Vocation – How Do We Get There?

Vocation – How Do We Get There?

Fr Michael Casey ocso, a monk of the Cistercian community at Tarrawarra outside Melbourne in Australia, has enjoyed a distinguished career as writer, commentator, teacher, and above all, monk, which has embraced the span of his adult, and therefore monastic life.  It’s not simply that Fr Michael can be said to be well and widely read – although he is, of course, this and much more.  What is evident in what he writes is that, whatever he has read has become assimilated and digested – he has the capacity to understand and respond to texts, articles and books, and in doing so allows his readers and hearers to gain his own newly formed insights into the matters being offered.

In this way he has, over a course of many decades, given much in terms of thought and reflection in the vast campus of vocation, in all its many hues.  A wonderful article, worthy of our own consideration, appears in the Australasian Benedictine Review Turunga, dealing with aspects of monastic formation (Michael Casey ocso, Aspects of Monastic Formation in the Light of Contemporary Challenges, in Turunga 90/2017, 5-22).  While the article in its full reading is to be recommended, a few paragraphs in an early section – Those Who Come – provide excellent material for our own ongoing reflection on the nature of religious vocation and how we can encourage men and women today to be aware of and responsive toward this reality in their lives.  We will quote the relevant sections here and offer some slight comments to allow for your own personal reflection.  Casey writes:

It seems fairly obvious that the former delivery system for vocations no longer operates with the same degree of intensity: an actively Catholic home, years of Catholic education, contact with religious, membership in Catholic organisations.  As a result, those who show an interest in religious or monastic life are frequently older, more experienced and less imbued with the particularities of a Catholic sub-culture.  They may have experienced periods of intellectual or moral alienation from the Church, or merely suffered from a lack of interest in Catholic or religious matters due to their whole-hearted involvement in alternative and more attractive pursuits.  There is a certain amount of shopping around.  In many cases candidates will have tried several communities before making their final choice, and all of us know of cases where novices or juniors have left and returned (Note: novices are those who are at the very beginning of their life in a religious institute; juniors are generally those who have made simple or temporary vows, but not yet perpetual or solemn vows.  Neither category of candidate is definitively incorporated into as religious institute: this comes only with solemn profession of vows)

I would suggest that radical discontinuity between pre-entry life and what is experienced after entry is the new normal.  The transition between secular life and monastic life is far more substantial than it used to be.  What has motivated and energised the transition is an experience that we may call “conversion” or “vocation”, understanding that the degree of drama involved varies according to the personality of the individual.  The authenticity of the experience is known by the energy it imparts to take the onerous practical steps in moving from one relatively settled lifestyle into something entirely different.

Monastic tradition describes how the call of God reaches us.  In a line stretching from Antony of Egypt (+ 356) to Saint Aelred of Rievaulx (+ 1167) four channels are distinguished, although sometimes more than one of these influences is operative:

  1. In some cases there is a moment of acute spiritual intensity unconnected with anything that is happening in the outside world: “a touch of God”, a “stirring”, an awakening, an enlightenment, compunction, vocation.  This is experienced as a surge of energy that enables us to take the step so long imagined and so long postponed.  Compunction is “whatever rouses the soul, by God’s grace, from its drowsiness and half-heartedness”.
  2. For others there is an attraction to some good or holy person who seems to embody the future they desire for themselves.  This could be a relationship with a living person, or an acquaintance of some saint of another time.  Such models serve a s mirrors in which persons can see themselves more clearly: they are means by which they discover their “deep self”.
  3. The summons to walk a spiritual path can come through the counsel of a wise person.  When someone whose judgement is trusted deliberately suggests a particular path it is a means by which deep, unformed intimations are given shape and direction.  When wise persons are in short supply God often makes use of baser channels, like Balaam’s donkey (see Numbers 22:21-39).  The means are not important; what matters is the resonance that is stirred up in the soul.  Books, liturgical readings and even homilies (!) can operate in a similar way. 
  4. Finally God can speak to us through disaster, when the order we have so rigorously imposed on our life is lost and we are left to pick up the pieces.  Bereavement, loss of employment, family break-up, serious illness, accidents – these can in a single day destroy the lives we had, and precipitate us into irretrievable crisis.  Despite being overwhelmed by what seems to be a tragedy, this is, in reality, an opportunity to be liberated from the staleness that was beginning to mark the previous stage of our life and to venture out into unexplored territory.

