What is a vocation?

One way to understand this is to look at the way Jesus calls in the Gospel.  It is clear from  the Gospel that Jesus called disciples to him  in 2 different ways: some follow Our Lord in a general way; some receive a more specific calling from Christ. On the one hand there were many people who came to Jesus to listen to his preaching, to be strengthened by his teaching, to receive healing and an orientation for their lives.  And they receive healing, encouragement and direction from him.  They come to him and then they leave him to go back to their own home.

On the other hand, there was a smaller group of men and women who followed him more closely. Among this smaller group we have those called disciples, those men and women who were at the full disposal of Jesus-like Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Lazarus and others.  And there were of course the Twelve: At the call of Jesus, Come!" his "Come and see!" his "Come follow me!" the apostles were henceforth always with him. They share their lives completely with him. If they are sent out, they are sent  only by the Lord's commission and for his purpose; and they return to him as  to the place where they belong.

 

 Moreover, it was not their choice  to follow Jesus, it was his choice. The vocation to the religious life  is, therefore, a special gift, a personal gift, a privileged gift granted by God, no to the majority, but to the minority.  No one can bestow  this privilege on himself, as Jesus said: You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you (Jn 15:16).



In the first place, a vocation, or a call to the Priesthood or the Religious Life, in contradistinction to the general invitation, held out to all men, to a life of perfection even in the world, is a free gift of God bestowed on those whom He selects: 'You have not chosen Me,' he said to His Disciples, 'but I have chosen you,' and the Evangelist tells us that 'Christ called unto Him whom He willed.' Often that invitation is extended to those whom we would least expect. Matthew, surrounded by his ill-gotten gains; Saul, 'breathing out threats and slaughter against the Christians,' each heard that summons, for a sinful life in the past, St. Thomas teaches, is no impediment to a vocation.

from Vocation by Fr William Doyle, S.J.( died 1917)



What are some of the characteristics of Jesus' call?

 

The first thing to note is that it is a call of love on the part of Jesus.  'And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him: go sell  what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me' (Mk 10:21).  The Lord calls because he loves.

 

Second, a vocation is a call to a life of deep union with  Christ.  People who are called feel a thirst in their hearts for something more.  The Rich Young Man in Mk 10:17-31 had lived a life according to the ten commandments and possessed earthly treasures. Nevertheless,, he was not satisfied.  There was a thirst within him, a thirst that only the Lord could quench. Those who are called to a closer following of Christ feel a sort of unrest until they say Yes to his call.

 

Thirdly: a vocation is an invitation that includes self-sacrificeThe grace of a religious vocation is to respond to God's call to leave all things to follow Christ (cf. Matthew 19:21). When the Lord called the Apostles, it was a call to leave their families and homes, to give up their careers, and to leave the world in which they lived and worked.  This entails sacrifice. Yet this sacrifice, joined with Christ, brings great joy.


A call to the religious life is an invitation to look beyond the things of this world, in all of their goodness, in favour of the ultimate realities of heaven. Through the vow of poverty, Christ detaches us from possessions so that we may receive the riches of faith, the riches of God.  Through the vow of chastity, He frees us for single-hearted devotion to Christ as our Spouse. It is a call to greater love and spiritual fruitfulness. Through the vow of obedience, He conforms our wills totally to His. In this way, we anticipate heaven where all will live, in effect, as those consecrated to Christ. (We will look at the vows in more detail in another instalment).

Usually, this creates a struggle in the hearts of those called, a struggle between God's grace, for which nothing is impossible, and our own free will.  The Lord appeals to our free will and our love.  We know that the rich young man in the gospel did not accept the Lord's invitation; 'he went away sad', the gospel tells us.  He did not obtain the great happiness that the Lord had foreseen for him.  What is this great happiness?  The Lord promised: 'And everyone  who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father  or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life' (Mt 19:29).  This great  happiness is a life of deep union with the Lord, and a life within a community of brothers and sisters.

