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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My struggle to follow the Christ

Read the Introduction

Read Part I: My Perception of the Christ in my Youth

By the 8th grade, we studied world religions, and suddenly I became infatuated by Buddhism and Islam. At least in the way it was presented, I believed that there were many people of deep conviction out there, while my Church lacked deep conviction. I would soon find this overly ambitious as my high school classmates in public school who were Buddhists and still superficial. This only left me feeling more isolated, and there did not appear to be a single person on the face of the planet that I could talk about my spiritual intuitions. I think I felt guilty for even having them, and tried to be another reckless drug and sex obsessed teenager. Nowadays, kids cut themselves, and I often wonder if I would have too. Over the years, I found that stoners could speculate on everything, and I fit right in. I had an outlet for my spirituality for once, giving me the confidence to acknowledge what was in my heart. I also felt free to speculate on the person of Jesus, although he was almost exclusively a moral or political philosopher and revolutionary.

I had consistently opted out of going to confirmation at fifteen like everyone else. I actually believed at 16 that I would be brainwashed. I also thought the introduction of youth group at my parish would have been more lame. I always thought of youth group as a bunch of old people trying to make Jesus look hip. I cannot exactly figure out why at the time, that I thought a ‘cool’ Jesus was problematic. A few months afterward, confronted by the death of biology lab partner to a drug overdose as well as my grandfather to natural causes, I stood over the vast chasm of despair of my mortality upon the cracking foundation of a meaningless life.

Hip Hop Rapper and Singer Lauryn Hill received a Grammy. In her brief acceptance speech she said that she could not find herself until she found God. That moment still displays vivid in my memory. Several months later I would be motivated to sign up for confirmation, if at least to learn for myself in the Church as opposed to continuing to speculate with stoners. I actually thought that this would be something I would move through, onto the next religion, perhaps Buddhism.

At that time, I took up my bible, I think I started backwards from Revelations. The Apocalypse of John was always so sensational, and it was what everyone I knew seemed to be talking about at that time. I read the side notes that put the book in historical context, and it lost its mystery and vitality. I swiftly went to the Gospels, and read forward from Matthew, paying attention to the notes. I had been under the supposition that for years that the Gospels were deceptive fabrications, however, the New American Bible analysis sections made a decent case for the historicity of the texts.

My approach to the person of Jesus had been opening up in various ways. Since I was convinced that the Scriptures need not be either a literal word for word historical fact or fabricated allegorical myth, it left me some room for human and religious interpretations. I was also fascinated with the religious focus of the person of Jesus, whereas previously I assumed he had a purely moral or political mission. If I were to describe it now, the unity of the person and message of Jesus made both the person and message of Jesus more compelling than ever. Jesus claims to divinity, as well as actions of equating himself to God were more numerous than I expected. I think I had heard that Jesus was God, but I never gave it much thought. The consequence of reflecting on the Incarnation would turn my world upside down.

I was convinced that a Church youth group retreat was going to mean being brainwashed. I think seeing people returning so happy was more terrifying then anything that I had known. So despite my inhibitions, I reluctantly went. It was strange, but I was surprised to find everyone in the youth group to not be full of hypocrisy, and they were genuinely good people. Since I went to the retreat, it did mean that I was open to whatever might happen, otherwise I would not have gone. Then we had Eucharistic Adoration.

The host in the monstrance there before me, in the context of the Scriptures that I had been reading, and the reflections of the retreat invigorated me with a deep conviction: God entered into history to be in solidarity with humanity was evidence that God loved us passionately. God loved me passionately. Until then, I had accepted that there was a distant impersonal sort of God, that transcended everything, who vaguely and disinterestedly wanted us to be good to each other. The Creator of the universe was like a rationalist disinterested scientist. There was something more exciting about a passionate lover God who manifests Godself in the human person of Jesus Christ. There was also something troubling about it all. If God entered into history, God entered into my personal life. If God loved me directly, and came all this way for me, I could no longer be the hypocrite that I was. I could no longer have a disunity between what I knew deep down in my heart was right, God’s will for humanity, and the life I had lived.

I had grown comfortable with Jesus as another moral teacher. I had also been comfortable with a God that ‘accepted us unconditionally,’ which really meant that we did not have to be responsible, and that God was really not interested in our lives. Now everything mattered. I mattered. Jesus mattered. God mattered. God’s will mattered. Every other person on the planet mattered. Morals mattered. Love mattered. Heartbreak mattered. Every time I had been hurt mattered. Every time I hurt someone mattered. And this was troubling, because I had seriously wondered if nothing mattered. This new understanding was exciting, and distressing. I was horrified being handed a mission that I accepted. I do not know what got into me. What was even stranger was that I wanted all of this.

I struggled at times, even resisted this movement of grace. For the scope of four months, from May through August, nothing was certain. I seriously could not take satisfaction in things, but I desperately wanted to. It was a psychosis or something. I just could not take satisfaction in drugs or sex, and my awareness of the emptiness was immensely acute. Near the end of summer, I attended another youth gathering. In my next experience of Eucharistic Adoration, I knew it was time to commit. God’s interaction with humankind, through the Incarnation of Jesus, had consequence for this life.

Read Part III: With Christ, I became Critical

Read Part IV: Profound Insights In My Walk With Christ Today