10 Tips on Discerning Religious Life

Saint Augustine Monastery, Austin Hall Arcade, San Diego, CA. Where I dwell and stroll to Morning Prayer & Mass each morning.

I have met several Vocation Wrecks, who can never manage to get close to deciding what to do with what God has given.

Sometimes they are given really lousy vocation advice. To deal with vocation wrecks, to comfort people, to dispense scrupulous young people from the misery of discernment, they give them bad advice. Worst is that God gives you a desire. This is an attempt to comfort people who want to be married, assuming that they think marriage is evil or something. I have met more people who cannot make a decision because they desire two mutually exclusive vocations. Second awful vocation advice is telling people that they will find peace. More on that below. I could actually go on about the lousy vocation advice that people who grew up in sheltered ethnic (Irish / Italian / German) parishes tell young people who have become spiritually obese on pop culture and consumerism.

I have found myself repeating many of these to many people. Sometimes I not even giving advice to discerners, but explaining the process to people who have a lot of misconceptions. I believe that most of those misconceptions are shared by people who may be called, but never looked into it. So I gathered these into ten points.

  1. If you begin to feel strangely drawn, begin to have a desire, you should look into it. If you begin to find yourself defensive, opposed, or repulsed by it, it probably requires you to look again. I used to think “They Wouldn’t Let Me Rap.” I met a Sister who used to think Nuns were ugly. If you have no emotional reaction besides a little gratitude or cheer, kindly move on.
  2. Do not Passively Discern in your head or your imagination. Do not think that by “praying about it” to yourself is actually discernment. If you have felt drawn or repulsed by it, become an Active Disciple, and then see how you feel about it.
  3. Sometimes a desire for Consecrated Life is simply a call to Radical Discipleship. Spend more time reading the Scriptures, especially the Gospel. Have a Master/Disciple relationship with Christ. Pray daily. Befriend the Saints. Participate in service to the Church or the community. Go to Eucharistic Adoration. Deepen and grow your commitment to Christ, & the church. See a Spiritual Director.
  4. Sometimes it is a good idea to defer discernment. If you are younger than a Junior in college, if you just broke up, or got rejected by a potential special someone, if someone close to you has died, if you have moved to a new city or state, or if you are changing jobs, it is a good idea to at least let 8 months pass before any serious committed discernment. I am not saying don’t discern, it is difficult to decide. Also, a yearning that persists through this is valid.
  5. A conflicted desire for both Married Life & Consecrated Life deserves a critical look. If marriage appears more comfortable, or includes more perks, you need to be honest, both come with their own Crosses. Many people NEVER have a desire for Consecrated Life. The fact that you do means you should look.
  6. You WILL NOT find immediate Peace, instead you find trepidation. All the Prophets & the Saints felt incredible turmoil. They found no Peace until they gave themselves over to a calling. Being afraid of a Vocation to Religious Life requires that you face it, not run from it. If may feel comfortable to turn away from it. If you feel drawn, but afraid, running won’t give you peace, it will only give you comfort. What is the worst thing that can happen, you find God’s plan for you in Religious Life and you discover immeasurable Love & Joy in Christ
  7. Talk to a Religious. Visit a Religious House, a Convent, or Seminary. Spend a portion of your day with a Sister or a Priest. Attend Mass several days a week. Do a weekly Holy Hour. Deepen your commitment to discipleship. Attempt to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Try the single life for a few months. This is Active Discernment.
  8. You don’t join a religious order for yourself, you join for Christ, His Church, and that community. You don’t pick a habit or patron saint or location that suits your fancy. Eventually all the superficiality and sweetness will wear out, and you will realize that you are stuck with a group of quite unremarkable human beings. This is not a sign to leave or not, but you have to look deeper in yourself and the community you want to join.
  9. Invariably, the moment you decide to actively discern or apply the boy or girl of your dreams WILL magically appear. GOD DOES NOT OR NEED a few bored lonely people with nothing better to do. God wants you to make a choice. Entering religious life does not make everyone else completely unattractive.
  10. Do not wait for 100% certainty to join. No Religious Order expects that. It is easier to leave a Religious Order within a couple years than a Marriage. Do not wait to attain 100% holiness or practice perfect chastity for every millisecond of every day. Marriage IS NOT the magic cure for lust, people have lustful thoughts after being married, and can even fall in love with other people who they are not married to. The point is growing up and moving past your emotions, comforts of 100% certainty or comprehensive preparedness.
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Love, Hatred, Charity, Lies, Agape, Eros, and Philos

The following is a talk that I gave to define Caritas, one of the principle values of Augustinian schools.  With the help of Augustine and Eminem.

