Signs of a Vocation
How to know you have a vocation to the religious life
I was asked to share with you some thoughts on how a person knows they have a vocation to the religious life. It is difficult to pin that down because a vocation is first of all a mystery. God does not just Jump out of the sky and tap us on the shoulder or knock us off a horse the way He did with some people in the Bible. Ordinarily God uses very ordinary instrumental means to let us know what He is calling us to, and that is always a mysterious thing. It is very personal to each one of us. I can't give you any absolute rules for this. I guess, in one sense, the wonderful thing is - that God respects our individuality and treats us all as persons. He respects our freedom and he wants us to use our heads and hearts in trying to discern our vocation. Remember that famous line in A Man For All Seasons, where Thomas More says something like "God made the animals to serve Him by instinct blindly but He made man to serve Him wittingly." That is, to use his wits. We have to use our wits to try to discern what God is asking of us.
In the history of the Church, you will consistently find spiritual writers and theologians saying that there are certain natural signs that God uses by which He inclines us, and draws us toward a vocation. The Church has always looked for those signs. If a person has those signs in some degree, then there is a good chance he/she is called. You never know for sure ... but all the way along the line you will be asking yourself if there are several discernable signs present by which you can judge whether you are called or not.
The First Sign is A Desire for the Life
The first sign I look for in myself or in anyone looking for signs of a vocation is "Do I have a desire for the Life?" Am I inclined, am I drawn toward it? Does it give me a certain amount of satisfaction to think about it, ... a certain amount of enthusiasm or joy or some kind of positive feeling? I want to stress that, because God does not draw us to a vocation against our will; it is something that is extremely important. I have talked to people who said "I want to be a priest, or brother, or sister, not because I want to, but because I think I should; because I think God wants me to. If I don't go, I'll be punished in some way or I will be miserable or perhaps unhappy -something like that." God does not operate that way. He draws us according to our natural inclinations and if we are inclined to a religious life, that is a good sign. If we are repulsed by it and are thinking about it only because we have to, I call that a "monkey-on-your-back vocation" and you carry it around like some kind of heavy load that somehow God is zapping you, and you "got to go or else." God doesn't zap people that way. The one thing God wants of us is to be free in our decision - He wants us to freely choose our vocation. That desire is some kind of spontaneous attraction ... and it is one indication that a person is called. But that is not enough, because a lot of people have an attraction to religious life - the other two signs are also important.
The Second Sign is The Right Motivation
The second sign is "I want the life for the right reasons." This is a question of motivation. What motivation is behind my interest and attraction? Here the Church looks for some very positive spiritual reasons, for example, "I want the religious life because I want to serve God in a very direct way or I want to further the love and knowledge of God or I want to extend the kingdom of God or I want to live the Gospel Life as fully as possible or I want to work for the betterment of the world or I want to share a common vision of faith and spirituality with other like-minded people and somehow further the project of God's designs. Any or all of these spiritual, religious reasons are adequate motivations. That is what we look for - something based on faith - that is a spiritual motive - not because I see this as a very cool 'outfit', like joining a pop group. That is not a faith vision. Something has to touch us at the level of the Gospel -that we want in some way to profess a life based upon very solid Chrisitan religious - principles.
A number of inadequate reasons can creep in here, for example:
A person sees religious life as some kind of security blanket; after all, religious life does have some security: you know where your meals are coming from, you have a bed, a certain kind of life insurance, social security in your old age, a place to live, a roof over your head, lots of things that people In the world have to struggle for. If a person has a lot of doubts about whether he can make it in the world and therefore thinks the monastery is the place to go, chances are he is not really called. That's not an adequate reason for applying. As life gets more complicated and more demands are made upon us in the world out there, some persons may be drawn to religious life for that reason but security is not an adequate motivation.
Another inadequate reason is loneliness. A person has a very difficult time making friends and he feels very alone most of the time. He might see religious life as an instant friendship establishment, where all he has to do is walk in and he has a whole bunch of instant friends and that protects him from all the hard knocks of being a lonely person in the world. Again, that is not a faith or spiritual reason; a very understandable reason but not enough.
Or say a guy has had some unhappy love affair or difficulties with relationships and he figures they are no good and so the best thing to do is get away from them and flee to the monastery - "if I can't be happy, at least I can save my soul." So if a guy is afraid that he can't relate to someone in a relationship, he might be inclined to look to the monastery for salvation or protection or something. But again, that would be an inadequate reason. another inadequate reason would be if anybody looks to religious life as a kind of glamour experience or an instant status symbol. Years ago it was kind of cool if you were a religious; you had recognition right off the bat; you walked out and people said "Oh, he must be a good man, he's a religious." You had an automatic, built-in status of recognition which was pretty nice; especially if you were a priest - think of all the gratification you get for being a priest! You stand up there and say "The Lord be with you" and the whole Church has to say "And also with you." Look at all that power-experience! You can control that whole group of people out there just by your presence. So if you are an ego-tripper, that's really a good way to do it. After all, you are the center of attention at the altar and and it can be really satisfying. If that's what motivates a person, the Church will blow the whistle and say that's not enough. Instant status-seeking or instant ego-tripping or controlling people is not a motivation for religious life.
It should be rather obvious that lots of us can have some of these reasons somewhere in the back of our minds. None of us have a purely spiritual motive for most things we do. There is always a mixture of this kind of inadequacy in our lives and that's O.K. You can live with a certain amount of this and there may be mixture of motivations in one's desire for religious life, but the primary driving force ought to be something deeper. It is not easy to discern our motives and it is so important to have a spiritual director who can help us sort thing out.
So far we have two signs -attraction and motivation for the right reasons. There is still something missing. I know lots of people in the world who have adequate desire and pretty solid spiritual reasons for coming to religious life but they still were not called. Why? The third sign is missing.
The Third Sign is Fitness for the Life
The third sign is fitness, by which I mean the ability to live a religious life, to live n comfortably, cheerfully and generously, without going to pieces or without a constant drain on your inner resources or without a whole lot of tensions. Somehow the life itself must suit you and you must suit the life so that you aren't paying a horribly high price just to stay in. Somehow there must be a meshing of your interests and ability and competency with those of the religious life. Both must go together and blend a bit into each other. Lots of people, very good people, have tried the life but found they just didn't fit in - they couldn't live it. Some people are just not cut out for it anymore than some people can't teach or be airline pilots or engineers or salesmen, etc. Religious life just doesn't suit some people. They are very happy and very good in some other vocation. Again, God does not do violence to the person. He respects the individual gifts of each person.
Likewise, there are a lot of people who are fit for the religious life, but don't want it -they are not attracted to it. A lot of married friends or your sisters and brothers could live religious life but they are not drawn to it. The desire is not there but the fitness is. All three requirements have to be there at the same time. So by a positive sense of fitness, I mean the ability to live the life comfortably, cheerfully generously and graciously, without undue drain on your personality. Do you think any of these signs apply to you?
by Martin Pable, OFM Cap. (http://www.vocations.com/discern/signs_pable.html)