 

Finally, a vocation is never for one self alone. Vocation always includes a mission, a task, a responsibility for others.  Those who are called to a more intimate  life with Jesus receive a mission to bring him to many people.  The Lord need instruments, helpers for the salvation of the world.  This is true of the contemplative calling as well. Nicholas, Cardinal of Cusa (1401-64) had a dream where he saw more than a thousand nuns praying and carrying lukewarm souls in their hearts.  His guide tells him: 'Those who have given up loving are still carried.  It happens sometimes that they become warm again through the ardent hearts which are being consumed for them'.

Truly a crumb of pure love is more precious in the Lord's sight and of greater benefit to the Church than all the other works together.(St John of the Cross)

 

I understood that the Church had  a heart and that this heart  was ablaze with love.  I understood  that Love enabled the  Church's members to act. . .Yes, I have found my place in the Church. At the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be love. (St Therese of Lisieux)

 

 The Church is deeply aware  and without hesitation forcefully proclaims that there is an intimate connection between prayer ad the spreading of the Kingdom of God, between prayer and conversion of hearts, between prayer and  the fruitful  reception of the saving and uplifting Gospel message. (Blessed Pope John Paul II)

St. Thérèse understood well her vocation of spiritual motherhood for priests and missionaries. When very ill she was nonetheless advised to walk a ¼ hour each day, an exercise she found very difficult. A sympathetic sister urged her to rest.  The saint replied: 'Well, I am walking for a missionary.  I think that over there, far away, one of them is perhaps exhausted in his apostolic endeavours and, to lessen his fatigue, I offer mine to God.'  Even the ordinary duties of our state, offered with love, are acceptable to God.  A Capuchin nun prayed continually while working in the kitchen and consciously made every little service and duty into a sacrifice.  Our Lord said to her: 'Your duties may be insignificant, but because you bring them to me with such love, I give them immeasurable value and shower them on the brothers as grace of conversion.' The offering of the whole direction of our life to God may be made on behalf of souls we shall never know.

 

 

Some Signs of a Vocation

We've already noted some signs: a desire for something more, a desire to work with and for Jesus in the salvation of souls. Here are some other signs that can help discern a vocation to the consecrated life. This is not a question of ticking boxes but of becoming aware of certain areas.

A sense of unrest and dissatisfaction: A vocation is not a vision or an apparition; it is not an extraordinary message we receive. It is much more a intimate encounter with Christ in the different circumstances and situations of life.  There is often a persistent niggle, a feeling that won't go away, as if someone were knocking on the door of our heart or mind, especially in moments of prayer silence and adoration.  At such moments we can perceive a voice, a voice without words, but very clear and penetrating.  You may be finding less satisfaction in your work or social life-not because they are wrong, but you feel that they are not enough.



Sweet and tender Lord! exclaims Blessed Henry Suso, from the days of my childhood my mind has sought for something with burning thirst, but what it is I have not as yet fully understood. Lord, I have pursued it many a year, but I never could grasp it, for I know not what it is, and yet it is something that attracts my heart and soul, without which I can never attain true rest. Lord, I sought it in the first days of my childhood in creatures, but the more I sought it in them the less I found it, for every image that presented itself to my sight, before I wholly tried it, or gave myself quietly to it, warned me away thus: 'I am not what thou seekest.' Now my heart rages after it, for my heart would so gladly possess it.  Alas! I have so constantly to experience what it is not! But what it is, Lord, I am not as yet clear.  Tell me, Beloved Lord, what it is indeed, and what is its nature, that so secretly agitates me.


