In the divine call one motive often predominates, but seldom stands alone. Moreover, in describing some of the supernatural reasons which, under the action of divine grace, constitute a vocation to religious life, it is far from my purpose to establish set classes or categories of vocations. A psychological analysis alone can separate from each other and single out the elements or thought which in man's conscience combine to influence the will.
The first reason for becoming a religious often presents itself as a fixed resolve to make sure of one's salvation at any cost. For a young man whom God inspires to look the future in the face, this is indeed a serious question: Shall I save my soul? Day-dreams in youth are bright, but can they all be so realized as not to come to an end at the great awakening in eternity? And in what an eternity? Oh, terrible dilemma! Death generally depends upon previous life. I do, indeed, wish to live as a good Christian. Yet others have, like me, formed the same purpose. Then, little by little, saturated by the worldly, indifferent, perhaps irreligious atmosphere surrounding them, they grew weak and quite lost their moral vigor. Temptations assailed them and found them without strength, and they entered at last upon the broad road. Am I stronger than they? Have I not in more than one encounter already experienced my own weakness? How I allow myself to be quite overcome and, as it were, to be carried away by pleasure! How I yield myself a captive to the influence of my environment! These my half-hearted resolutions of courage and virtue are in great need of a strong support, and my weakness is in want of an effective safeguard. But one can save his soul in the world, it is objected. That is very true, but shall I? Is it not better to make sure of my eternal destiny?
This reason would be enough. It has given rise to some very solid vocations. Does it not bear the mark of supernatural prudence? Did not Jesus Christ our Lord say: “What doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul?”1 After a thousand years spent in hell, what would a damned soul think of the life of pleasure which he had enjoyed on earth? After a thousand years spent in the joys of Heaven, would a religious deem the sacrifices he had to make worth a thought?
These grave reflections are generally at the bottom of every vocation; but they are not alone, and are often not even predominant. It is not fear that fills the ranks of religious orders; it is rather the love of God. What a pity it is to hear certain writers of fiction talk of disillusions, bitter misfortunes, ruined lives, the unhappy subjects of which come to hide their sorrow and regrets within the cloister! Our monasteries and convents are not filled with the world's wrecks, but with the fairest, the soundest, the most generous products of the earth. It is not a storm blast nor bitterness that drives so many souls to religious life; it is rather the gentle breeze of divine love.
The Holy Ghost makes His way peacefully into the hearts of men and enkindles in them a burning desire of belonging wholly to God, wholly to Jesus Christ our Lord, without let or hindrance, without division, and without end. That coarse and humble garb is preferred to every other because it is the livery of Jesus Christ. Those chains of obedience are cords of loving choice because they bind to the service of the divine Master, and because in bearing them one is sure of doing the holy will of God. That separation from the world is coveted because through it Jesus will be found and possessed with an undivided heart.
At times, under the influence of grace, to this longing for a complete, absolute abandonment of self to God is even added the ambition of great souls to tread very closely in the footsteps of the Savior. Jesus was poor; He was born in a stable; the members of His body lay upon the straw of the crib; on His apostolic journeyings He had not a stone whereon to lay His head; at the foot of the cross the soldiers stripped Him of His garments; His very grave had to be an alms. By Himself embracing poverty Jesus made it lovable. Like Jesus then we too wish to be poor; like Him, we wish to attach our hearts to nothing earthly. He alone is our true treasure; we wish for no other.
Jesus was obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.2 Following his lead, obedience becomes sweet and lovable.
Jesus, the son of the most pure and immaculate Virgin Mary, is purity itself; He is the well-beloved, who taketh His pleasure and “who feedeth among the lilies.”3 To remain among His followers no sacrifice is too dear; even the shadow of evil will be shunned with jealous care.
