Lies to reject when discerning religious life
Photo by Michael Kearney
Let’s start with a disclaimer: I am no expert on discernment. I know plenty of people out there search for years, try and fail, struggle in the waiting and aching, cry out to God, How long? For me, it wasn’t long. There was the foundation of a few years back in college of vaguely pursuing a whisper from God to consider religious life, yes, but this time around, He made quick work of it. From September to September. 12 months of a whirlwind romance. Plenty of waiting and wondering and mystery throughout, of course, but peace and clarity at every step of the way. I feel a bit like those moms who have had really easy labors may feel when they share their experience of delivering their babies. Almost as if I should apologize. But, no! I won’t apologize for the way God has worked in my life, with such extravagance and gentleness and providence. I share to glorify Him and, hopefully, to bless someone out there who may feel encouraged by these words. Some of these I’ve struggled with, some I haven’t—wherever you are in your journey, I pray that we all would walk in the light of truth.
I am undesirable.
Here is the truth: you exist because you are desirable. God desired to create you, to know and love and delight in you, to give you a future full of hope. And if Jesus is calling you to religious life? It’s because He desires you with such intensity that He wants you to be His Bride even before you reach heaven, wants to claim you for Himself in the most radical way, wants to set you apart for an entirely otherworldly life. You are desirable.
But of course, we long to feel an incarnate desirability. We women long to be noticed, chosen, singled out by a man. A man longs for the same by a woman. We are wired by God Himself for human, romantic love. It is a good desire. A call to religious life is a call not to ignore but to sumblimate that desire, a call to cultivate an ever-expansive heart, to know deeply and to image with your very life that your satisfaction lies wholly in your divine Lover. Experiencing another’s desire for you will not complete you. Jesus desires each of us, no matter our vocation, to be firmly rooted in His love, believing with great confidence in the dignity He has bestowed upon us. The thought that you are undesirable, unloved, unworthy? Always a lie, never from God.
This is a last resort.
There’s the temptation to think, Well, I haven’t found anyone to marry yet, so I might as well consider religious life. I find some humor in this one. The call to enter a convent is so radical, so extraordinary, so particular and counter-cultural and, quite frankly, inconvenient, that to think of it as a backup plan seems perfectly preposterous to me. We don’t invent our vocations. We can’t fabricate a call. A man and woman can do some serious damage to each other if they stubbornly follow through with dating and getting engaged and entering into marriage if God has made it clear that it is not His will for them. Just so, thanks to the guidance of holy and prayerful vocations directors, a woman won’t get very far if she is purely treating religious life as a last resort.
Having said that, I am certainly a proponent of women having open minds and open hearts to the possibility of religious life, even if she doesn’t feel a strong call to it from the start. I loved attending Come and Sees with women who were just beginning to dip their toes in discernment, who weren’t necessarily looking to make a radical change in their lives anytime soon, but whose love for God was so deep that they’d give Him the chance to open whatever door He wanted. And as my spiritual director wisely said, it’s easier to discern religious life before you discern marriage. In other words, you can enter a convent, live there for a few years, and leave, but you can’t enter a marriage, live it for a few years, and leave. It makes rational sense. The head and the heart can so often be at odds, but it is vital that they work together in the sometimes mystifying process of discernment. Amateur discerner that I am, I’d say if a woman has an open heart, God hasn’t closed the door to religious life, and she appreciates the radicality of the call, it makes perfect sense to discern it.
I have to put my life on hold.
Every story looks different, and I happen to particularly like my own. While I didn’t put my life on hold per se, I did make a drastic change that allowed for the perfect environment—for me—to discern. Discernment aside, I firmly believe that I still would have quit that job that I was entirely unhappy in after six challenging months, having nothing lined up on the other side. Yes, it was quite a shift. But I’m thankful to God for giving me the peace and conviction I needed to make that rather uncharacteristic decision. I went only a few weeks without working until He provided two wonderful nanny jobs for me, and I can’t have imagined a better way to spend the last seven months. So, while I did quit my job and take on another that I knew would be temporary (and wouldn’t do much to boost my resume, or bank account), I was determined not to overhaul my life completely.
