A vocation is never unaccompanied by sacrifice. It is painful to leave family, friends, and all that one holds dear. The separation, often to the imagination more absolute than it will prove in reality, occasions poignant heart pangs.
Ah! it must be for the sake of Jesus Christ indeed, since in answer to the call one has to bid good-by to the fond dreams of the future, to habits of life already long cherished, to tastes the indulgence in which gave great pleasure, and especially to independence in the disposal of time in work or leisure according to the whim of the moment, to freedom in going and coming at will, and of following at times one's own caprice. To-morrow life will be austere and regular, exacting submission like that of a college boy. There are seasons when it seems even sad and like death before its time. To follow the divine invitation in spite of all difficulties requires courage. And so man is apt to think that he is making a great offering to God and giving Him a great deal in following a vocation, instead of simply being the recipient.
Vocation to religious life is one of the greatest favors our Lord can grant a soul. He has promised the hundredfold even in this life;1 and He gives it too. Is, then, the religious life one of comfort? No; it is a life of sacrifice, of mortification, of self-renunciation; a life crucified with Jesus crucified; but it bestows a benefit the absence of which secretly poisons the most exquisite pleasures and the presence of which sweetens and compensates all evils, namely, peace. Not that peace which some imagine, who, comparing their continual agitation with the calm which religious enjoy, sometimes call them happy, because they have neither the cares, nor preoccupations, nor the anxieties caused by rearing a family, the management of intricate business affairs, the maintenance of rank, reparation often for the past, and always provision for the future. The peace given by Jesus Christ is not a calm and tranquility of this selfish sort. No one lives less for self and more for others than a religious. If he has left his family, his love for his relatives has become thereby more perfect and more pure. He makes less, it is true, of the riches, the joys, and the purely earthly happiness of those he loves. But what solicitude has he not for their eternal welfare! Few have an idea of the earnest prayers, the sacrifices, at times heroic, made by religious for the good of their families.
Again, though a religious be freed from anxieties regarding wealth or for future success he is none the less engrossed with the interests of Jesus Christ. He feels keenly the outrages committed against the divine Majesty, the vicissitudes of the Church; he fears, he prays, he suffers for the souls to whose salvation his efforts are devoted.
If such be the case, what peace, then, can a religious enjoy. A peace entirely inward, it makes itself felt in the lowest depths of the soul, in spite of difficulties, temptations, and even interior storms which God sometimes permits. This peace is the result of the testimony which the conscience, under the action of the Holy Ghost, bears the fervent religious, assuring him that he belongs entirely to God, as a child does to its father; that all his acts being in agreement with obedience and with his rules are acceptable to God; that if he be faithful to the grace of vocation, nothing can separate him from Jesus Christ; that he is sure of Heaven, since the Lord's promises, which never fail, are its pledge.2
Besides this peace, the love of our Lord multiplies our strength tenfold and makes everything easy. So good a thing it is to work and suffer for such a Master!
It must be acknowledged, however, that those whom God calls to this state do not always realize the worth and wealth of the interior graces which the religious life has in store for them. It will take all then generosity, aided by grace, to overcome the repugnances, the doubts, the foolish fears that attack them even up to their last moments.
Would, moreover, that they had to struggle against themselves only! Attacks upon their vocation multiply themselves on every side. Even Christian families put obstacles in their way.
At the time when parental authority was certainly not unrecognized Bourdaloue wrote: “It is a right of natural law and of divine law that he himself should choose his state of life whose duty it will be to bear its burdens and to fulfil its obligations. This principle is incontestable.”3 It is not questioned in these days. Happily, we are not living at a time when some parents, by a strange abuse of their authority, disposed of their children according to their own fancies, destining one for the Church, another for the army, another for the magistracy; arranging marriages, or forcing then daughters to enter convents, without even so much as consulting their wishes. Everybody knows to-day that the authority of parents does not extend so far. A youth has the right to direct the course of his own life, and to follow the vocation to which he feels drawn. The authority of parents is solely that of a moderator, who guides by his prudence and counsel. The most intimate and tender ties that unite them to their children, their devotedness and experience, give them the right and lay upon them the obligation to advise their sons and daughters; to reason with them, indeed, to aim themselves, if need be, with all the authority over them they still retain. Parents are the natural guides who at the beginning of a career, henceforth to be independent, point out the dangers of the journey, and indicate the right ways and safe paths. Moreover, they will be still at hand to help again, with unwearying love, those who have made a bad beginning, taken a few false steps and bruised their feet against the wayside stones.