I can’t tell you what it really is I can only tell you what it feels like and right now it’s a steel knife in my windpipe I can’t breathe but I still fight while I can fight as long as the wrong feels right it’s like I’m in flight High off of love, drunk from my hate, It’s like I’m huffing pain and I love it the more I suffer, I suffocate and right before I’m about to drown, she resuscitates me she EXPLICIT hates me and I love it.

One of the most popular, morbid, and overplayed songs I hear on the radio is Eminem and Rihanna’s song “I Love the Way You Lie.”  It is both Hypnotic and Repulsive at the same time, and that is the strange disgusting “beauty” of the whole song.  Although, I am not a fan of Eminem (not due to his vulgarity, more due to his childish whining and complaining about all the suffering he goes through), This song strikes me.  I think the real reason that it is so popular is that people can relate to it, and that is the scary thing.  Broken Hearts, and the hatred and pain and wrath that ensues after break ups, and like dogs that return to their vomit, so do broken hearted people seem to return foolishly to the person they love to hate.

At the same time a lot of people my age are already completely cynical and pessimistic when it comes to love.  I think, on average my peers actually think that Love is overrated; Love is a farce; Love is not even a real thing; Love and pain are the same; Love and hate are the same thing.  There are no definitions of Love that seem to mean anything to my cynical and disappointed generation.  So I cannot even speak on love without acknowledging this brokenness.

And so I stumbled upon another quote that bore resemblance to a quote:

Meanwhile my sins were multiplied.  She with whom I had lived so long was torn from my side as a hindrance to my forthcoming marriage.  My heart which she held her very dear was broken and wounded and shed blood.  She went back to Africa, swearing that she would never know another man, and left with me the natural son I had had of her.  But I in my unhappiness could not, for all my manhood, imitate her resolve.  I was unable to bear the delay of two years which must pass before I was to get the girl I had asked for in marriage.  In fact it was not really marriage that I wanted.  I was simply a slave to lust.  So I took another woman, not of course as a wife; and thus my soul’s disease was nourished and kept alive as vigorously as ever, indeed worse then ever, that it might reach the realm of matrimony in the company of its ancient habit.  Nor was the wound healed that had been made by the cutting off of my former mistress.  For there was first burning and bitter grief; and after that it festered, and as the pain grew duller it only grew more hopeless.

To the surprise of most people, that was from St. Augustine’s Confessions.  He, like Eminem, seems to have no difficulty expressing the difficulties that come with Love.  Yet he does not end there:

Praise be to You, glory to You, O Fountain of mercies.  I became more wretched and You more close to me.  Your right hand was ready to pluck me from the mire and wash me clean, though I knew it not.

Augustine’s faith was, of course fortified by God’s grace, as well as a strong hope and faith, particularly when he reflected on that.  Eminem, unfortunately has no claim on those things.  Yet, for this experience.  I find Augustine one of the most credible witnesses of Love out of everyone out there.  He spends a lot of time talking about it, and he was well informed, obviously.

In fact, one of his most beautiful prayers follows as such:

Late have I loved You, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved You! For behold You were within me, and I outside; and I sought You outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things that You have made.  You were with me and I was not with You.  I was kept from You by those things, yet had they not been in You, they would not have been at all.  You called and cried to me and broke open my deafness: and You sent forth Your beams and shone upon me and chased away my blindness: You breathed fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and now pant for You; I tasted You, and now hunger and thirst for You: You touched me and I have burned for Your peace.

Our English language fails to capture some of the intricacies of love.  Those very important distinctions are important, and Augustine would have understood many of those.  Most of those distinctions, I believe, lead to several confusions over love, that result in very morbid and painful songs like Eminem’s, as well as the morbid and painful experiences that have resulted in a cynical and pessimistic generation.

