But how does Jesus Christ call men to the religious life? With what voice does He reach the ear? What signs does He give of His invitation and of His desires?
Some calls are indeed miraculous. Such, for example, is that of Saint Stanislaus receiving the Child Jesus in his arms, from the very hands of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and hearing the Queen of Heaven bidding him enter the Society of Jesus.
But facts and revelations like these are very rare indeed. Only a few are recorded in the lives of the greatest saints. God does not govern the world of souls by miracle, but by the very effectual and yet very ordinary action of the Holy Ghost.
This action of the Holy Ghost is not a mystic theory, more or less open to question; it is a genuine Catholic dogma. That the devil tempts us, no Christian can deny.
Shall not God also exert an influence upon us? Surely He does influence us; but: in a way diametrically opposed to that of Satan. And how does Satan proceed? Can he give us new ideas, or make us form new images without any preexisting element? I do not think so. He tempts us first by rousing in our imagination, through association of ideas, representations the outlines of which are already long since stored up in our memories. And this is precisely the reason why sensual passages in books, immoral spectacles, indecent pictures, are so very dangerous. They furnish the devil with weapons.
God, on the other hand, urges us to welldoing in a more exalted manner, not by acting on our imagination and through it on our passions, but on our intellect and our will. To do this He makes use of the truths of faith which we already possess; He lights them up, as it were, before the eyes of our soul, and He gives to the will a keener relish of them and a more ardent enthusiasm in their pursuit. Some truth of faith, for instance, the love that God bears us, which we well knew long since, becomes through the action of the Holy Ghost within our souls more luminous. Heretofore it had left us cold and unmoved; but now we are deeply touched by its consideration. By this stronger and more penetrating light, under the action of God's influence, we draw practical conclusions which we never thought of before, and we feel within ourselves at last courage to be logical. The Holy Ghost tells us nothing we did not know before; but He shows us what we know already under a light altogether new.
The often repeated incident in the life of Saint Francis of Assisi is well known. The saint on hearing read from the Gospel a passage relating to poverty, straightway resolved to despoil himself of all his goods. Many have read that same Gospel page without being thus moved. Only a special light of the Holy Ghost could impel a man to the perfect and immediate execution of such a purpose. Who is there among us that does not know the “Quid prodest”—the Scriptural words: “What doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul?”1 that made Francis Xavier a saint? Or who is ignorant of the question: “Quid hoc ad aeternitatem?”—“Of what use is this for eternity?”2 This became the guiding maxim of Saint Aloysius of Gonzaga. These words remain in our hearts almost without response, because the Holy Ghost is silent in them.
This truth, that admirable book, The Following of Christ, beautifully expresses when speaking of the prophets and the other authors of Holy Scripture: “They may indeed sound forth words, but they do not add to them the spirit. They speak well, but, if Thou be silent, they do not set the heart on fire. They proclaim the commandments, but Thou enablest us to fulfil them. They show the way, but Thou givest strength to walk in it. Their work is only external, but Thou instructest and enlightenest the heart. They water from out, but Thou givest the increase.”3
Those who by pious reading feed their souls with supernatural truths, and keep set hours of prayer and of recollection, know by experience this action of God's grace upon the soul; whilst many are unacquainted with it because their minds are so filled with worldly thoughts and earthly cares that the Holy Ghost, the Dove of the Ark, finds in their souls no place whereon to rest.
Vocation is nothing more than that light and that divine strength which we have just described, when directed entirely toward one special end—the religious life. Some day or other after hearing a sermon, after reading a pious book, or in the calm of prayer, in a moment of trial, or even after the enjoyment of some pleasure the emptiness of which God has caused a chosen soul to realize, the Holy Ghost will suggest to it a life in religion, and will urge that soul to embrace such a life from motives of faith.
One single lively movement of grace may be enough; but if that movement, even though weak, is felt for a considerable length of time, and frequently renewed, there is undoubtedly a vocation.
It is indeed a supernatural movement, and hence comes from God. Nature does not incline a youth to a life of renunciation, it rather entices him to pleasure. Nature does, indeed, attract certain high-minded souls to glorious, noble, brilliant deeds; but it does not inspire them with humility, with self-abandonment, with detachment from beloved objects and persons, nor with the sub-lection of self to a fixed rule of life. God alone, we repeat, by means of the truths of faith awakes such desires in the soul.
Worldlings must attribute such desires to folly, or else recognize in them the finger of God. Even Alfred de Musset wrote with exquisite irony of “That unconquerable instinct which prompts a child of ten to conceive and keep the resolution of putting on a woolen garb, of seeking out the poor and the suffering, and of thus spending her whole life, many an indifferentist, or philosopher, will die before any of them can find the explanation of such a fancy, but the fancy really exists.”4
What the philosophers do not explain, because they will not have recourse to the supernatural, Christians understand without difficulty: it is light divine, the call of the Savior—vocation. Moreover, vocation, like every inspiration of the Holy Ghost, must have the safeguard of some external control. It is indeed one of the laws of supernatural Providence that all the good, which God urges us to do, should be subject to those whom the Church by her divine authority has appointed to lead us along the way of salvation. A very intense interior life and the most firm external authority thus are found united in the bosom of the Church. The Holy Ghost prompts generous undertakings; the Church or her representatives examine and approve them, after having, in case of need, eliminated from them the errors, the exaggerations, and the illusions which through imagination or self-love may have crept into such undertakings. It is thus that at every period of Christianity have originated great works, pious enterprises, reforms, and foundations of religious orders. And in them one and all we may always observe a twofold element. The Holy Ghost suggests them by His interior action upon the soul, but He wishes them to be carried into effect under the guiding authority of His Church.
