When I was growing up in the middle of the last century, attending Catholic Grade school in Portland, Oregon, I recall thinking that a “vocation,” was something one “got” or “had,” and specifically to the priesthood or religious life, to be a Catholic priest, brother or sister. I cannot recall thinking that there was also a “vocation,” for example, to marriage or the single state in the world. Granted, such thinking was not so much the case after Vatican II in the mid-60s, with the sweeping changes in the Church, but I was already a teenager and probably by then I might have had trouble being convinced of the idea of marriage or the lay life as “vocations.” Today, and rightly so, we have to consider every person as having a vocation, a personal call from God to live life to the fullest, in generosity, love and forgiveness, whether as a married or single person, one in the religious life, priesthood, etc.
The word “vocation,” has roots in the Latin world, vocare, “to call” or “invoke,” and in the present context, the call from God to a particular way of life. Let it be said that one’s call can change and evolve over the course of time. For example, I know of men and women who were at one time married, raised children, and then at a later stage joined a religious community or became diocesan priests. And yes, in some cases people who are in a religious community and then for one reason or another discern a change in lifestyle, obtain the proper Church dispensations, return to the single state and maybe get married. I had three great-aunts who nearly a century ago joined the Sisters of Charity of Providence in Washington State, but only one of them remained in the community until death. The other two aunts left early on during their time of formation as sisters and lived productive lives until their deaths.
Thomas Merton points out in his extended essay “Come to the Mountain,” published in 1964 by the Trappist monks of Snowmass, Colorado, that:
“One of the basic truths of Christian faith is expressed in the idea of the divine call and the answer of [people]. The whole Christian life is outlined in this vocation and response.”
Expressed another way, all followers of Christ should strive to discern the call of the Lord. How is a call best recognized? Some of the means include meditating on the teachings of Christ found in the Gospels and what the entire Bible is saying, which is filled with the theme of: “This is what God is asking of you.” Every believer will respond to the Lord’s call personally and in a manner they discern God is calling them. In addition to meditating with the Bible, active participation in the Sacraments of the Church, making time for prayer, as well as receiving some guidance or accompaniment in discerning God’s will for one’s life, are value tools in determining one’s vocation.
By now it should be clear that it would be completely incorrect to say that only those who live in monasteries, convents, rectories or seminaries have a “vocation.” Every Christian is called by God, and thereby has a “vocation,” a calling, to follow the Lord. It would be no exaggeration to say that the number of vocations in the Church coincides with the number of believers! All vocations are intended to build up the one Body of Christ spread throughout the world and under the leadership of the Risen and Ascended Lord.
It should also be said that a monk, for example, does not have two vocations: first, as a Christian, then as a monk. Rather, the monastic call or vocation is another expression and hopefully a deepening of the call to be a baptized Christian. The monk should not be thought of or considered by himself to be “better” than others. We can say that the monk or nun has simply felt a call to offer his or her life in a manner that includes more time of solitude, silence, prayer, mediation and community life, than what one would have in the married state, single life or as a diocesan priest or members of an active religious congregation.
It is sometimes believed that monastic practices, such as silence and solitude and the rest necessarily lead to bliss. Such a perception understandably promotes an attraction for those not in a monastery, but in fact monks struggle like every sincere seeker of the Lord to patiently fight distractions, find happiness and persevere in prayer and good words.
It also should be said that silence and prayer is not the monopoly of monks and nuns, but something everyone can cultivate and profit from. Monks attend to it in a very specific way, but those not in the monastery can and should find ways to incorporate elements of the monastic way into their lives. The proliferation of books and articles on silence, solitude, prayer, fasting and contemplation, intended most often for those not in monasteries, are an indication of the increasing interest among people in centuries-old practices for living a spiritually and physically balanced existence.
Thomas Merton wrote that a vocation to whatever state in life “may be manifested in obscure and strange ways. It is often hard to say exactly what constitutes a vocation” (“Come to the Mountain”). In whatever way the call of God may come, responding to God needs to take concrete shape, since we don’t live in the abstract or in theory, but in the concrete, where life has a definite shape and form, as varied as those who embrace their vocation. It is always possible, too, for people to resist or reject God’s call. To walk away from obligations or commitments, for example, would not be considered following God’s voice.
The 12th century Cistercian monk and abbot, Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, said this about the monastic call, but it is applicable in general to the notion of vocation:
“You are called by Christ, called to suffer together with Christ, to the end that you may reign together with Christ. And we are called in three ways: by exterior admonition, by example, and by secret inspiration” (“Come to the Mountain”).
That being said, Thomas Merton wrote this in the 1960s: “Relatively few vocations are decided without struggle” (“Come to the Mountain”). Discerning one’s call can be a test of faith, but that should not be cause for discouragement. God’s call can be considered an adventure whose ending cannot be foreseen because it is ultimately in the hands of God.
There is always an element of risk and challenge in responding to God’s call. To surrender one’s life into the hands of God takes faith, courage, and work. Our focus needs to be on seeking first the Kingdom of God (see Matthew 6:33) as Jesus taught His followers, and never to give up in the endeavor.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB