Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Waiting for the Call

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)


  1. After many years I've come to the conclusion that the religious vocation isn't anything out of the ordinary for a Catholic. If one grows up in constant/regular contact with priests /religious, then it might naturally happen that one will feel an attraction to that life. No need for the existential crises that come from "wondering if I missed my calling".

  2. If God has a strict plan for us then why do we have free will?

    1. I learned a new word. No I wasn't referring to free will as an explosion of ego that would make miracles. God made miracles for the Saints but that is because they chose Him. Prefestination is also something the Church does not teach. For Her benefit it is much better for pious women to fund families, grow babies into Faith especially today. But they cannot force us to do so. I don't take it too personally when they comment against pious women, the hypocrisy hidden in it at times and all that.
      Plus the pressure is great for making sure the decision is all yours.
      The level deaconesses may also be formed from lay women just as deacons aren't monks. A lot of people will be very disapointed and we women are mostly prone of envying each other for the silliest of things. It will be a mistake..deaconesses...imho.

    2. Trent's decree on justification says thus:
      C. 12
      No one, moreover, so long as he is in this mortal life, ought so far to presume as regards the secret mystery of divine predestination, as to determine for certain that he is assuredly in the number of the predestinate; as if it were true, that he that is justified, either cannot sin any more, or, if he do sin, that he ought to promise himself an assured repentance; for except by special revelation, it cannot be known whom God hath chosen unto Himself."

      It is not the Saints who chose Him, it is He who chose the Saints. He says so explicitly.

      It is God who made Israel free from captivity and He who made Israel win every battle It is not their horses or swords but strong hand of God that brought them victory.

      "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing." Jn 15, 5

      " for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. " Philippians 2, 13

      "And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of God; and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed." Acts 13, 48

      "No one born of God commits sin; for God's nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God. " 1 Jn 3, 9

      "And he said, `The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; " Acts 22, 14

      "He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, " Eph 1, 5

      "And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call, she was told, "The elder will serve the younger." As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So it depends not upon man's will or exertion, but upon God's mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, "I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth." So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills. You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me thus?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hose'a, "Those who were not my people I will call `my people,' and her who was not beloved I will call `my beloved.'" "And in the very place where it was said to them, `You are not my people,' they will be called `sons of the living God.'" And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: "Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved; for the Lord will execute his sentence upon the earth with rigor and dispatch." " Rom 9, 10-28

      "Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen." Eph 3, 20-21

    3. I know you're right but I can't claim I understand all you said. Except Scripture which I accept as given because...it's emotional for me. I have to take things deep and rethink a couple of things. I have to rethink everything but my small head only thinks a couple of things. :-)

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  3. This is a wonderfully useful post. No wonder one has never read anything similar elsewhere.

    Kudos, J.

    1. Fr. Butler's book is not long. Most of it is spent deconstructing the errant modern notions of vocation, but some of it has practical advice for those considering the religious life in these times. I may publish a few more selections once I have the time.

  4. This is a wonderful reflection. It is worth mentioning that the diocesan priesthood has probably been most influenced by this vocational elevation. The distinction, pre-Reformation, was not between the priest and people, but between monastic and secular people, whether ordained or not. The secular priest was a commoner who was ordained to provide Sacraments to those around him. Monks were only ever ordained priests to provide Mass and Confession to their own communities. Now the priesthood has become remote and unapproachable to many virile men who would make good secular priests.

    It is also a good point that previously those who sensed a monastic calling did not do online research for a spirituality they liked, they simply found the nearest priory or convent and got on with it.

    1. These days simply going to the local one is frequently impossible. I think it's been around a decade since we've had any monasteries at all in the whole state of South Dakota, for instance, though there's about half a dozen nunneries. The male vocations pipeline, from what I've seen, very much neglects the monastic, perhaps in an attempt to mitigate the lack of priests.

  5. Through my own discernment i've also come to conclusion that the "listening" part is just baloney. It's the modern sentish, emotionalism and devotionalism.

    We're not st. Maximillian Kolbe or, st. Paul for that matter (btw. happy feast of his conversion y'all).

    My thoughts on vocation are thus.
    Grace presupposes, builds upon and perfects nature. The case with religious vocation is the same. God has created our nature (here i mean character, temperament and personality) and we need to find out which grace best "fits" that nature to perfect it.

    One who is very outgoing, active, can't stop speaking is not of good nature for a Carthusian or a Trappist. The grace (charism) of those Orders has nothing to work with. The charism of Dominicans or Franciscans on the other hand, presupposes such nature and can perfect it. One who is not of sharp intellect is not fit for a religious university professor, but could rise to the heights of sanctity by being monk that simply prays and works.

    So the only thing one needs to do is listen to these words: γνῶθι σεαυτόν, and act upon them. But we do not come to know ourselves sitting by our keyboards, desks, ticking boxes on hip catholic questionnaires (Wut Urdr suits u d best hurr durr). One comes to know oneself by, wait for it... action. Engage in parish life. Engage in social life. Read lives of the saints. Read the Rules. Examine yourself.

    There's no heart of hearts (reminds me of heart of cards from Yu-gi-oh LOL).
    Those advice you talk about never helped me.

    What helped me was this verse: "Forty years long was I offended with that generation, and I said: These always err in heart. And these men have not known my ways: so I swore in my wrath that they shall not enter into my rest.".