In the ordinary guidance of souls it is to their confessors the Church commits the charge of watching over the movements of grace. It is to the confessor, then, that he whom God calls ought to open his mind and from him seek advice. But in so serious and delicate a matter it is important that the choice of a director be made with the utmost care. Not all priests have the same degree of prudence and the knowledge of souls so necessary in such a matter. Even in religious orders the government of novices is not intrusted to any and every religious, but to men of solid virtue and of great discernment, not only because they have to form them to religious life, but especially because it rests with them to decide on last appeal, as it were, upon the genuineness of vocations.
An ideal director in the matter of vocation would be a priest guiding himself and others by the light of supernatural views alone, well instructed in the sacred sciences, and above all in the knowledge of God's ways, of great experience in the direction of souls, free from prejudice against the religious life, and, moreover, well acquainted with its difficulties alike and its helps—in a word, no one can know it better than he who leads that life himself.
The part of the confessor is to assist the action of grace without forestalling it, to dispel illusions, to banish false enthusiasm, as well as to remove prejudices, to light the way, to counsel prayer, the frequent reception of the sacraments, and the living of a life worthy of the graces received. But never should he put his own views in the place of God's; he does not make decisions: he approves of them; he does not give a vocation: he recognizes it and declares its existence.
Vocations manifest themselves under very different forms. God does not conduct all souls by the same path. To some He vouchsafes a light so strong that doubt is impossible. Young people have been seen almost to shed tears of anger at feeling themselves called. They did not want the religious life. It was repugnant to every tendency of their nature. But deep down in their inmost souls was heard a call so clear that there was no stifling it. Calls so decisive are indeed rare. They occur, for the most part, only in the case of very gifted and generous natures, which, as the result of a combination of ideas and tastes, and even at times in consequence of past faults, find themselves very far removed from religious life. Our Lord seems to desire them in spite of everything. He pursues them until they surrender to Him. These are in miniature, short of the miraculous, vocations after the manner of Saint Paul's. Our Lord could say to them as to His future apostle: “It is hard for thee to kick against the goad.”5
Such vocations do not admit of half measures. Souls of this stamp will answer to the call and will become holy. If they were to show themselves inflexible and refuse the graces offered them with so much insistence, they would rush quickly on to sad extremes, and their eternal salvation would thereby be in great peril.
In clear distinction from this urgent call, there is another resembling an invitation, the acceptance of which is not insisted upon but left entirely to the attention and choice of the soul invited. Our Lord suggests the vocation; He does not seem to wish to enjoin it upon the soul as a bounden duty. “If thou wilt,”6 He says. He gives the call, but He does not urge it. This kind of vocation is often found in the case of good souls who have already received very many graces. Such, indeed, is the story of the rich young man of the Gospel:7 “And behold one (a young man) came and said to him: Good master, what good shall I do that I may have life everlasting?' And Jesus said to him: 'Why callest thou me good? One is good, God. But if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.' And he said to him: Which (commandments)?' And Jesus said: Thou shalt do no murder; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not bear false witness; honor thy father and thy mother; and, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.' The young man, answering, saith to him: All these (commandments) have I kept from my youth, what is yet wanting to me?' And Jesus looking on him, loved him, and said to him: 'If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me.' And when the young man had heard this word, he went away sad: for he had great possessions.”
Every day this scene is renewed in the secrecy of some youthful heart. Take, for instance, a youth of excellent nature, of virtuous disposition; he has preserved his purity, thanks to the watchful care of a Christian home. Placed at a Catholic college, he has experienced scarcely any hardship. He is a prudent and model student and a frequent communicant. It would cost him little effort to follow a vocation, if one were given him. Our Lord, who loves virgin hearts, invites him gently: “If thou wilt.”8 The young man hesitates. He would have more light, a call more pronounced, more imperious. Jesus will give him nothing more. Is not this discretional invitation, which he may accept or reject as seems good to him, in itself an immense grace? Everything will depend upon his generosity. Many youths in like cases accept the call; they become excellent religious, who cheerfully bear the yoke of the Lord in joy and peace. Many, on the other hand, reject the proffered vocation and generally become very indifferent Christians, for the gift of God is not refused with impunity.
Between the vocations of mere invitation and vocations so urgent and pronounced as almost to border on the miraculous there are various degrees.
God is Master; He does as He pleases in His dealings with souls. The lights which he vouchsafes, the movements which He arouses, are very different, very varied in form and intensity; now they present themselves unawares, and strike home where they were least expected; again they work their way into the soul gently by an interior action of grace, scarcely perceptible, which little by little matures a vocation, as the sun ripens beautiful fruit. Some calls are clearly heard from the days of childhood, and take definite form at the first meeting between the soul and our Lord in holy communion. Other calls come later—at the completion, for instance, of one's studies, when it becomes necessary to fix upon a definite plan of life. There are vocations at the ninth and even at the eleventh hour. All these vocations, however, have this in common, namely, that they take expression in thoughts and truths of faith; it is characteristic of the Holy Ghost to act upon souls by means of supernatural motives. Consequently all these calls have the nature of reason; not of that purely human reason which does not rise above worldly interests, but of that exalted reason which constitutes Christian wisdom.
1St. Matt., XVI-26.
2Maxim of Saint Aloysius of Gonzaga.
3“Following of Christ,” Book III-2.
4“Pierre et Camille,” III.
6St. Matt., XIX-17.
7St. Matt., XIX. St. Mark, X-21. Conf. A. J. Maas, “Life of Christ,” page 360.
8St. Matt-, XIX-17.
In Thy Courts - Chapter 2 - The Call of Jesus Christ