It seems that parents retain their character of authoritative counselor when their child has been called to the religious life.
There is, however, in a supernatural vocation a divine interposition which we must take into account. God is Master. If he confers upon a family the great honor of calling one of their children to His service, is it not a duty to bow before the painful but real favor? A mother and a father who are thoroughly Catholic should turn to God in faithful love and say to Him: “Lord, you ask my child of me. By a prior right he belongs to you. He was yours before being mine. You want him. I will not dispute your claim. The sacrifice is very great; yet grant me grace to make it, if not with joy at least with resignation.”
But then has he truly a vocation? Could he wish to leave us for a hard and severe life if he had not a vocation? But I fear some illusion. Since a wise and prudent confessor to whom he has opened his mind, unburdened his soul, made known his weaknesses, his faults, as well as his inmost aspirations, discerns and approves the divine call, what more should I require?
It is the part of good sense enlightened by faith thus to speak. But that too natural tenderness which makes parents love their children more out of self love than for their own sakes renews the charge, and with the “logic of passion” so disconcerting to reason invents a thousand new pretexts.
Some families are so austere as to refuse to believe in the vocations of their children because they still observe in them outbursts of temper or signs of levity and of love of pleasure. They act as though they thought the call of our Lord, when heard, must at once transform those who follow it as by a stroke of a magic wand; or if upon re-solving to become a religious, by this fact alone, one was thereby straightway made perfect. Vocation gives aim and impetus to one's spiritual life, nothing more. The novice will have to make many efforts to correct his faults and to subdue his passions. The whole noviceship will not be long enough, for holiness is not the work of a few days. It is the result of time, of struggle, and of patience.
Other parents again, less Christian in spirit, pretend that before engaging in the religious state one should know the world, and they make every effort to give that experience to the youth whom God is calling. The world has some very repulsive phases. These they take great care to hide. The world is a life of luxury and of pleasure; it consists of theater going, public merrymaking, evening parties, and everything op posed to the Christian spirit. When Saint Thomas Aquinas—who was afterwards to become the most illustrious doctor of the Middle Ages—was journeying as a novice from Naples to Paris, his brothers, who were not reconciled to his vocation, carried him away forcibly and imprisoned him in one of their castles and introduced into his chamber a woman of bad repute. The saintly youth was obliged to arm himself with a burning fagot to defend his virtue. This was their brutal way of making Saint Thomas know the world.
Such methods would to-day excite horror; the very idea of them would not be tolerated. Yet, to consider the matter more closely, what is meant by making the world known to a youth whom God is calling to His service, if not, unconsciously perhaps, but none the less really, to bring against the noble and magnanimous designs inspired by the Holy Ghost all that flatters the senses, arouses the passions, and weakens the will?
Stopping short of such wicked measures, many families insist upon long delays. They would have given their daughters in marriage unhesitatingly, allowed their sons to take service at sea, or to accept a lucrative position in the colonies. But if it is God who asks them, He is met with a refusal, or with hesitation and a request for time to consider the matter. These prolonged delays weaken and unnerve the strongest courage, and ruin the truest vocation. Our Lord deserves a higher esteem for His divine favors.
