The Evangelization of Those Discerning Their Vocation
According to recent CARA* reports regarding vocation (and basically even common sense) it was discovered that people become religious brothers, sisters, or priests because they meet those who are already brothers, sisters, priests. Several decades ago there were more religious and priests who evangelized in large part by their presence. Discerners had a greater opportunity to see religious brothers and sisters and priests in action preaching by the very example of their lives. However in this recent revival of interest (in light of the fact that many have not been raised with regular interaction with religious and priests) there is a need to evangelize candidates as they discern by the vocation directors and other community members and priests.
Some candidates believe that they have arrived to all there is as far as being where they need to be spiritually, they are unaware that we continue to transform (or continually convert) because God is inexhaustible eternal love. The vow of "conversatio morum" comes to mind, which is the vow of "continual conversion" meaning we actively strive to turn away from the temporal as we learn to invest our minds, our hearts, and our actions to that which is of eternal value. As we shed our various temporal attachments we become ever-more immersed in the "Fruit of the Spirit" i.e. kindness, gentleness patience, self-control. (Gal. 5:22-23).
Important point: Candidates do not always realize that it is in “formation” that they will experience the instruction for continual conversion through the charism of the founding fathers and mothers (and/or ministerial priesthood). Candidates need to know they do not have to immediately feel the fullness of their new identity as a religious brother or sister or priest upon application and acceptance. The formation process is part of the individual’s conversion process. The founding fathers and mothers recognized, experienced, and articulated these specific paths, these precise charisms, as trusted and true. The living waters of instruction (formation) on navigating the specific graces of the various characteristics that make up each charism will ultimately allow those being formed to minister effectively from the well-spring of their spiritual growth. The candidates growing knowledge and experience of the workings of their order’s charism (and/or ministerial priesthood) will keep themselves and those to whom they minister safely in the stream of “abundant life” (John 10:10).
I write today to make clear the reality that vocation directors need to clearly explain to discerners how their own vocation aids them in “working out their own salvation” (Phil 2:12) so that the candidate can follow and trust this way of more deeply living out the gospel. Discerners need to know that as they grow in the love of Christ (through the charism of religious life or the priesthood) they will aid others whom they will ultimately serve with their salvation. In this sense vocation directors are further evangelizing the candidate through their testimony, that is to say, a detailed explanation as to how they are more perfectly living out the gospel. Vocation inspiration will flourish as promised as a result of the vocation directors clearly articulated testimony, “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death” (Rev. 12:11). Candidates will then have a greater confidence in embracing this way as their very own.
All true vocation assistance evangelizes, that is to say, it leads us to an ever-expanding eternal freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom from the temporal realm. What is the “temporal realm”? The temporal realm is made up of all particles of fear of loss great and small and of every false notion regarding the purpose of consumption and ownership. In actually like the “birds and the flowers” we are held in God’s hand and though we are gifted with participation in material harvests the only purpose of these harvests are the good of mankind at large. I have heard that sometimes the thing people fear most is freedom. What is freedom? Freedom is the ability to live out the words of Christ in His prayer commonly known as “The Our Father”. It is in the Our Father that our earthly passage to complete eternal freedom is outlined. I honestly believe that the only way to be completely free is the purposeful embracing of the evangelical counsels. 1. Poverty 2. Chastity 3. Obedience (obedience means “to listen”).
“Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” I love God and He is my all. “Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. In heaven there is no marriage. In heaven we are like the angels Matt. 22:30 (this is the evangelical council: Chastity). “Give us this day our daily bread” (evangelical counsel: “Poverty”) that is acknowledging that I am fed by the hand of God daily. My air, my water, my rest, all are gifts from the Father enough for this moment, enough for today. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. (This speaks of the evangelical council: “obedience”.) In “obedience” I “listen” to Christ within myself and Christ within all, even those who persecute me, I listen for any semblance and/or resemblance to the spark of life within all known as Christ. It is in listening that I preserve the source of this life with great care, carefully guarding the harmonious unity first known in the beginning of all creation as the “Holy Trinity”. “I (Christ) was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be” (Proverbs 8:23). And, “In the beginning was the Word (Jesus), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). And “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” i.e. “the love of money is the root of all evil” (more on the evangelical counsel “poverty”). I trust God not goods. I want to be completely free. (I heard that a Saint said in regard to various prayers and formulas, “After the Our Father everything else is a play on words.”
