As I settle in to my new job as vocation director for the monastery it is amazing to listen to and reflect on peoples experiences of coming to the monastery. I listen to a lot of people as they discern where God is leading them, what the next step in their life will be. This can be a confusing, exciting, difficult, wonderful time. When anyone is discerning a major decision, especially regarding entering religious life, it is an adventure through what may seem like uncharted wilderness.
It is the essence of wilderness to be uncharted, but nonetheless there seem to be some patterns that I have noticed in working with people and from having done my own discernment of religious life. Some of the signs of call seem rather obvious, some are very subtle and they all require plenty of time and space and honesty to sit with them in order navigate the wilderness of God-inspired decision making.
Signs of Call
Persistence: It would be wonderful if we could just wake up one morning simply knowing what we were supposed to do next, where God wanted us to be. Sometimes that does seem to happen, but if it does it might best beware. Call is something that tends to take time to become clear and if it is right it will remain right. How many people have jumped into bad marriages because they were instantly sure and wanted to act immediately? A call is something that probably takes a while to become clear, but even if it happens suddenly, it will continue over time. Call is something that won’t let you go. Like Jonah running to Nineveh you can’t escape.
Motivation: Why do you want to make this decision, whether entering religious life or some other decision that you think is God’s call for you? This is tricky. None of us makes a conscious decision to say: “I want to do this because it will feed my ego on a deep level.” It is very difficult to be completely, totally honest with ourselves and recognize our deepest motivations. We have to take the time to keep going deeper, to keep peeling back the layers of motivation. Do I want to enter religious life because God is calling me or because I think it would be a comfortable way of life? Do I want to make this change because God is calling me or because my family always pushed me to do this? Stripping the layers to see our deepest selves and our motivation takes time and work.
Rightness: There is a deep level of recognition that often comes with vocations or other decisions to follow God’s call. On one level the decision may seem unexpected, impractical or just plain crazy, especially on a practical, rational level. But the practical, rational level is often not the level of discernment. After considerable time and searching there may come a deep, intuitive sense that the decision is right. Possibly crazy and unrealistic, but right on a deep level. The rightness does not mean that it isn’t scary, that there aren’t lots of obstacles, but that in the center of your being it is the life-giving way.
Signs to Watch Out For
There are plenty of positive signs in discerning a vocation or any other decision regarding following God’s call, but there are also some warning signs. All of us can be very skilled at deluding ourselves into thinking that we are following God rather than recognizing our own needs and desires at work.
Cost: The poet T.S. Elliot had a line that seems to summarize religious life perfectly: “a condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.” One of the hardest things to grapple with in looking at religious life is what it will cost. Most people can see the simplicity, having to give up some of their belongings or having less contact with their families, but there is more. We come to a way of life that asks us to go from being an individual in control of our life, or at least feeling like we are in control, to a state of being interdependent with others and with God. We come and give up our previous life, the roles we have played, our status and accomplishments and we totally start over again. Coming to religious life will give us more than we can imagine, but it may cost more than we can imagine.
Wherever You Go There You Are: Sometimes people come to religious life thinking that they have finally found a group of people who will really love them and support them. And if anyone comes to a healthy community that will be the case. The problem is that no group of people will be able to fix the hole in your heart. Each of us comes to religious life with our patterns of relationships, our woundedness, our issues and we won’t be instantly changed when we walk through the door. A religious community is not so much a place where we will be healed as a place where we realize we are in need of healing. If your need for healing and affirmation is too great this may not be the way of life for you.
No Generic Religious Life: When discerning a vocation some people seem to think that there is a generic call to religious life. They feel God is calling them and seem ready to quickly settle on the first place that will talk to them or is willing to let them enter. This is like marrying the first person that comes along who is single and is also looking to get married. The fit of religious life is deeply personal and mutual. There is a long, elaborate dance between the community and the aspirant. Is there a match? Do I like you? Do you like me? Will this work? Religious communities are not like brands of vanilla ice cream, one is not basically the same as the others. You can’t just pull one off the shelf and expect it to be fine.
Maybe the bottom line in discernment is that it is God’s process, not ours. We continue to listen deeply, attentively, honestly. We learn to face our nakedness before God, our deepest wants, needs, desires. We have to face our brokenness and our goodness, our failings and our tremendous gifts. In discernment we get out of the way and listen to God pulling, pushing, nudging and coaxing us into the way of new life. It is a place where the wilderness will blossom with new life.