This unanticipated contact with the spiritual world is inexpressible, though it often clothes itself in everyday images, even to the point of banality.  A person can be attracted to a monastery by the prospect of wearing a monastic habit, by the soaring cadences of the chant, by the beauty of the monastic environment, by the warm, earthy wisdom of a member of the community.  These are but external signs of an internal grace.  They are not unimportant, but the reality of conversion or vocation goes much deeper.

In many ways, the above selections from Casey’s article do much to hone our attention on frequently asked questions about religious vocation today.  In the first instance, we are aware that we are living in a religious and social context which is radically, different to that known by our parents and grandparents.  For the most part today we cannot speak about a clearly defined line of Catholic faith communication to these present generations – Generation X, Generation Y and the Millennial Generation, to use commonly employed terms.  A near collapse in Catholic experience and evangelisation, especially in Western society – the so-called Old World – has revealed a painful but, when analysed, not surprising disconnect from Church for many under 50s today.  There is not the sense of belonging and identity with Church as seen in the past, and so, for many people, things Catholic have ceased to exercise a determining and formative role in their lives.  Casey makes this point – the once rich progression from family and school to priesthood or religious life has all but dried up.

One might say, then, that there is today a much greater emphasis on the deeply personal maturation of a call or realisation of vocation than several decades ago.  And this is borne out in his comments in the subsequent paragraphs – but interestingly, as he notes, these aspects of vocational awareness are present and have marked the teaching and discourse which has come down to us from the religious commentary of saints and others throughout the course of the first millennium!  So, much has changed in the sense of socio-religious context but much has remained the same in the matter of personal realisation of religious vocation.

But that leads to an inevitable lack of continuity – the gap between personal formation by faith community and local Church and local church experience and the religious community which receives a person who comes to discern a vocation formally has widened tremendously.  This has obvious negative consequences.  The religious culture shock which a new candidate may experience on entering a religious institute may make persevering – even with a genuine vocation – very difficult.  Added to this, the inevitable diet of wall-to-wall communication with which present younger generations are familiar makes stepping away from a constant being in touch with others to what will inevitably prove to be a more rarified, slower, quieter and probably less tech-centred environment traumatic.  Undoubtedly the question about how much access to, how great a reliance on, how quickly or slowly to “wean” a candidate off their mobile devices and social media immersion is probably one of the most pressing questions which religious institutes and formators must ask – and solve.  While there can be no gainsaying the enormous value of social communications interaction and employment as a plank in the developing new evangelisation, it must remain in service to that mission task, and not one of the major influencers in how evangelisation is achieved.  The spectre of the technological paradigm – that the digital tools we use become the single greatest moulders of how we preach the Gospel – has to be acknowledged and faced down.

It’s refreshing to apply Casey’s four models or channels of vocation communication.  Each asks for a peculiar and mature self-awareness on the part of the vocation recipient, and each stands fairly and squarely as different and particular.   The first, which acknowledges immediately that God is the primary agent in the working and rising of a religious vocation, opens us to the surprise of vocation.  In particular that “surge of energy” which may be experienced is truly the movement of the Spirit , with all that that will bring in our search for vocation and direction.  But the one searching is really called, in honesty and humility, to see those fruits of the Spirit as indicators of the presence of a possible vocation.  It’s important – even for those of us who are living out a religious way of life and vocation already – to recall how these fruits affirm and confirm our own sense of vocation and identity, and it should be the same for the one who is searching and asking the vital question of themselves.  To be aware of the fruits of the Spirit in the heart of this question is to discern confirming signs that we are probably on the right discernment track.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control are, all in their own ways and in the context of the question being asked, indicators and confirmators of a religious vocation. 