A sense of being called: How does God's call reach us? 'By many and various ways.' It is impossible to be exhaustive.  He calls through one's temperament, character, upbringing education; through ordinary-and sometimes extraordinary- circumstances of life; through  reading a religious book, perhaps a biography of a saint; through a beautiful liturgy;  through the example and encouragement of others; through the word of God heard in Scripture  or preaching; in prayer; through a growing awareness of  the supreme value of this kind of life and a sense of its appropriateness for me; through a steady desire and attraction for this way of life. Sometimes it is heard through someone saying to us: Do you think you might be called to the religious life?  Would such a vocation not be something for you?   One does not have to experience all of these for the call to be genuine. He calls at any hour of life: while many often  have a sense from childhood, others  hear his voice later. The Lord calls from Christian families , and also those who have strayed far from Him: St Paul, St Augustine, St Mary Magdalene belong to the most famous of converts.  It is wonderful to see how the Lord calls, whom he calls and when he calls. Each vocation is a mystery of mercy, a unique story, a salvation history, a story of the greatness of God's love and the greatness of our love and free will. 

 

Difficulties: Often people ask if difficulties can be a sign of a vocation.  Yes; those who want to serve the Lord and his church have and have always had difficulties to face, trials, temptations, etc.  The devil knows the immense blessing for many that comes from those who give themselves totally to the Lord. Therefore it is normal, as Our Lord himself said in the Gospel, that difficulties and obstacles arise, both from within ourselves and outside ourselves: doubts, fears, conflict with parents, lack of understanding from others, etc  To overcome such difficulties, we need confidence, perseverance, courage and faith, the spirit of sacrifice.  Above all, we need trust in God's Providence, for he knows  ways we do not know and nothing is impossible for him; he opens doors that cannot be opened. 

 

It is normal, also, to experience an occasional reluctance or resistance to a genuinely divine vocation, and to feel the pull of alternatives.  The 'certainty' of being called is not a mathematical one.  It can co-exist with times of uncertainty, questioning, confusion, etc. There is, however, a sufficient certainty to act on.          

The desire to be a consecrated person: Often this desire is accompanied by a sense of joy at the possibility of becoming a sister  of doing the Lord's work.  It's not always possible to explain this desire: it just seems right, the right path, the idea keeps coming back-even if it makes you afraid or make you think it would be impossible.

A vocation is thus a call from God, but this does not mean it requires  a vision or a voice from heaven, or even a constant, irresistible inward impulse.  Indeed the desire, as we've seen,  may be accompanied by a certain resistance, as St. Francis de Sales recognized:

A genuine vocation is simply a firm and constant will desirous of serving God, in the manner and in the place to which He calls me. I do not say this wish should be exempt from all repugnance, difficulty or distaste.  Hence a vocation must not be considered false because he who feels himself called to the religious state  no longer experiences the same sensible feeling which he had at first and that he even feels a repugnance and such a coldness that he thinks all is lost. It is enough that his will persevere in the resolution of not abandoning its first design. In order to know whether God wills one to be a religious, there is no need to wait till He Himself speaks to us, or until He sends an angel from heaven to signify His will; nor is there any need to have revelations on the subject, but the first movement of the inspiration must be responded to, and then one need not be troubled if disgust or coldness supervene.

So the desire for religious life can be accompanied by a feeling of joy and resistance-or both! How can resistance be positive sign?  Because people who are not called generally do not bother thinking about it at all.  The struggle can be a sign that there is a real call behind it, an inner sense of duty-even if it is reluctant. There comes a point when one passes from thinking, 'I could/wouldn't mind/would like to this, to live this life,' to 'I must do this.'  And must do it soon.

 

Yes! The vocation to serve Christ alone in his Church is an inestimable gift of the divine goodness, a gift to implore with insistence and trusting humility. The Christian must be always more open to this gift, careful not to waste "the time of grace" and "the time of visitation" (cf. Lk 19: 44).(Blessed John Paul II)

 

Things that will help

 

Prayer and adoration.  Prayer brings us close to the Lord, and opens ourselves to His voice.

