A recent visit to Café Preténse with the Little Lady was punctuated by a visit with an old friend who had recently been tossed back into the world by a small-minded women’s religious order. In the course of our conversation, she let slip that another mutual friend of ours—currently married and mother of a cheery little tyke—had undergone months of scruples related to the religious life when she and her then-boyfriend had asked their pastor for advice about proceeding towards marriage. This sorely misguided priest started the process of marriage discernment by asking them both if they had fully discerned against the religious life, rather than getting to know them in their own situations and individual histories. Our mutual friend spent almost half a year tormenting herself about whether or not she had a religious vocation (not for the first time) while her longsuffering man looked on, until she finally allowed him to propose marriage.
The “process of discernment” is a semi-mystical mental torture device that could only exist in a first-world land where youths are encouraged to spend years deciding between too many professional choices instead of taking up the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood at a young age. Young Catholics are told to pray and listen quietly for God’s “calling” to their individual souls, to try and sort out what the Spirit is telling them to do with their lives. The priesthood, socially active religious life, contemplative orders, the married state, and “singleness” are all said to be valid “callings” for the young Catholic.
Baloney, says Mr. J. Grump. Being raised Evangelical Protestant (as I never tire of reminding our longsuffering readers), I was presented with a similar choice by a well-meaning youth pastor in my pre-college years: between a life of “ministry” and mere church-going. The “ministry” was divided into various parts, such as missionary work, pastoral positions, song and dance, and evangelism, although the married life was expected as the norm. I decided early on that I had no interest in a life of “ministry,” since I didn’t want the failure of other people’s spiritual lives to hang on my poor advice.
The American Catholic approach is more sinister, although I could not quite put my finger on the nature of the problem until reading Richard Butler, O.P.’s Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery (1961). Fr. Butler also had no patience for the baloney of vocational discernment as it exists in common parish life.
The mind of man, however, tends to multiply mysteries unnecessarily. Given the light, he often prefers darkness. Perhaps it is just a natural tendency to intellectual sloth: whatever is difficult to grasp I will dismiss as mystery; a mystery is inexplicable and therefore does not require, since it cannot achieve, thorough understanding…. Religious vocation—the call to follow Christ by observing His counsels [poverty, chastity, and obedience] as well as His commands—is a matter of public revelation. The human response to this divine invitation is a matter of public history. And yet an aura of mystery has beclouded this simple invitation in the popular mind to the point of complication and confusion for both the observer of and the participant in religious life—an established state in which one can achieve, more safely and securely, the common Christian goal of perfection in charity….
The specific crime is that of relegating religious vocation to the realm of Gnosticism, making of it an esoteric private inspiration. At least that is the unmistakable tone of their conversation and propaganda on the subject…. Religious life is not an extra, not a luxury, not a peculiar path for exceptional souls in the pursuit of Christian perfection. It is necessary for the apostolic work of the Church and for the personal salvation of some of its members….
We have to sympathize with the perplexed young soul, pondering an eternal future and seeking a safer route, who is vaguely instructed: “My dear friend, in your heart of hearts, ask yourself if God is not calling you.” The anxious reader of such advice is sent out on a scavenger hunt for a divine communication. His search is bound to be futile. He is not sure, and neither am I, exactly what one’s “heart of hearts” is. He does not know where to look, or, for that matter, what to look for. What is this “call?” How do you get it? And how do you know when you have it? (4-5, 7, 8)
Butler’s observation on the degradation of spiritual advice in these matters eventually delves deeper into St. Thomas Aquinas and the Church Fathers, and there is a great deal of eye-rolling at the scrupulosity of spiritual directors who demand that young people spend months or years asking God and themselves if they “have a vocation.” The solution is actually quite simple: we are all called (vocare) to observe the counsels, but all required to observe the commands. A calling is not a command, and never can be. Not all can make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom. Not all can live without the marriage bed. Not all can submit their will entirely to another. The desire to live the religious life of the three counsels is not one to be excessively deliberated over—“In fact, [St. Thomas] says, don’t seek advice except from those who will encourage you!” (26)—and one desirous of this life should simply seek out the nearest monastery and begin to live the counsels as much as possible until he is accepted into an order. Those who know their own weakness, whether by birth or because of the long-term effects of past sin, should not scruple about marrying or otherwise finding an alternative to a life dedicated solely to the good of the Church.
The term “vocation” in ecclesiastical usage “more directly and properly applies to the divine selection of candidates to the priesthood,” but only in the sense that the candidate for ordination is called by the bishop, “for there is no directly revealed call [from God] to certain individuals to the priesthood, except in extraordinary cases like that of St. Paul” (155).
For my own part, I lost interest in the priesthood during the abuse scandal revelations, and in the religious life after my first exposure to the rapping Franciscans (I imagine this was similar to a person forever swearing off marriage after accidentally seeing his grandparents engage in adult activities). There is little to love in the religious life as it is lived today, aside from the occasional pockets of stubborn traditionalism, and the priesthood is faring much worse. We are ripe for a modern-day Rabelais to satirize our ecclesiastical state.
Mr. Grump and his Little Lady left the Café with concern for our newly-secularized friend, but with some hope that she would still pursue the counsels. The poor judgment of postulant directors notwithstanding, the practice of the counsels is not meant to be easily abandoned by those who earnestly desire it. As Fr. Butler writes elsewhere in his book,
The only impediment to entering religious life considered by St. Jerome was the physical obstacle of a father lying prostrate across the threshold to prevent a child from entering the cloister; and in this case, St. Jerome advised stepping over him to fulfill this holy resolve and get to the convent. (26)