If He most frequently chooses the early age of youth at which to make His call heard, He does so for some secret purpose and sublime reasons. Of course, our Lord does what He pleases, and His divine grace works transformations that thwart our human schemes. Of a persecuting Paul, grace makes a great apostle; of a sinful Saint Augustine, it makes a holy bishop. It seeks out Saint Matthew at the tax-gatherer's money tables, and Saint Ignatius upon a field of battle. Nevertheless, this is not the ordinary way of Providence. Generally, and especially for the apostolate, God makes choice of virgin souls not yet sullied by contact with the world. Being pure, they will therefore be all the stronger and braver. They will not have to drag after them troublesome memories of the past, nor bear upon them scars as yet scarcely healed and ever ready to break out afresh. They will be more pliant, too, because habit has not yet entangled them in its meshes, and so they will bear the yoke of the Lord without effort. It is this truth which an old author tried to express under the form of a real or legendary vision.
“A religious appeared after death to a fellow-monk, all resplendent with glory, and calling him forth from his cell, showed him a great number of men clothed in white and surrounded with light, who with beautiful crosses upon their shoulders were wending their way in procession to Heaven. Then he showed him others, who walked in the same way, but who were yet more brilliant with light than were the first. These held in their hands a cross, but of much greater beauty and richness than those borne in the first procession.
“Afterwards there passed a third procession, but immensely more brilliant and exciting much greater admiration and wonder than those that had gone before. The crosses of these, too, were of surpassing beauty. But unlike the two files of holy souls who had preceded each carrying his own cross either in his hand or upon his shoulder, these had each an angel to carry his cross before him, that they might proceed with more ease and greater joy.
“Amazed by the vision, the religious sought an explanation from the brother who had shown it to him. Whereupon the saintly visitant explained that the first whom he had seen, carrying the crosses upon their shoulders, were those who had entered religion at an advanced age; that the second class, who bore their crosses in their hands, were those who had devoted themselves to this life whilst young; and that the third class, who walked with so firm a step, were those who had embraced the religious state and had renounced all the vanities of the world from their tenderest years.”
Did Christian parents realize the value of their children's vocations and what graces flow therefrom, even upon themselves, perhaps they would change their sentiments. How many sad witnesses of their sons waywardness have bitterly repented the opposition which had brought about the failure of the divine call! How many fathers have recognized upon their deathbed that the unhoped-for graces of con version and growth in holiness had come to them through a child given to God! How many a mother finding in her child a confidante and consoler in the days of trial has regretted the tears shed at the hour of separation!
Weakness of will is not the only thing to be dreaded in the struggle for a vocation. The mind itself is at times disturbed by the suggestions of the devil or the specious counsel of false advisers. Why become a religious? say they. You will do greater work in the world. Just think of that great engineer, that great manufacturer, that landowner, lawyer, physician, or such and such a public officer; what an influence do they not exercise in society! No religious wields so great a power for good. That a man in the world can do much good for God, that some, whose names we might give, do more good than this or that religious, there can certainly be no doubt. But this is not the question; God has not called them and He has called you. Each man has his own peculiar vocation.4 And what can be said with certainty is that he who lacks the courage to follow the call of our Lord will do nothing great for His service in the world. In that state upon which he enters from mere whim, in contempt of the merciful designs of Providence, he will not have the grace of that holiness which God was intending for him. Moreover, according to the most explicit teaching of the Church, we may assert that the religious life is a more perfect state than life in the world. Besides, taken as a body, it cannot be gainsaid that religious lead a life more holy, more useful to souls, and giving more glory to God than ordinary Christians do. Finally from the point of view of the defense, welfare, and propagation of the Church, we must consider how much greater influence works that are organized, stable, and assured of future permanence exercise than do isolated efforts. A sharpshooter single-handed may sometimes perform deeds of prowess, but he will never win a battle. To defend the boundaries of the country disciplined troops are needed, well commanded, opposing to the enemy their deeply serried forces.