Sometimes the thoughts suggested by the Holy Spirit take another form; for instance, that of making the best use of life. It is too short, too precious, to be wasted; and as the love of our neighbor in Christian charity is inseparable from, or, rather, identical with, the love of God, the desire of doing good to others, of being an apostle, springs up within the soul. Many a youth by a happy experience has been made to understand how true is the word of the Scripture: “It is a more blessed thing to give, rather than to receive.”4 In deeds of helpfulness, in teaching catechism, or in other works of benevolence, they have felt the first ardors of Christian zeal. God made them realize that true life consists in spending one's self for others. The aposto-late of the poor, of children, of the sick; the apostolate among the millions who are wandering far from God; the apostolate among heretics and schismatics; among unbelievers; among all those nations who are yet awaiting the full light of Christ's Gospel, become a boundless field for their active charity. Isolated efforts are liable to be less fruitful, nor are, indeed, always free from danger. The religious life, on the other hand, with its solid formation, its organized bodies, its safeguards for all times and situations, furnishes the apostle with a moral support which more than doubles his powers. Besides, God very often gives a vocation to the apostolate as one indissolubly united with the call to religious life.
Solicitude for one's eternal salvation, such love of God as inspires self-abandonment and imitation of Jesus Christ, and the desire of the apostolate presuppose a soul already arrived at the threshold of religious life. None the less, God often directs His call to souls that are indeed far removed from such a life. All their attention is perhaps fixed upon a bright future, all their attractions tend to the joys and ambitions of the world. How does the Holy Ghost lead such souls to the great and generous thoughts that prepare and dispose them for the decisive step? Often He inspires them with a most lively realization of the emptiness of human joys. In the still evening of a day during which all, indeed, seemed to pass in accordance with whim and pleasure, a man suddenly finds himself in the very depths of sadness and disenchantment. Everything is petty; everything mean. It is a favorable hour, and God may now speak to the unfettered soul.
If as yet the heart is too sluggish to feel the emptiness of all temporal things, to make it enter into itself and reflect, God in His mercy may send it trials, or afflict it with great reverses.
In the ecclesiastical annals of England we read a curious story of one of these providential humiliations. It was in the reign of Elizabeth, so severe and cruel to Catholics. A young English lord, a lukewarm Catholic, very prominent at court for his brilliant parts, for his cheerful spirits, and for his good looks, was dancing at a court ball, when his foot slipped and he fell, under the very eyes of the queen. Elizabeth by sign and remark showed her disgust for the fellow's awkwardness. This disgrace, of such common occurrence and so trivial, was the beginning of a new life for this youthful and unhappy courtier. Forty-seven years later Thomas Pound, confessor and religious of the Society of Jesus, died from the effects of a thirty years' imprisonment, having suffered heroically for the faith of Christ. How many religious, going over in mind their past life, have rendered thanks to Providence for just such ill-success or a deception which had caused them to pause and reflect and so let the voice of God, till then unheeded, at length be heard within their hearts!
At times it is the reading of some spiritual book which has given grace its opportunity. The lives of saints, that of Saint Aloysius of Gonzaga especially, have sown the seeds of thousands of vocations. The example of this youthful prince, so pure, so noble and kind, so generous, is the source of a holy contagion to which the most humble are the most susceptible. Well do I remember a veteran soldier who had done service in the cavalry for seven years, and during all this time had lived in absolute indifference to religion. In the engagements near Metz, in which he had taken part, in the very charges which his regiment had made against Prussian cavalry or infantry, he had not, he was wont to tell me, a single thought of God; not a single fear for his salvation; he thought of nothing save of parrying blows and smiting the enemy. His military service over, he sought a situation. It was the design of Providence that he should engage as servant in a seminary. There one of his fellows, like himself a servant, but with the soul of an apostle, spoke to him of God, and lent him the life of Saint Aloysius of Gonzaga. No doubt his good old mother had said many a prayer at her home in the forest mountain of Ardèche, for the reading of that life was like the rending of a veil. Another and a new horizon met the eye of the old soldier. Some months after, I made his acquaintance as he was beginning to lead the life of the Coadjutor Brothers of the Society of Jesus. He went afterwards to serve the missionaries of the East. There he died a holy death, having devoted eighteen years of his precious life to the service of his Master.5