In vocation discernment we answer the question, “How free do you want to be?” St. Paul explains, “An unmarried person is concerned about the Lord's affairs: their aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. A married person is concerned about the affairs of this world--how they can please their spouse. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:33-35). However, if you cannot live a celibate life because of your “passions are too strong” then it is “not a sin to marry” (1 Cor. 7:36). The question now becomes, “If I can control my passions, if I can live a fruitful celibate life in order to grow in perfection, what am I waiting for?”
Important note regarding those candidates who apply. Naturally, there has to be reciprocity (acceptance) from a community or diocese validating that they are relatively sure that the candidate has the grace for the vocation. In all vocations “reciprocity” is the ultimate validating factor. "Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (2 Cor 13:1). (If overtime there is no reciprocity from vocation directors potential candidates should consider other vocation options that hold more promise according to their reality.)
A key point that discerners need to be made aware of is that the vast majority of active discerners are seeking community life be it in a religious community or within the comradery and support of their fellow diocesan priests under the leadership of the bishop or archbishop.
1. We can do many things alone except live in community. Even God lives in a community called the Holy Trinity. Jesus said, When you see me you see the Father". We need others to see Christ in and who may also experience Christ in us. We truly need this exercise of freedom from self-absorption, the self-absorption that comes from spending too much time alone. We need others whom we can love as our very selves. St. Benedict was not at all keen on the hermit life, the singular life. He might allow a monk to live a singular life only after having lived in community for several decades but even then it was only allowed on a temporary basis. So living alone without someone to exercise oneness, to experience the constant mirroring and echoing of Christ one in the other, can be unfruitful for many. There may those called to single-in-the-world permanently but the vast majority of discerners are already living single in the world. They experience a type of spiritual loneliness that causes them to keep searching for the amplification of heaven on earth amidst community though many cannot articulate this yearning for peers at first. (My use of the word “peers” does not mean those of one’s own age. I am talking about persons in the sense of other athletes in the spiritual life who have invested their time in training in order to “run the race to win” 1 Cor. 9:24.) Just as those who have never been baptized might not be able to articulate their need for the freedom that commitment to Christ offers so also discerners cannot always fully understand the wellspring that awaits them in their vocation as they thirst for more of Christ. (I am saying it is up to vocation directors and others who are spiritually experienced in the things of eternal value to evangelize them regarding these truths.) Why do they thirst still? How can discerners drink more deeply from the wellsprings of eternal life that Christ extends? Answer: By understanding the fulfillment realized in community because ultimately all of heaven is communal and Jesus asked that we bring heaven here “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”.
2. Make no mistake marriage in itself is fulltime ministry. A woman commits to the fulltime ministry of wife and mother at the altar of Holy Matrimony likewise, a husband commits to fulltime ministry of husband and father (1 Cor. 7:4). St. Paul says, and I believe with great seriousness and literally, that a woman who marries needs to be concerned with pleasing her husband and she deserves the commitment of the husband to be concerned with pleasing her, that is to say to minister unceasingly as one tends to his or her own body (1 Cor. 7:33). The spouse rightfully deserves this holy dedication and in this love of wife, live of husband, as one’s own self they live out for all to see the unity of the Holy Trinity. Holy Matrimony is a community, a domestic church, but it is temporal. Jesus said, “Do not be in error. There is no marriage in heaven” (Matt 22:30). In heaven we know our loved ones, those who were closest to us, but our love is not greater of lesser than other persons in the eternal kingdom of heaven. In marriage we practice with great persistence the exercising of corporal mercy. However, the purpose of Holy Matrimony, as with all vocations, is to “love one’s neighbor as oneself”. In this sense the agape love, that is to say, the “eternal love of God” whereby all our the bride of Christ and true friends with each other should be expanding out to mankind as a result of the graces received in holy matrimony. There is no such thing as building a small world of our own that is exclusive in terms of love and charity whereby others are left unaided by the agape love exercise between the couple now made one. In this sense, “those who have wives should live as if they do not” (1 Cor. 7:29). In other words, love all as oneself, it is the true purpose of the strength and loving support gained in the marriage to do so. Our spouse aids in our vocation of moving deeper in the eternal realm of our Savior Jesus Christ but our spouse in themselves are not our saviors. At some future point we will be united to Christ as His spouse (and the Church collectively as His Bride).
