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I find myself in the process of a long and difficult vocational discernment. In the midst of a newly blossomed engagement and the concrete offering of a very good and holy marriage prospect, a voice deep in my heart called to me and told me this was not yet the final stroke in the story of my vocational unfoldment. It was a voice I tried to stifle or reason away at first, very much attached to the sense of hope and gladness I felt at the idea of a future family with a man I truly loved (and still love). But the voice persisted and it gradually became impossible to ignore such a deep and unyielding impression. With a sense of dread I began to consider that perhaps God was calling me to a religious vocation.
Though I desired and strived for deep closeness with God and a life spent in pursuit of His glory, the idea of a barren womb and of renouncing even lawful joys and rights (including my own, very stubborn and very strong will) worried and saddened me. In all honesty, I can say it was my devotion to truth and my fear of offending God that gave me the strength necessary to consider the possibility seriously, despite my natural repugnance. If it is not my vocation to be married, I reasoned, I would not be fulfilled in such a state regardless of my momentary attachments to the idea, and worse still, I would be forfeiting the role God has in mind for my service to Him. What ensued was a long and painful struggle that I am still very much in.
One thing has become very clear to me: vocational discernment in the modern Church has become an unpleasant and lonely affair. There is a powerful lack of reliable spiritual direction and this has left a void of uncertainty in my life that I have had to take on as a personal cross. I am sure many young Catholics can relate to this struggle.
Though I could speak of the many difficulties encountered at length (perhaps I will in another article), I want to focus here on the one that has been the most puzzling for me: the realisation that the doctrine of the superiority of religious life over marriage is in the best of cases minimised and more often derided as an “outdated mode of thinking”. This surprised me as even Vatican II and post-conciliar popes continued to emphasise the distinction between the two states, a distinction which alone can give to each its true value and communicate the true meaning of the Catholic way to holiness. To my bewilderment, I perceived a real reluctance to state this well-established fact especially from those most affected by it, the religious themselves.
As I said in the introduction, the prospect of religious life frightened me and a true battle ensued in my soul as I tried to make sense of what I was experiencing. I intuitively felt that religious life demanded the death of some of my most natural and instinctive drives, namely family, property, and self-governance. My human self felt a bubbling grief and a very real anguish at the prospect of this loss, though my spirit sensed, inspired by Faith, that on the other side of this self-immolation lay a great treasure of inestimable worth. What I was looking for was someone to understand this grief, to give it meaning by reaffirming that yes, religious life was a surer and greater path to holiness in itself, and that my feelings, although normal and healthy, were to be acknowledged in this context and soothed by the deeper spiritual understanding of the immense good of religious life.
Instead, what I found were priests and nuns who insisted that religious life and marriage were just “different but equal paths” to holiness and that holiness was the same for everyone. Upon hearing this notion repeated again and again, I must admit I felt a real indignation swell in my heart as well as a real sense of betrayal and bewilderment.
As an adult Catholic convert, my Faith is still in its embryonic stages and my Catholic formation is anything but exhaustive. I am no great theologian and I do not possess the infused wisdom of the great Saints. Yet it seemed to me that an obvious fact of life was being ignored: that sacrifice matters. Natural goods are just that, goods. They are things which we yearn for deeply and which give a sense of fulfillment to our natural selves. We were created by God to pursue these goods with virtue and honour as fertile means to greater communion with Him. To sacrifice the basic goods of nature in favour of a life of penance, solitude and contemplation requires a supernatural Grace, which alone can give us the strength and courage to detach ourselves from our natural inclinations out of a superabundant love of the Almighty.
However, the process of “letting go” is often anything but easy. The struggle between the supernatural desire placed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit and the natural self is a real phenomenon, documented by several Saints, who found it “bitter” to follow their religious call, especially in the beginning (i.e. St Teresa of Avila, just to name one). This struggle made much sense to me as I was in the middle of experiencing it first-hand.
