By Karen Mannino Monday, March 3rd, 2014
I’ve been posting about vocations pretty often lately. I guess that’s just because that’s where I and all my friends are right now, being twenty somethings, trying to find our place in the world. There is a lot of external and internal pressure. The culture expects young people to strive for two things: autonomy and pleasure. Live it up cause you are only young and free for a short time. Also, if you can’t find gainful employment, you are a loser. But don’t take it too hard, the economy sucks, so live it up and wait it out.
For a young Catholic, there is added pressure to find God’s will. I’m getting images of treasure hunts with cryptic messages and secret codes guiding me to a treasure chamber thick with traps. If I can get through it all, I can open the treasure box and find out what the heck God wants me to be doing with my life.
But that’s not really what it is about. As I continue to seek God’s will in my life, I am more focused on just seeking God.
The goal is to conform my will to God’s; to want what God wants, in every little detail. As I seek to build my relationship with Christ, my love for him deepens, and I begin to get a small glimpse of the immensity of his love for me, I begin to see with his eyes. My desires are joined with his and directed by his love. The idea is that when important decision come up, it is easier to know what God’s will is, because he and I are thick and thieves working towards the same goals already. I am familiar with the way in which he prompts and guides me, and I know the feeling of my flawed will rebelling against the goodness that he offers me.
This is a high goal. But it is made of small self denials every day. And there is Grace available. It happens every day no matter what stage or state my life is in.
Several months ago, this article appeared on the Crisis Magazine web site. In it, Br. Hannegan argues that religious life is not desirable, so we should not expect young people to choose it by searching the deepest desires of their hearts. Desire based vocational discernment, he argues, is largely responsible for our lack of vocations to the religious life.
Given my understanding of discernment, this argument in problematic. If seeking the deepest desires of my heart is not a good way to find my vocation, it is not because the right vocation fails to be desirable. It could only be because I have not conformed my desires to the source of all goodness; the Desire of Nations. The problem is not with the method; it is a user error.
The good Brother seems to go out of his way to portray the religious life as difficult and undesirable. I often hear a similar description of being a wife and mother coming from women who scorn that vocation as undesirable. Is that really necessary? Clearly there are joys and sufferings in every vocation and it is a disservice to portray either the joys or the sufferings exclusively. At some point in maturity, I can say “I have chosen this set of sufferings and joys because God has lead me to it. I will embrace this cross” and I don’t need to explain why I didn’t choose another set by demeaning it’s joys or exaggerating it’s sufferings.
And this leads me to the second point of the article.
Hannegan also asserts, with impressive back up sources, that the religious life is objectively the best vocation, being the surest and safest path to holiness.
The superlatives in that paragraph make my feminine hackles rise. For every boast about the heroic virtue required in the religious life, I see the heroic virtues of my parents and married people I know. It is hard to read the implicit disregard, whether intentional or not, and bear it patiently. I also tend to think that if the married life were conducive to writing theological treatises in the high middle ages, there would be Saints writing in praise of that path to holiness also included in our grand tradition. But that is merely my emotional response.
In a follow up article, Brother Hannegan expands on this point in response to some objections.
His argument rests on the distinctive vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that define the religious life. He rightly refers to these three virtues as the Evangelical Counsels. That title has meaning. “Evangelical” means these are counsels for the whole church. This is the advice for living that the Church brings to all of her children. Along with the cardinal and theological virtues, these three guide and structure Christian life. Not just religious life, but all Christian vocations.
Religious take vows of poverty chastity and obedience according to their respective orders. Those three counsels look a little different depending on which religious order you take. But it is spelled out in the rule, and daily life is structured around it.
Now, those who get “silver medal” vocations take vows of poverty chastity and obedience in the form of marriage: vows to share everything owned between spouse and children, to be sexually faithful (which is chastity) to one another exclusively, and obedience to one another until death parts them. They are called by the Church to order their married life together by the Evangelical Counsels. They have their vows to start with, but must build the rest of their daily life according to their unique situation.
The rest of us, people like me, get “bronze medal” vocation of single life. I am called to order my life around these counsels also. I will conform my attitude towards my possessions, my sexuality, and my will to Christ. I have no vow or rule unless I join a third order of some kind, but that does not let me off the call of the Church to live in poverty, chastity and obedience.
I would like to argue that the Evangelical Counsels are the means by which all vocations make saints. You can rank the three branches of the vocation tree by looking at how concretely they apply the Evangelical Counsels, but how well those who enter the vocation conform their hearts to Christ’s will still be the single most crucial factor in becoming a saint.
And honestly, if promoting religious life as the “gold medal” of vocations tips the scale in its favor for a young person, doesn’t that just mean that the desire they found in their heart is for prideful elitism?
We need to find a way to encourage vocations to the religious life. But giving vocations some kind of rank seems to me counterproductive and irrelevant to most people discerning.
Karen Mannino in not an expert in anything. But she has a good time pretending to be. She was born in the late eighties and lives in the Northwest.