    That prompted me to take action. To make a decision before being sure. What i was waiting for, and what everybody is waiting for now, is actually being absolutely sure before making a decision. That is somewhat understandable because those matters are of big matter, but in essence that mindset is actually the one which awaits private revelation because everything else can be written off as snares of the devil (and even private revelations for that matter because 2 Cor 11, 14).

    And just as love in marriage is a constant act of love, and it can be constant because it is not a fleeting emotion, such is the nature of a vocation. An act of the will upon recognizing which grace fits our nature the best.

    1. I think you're on to something. I refuse to try out the seminary because I know I am unfit to be a parish priest at this time. Could that change given many more years? Potentially, but I'm not going to lose sleep over it. I'm going to stay the course and try to grow in holiness where I am until something happens to change that.

      IF I take any religious life, it'll probably be the Diaconate.

    2. "IF I take any religious life, it'll probably be the Diaconate." - Glories of the modernity eh? :P
      "I'm going to stay the course and try to grow in holiness where I am until something happens to change that." - Exactly.

      What i am torn about is joining an existing community or starting my own thing.
      I know no community is ideal, and even those who claim tradition, are away from the Rule (i'm speaking of st. Benedict's Rule) at least in some respects. My country doesn't have much to offer.
      I burn and yearn for absolute observance of every letter of the Rule and i don't take well with compromises and i'm afraid that kind of an attitude gonna leave me stranded in the middle of nowhere. So because of that fear i feel i need to force myself to enter at least some community to at least try it out...

      Starting your own thing is potentially the fulfillment of dreams and can lead to great happiness, but on the other hand, if hypothetically, people joined me, i wouldn't want to be seen as a cult leader or the-pridefull-smartass-that-knew-better-than-all-the-rest-so-he-had-to-do-his-own-thing. (John Michael Talbot comes to mind)...

      I daydream of building a tiny house (a hermitage?) in some field where i can have a garden to grow my own plants. And then my pride gets the better of me and i daydream of bunch of young men being inspired by the example and flocking and then we build this giant monastery where there is like 150 of us and we get the approval from the Apostolic See to use my archaeologistic liturgy while we're already in usage of Opus Dei according to the letter of the Rule etc.

      So yeah. That's the wonderland i go to when i walk my dog...

    3. Not a bad fantasy...

      “I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.” - JRR Tolkein

    4. I think i would've gotten along with good ole Tolkien just fine :)

  6. Thanks for this post! I've been thinking this for years and have rarely been bold enough to say anything to anybody, and certainly haven't had the right words at my disposal!

  7. This is actually a holdover from the clericalist "old days" when marriage was looked down on as a thing that people did because they were weak. Young Catholics were pushed to either become religious of get married ASAP. One real example of this was a family of 16 where 6 or 7 joined the religious life while only 3 or 4 married and had offspring. Having children was not "respectable" in this nation LONG before the legalization of infanticide and the proliferation of online pornography.

    Also, it helps explain how there were so many ill-suited nuns who threw away their habits and priests-who-should-not-have-been-priests who let their sexual drives get the better of them.

    1. So marriage IS for the weak but more people should have been willing to admit they were?

    2. Apologies if I've confused you.

      How it was back then:
      "Oh, you got married and had 9 kids? Clearly you weren't meant for a higher calling. You took the lesser path because you couldn't control yourself..."
      Cue a bunch of young people being pressured to join convents or seminaries, even though they are unfit. Conservatives and Trads look back and mistakenly believe there was a golden age of vocations.

      How it should have been:
      "You have 9 kids? Wonderful! You must have sacrificed so much! Do you think any of them will become a religious? How many of them do you think will emulate you and have families of their own?"

      I'll give today's traditionalists some credit, at least many of them view children as a beautiful thing to be celebrated. This is one old error they have overcome (and, if anything, might occasionally swing a bit too much the other way).

    3. There's nothing shameful in weakness, but the implicit equation of weakness with vice is unfortunate. Nevertheless, celibacy is a higher path that not all are strong enough to walk. We should attempt to overcome our various weaknesses, but this is not one that must necessarily be overcome for salvation's sake.

    4. What I was referring to was a peculiar mentality that existed before Vatican II which is (Deo Gratias) long dead. It was sometimes so bad that when nuns threw away their habits and "Fr. Bob" celebrated "Mass" with cookies and apple juice there were married lay Catholics who gloated. For years they had been looked down on for having children (never mind that rearing children requires sacrifices that many, myself included, are intimidated by) and now their brothers, cousins, aunts, and uncles who had been put on a pedestal for their "callings" were bringing shame on the Church. There is a reason that the Traditionalist movement began as a lay reaction and was full of families with large numbers of children.

      When the comprehensive history of the 20th century Church is finally written, there will be much to say about the decrepit state of the Pre-V2 Church. The bizarre perversion corruption of the true statement "celibacy is a higher calling" will be among them.

    5. Ever since the Tridentine anathematizing of those who would place marriage at an equal status with celibacy, Catholics have been a bit nutty and unnecessarily mystical about the religious life. The contemporary perversions are just an overreaction in the opposite direction.

    6. And sadly, that is the story of many things both in the Church and outside it. A pendulum swinging madly back and forth to extremes in a series of overreactions and counter-overreactions.

    7. Celibacy is greater than marriage. That is not only Tridentine, it is Apostolic and Patristic.

  8. Very true. Imagine the thousands of young Catholics who have wasted their time, in some cases wasted 'years' engaged in phoney discernment.