For instance we often say “I love pizza,” and “I love you mom,” and hopefully, for the sake of our mothers, we do not mean the same thing.  Or “I love my dog,” and “I love my boyfriend/girlfriend.”  Hopefully we mean something different, or you might get dumped.  No wonder so many people like Eminem are pessimistic and confused, we throw it around like it’s a dirty old tennis ball.  If we could see it for the pearl it really is, we might be more cautious.

The three terms that are often used are actually common Greek terms, the kinds that Augustine would have been familiar with, and were frequently employed by the Church Fathers to discuss love.  The three terms were Eros, Philos, and Agape.

Eros refers specifically to the feelings of captivation and desire directed to someone.  Love at first sight usually refers to this.  Sometimes at the worst level, it is infatuation, refusing to see the whole person.   It can hide behind so many masks and be contaminated with lust, that no wonder people get confused.  At its best, it’s the bond between spouses.  Even Augustine, in my quote earlier, prays to God in an erotic and sensuous way, and that is not uncommon among the Saints.

Philos refers to the family love.  We just care about our family and friends, and long to tell about our days to them.  We think of them when they are away, and look forward to meeting with them again.  We want their text messages and Facebook comments.

Agape refers to perfect selfless love.  The sublime example of this would be Christ on the Cross.  I heard a story recently about a father who died to save his son from drowning.  Agape love is that love that puts the other first, and many spouses have learned that in order to have a happy marriage they need to bring some Agape, and not just focus on the Eros.

For us, we can consider all of these things, as they were certainly relevant in all of Augustine’s writings.  Augustine, in his catechism,  would then move on to define love in the four stages of humanity in relation to God.  In the beginning we are savages without law, then we become fearful servants under the law.  The spirit then moves us to act out of a purified Charity.  We are concerned with our neighbors and strangers, not for our own benefit, and we serve God without timidity.  The Final stage, is the perfect peace of love in heaven.  For Augustine, we cannot even begin to love without the spirit of God leading us.

At some point, we begin to learn that charity is not pity.  We don’t give out of pity, because we are good and better, and this other person is needy.  We learn to see that this person, and I are the same.  And we ask, why it is that I have so much, and they have little.  We feel scandalized by our abundance, or simply moved to equalize that imbalance, without looking down at the other, but eye to eye.  This kind of purified Charity, moved by the Spirit, that sees God in every other person, this is the kind of Charity we need to learn how to have.

I did a study this past spring on the oversexualization of teenage girls, based on a report of task force of the american psychological association (found in the link)…

And find, that, unfortunately, a lot is being said on bullying, but not a lot is being said on the oversexualization of teenage girls.  unfortunately, I have met too many young and attractive girls who have admitted to hating themselves, and having eating disorders.  So I did this study, and presentation in honor of them…

I found that, teenage girls were more likely to be depressed as a result of body image then boys.

Self consciousness was way more likely to interfere with their ability to perform at their capacity in school, then with boys.

Girls are targeted by the media, more then anyone, to objectify themselves.

Teenage girls, are probably under more pressure, from school, from their family, from their peers, from extracurricular activities to be overly concerned over their body image, then could be humanly possible.

Of course, don’t get me wrong, there are several young women who may have never been effected, and none of this ever got to them.  But I guess if one poor teenage girl has ever had a broken heart, felt alone, or hated herself, it does need to be addressed.

Unfortunately, there have been several teenage suicides, linked with bullying, and the sharing of explicit media that would ruin the reputations of teenagers.  The sad thing is, that the teens themselves create their own embarrassing videos and pictures, and the teens or share them with friends don’t have a conception of the long term consequences.  And people want to do something to stop the bullies.

But, are any of these people asking if the proliferation of internet porn is putting pressure on teenage girls to look like the porn models their boyfriends look like?  Is anybody asking if the amount of oversexualization of teenagers in television shows is lowering the bar for how much faith we have in teens to do the right thing?

It is very easy to point fingers at the mean people, the bigots, and the insensitive jerks out there… I don’t know that it is as easy to point the finger at ourselves for the way we, as a culture, have encouraged teenage promiscuity, libertarian use of pornography, birth control and the like.  How many of us have been daring enough to tell a teen, that we have faith enough in them, that they can live a sexually healthy chaste life by God’s grace…

teen suicide, bullying, and body image on adolescent girls