God also makes use of the example of good religious to give the first suggestion of a vocation, or the last stimulus to a hesitating and wavering will. It is a fact proved by the experience of all epochs of Christianity that fervent orders recruit themselves and multiply, whilst those whose fervor has cooled remain barren. Who is ignorant of the wonderful fecundity of the organization of Saint Benedict, of that of Saint Dominic, and especially that of Saint Francis of Assisi? After so many centuries past, these great orders yet put forth vigorous branches. The nineteenth century, in spite of the multiplicity of religious congregations and institutes of all kinds, has witnessed similar marvels. To cite only a few examples, the Little Sisters of the Poor, founded about 1840 by a simple curate and two poor girls, have to-day more than three hundred houses in which they gather, feed, and with their own hands care for more than forty thousand old people; the Ladies of the Sacred Heart, founded by Venerable Mother Barat at the beginning of the nineteenth century, are increasing as it were by miracle. At the death of the foundress, in 1865, they covered with their homes of religious fervor Europe and the two Americas.6
The Society of Jesus, restored in 1814 by Pius VII, out of the remnant of that noble institute preserved in White Russia, spread with prodigious rapidity, in spite of furious persecutions. Banished from Russia in 1815; from Spain in 1835 and in 1868; from the states of Sardinia and from Rome in 1848; dispersed and robbed in the rest of Italy in i860 and 1870; exiled from Switzerland in 1847; from Germany in 1871; forced in France to abandon their colleges in 1828, then dispersed in 1830, 1848, 1880; finally smitten, in common with other religious congregations, in 1901, the Jesuits have multiplied in the midst of their trials. They did not number 3,000 in 1830; they counted more than 4,000 in 1850; 8,000 in 1870, and to day more than 15,000 working for the glory of God in nearly every region of the globe.
In this prolific growth good example plays its part. Nothing, indeed, is more suited to touch the heart than a life of devotedness, abnegation, and zeal. Nothing is so encouraging as the sight of the brotherly love which reigns in fervent communities and as the soft, sweet radiance of joy fruit of purity and peace of heart—which shines on the faces of those who have devoted themselves to God with their whole soul. It is indeed a pleasure to journey on to Heaven in the company of such fellow-travelers.
One of the ways by which the Holy Ghost is wont to lead souls to the religious life is finally a well-made retreat. To all earnest Christians it is profitable to withdraw sometimes far from the usual allurements of life to think on the great interests of eternity. It is a marvelous way of healing the wounds made by sin. One there learns how to live well in order to know how to die well. The hours of reflection and solitude, when the soul searches for truths and recollects itself in prayer, are very favorable to the action of divine grace; for God, infinitely good and merciful but also infinitely worthy, often waits to speak until we are quite willing to listen. Hence it is no wonder that a retreat should be the time set by our Lord to make known His call; nevertheless it does not usually cause vocations. These religious exercises only make such vocations stand out in fuller light. The vocation already existed, more or less distinctly known, and enveloped by a kind of mist. The exercises of the retreat dissipate the mist, remove the obstacles, and cause false impressions, objections, and worldly prejudices to vanish. In the light of supernatural motives the vocation, till now half obscured, makes its full appearance, becomes definite, and asserts itself.
At length when the “I will” is once spoken in response to the suggestion of God to the soul, the exercitant finds in contemplating the passion of our Lord strength for the struggle that awaits him.
1St. Matt., XVI-26.
2Ep. to the Philip., II—8.
3Canticle of Canticles, II-16.
5Brother Daronat, born at Bosas, in Ardeche, entered the novitiate the 20th of July, 1876, and died piously in the Lord at Caesarea in the mission of Armenia.
6Histoire de la Venerable Mere Barat, par Mgr. Baunard, Poussielgue.
Striking examples of this growth and fruitfulness of fervent religious bodies are found among the communities laboring in this country. Such, for instance, is that well-known foundation of Blessed Mother Julie Billiart in 1804. The Sisters of Notre Dame, organized exclusively for apostolic teaching, now number thirty-five hundred, educating, in over one hundred and fifty convents, about one hundred and fifty thousand pupils throughout Belgium, England, Scotland, Africa, and America. These Sisters came to America in 1840 and now have in this country over fifty establishments between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and about thirty-five thousand pupils. (Translator's note.)
In Thy Courts - Chapter 3 - How the Call is Made Manifest