Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How to know if you're called

Update 9/14/12:  It seems that quite a few people are hitting this page after Googling some variation of "How do I know if I'm called to be a nun?"  I feel guilty now that the original post doesn't really attempt to answer that question, so I'm going to add this article I came across on a Come and See retreat that breaks it down for you.


   And I now return you to my original post!  :)

I was reading the blog of a Franciscan named Matt who just finished postulancy and entered novitiate a few days ago, and he had a post on the question he's often asked, "How do you know you have a vocation?"  It's hard to sum up, he replies, but there are some things that don't make a vocation:

I'd say that one who approaches religious life and its struggles as something to be "conquered" or "overcome" perhaps doesn't have a vocation. Religious life is not something that's meant to be triumphed over nor is it a competition between who can and can't survive the gauntlet.

My first response was to wonder, "Is that a guy thing?"   I certainly never felt the slightest temptation to tackle religious life as a challenge to beat into submission.  It's more like something God had better help me with, or I'll never make it!  But then I'm a bit indolent.  Maybe there are some women, now that I think about it, who'd approach it in a more competitive spirit.

I have a little story about this question of how you can know if you're called to religious life.  Well, a long story.  Goes like this: three years ago the pastor of my parish pulled me aside after Mass and said he wanted to speak to me.  I didn't know him well at that time, so I was a bit surprised, but I followed him into his confessional.  The confessionals at St. Peter Chanel are on the large side, and they also serve as offices for the priests and meeting spaces for small groups if you shove the screens out of the way.  We desperately need more proper classrooms, but in the meantime I have fond memories of packing thirteen people into a cozy confessional for a talk on the Ignatian Exercises or a discussion of St. Faustina's Diary.  One of the confessionals even has its own bathroom inside-- I kid you not-- and a back door that could allow the lucky priest to escape obnoxious penitents before they get to him, though I'm sure that never happens. :)  Yes, and the rooms are used for their ostensible purpose too; my parish has five Masses a day and there are priests hearing confessions at all of them but the 6 AM Mass.  I'm just bragging now.

I followed the pastor into his confessional, extremely curious about what he had to say to me, and he soon came to the point: "I wanted to ask you if you've ever thought of becoming a nun."

I paused, wondering how to put my whole tangle of feelings into words, and then said simply, "You know, I have."

To be honest I was just a little bit piqued.  I think I'd had an idea that some day I would announce dramatically, "Father, I believe I'm called to be a nun!" and he'd say, "Wow, that's amazing, I'm thrilled!" and shake my hand.  But instead he asked me while I was still unsure, and sort of stole my thunder.  Now I realize that most priests won't jump for joy anyway if you say you want to be a nun.  They take it pretty calmly; I'm guessing that they've known many people who consider the idea and end up discerning otherwise.  Maybe they also understand that if they got really excited that would put pressure on the girl not to change her mind, and then her decision would be less free than it should be.

"Well, I think that would be good," my pastor replied, and he calculated how long I'd been Catholic.  Seven months-- most congregations wouldn't admit me so soon after confirmation, he told me.  But he said that Sister Guadalupe, one of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy and a former parishioner of St. Peter Chanel, was coming back for a visit, and if I liked I could meet with her and talk about being a nun.  I happily agreed to this.

So a week or so later I met Sister in the church and we went to Fr. Ed's confessional to talk.  Scarcely had we sat down than I asked her the question uppermost on my mind: "How can I tell if I have a vocation?"

Sr. Guadalupe smiled knowingly.  "Ah, the big question!"  And she told me a story of her own:

"When I was first discerning I went to visit the Missionaries of Charity.  They gave me a nice little room with some videos I could watch, and I sat down, just so happy to be there, and I put in a video of Mother Teresa.  It was an interview that she gave, and they asked her, 'How can a girl know if she is called to be a nun?'  And of course I was just putting my hands on the TV, saying, 'Yes!  Please tell me!  How do I know if I'm called to be a nun?'"

"What did Mother Teresa say?" I asked, as breathless for the answer as Sr. Guadalupe had been.

"She stopped," said Sr. Guadalupe, "and she smiled.  And then she said, 'The girl who is called-- she knows.'"

End of story.  I trust that answers all questions!  Please don't thank me-- it's my pleasure to use this blog to help people discern their vocations.  :)

By the way, the Franciscan whose post I quoted above has been hitting them out of the park lately.  He has another post on what it's like to be young in religious life (he entered at 19), and he just added some reflections on all the changes he's going through (written just before receiving the habit.)  In that last post, he writes this:

One of the things that I learned here, which maybe seems like a no-brainer, is that I need to have a radical dependence on God. Perhaps you're thinking that, as someone who is rather religious and a member of a religious community, I should certainly have known that I needed to depend on God long before I came here to Kansas. The truth is, I think that you're always aware of your need to be dependent on God and yet it takes moments of real stress, when your "cage is rattled" that you realize how important you relationship with God actually is and you begin to find deeper consolation, deeper joy, and deeper need for that relationship to grow.

 I'm constantly surprised to hear that even in religious life you have to struggle and strive to grow in your relationship with God.  My mind tends to keep sliding back into the habit of thinking that holiness will come really easily if I go to a convent and put on a veil.  But then I'm reminded that it takes effort even for religious.  And the equally important corollary is that as a layperson out in the world, I'm not excused from the effort.  Sometimes I feel that my circumstances are less than ideal for growing in holiness-- there are distractions, and all sorts of things I have to do, and difficult people, and many obstacles to prayer.  I told this to my spiritual director and he (a religious priest) smiled knowingly and said that very likely I'd find the same thing in the convent.

Oh, I'm just gonna link to Matt's whole blog.  I'm waiting breathless to hear if he'll learn how to walk around without getting his new Rosary caught on everything.

And if you insist on more serious guidance for discerning your vocation, here's a very clear-cut way to figure things out.


The Cellarer said...

Our PP went to seminary and left as he didn't think it was what he was called to, worked for a few years, realised it was and went back!

A spanish sister working in africa did an appeal a few weeeks ago and recounted her experience. She felt called at 19 and took eight years, all the while with a fiance, before concluding she was called to be a nun.

The other striking common thread amongst those priests / religious who I've talked to or have given a talk I been at is a 'holy priest / or religious' who inspired them to want to do it is invariably part of the story.

Rae said...

Lovely post. :-) I think that there is some danger in pressuring people into religious vocations, but then again some people need a bit of a hint to consider something which others around them can see as oh-so-obvious.

Rachel Gray said...

Cellarer, I've heard a few stories like those you tell-- it can take years, and lots of false starts. A real test of faith. And I don't think the people who take a long time are necessarily not trying as hard or not obeying God as well. I think sometimes He leads people by circuitous paths.

Thanks Rae. I agree about pressure, but also that sometimes mentioning the idea is helpful. I think there are young people who have it on the heart already but feel too weird about bringing it up till someone does it for them. And I've heard some vocation stories that begin with someone (often a priest) suggesting a religious vocation to the high school or college student, who is astonished and laughs it off-- at first.