We should never discount the wonderful effect another life lived in holiness will have on us and on those seeking a way to God!  The saints are men and women who also struggle as they pick their path to God.  But their examples of lived holiness, suffering, penance, service, mission, apostolate, preaching in season and out of season, renunciation – and the list goes on – rightly ask a question of those who come to notice them and know them: this example serves as an invitation to you to do likewise.  Very often a vocation is only a vague feeling that I want to follow Christ more exactly in service and prayer.  The example of saints gives us particular concreteness, structure, something that we can see, hear and recognise.  In that very definite way of living we often see our own vocation taking on a recognisable shape.  One of the points made by Casey is the increasing lack of living and familiar religious and priestly examples which we can come to know.  This unfortunately is the case with less and less religious involved in the classroom end – and even chaplaincy end – of education, and fewer working in the front line of health and social care.  But the living and serving examples to whom we can still point are important flesh and blood witnesses for those seeking to pin down a religious vocation.  To want to follow in the footsteps of a religious brother or sister is often the starting point of one’s own vocation – and, far from being brushed aside, it should be encouraged and affirmed.

Christiantiy does not make room for the guru, because Christ is the only teacher who has all the answers for every situation.  However, Christian tradition has always welcomed and acknowledged the role of the “wise elder”, beginning with the practice of the Egytpian desert abbas and ammas and growing through to our own day in the form of spiritual direction and accompaniment.  Often it is for someone else, who has lived the religious life and grown in their own way into this imitation of Christ to point out to us that we should be seeking and discerning seriously a vocation in the religious life or priesthood.  It’s interesting – why might we be so comfortable, and indeed pleased, if someone points out to us that we are born teachers, or obviously suited to the medical profession in some way, or will make a difference in our work for the marginalised – when that person obviously knows what they are talking about – but shrink at the notion expressed by someone who has wisdom in this matter that I should actively engage in discerning a religious vocation: that I would make a great preacher; that I have a call to a more contemplative way of life; that I am made for work as an overseas missionary?  Casey’s point here is no big revelation!  For decades now, secondary schools have been employing teachers and others to be careers advisors and coordinators, who assist our young people in discerning and choosing what appears to be their optimum career pathway.  And, more often than not, the young people follow this advice (with greater or lesser success!).  But if a priest or religious suggests that not just your chosen career path but your life path is a religious vocation…?

But God, we can be sure, chooses his own ways of speaking and communicating.  Perhaps this is the most challenging aspect of our vocation discernment – it happens in the banal and the ordinary.  It’s unexpected because it’s boring!  This is probably true for many – we spend a great deal of time looking for a blinding revelation when all the time God has been quietly nudging us along the road,dropping hints, as it were, and waiting for us to take notice.  From this point of view there are probably countless numbers of men and women who have not noticed that they should have been religious brothers or sisters or priests, and have allowed life, and the advice of well meaning friends and family, to push them to another course.  Sometimes we need to realise that the ordinary is already the extraordinary, just dressed up in slightly duller colours.

Casey’s final point marks out a very specific group of experiences – that vocation is perceived as a result of trauma.  If we are clear in our minds about the nature of vocation we need to recognise that it is the expression of the plan that God has had for me from all eternity, wrapped up in his own wonderful and ineffable creativity and playfulness, and which he allows become apparent to me as my own life and self-realisation unfolds.  Vocation is always present but not always sensed.  The experience of trauma in one’s life – and, like each of our experiences and yet unlike each of our experiences, it is deeply personal and unique – can assume devastating proportions, as Casey indicates.  We never seek trauma or disaster for its own sake or even for the results that it brings – that would indicate a deeply flawed and unstable and insecure personality.  But for some of us, when it is faced, borne, and lived through, with others supporting, healing, rebuilding, it may become the key which opens the door to a new way of living.  With all such experiences a certain death of a part of self occurs, which allows a new life to emerge.  Trauma, for all its possible damage, can be transfiguring as well.  It brings me to a point in which I am asked to welcome a new self, a deep self, a true self, because my old self has been tested, as Sacred Scripture might say, and proven in fire.  

For those of us who are asking the vocation question, or who perhaps are trying to find the courage to ask the question and make the first bold move into a religious institute, the channels which we have just outlined provide a very welcome context.  They work because they are not theoretical – they are eminently practical and concrete.  And for those of us who are already living a religious vocation, or accompanying seekers, they may well re-situate our own reflection and work: discernment is also about accompaniment and asking the right questions.

-Part of our ‘Holy Rule of St Benedict’ series-

Other posts…

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