No, discernment will not require you to put your life on hold. It may, or likely will, require you to make significant changes to your schedule, priorities, and usual way of doing things, but there’s no rulebook that says you have to quit your job or move across the country or sever relationships in order to properly discern. It can look as simple as setting more boundaries for your technology use, rearranging your schedule to go to daily Mass and adoration, waking up earlier to pray Morning Prayer, and the like. As I got further into my discernment, I opened up to friends more and more (as I carried on hosting Bible study and dinner parties and attending happy hours and running club per usual) about my process, and it enriched those friendships and helped to deepen and clarify my discernment. We can always make more room in our lives for Jesus, but I’d venture to guess that He still wants us to spend time in ways that bring us joy, enrich us, and help us come more alive.
I will never have clarity.
Here’s a kicker. Have you ever heard a married person say, I just knew! in relation to their decision to marry their spouse? I’ve always been bothered by the notion of soulmates, love at first sight, and anything else that smacks of a picture-perfect, no-virtue-required life. In contrast, I’ve heard Catholic speakers say, You’ll know this is the person you’re meant to spend the rest of your life with when you’re standing with them at an altar and putting a ring on their finger. Of course, getting to that altar requires time and serious prayer and discernment and knowledge of the other, but I don’t know to how many couples God gives absolute 100% bona fide assurance that there is no other person out there with whom they could live a happy and holy life. In just the same way, discernment of religious life is a slow, prayerful process that often leads to a huge leap of faith.
It’s not that God will give you absolute clarity at every step of the way, but if you are called to religious life, He will give you just the clarity you need to take the next right step. I have no doubt that God is asking me to enter the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, to take this step in the direction of being a religious sister for the rest of my life. That peaceful, confident disposition of mine has come partly through some pretty dramatic signs, yes (i.e. running into Mother Clare in an airport in Rome), but even more has it come about through quiet hours in the chapel, simple words of affirmation from friends who know me well, feelings of abiding warmth and joy and hope at the prospect of this possibility. Am I absolutely certain that I will be in this order for the rest of my life? Not even close. But am I joyful and hopeful and confident in taking this first step in that direction? With all my heart.
I will never have doubts.
It’s quite the opposite of the above, but as a pendulum myself, I am sure there are others out there who can fall into this pattern of thinking instead. Perhaps many of us, regardless of our vocation, expect that God will give us crystal-clear clarity from the very start as we begin to pursue a relationship or religious vocation, or even job, home, car, etc. He is all-powerful, right? This is the God of the burning bush and plagues and parting of the Red Sea, after all! But when it comes to discernment, God wants us to cooperate. He wants us to enter into decision-making prayerfully and obediently, yes, but also in freedom, using our mind and as well as our heart. Just as He has chosen us, He wants us to choose Him. And we can’t do that if we see the whole plan unfurled before us, without a bit of mystery or wonder or reason to trust.
The freedom He gives us just baffles me. I have every right to decide today, or the day I’m due at the convent, that I don’t want to enter after all. And I know He’d still love me and bless me and give me good gifts. But I also know that, if I didn’t take this leap of faith I’ve been led to by countless nudges and whispers and signs, I would regret it for the rest of my life. I’m not signing up for a life free from doubt. But I am entering into a life that I expect will bring me great joy, will be the way He has intended for me to make a gift of myself, will be the path to holiness for which I’m intended. And while I won’t know without doubt until, if and when, I lie face down on a cold marble floor and promise lasting fidelity to Christ and His Church, I have absolutely all the grace I need to choose this next step with great joy and hope.
Whoever you are—man or woman, young or old, discerning marriage or religious life, hesitant to take the next step or raring to go—I hope and pray that God will free you from fear and fill you with His peace that surpasses all understanding. He is with you always.