3. Once a single person (who has yet to marry) has a vast experience of loving God in creation, loving God in neighbor to degree that they experience others as true mothers, fathers, husbands . . . as in, “if you give up mother, father, husband . . . I will give you back 100s” they may find that little by little they lose their desire for the smaller domestic church that holy matrimony is. I am speaking now to those who already experience the reality of everyone being a sister, brother, for real as in “who is my mother, my brother, all who do the will of the father.” When we close the door to a romantic element in our lives the door to a unity of hearts with all human beings swings open wide (an experience so real it can be quite surprising as we realize we are completely united having now experienced a type of spiritual DNA with all persons as fellow children of God). It can be difficult for many to shrink the experience of unity with all persons into what can come to feel like a small container of an exclusive relationship such as Holy Matrimony. Yet if we do decide to marry know for sure we do not sin as St. Paul says. Just know that the agape love amidst the couple and children should expand to all over time in a Spirit of great hospitality not exclusivity. And it is for this reason that if a person feels trapped or less free to serve God in any way as a result of their movement toward marriage they should pause and rethink their direction. One’s true vocation gives them the support and love to love others not to be alienated from the reality that all are our brothers and sisters.
4. But most of those who are called to marriage are not contemplating religious life or the priesthood. Religious life and/or priesthood has never appeared on their spiritual radar. Those called to marriage know who they are and many would never, nor have they ever, seriously considered religious life or the priesthood, though they might have toyed with the idea as a fictitious notion of sorts. Those who have been given the special grace of contemplating (of considering, of discerning) a religious vocation or the priesthood should not underestimate the “pearl of great value” that they have received. Buy the whole field, that is to say, don’t hinge on the parts you don’t fully understand or which might not be perceived as totally comfortable. In a field there are rocks, brambles, and the like. Want the pearl? Buy the field.
5. Remaining single in the world permanently is an option but it requires an ongoing ministerial commitment (a “plow to but one’s hand to” Luke 9:62). If you decide to stay single, stay busy for our Lord. Being single in the world is not being a perpetual bachelor or bachelorette who does some good deeds on occasion. It is a lifelong commitment to this path of grace and therefore our hearts are freely and willingly closed to all other vocation options as we move forward.
6. It is only by eating resurrected food, i.e. Jesus in the Eucharist, that we are able to live the resurrected life now. “Oh death where is thy sting”. Death has shrunken to complete insignificance for those willing to be completely free. Did you notice when Jesus was resurrected He made no mention of the suffering He endured. Jesus even seemed to be making light of His wounds when He invited Thomas to put his hand in His side. Jesus’ demeanor shows no sense of shuttering concerning the temporal aspects of His earthly horrific sufferings. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we have complete freedom from death. I remember the joke made by St. Lawrence during his martyrdom who, when being grilled alive, humorously said, “It is time to turn me over. I am done on this side”. St. Lawrence responded with casual insignificance and light-hearted candor at the barbaric taking of his life (so little was his joy in Christ affected).
7. Freedom is awesome. Don’t be afraid to be free. Run with the herd (the team) of other spiritual Olympians living in community or serving for the diocese as a priest, or marry if you wish. But know that for most we cannot truly realize our spiritual athleticism alone. It is in seeing the pace of the other runners, by experiencing their support (two are better than one. If either of them fall the other is there to help them up” Ecclesiastes 4:9-10. In community (be it religious life, priesthood, or holy matrimony) we are more fully aware and more fully challenged, more fully supported, to truly “run the race to win” (1 Cor. 9:24).
* Center for Applied Research of the Apostolate (from the first paragraph page 1)