 

The sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation.   The Sacrament of Reconciliation frees us from sin and weaknesses, and this is a great help towards  removing doubts, fears, and shadows in our minds concerning essential questions about the meaning and purpose of our life on earth.  The Eucharist constantly deepens  our life with Christ, brings us his grace and strength.  Both Sacraments bring us closer to the Lord.

Simplicity and humility.  We cannot expect the Lord to give us a blueprint of our life in advance.  He shows us his plan step by step.  And we can only see a little way ahead. But being faithful to the light we have will bring us more light.  When we do our duty each day, the Lord will show us our duty tomorrow, the day after, next week, next month, next year.  Being faithful in small things will help us see our way in the future and gives us more light.

This also means being ready to recognize that our mind can be very quick to  find excuses  and objections in order to flee from the voice of the Lord.  'I am not able to do this; others are more qualified; I am not worthy; I still want to do this or that.'  Simplicity and humility can help us discern which objections are true and which are false, what is fear and what is incapacity. You may be underestimating yourself-and underestimating God!  He chooses the weak and makes them strong. He knows how to write straight with crooked lines.   He wants our happiness and our flourishing, and He will sustain you.  He is a tender Father, who cares for you more than you care for yourself: trust Him.  Sometimes He might challenge you and call you to something unexpected-but it will always be for your ultimate good and happiness.

Sharing the life of a community.  The Lord said to John and Andrew: Come and see, He invited them to share His life and learn more about Him.  Like the Lord, religious communities, priests and sisters offer the possibility of sharing their lives, getting to know them.  Such experiences can take a vocation out of the abstract and make it concrete, and are a great help for understanding the meaning of the consecrated life.  It can also help you come to a better understanding of yourself.

Some Basic Requirements

 

A love for Jesus and His Church. Consecrated life is a life with Jesus in the service of the Church.  Even more than workers, the Lord needs lovers, witnesses to His truth, beauty and goodness, spiritual fathers and mothers and not only teachers, pastors and guides. God can do tremendous things in souls who love Him.

 

A willingness to be formed, to learn from others. Preparation for religious life according to the vows, like the preparation for the priesthood, is a way of conversion and growing in faith.  It is a way of developing all the potential in a human person.  Each person is unique, and formation implies a profound respect  and love for each individual's vocation and for the graces working in each one.  As St Bernard put it, we do not all run in the same way.  'Within the unity of the monastic observance, there is scope for a variety of individuals.'  'Each individual finds his own secret with the Bridegroom.' St Benedict in the Rule is very sensitive to this fact that different temperaments, circumstances require different responses to grace. Our particular path is unique. It is amazing to see what happens when  someone works with God's grace.

 

The Lord has given each person so many talents and characteristics but these do not develop automatically. It is important to see formation, above all, as a divine work, a supernatural process. The goal of all formation is a gradual transformation into the likeness of Christ, through the action of the Spirit aided by the maternal solicitude  of Our Lady, Mother of Jesus and of the Church, and our model in following Christ.


Basic physical and mental health.  Serious medical conditions would make it difficult for someone to live and work as a consecrated person. A vocation to the religious life supposes, then, not only a supernatural inclination or desire to embrace it, but an aptitude or fitness for its duties. God cannot act inconsistently. In other words, along with a desire, there has to be an inner and outer capacity, that is, the physical, psychological and moral capacity to live a certain way of life, and the outer circumstances permitting one to do so: suitable age, freedom from marriage bond and other big responsibilities, including freedom from debt.

Friends, I again ask you, what about today? What are you seeking? What is God whispering to you? The hope which never disappoints is Jesus Christ. The Saints show us the selfless love of his way. As disciples of Christ, their extraordinary journeys unfolded within the community of hope, which is the Church. It is from within the Church that you too will find courage and support to walk the way of the Lord. Nourished by personal prayer, prompted in silence, shaped by the Church's liturgy you will discover the particular vocation God has for you. Embrace it with joy. You are Christ's disciples today. (Pope Benedict XVI)