart and therefore deserve the special affection and active solicitude of the Church, especially of pastors. Many remain without a human family often due to conditions of poverty. Some live their situation in the spirit of the Beatitudes, serving God and neighbor in exemplary fashion. The doors of homes, the "domestic churches," and of the great family which is the Church must be open to all of them. "No one is without a family in this world: the Church is a home and family for everyone, especially those who 'labor and are heavy laden.'"

More articles on the single vocation