Monday, February 01, 2010

How can you be certain you did not have a religious vocation?

People have asked me that for years.  So many have told me I must have at least had a religious vocation that I refused or resisted.  When I tell them absolutely not, they ask how I can be so sure? 
As I tried my vocation in various communities, 'signs' were always there, but I refused to accept them, convinced I had to be a religious - my salvation depended upon it.  Locked up in a monastery I wouldn't be able to sin as much.  I knew marriage wasn't my call, thus celibacy in a monastery must be the only way.  That grace wasn't there however.
Then one day at Mass twenty five or so years ago, I heard the words of today's Gospel as if spoken directly to me:
"... As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed pleaded to remain with him.  But Jesus would not permit him but told him instead, 'Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.'" - Mark 5: 1-20
It suddenly made sense to me...  that was God's will for me.  Religious life was not.  Frequently I can refer to the convincing power of the Holy Spirit as 'being convicted' - I often write, "I was convicted" when referring to some spiritual realization or understanding.  I think it must be a common, ordinary grace in the Christian life.  I guess Protestants use the term all of the time - John Paul II did so as well - that is, he frequently spoke on the necessity of the 'convincing power of the Holy Spirit'.
Despite the fact all of the details of my life had been there to prove I could not be a religious, I continued to wrestle with the idea I might be called, until the Lord finally intervened and everything fell into place.  Even my unanswered prayers as a child, begging the Lord to preserve me from mortal sin - especially sins against chastity.  Yet I was molested several times as a kid and my world turned upside down, my values inside out.  Nevertheless, attracted by grace and through the sacraments, prayer, spiritual training and ascesis, the Lord had pity upon me.  He had mercy upon me - without calling me away from my state in life, if you will.
Sometimes I think the Lord permits great evils - mortal sin, so that he may be glorified the more by our repentance and even more so in his loving mercy towards us.  Pope John Paul I said something about that - but I can't find the source right now.
Anyway.  Every one's experience is different of course.  I sometimes imagined the opposite and thought that others should somehow learn from my experience and/or example.  (I know - God forbid!)  That is pride and an illusion of course - and it took me a very long while to figure that out.  But Our Lord had only instructed the man:  'Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.'  He didn't tell him to preach, teach, instruct, judge, condemn, or try to change anyone.
Art: "Forgiven" - by Thomas Blackshear  (Yep - I really like this piece.)


  1. Anonymous11:49 AM


    Thank you for writing this. I appreciate it.

    I am struggling a great deal right now to discern and know my vocation, whatever that may mean.

    I'm curious (though not to undermine your choice in anyway, but rather for my own reflection) what kinds of 'signs' were always there that told you you did not have a vocation to religious life.

    I have thought for a long time that the Lord is calling me to the priesthood. Within that more general call lies the problem of where to do that, so to speak. In a diocese, an active religious order, a monastery...who knows?

    There is a recurring thought that if I was to opt for my diocese, say, that I wouldn't really be following God since I'm not doing what seems to be the ultimate vocation: a monk in a monastery. That seems to be the highest thing.

    To hear you say "I was convinced I had to be a religious - my salvation depended upon it" resonates well with me. The thought comes back that, somehow, if I am not a monk and do not--I don't know--pay that price or follow that path, I will not be saved, I will have rather been half-assing my way through life and lukewarmly serving the Lord.

    I can say, I think confidently too, that I knew "marriage wasn't my call" for some time now.

    Anyway, thanks for writing. It's an odd form of consolation, if you don't mind me saying so.

  2. Anonymous12:41 PM

    Sometimes it's our trials that have made us the persons we are today--if we wouldn't have gone through the trial--we would be much different people--for good or bad.

    God does not allow the evil--but always can bring good out of the evil--if we only ask, and respond to His Grace. Sexual abuse as a child--include me--devistates a delicate little child psyche. The scars last a lifetime. And yes you can help others with your experience--to know you survived, gives hope to others. God's justice will avenge all, we just live with the trials, and keep our eyes focused on the Lord. And just because your not married, and love Jesus--does not mean you have to be a religious--some people are so dense!