A certain thought, no doubt, has more than once presented itself to our readers. The religious in France are dispersed or in exile; the convents are or are threatened with being closed; the common talk is of expulsion; of secularization, the police are in pursuit of such as are suspected of leading community life. In these stormy days is it well advised to come forth and speak to us of religious vocation? But remember that every nation in which Catholicity is still full of life bears, as it were by necessity, the germ of religious life. My confidence in my country's religion is too strong to let me think that fetters and spoliations inflicted by law will suffice to check the soaring flight of Christian life and its full expansion in the practice of the evangelical counsels. Catholicity strikes its roots deeply into the strata of our old French families. In spite of the wreckage that strews the ground after a day of violent storm, it will spring forth again steadier and more full of life than before. Even in the midst of the tempest France needs good and holy religious. To unbridled impiety ought she not to oppose the prayers, the adorations, the austerities of contemplative communities? In the balance of God's justice in counterpoise to a nation's crimes nothing can so effectively turn the scales as voluntary immolation and entire oblation of self.
Abroad, the flourishing French missions,5 which constitute the purest glory of our land, demand to-day, as in the past, under pain of failure, the help of fresh workmen. They, according to the mysterious laws of compensation ordained by Divine Providence, will heap up merit for this country.
Finally, shoulder to shoulder with the secular clergy in France,6 the religious have an immense task to perform, that, namely, of bringing back to Christ, by holiness of life, by devotedness, by charity, the unenlightened, indifferent, and impious millions, the ever rising tide of whom threatens to flood the whole country.
It is, therefore, because I do not despair of the faith of my country, because I long for God to raise up for it apostles and saviors, that I have written these few pages. May they serve to enlighten some of those whom God is calling, and with the grace of God give them the courage to go, even into exile, and there seek the crib of their religious life.
May they, at least, make their readers better understand by what motives and attractions of grace God is wont to lead chosen souls on to His purpose.
The study of these mysterious ways, if that were all, will well repay their efforts and consideration.
It has seemed good to the translator not to avail himself of the author's kind permission to alter at will the final paragraphs of this booklet and by a more practical conclusion, suited to the Church's greater freedom in America, to replace his eloquent ending, in the compressed and energetic lines of which he seems to have tried to express all the ardent religious love of Country and Church and of their supernatural destiny and glory that fills his pious and far-seeing soul.
American boys and girls, or those of any English speaking country, will be clever enough to draw the inference that if in such troubled times and under the difficulties that dear old France—once the godmother of so many peoples now opposes to the growth of the religious spirit and its highest expression—the religious state—the Church can, should, and does foster vocations to the permanent and organized practice of the Gospel Counsels, how much more are we bound to cultivate, cherish, and strengthen these divine energies when they manifest themselves in our own clime, where religious freedom in thought and deed, in personal conscience and public expression, is by constitutional right secured to the individual and to society. With this view, and to this purpose, does the translator offer to our youth the unpretentious version of this booklet. For to him it is a strong “a fortiori” argument, which the devout and sharp minds of our college boys and convent girls will not let pass, but will express in unanswerable logic, “With greater reason in our free land must we spend our life's energies, Heaven born, working under the shadow of the cross, with hearts and minds quickened and taught by Thy grace and counsels, O Lord,
“IN THY COURTS.”
3Sermon for the first Sunday after the Epiphany, on the duties of parents with regard to the vocation of their children, part first.
4Of set purpose have we avoided speaking in this booklet about the secular priesthood, the noble and exalted vocation to which, because of the qualities required by that state, is very special indeed. There is a vocation to the secular clergy and one to the religious life, these vocations are so distinct, the one from the other, that a secular priest may be and often is called to embrace the religious life.
5The general interests of the apostolate and its principal power in all parts of the world are represented chiefly by the French congregations. (Letter of Leo XIII to Cardinal Richard, December 20, 1900.) Cf. Fr. Rouyier, “Loin du Pays” in 80, Retaux; J. B. Piolet; “Les Missions Catholiques Françaises,” 6 in 80, Colin.
6The religious orders are the necessary auxiliaries of the clergy, in the exercise of the holy ministry and in the function of Catholic education. (Letter of Leo XIII to Cardinal Richard, December 20, 1900.)
In Thy Courts - Chapter 4 - The Struggle For a Vocation