Are you feeling called to Religious Life?
shares his thoughts on the call to Religious Life
Contrary to what we often hear, the real question of vocation is not “what is God calling me to do?” It is “who am I?” Because, to paraphrase St. Ignatius, what God calls us to do is to be fully, vibrantly alive, which is to say totally and completely ourselves.
Monastic life can be a beautiful vehicle for becoming fully alive. I entered the monastery because my intuition told me that I had finally found a place with enough space for my spirit to breathe and expand, enough room for the life that is within me.
The summer between my second and third years of seminary, I spent two quiet weeks at the Monastery. I had just finished a ten-week CPE program at a New York hospice, and I was burned out. The guesthouse was closed at the time for the community’s summer vacation. I stayed on the ground floor in a room that had once been a chapel, ministered to by the cooling breeze off the river drifting through the crabapples outside my windows.
I spent nearly the whole of my first week in a rocking chair on the large cement porch overlooking the river. I also slept a lot, seduced by the late afternoon heat. My days were largely solitary, except for the three Offices and two meals with the brothers. The old loneliness crept up, by this time a familiar, almost friendly presence.
The second week I hardly read at all. Mostly I sat staring at the glint of the green-brown river slowly dragging itself first north and then south and then north again. I stared, not to memorize the landscape’s contours, but to situate my roaming mind and spirit against a gentle backdrop. The melodious sway of the meadow’s golden swells lulled me into a reverie that was restful, even contemplative. Used I had become to all the glass and concrete of New York, which, even in the cool green of the Park still loomed, a hard and shining canopy, all this space, and me the only person in it, seemed the essence of eternity.
During those hours sitting and staring into the wide-open space, I realized that my spirit and my body needed meadows and rivers and mountains and trees, needed air and starlight. The dawning understanding that now was the time to enter the monastery came first into my body as I found myself renewed and welcomed by the landscape.
Then, too, there were conversations with the community over meals and individually. Andrew told me, in his lilting Scottish brogue, “You’re a monk. I don’t say that to everyone, and I’m never wrong.” He also told me he loved me, and I believed him. I could hardly sit alone with him without the unnamed longing for home and father and love welling in my eyes. Often as we talked I’d let the tears roll down the soft hills of my cheeks. Andrew didn’t care, wasn’t the least bit startled. He was so completely himself that, like the meadow and the river, he had space for me.
I had a similar sense of spaciousness when I ate with the community. They engaged me gently, leaving me a distance that could have seemed reticent in another context. I intuited that distance, though, to be a respectful acknowledgment of the fullness and mystery of my humanity. It was as if the routine of hours marked by a bell, lived over a lifetime, opened one both to an understanding of the true impenetrability even of one’s own heart and also to an unhurried spaciousness for disclosure and connection, an acknowledgement that not everything has to be told or asked all at once, that true knowledge of another, of God, of ourselves unfolds over years and is, in end, no more than tentative, that, as the psalmist says, “the human heart and mind are a mystery.” (Ps. 64:6)
That way of relating was so different to anything I had known. My friendships and romances had arisen more from the quick spark and the hot flame, burning fast and bright, than from an unhurried courtship. Even in those relationships that lasted, I often felt as if I were living a role rather than inhabiting my own life and sharing that life with another. I wanted more space. I wanted eternity. Is this how Lazarus felt, I wondered, as his friends and neighbors slowly unwound the clothes that bound him, as he stepped from the cold damp of his tomb into the light and the air?
If I entered the monastery for the space, I have chosen to stay because, even when that space contracts around me, I know now that I am a monk.
Shortly after I entered the monastery, a fellow novice asked our then superior why he chose to stay in monastic life. He took a day to think on his answer, and then he told us that he chose to stay because he said he would. A mundane answer to those who would make of monastic life a romantic fantasy, but one of the truest I can imagine.
Every day of my monastic life I have asked myself some version of that question. Why do I stay, today? Yesterday’s answer likely will not suffice. And tomorrow’s isn’t yet given.
My choice for monastic life isn’t painless. But it isn’t difficult, either. I don’t choose to stay because I love monastic life, though I do love it. I don’t choose to stay because I feel that somehow God has ordained it for me. I don’t believe in that kind of God. I choose to stay because this is who I am. I am a monk. And not just any monk, but a monk here, in this place, on this land, in this moment of history.
I stay because I cannot do otherwise.
I say I stay in the Monastery because it’s who I am. But it is also who I choose to be. I choose to be a monk. I choose to allow this land, this place, these people to claim me.
I don’t believe in a God who has laid out all the pieces of a puzzle for me to assemble, if I can muster the wit to do so. No, I believe in a God who is Love itself. In a God who wants me to be me, which is to say in a God who wills for me my own deepest fulfillment, my own becoming.
Would I be happy in another life? Perhaps I would, but I don’t think that’s the right question. Happiness is a fleeting and, ultimately, dissatisfying thing. And it’s the trick of Christian discernment to move beyond questions of happiness, to questions of truth, reality, and love, which are ultimately the same thing.
Of course, I do wonder whether I will be happy in this life I have chosen. Even as I know that yes, I certainly will be happy. I will just as certainly be unhappy. I will be both fulfilled and unfulfilled. Because the choice we make in life is not whether to be totally happy and without pain in one scenario or totally unhappy and suffering in another. No, we choose both the graces and the challenges we will live. Monastic life is no different than any human life in the alloy of its satisfactions and emptinesses.
I have already felt, at times, that the container that once provided so much space to breathe, and so much freedom to play and discover has become a vise to choke and control. Just as the spaciousness that initially drew me to the Monastery has deepened and expanded. The one does not preclude the other, nor rob the other of its depth and meaning. These seeming opposites actually fulfill one another and reveal the deeper strands of unity that undergird this life.
More profoundly, and more prosaically, I choose to stay, because not to choose is to die. To live fully is to be alight, which means to burn and, eventually, to burn out. Never to have burned—that would be intolerable.
Monastic life is certainly not the only path to fullness of life. Nor is it, necessarily, the best one. Our own Father Allan Whittemore, a great spiritual director and mystic of his time, encouraged a directee who was struggling with vocational discernment to do what she wanted to do, as long as it wasn’t manifestly sinful. After all, God is the one who implants the desires of our hearts within us. Following that path of desire as deep as it will take us will tell us not only what we should be doing, but more importantly who we are. Grounded in being, the questions of doing won’t seem so important.
If you are feeling called to the Religious Life, it's best to start by contacting communities and arranging a phone call or a visit to learn more.
Contact information for the CAROA communities can be found on these pages within the CAROA website:
Is Student Loan debt preventing you from following a call to Religious life?
Click on the image above for a free webinar on Student Loan forgiveness for members of religious communities.