  3. Patrick - now I think I should not have posted this or expressed it as I have since many saints persevered in the begining of their religious life convinced their salvation was dependent upon doing so - Teresa of Avila was one of those. Indeed, one's salvation can be dependent upon one's fidelity to one's vocation, so I may have made an error in the way I expressed that. My signs were not supernatural but natural and I really was only able to 'clearly' recognize them in retrospect - but for now they remain personal understandings of my temperament. Although some spiritual directors were astute enough to recognize them at the time. Which brings up a very important point, sometimes more learned directors are much better than very pious ones.
    As for you, I hope you can try to focus upon your immediate state - you are in seminary - so it is best to study, pray and listen to your directors - and don't worry. You are in God's will right now.
    However, your comment reminds me of the following admonition from the Imitation of Christ:
    "When a certain person in anxiety of mind was often wavering between hope and fear, and once, being overwhelmed with grief had prostrated himself in prayer in the church before a certain altar, he revolved these things within himself saying: 'If I b only knew for sure that I would persevere...' Immediately within himself he heard God: 'And if you knew this what would you do? Do now what you would do then, and you will find peace.'" - Book I, Chapter 25: 2
    God bless you - I pray for you every day.

  4. SB: "If I but only knew for sure..."

  5. Thanks for being faithful to God's will for you, Terry. This blog is a powerful apostolate which has been very helpful to me, and for which I am grateful.

  6. Anonymous4:19 PM

    Terry, thank you for writing this. I admire the humilty in your writing and your willingness to make yourselve vulnerable to the reader. I enjoy your writings very much. --Andrew

  7. Anonymous5:43 PM

    Ditto what Daniel said.

    At Mass this morning when I heard the words, "Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you" I immediately thought of you, Terry, and of your writings.

    In the end, all will be well in God.

  8. Maria7:54 PM

    Thank you, Terry. I could fill an ocean with thoughts on sin and penance( being so very expert by now in the sin dept).

    Hardon SJ
    Sin in the Providence of God

    "God wants us to benefit, that’s the word, God wants us to benefit from the mysterious providential purpose He has in having allowed us to sin. Faith allows us to say that God has permitted us to offend Him so that we might be more generous in the future than, humanly speaking, we might have been had we not sinned. Did you catch the word, MORE, more generous? When everything is said and done, who are the people who are generous with God? Are they not the persons who have an extraordinary awareness of God’s goodness and God’s goodness to them"?.

    Hardon SJ asks:What should Hell teach us?

    " Finally, in as much as we have sinned, we are all Magdalens in our own way, because we have sinned much, and God has forgiven much; therefore we should love much and don't tell me this is a low motive for becoming holy because it is born of gratitude toward God's goodness to me. Indeed in His Providence this is why God allows us to sin and perhaps have deserved hell that having come to our supernatural senses we might from the time we wake up give ourselves entirely to God where no cost is too heavy or any task too hard since we want to give God everything, in as much as given us".

    Terry, I too was abused for several years when very young. It was the central fact of my life until I understood that I was not "defilement". I was "defiled". I know Who was defiled. I undertand sin now. And so now forgiveness.

    Hardon SJ states: "JPII, in Dives in Misericordia, Rich in Mercy, defines Mercy as love coping with evil. Memorize that, mercy is love coping with evil. Mercy is love, paid the price of love. Mercy is costly love. It is love that loves although it has not been loved. Mercy is love giving to those who have stolen love from us. All of this we believe.