It also seemed intuitively evident to me that this suffering could not be meaningless in a universe ordered by the God who gave up his own Life in a gesture of Love for His creatures. That may seem an obvious statement for a Catholic, but one that apparently needs to be recalled and meditated on seriously once more. In light of the simple principles of the Christian life, I intuited that sacrificing natural goods was a very real suffering which, if endured for love of God, was indeed the stairway to a higher state of Grace and thus a possibility of higher holiness.
So why were religious, who presumably enjoyed the fruits of this sacrifice, telling me that really there was no qualitative difference between the married and the religious states?
After some thought, I’d like to propose a possible answer. I think a pernicious, subtle sort of immanent vitalism has made its way into the modern understanding of vocation. The idea is that a vocation is what will make you feel “most alive” or “most happy”. As with most dangerous half-truths, there is some merit to this statement. The problem lies in what we mean by these terms, and this is where I believe there is a sort of confusion between natural happiness and supernatural joy. Many problems derive from this confusion. One of them is that the idea of sacrifice is altered significantly. One religious told me that both marriage and religion require sacrifices, as if to say that in this sense they are equal. The problem with this way of thinking is that again, it implies a confusion between the supernatural and the natural order. People who marry make many sacrifices for their families, and should rightly be commended and glorified for the struggle of raising a family (especially in the modern world).Their marriage is also a sacrament and as thus their sacrifices are a path to holiness and communion with God. But I think it is dishonest to conclude that the sacrifices of the married are on the same level as those of religious, who relinquish family, property and self-determination out of obedience to God. It is indeed, another order of sacrifice, one having no sensible motive but a special supernatural gift given to some men and women for reasons known to God alone.
It seems to me that the lack of distinction between the natural and supernatural creates a sort of belief in many modern Catholics that both religion and marriage are “natural” vocations, only Sally’s nature is made for marriage and Tom’s nature is made for religion. Thus they both must make sacrifices but there is no great difference of quality between these sacrifices, as each is only following “their nature”. In a certain sense, it’s the closest a Catholic can get to removing sacrificial suffering from the equation without taking it entirely out of the picture. The banal adage “every Christian life implies sacrifice” is grey and generic enough to avoid the problem of the specificity of different forms of sacrifice and what they mean in the life of the Church.
There is a refusal, perhaps a sort of reluctance, to state plainly that to be a Catholic means first and foremost to face martyrdom, in the smallest sense of the everyday crosses as in the highest sense of the Sri Lanka Easter victims. Martyrdom is an essential feature of the Catholic life, whatever state one lives in. But I feel it must be said that a religious vocation, faithfully followed, is simply a greater martyrdom than marriage, because it implies a complete abandonment of self to God, a step which is abhorrent to the natural self that cannot “see”, “touch” or “taste” the Divine directly.
Religious life, properly understood, is an amazing Catholic testimony. A well-formed religious in full possession of his vocation is a fearsome sight for the world, for he testifies in no vague and uncertain terms that there is a Love worth more than all the good things in the world, though it is a suffering to renounce them. In a deep way, it is an invitation to see that there is Life even after death, and that whosoever will lose his life for God’s sake shall find it. God calls some men and women to testify this truth in a direct way through the religious state of life, so that the blind may be illumined by the strength of their witness. For people called to the religious state, it is true that they will ultimately feel “more alive” in the state, but it will be a different life, one born out of their sacrifice and not separable from it. It takes more Grace to make the sacrifice, and for those who correspond to the Grace offered them, a natural death is followed by a more abundant supernatural life that transforms their whole being.
Love is only real when it implies suffering sacrifice. Otherwise, it is a gimmick and a fraud. The religious state was once the supreme testament of the superabundance of Love found in its perfection in Christ Himself. But if religious are swept away by their own anxiety to make Christian life all about “joy” in a vitalistic sense, the real meaning of their sacrifice is lost, and with it the uniqueness of the Catholic way to real Joy, which is found in the mystery of life willingly offered unto death for Love and the glorious resurrection that follows it.