  9. Hello all -
    Just a quick comment on the idea of "becoming a priest, but not sure diocesan, monastic or religious."
    As a Novice Director for our Franciscan community, I say to our novices that they are here to be Friars Minor first and foremost. Some of them may also be called to be priestly Friars but this needs to be discerned with, in and through the community. If a candidate has already made up his mind to be a priest and would not give the community any role in the discernment process, I would advise him to go to the Diocese right away. (It is like a young woman joining a religious congregation only wanting to be a principal or a doctor!)
    There is a fine distinction between a priestly monk/friar and a Benedictine / Trappist / Franciscan priest. Diocesan priests who are also Secular Franciscans are also Franciscan priests. You don't need to enter the Order of Friars Minor to be a Franciscan priest. My priestly confreres are priestly friars. I am non-ordained yet I am as much as a friar as the priestly one is. To call my priestly confreres Franciscan priests is to make them essentially different from the Franciscan brothers.

    (Another parallelism can be found in ethnic American/Canadian: We say Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, French Canadians, rather than the other way around because the "substance" is American / Canadian.)

    The laity usually can't tell the difference between a religious priest and a secular (diocesan) priest. The reason is twofold: first, the religious priest doesn't wear the habit and/or doesn't live out the charism of the particular congregation. Second, diocesan priests manifest the evangelical counsels better than the religious ones. (There is a saying: religious makes the vows but the diocesans keep them!)

  10. Thanks everyone - you are very kind.

  11. Anonymous4:39 AM

    Br. William,

    Our of curiosity, why would a diocesan priest who is also a secular Franciscan (and thereby a Franciscan priest) not enter the OFM?

    How does one that one has the distinct calling to the order itself over and above the call to the priesthood in general?

    Thank you

  12. I also thought there was no other path for me than as a religious. Not as a way of keeping out of sin, but something much deeper. However, as a novice I developed a pervasive anxiety that lead to a depression. I didn't want to leave, but did so as a way of getting relief. That was 22 years ago. In the years since, I have visited various communities, religious and monastic, but have yet to re-enter. It is highly unlikely that I will. As a result, my personal views on vocation, God's call, our choices, the relation of each to the other, etc., fluctuated wildly. The abuse scandal put an end to my searching.

    Not too long ago, I read a book called "Cosmas, or the Love of God." It deals with the very real question of a person not having what it takes to fulfill God's call. Beautifully written book with no answers. And yet, it brought me enormous peace. As someone whose religious formation was in the 80s and was more psych-related bullcrap than spiritual, I finally realized that God wasn't going to haunt me with depression and anxiety if I just said "no." And that's okay.

    Do I think I have a "vocation?" Probably. Will I do something about it? At this point, probably not. However, grace still flows and I know I am loved. It is my responsibility to find ways of exercising my baptismal priesthood in fields other than the consecrated priesthood or publicly vowed life.

  13. +JMJ+

    Terry, I, too, once thought I had a vocation to religious life. It has been seven years since I last spoke to a vocations director about this, and people are still asking me, "Weren't you supposed to be a nun?"

    I'm always a little embarrassed by it and never know what to say that doesn't use the words "discern" or "vocation." ("That didn't actually work out"? "It wasn't for me, after all"?)

    This topic reminds me of a different story from the Gospels--the parable of the owner of a vineyard who had two sons whom he asked to work in the vineyard. The first son said yes, but didn't go; the second said no, but ended up going. Though I realise that I wasn't actually called to work in that particular vineyard, I occasionally feel like the first son.

  14. PD:
    (I wrote a long comment but it just vanished after I hit PUBLISH, so this is a summary)

    1. Diocesan priests joining the SFO (or SFO becoming Diocesan priests) but not OFM because - as I have seen - they don't want the common life which is an essential difference between OFM and SFO. Common life means living in the same household (convent!!), sharing of material goods ($$) and praying together.
    2. Diocesan priests joining the SFO because they like the spirituality but not the common life.
    3. I have also seen diocesan priests entering OFM AFTER having been ordained because of the common life!

  15. Anonymous9:35 AM

    Thank you, Br. William. That's what I expected. Did you yourself seek out and find yourself desiring the common life?

    I don't want to be a lone ranger type and I hope I'm not being selfish or trying to duck a cross here, but I just don't find myself desiring the common life very often, whereas I think some men really do seek it out and long for it. I'm rather content to go about my work and pray and be alone at other times, though I certainly desire friendship to a degree too. I feel guilty saying it, but that's how I feel.

  16. Br. William - thanks for commenting. I would think this post is an excellent opportunity for you as a novice master to address these questions on vocation. My reflections are strictly personal, but obviously many people ponder the question. Thanks.

  17. Consecrated life in the world is a great gift to the Church.
    For whatever reason, there are men and women who are not called to common life that God wants to be "planted" in the midst of the world, as difficult as this vocation may be.
    It is not an indication of some "deficit" but a definite contribution to the building up of the Body of Christ, His Church, where priests and religious cannot be.
    Bless you, Terry. You are offering something that people need to hear; that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have consistently emphasized.
    Today is the "Day of Consecrated Life", February 2, the Presentation of the Lord. May the Lord draw many men and women who have this vocation in the midst of the world and yet are called to belong entirely to Him to a commitment of service and love.

  18. Hello all
    It is alright not to desire the common life. The common life is a vocation itself. Yes, yesterday was Day of Consecrated Life. According to the latest theological understanding, religious life (which implies inherent common life) is only one kind of consecrated life. In the past, only monastic life is considered religious. Then when the mendicants appeared, a new understanding was developed. Now the common term is consecrated life for those living a life of evangelical counsels. Hermits, widows, virgins (female and male?) can make profession (or at least living a life) of evangelical counsels while not belonging to any institute (even without making a vow per se, but taking a promise at least). There are also secular institutes which specifically stress on evangelical life in the world. So lone rangers can be consecrated too – consecrated life doesn’t demand common life (but religious life does). Nazareth Priest says it well – there are forms of consecrated life which are planted in the midst of the world.
    Diaconate and priesthood are independent from all this! (Hence we have married clergy (viz. deacons for the time being), and therefore theoretically we may have married priests. Seriously, from the point of view of what religious / consecrated life, allowing for married clergy would make the sign of consecrated life even clearer and apparent.
    Please don’t say the priestly consecration is in any way “better” or “fuller” than consecrated life. Firstly, technical speaking, one is ordained to be a priest / deacon / bishop but ordained. Truly, in the Catechism, it is said that ordination is also consecration (CCC 1538). Vita Consecrata affirms that: According to the traditional doctrine of the Church, the consecrated life by its nature is neither lay nor clerical. For this reason the "lay consecration" of both men and women constitutes a state which in its profession of the evangelical counsels is complete in itself. Consequently, both for the individual and for the Church, it is a value in itself, apart from the sacred ministry. (VC 60)
    PD: true – men have different visions of the common life than women. Men by nature are more individualistic. That’s why we always have fewer men religious than women religious. Friendship? Common life doesn’t guarantee any friendship! Besides, good friends living together may not be what common life is all about!
    Just while on this topic, it really saddens me to hear religious women (in particular) keep saying religious life doesn’t mean common life. I have seen a “community” of four sisters living in the same apartment block but having their own apartment. Religious men have long suffered this kind of individualist mentality. We often assign religious priests (Freudian slip! should be priestly religious) to be a parish priest by himself. Now some sisters are following suit! So in essence, they (religious men and women) are living like secular consecrated persons while holding on to the idea that they are religious. I would say – keep the definition of what being a religious is and change your own affiliation – maybe changing your religious institute into a secular institute – because it is still consecrated life!

  19. Kudos, Br. William OFM: very well said.
    Our association of the faithful includes consecrated men and women/virgins and widows. celibates/ diocesan priests/monastic members/and married memebers who make a consecration according to the Sacrament of Marriage under the "call to holiness" of 'Lumen Gentium' of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.
    Holiness is for everyone...all are called to be saints.
    That is is great news, the "new evangelistic" of this "new Pentecost" (whether some want to think this is or not:<)!)...Jesus is Lord!
    And He wants us all to belong to Him!


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