Vocation: the Personal and Communal Dimensions

Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, otherwise known as Good Shepherd Sunday, is a day when we are exhorted to pray for vocations. Anyone who has followed this blog or its predecessor for any length of time will know that I believe every one of us IS a vocation, uniquely called into being by God and playing a unique role in his creation. I tend to fidget a little when ‘vocation’ is limited to priestly vocations. The bidding prayers for this day sometimes include a nod towards religious vocations as well, but often I am left wondering whether we know what we are actually praying for and whether we would assent to it if we did. Praying for vocations is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come and turn our world upside down. The world of family and friendship, of career and future expectation: all are broken into by the Holy Spirit, changed for ever by the gift and acceptance of vocation.

For us as Benedictines, vocation has both a personal and a communal aspect and it is a mistake to dwell on the purely personal dimension. We are called as individuals to be members of a community, certainly, but our focus is on God and God alone. It is not we who are interesting but God. Concentration on self, whether ‘self’ be the individual or the community, is a sign that we haven’t quite grasped what our vocation is about. It is understandable that in the early stages we may be attracted to some exterior form or sign, the beauty of the liturgy perhaps, or the promise of silence and seclusion in which our experience of prayer may grow and deepen; but we eventually learn that God must be loved for his own sake, not for any gift that he gives. We may become deaf or blind or lose the ability to sing which made the liturgy such a joy; we may be forced to leave the buildings which made a stately celebration possible; the community to which we belong may not be able to provide the silence and seclusion we desire or we may be placed in an obedience which demands that we be always at the end of a telephone or in the infirmary, where the needs of the elderly and the sick are paramount. It doesn’t matter. What we have vowed is to seek God when and where he pleases, to do whatever he asks.

None of us knows at the outset what ‘doing whatever he asks’ may lead to, but if you who are reading this are wondering whether God is calling you, remember that a vocation can only grow and become sure in the context of prayer. Remember too that we do not become nuns to please ourselves but to please God. He demands everything. There can be no holding back, no limitation. You will never know in this life what your gift of self may have achieved but you can be quite sure that God is never outdone in generosity. As a Christian you are called to make up in your own flesh what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ; as a nun, you can never forget that your vocation is an ecclesial one. You may be derided and thought little of, even by members of the household of faith. What matters is your fidelity and perseverance; and if my own experience is anything to go by, no matter how hard you may find some of the way, there will be great joy and gladness too.


13 thoughts on “Vocation: the Personal and Communal Dimensions”

  1. It is very scary to ask God to let His will be done with us. We may have ideas of what we would like our lives to be, but it may not be what God has in store for us if we allow it. If we only knew, I think a lot of us would run for our lives! 🙂

    One thing I don’t understand is why do nuns get such a bad rap? I love, admire and respect anyone and everyone who has the courage to take up God’s calling and give everything we take for granted, the comforts etc. up just to please our Lord and do His will.

  2. I am likewise perplexed by the negativity directed at nuns. It must come from a profound misunderstandinng. Perhaps it is an extention of how women are regarded in H more generally, but I suspect it goes far beyond that.

    I hope it does not discourage those dscerning a monastic vocation. The world would be a darker place without their holy presence.

  3. I believe every one of us IS a vocation.
    Thank you very much for this. Thank you also for explaining the call that you have answered, that of religious in a community. I envy the daily companionship of Godde in all that you do — as I imagine it 🙂
    As a wife, mother, and grandmother, I am slowly discovering that I also have a daily Yes to give and to learn to be open more and more to Godde in all that I do. I wish I had discovered all of this fifty years ago. …
    Thank you for all that you share here, which is so inspiring and reassuring as well.

  4. “Concentration on self, whether ‘self’ be the individual or the community, is a sign that we haven’t quite grasped what our vocation is about. ”
    That is the most profound aspect of vocation for me and so countercultural.
    When I look at some of the youngsters I think how hard it is for them to hear voices that will emphasise this.

  5. Thank you for your contributions. We need to pray very much for younger people who are often unsure of themselves and subject to so many different pressures. The negativity about nuns baffles us at times. It can also be very stressful.

  6. ‘What we have vowed is to seek God when and where he pleases, to do whatever he asks.’

    just what I need to hear tonight, thank you.

  7. The negative attitude towards nuns which you mention is troubling. Here is my tuppence worth on the subject (adjust as necessary for inflation/recession)…
    I know of someone who when very young was taught by a nun known to slap little hands with a ruler but none of the nuns who taught me through the years ever behaved in such a way. I therefore think part of the problem is that nuns are such an easily identifiable (minority) group. It’s easier for someone to hear of a hand-slapping nun and then draw the conclusion that all nuns are strict and nasty than it is for someone to hear of a lay female teacher slapping hands and conclude that all female teachers (or women generally) behave in such a way.
    People’s exposure helps determine their attitudes. Generally speaking, they will be exposed to many many more lay women in their lifetime than they will be to nuns. If they experience or hear of a negative experience involving nuns, that will colour their perceptions of the group as a whole as they may not encounter sufficient numbers of nice nuns to balance things out.
    If this is such a very widespread attitude, it troubles me to think that there may be a pervasive negative attitude throughout society generally towards nuns. My exposure to nuns being positive, I am somewhat oblivious to this attitude.
    Although that said, I do remember new pupils joining my school who had previously been at schools run wholly by lay-people and I remember them quite dreading being taught by nuns and I could never figure out why, given they had never even been around nuns before.
    One example of the negative atitude I find most troubling – sickening even – was your experience in Rome. I like other readers of your blog was shocked – I thought Rome being the ‘headquarters’ of the Catholic Church, any conspicuous religious (i.e. habit/collar-wearing) would be afforded respect. Very shocking to hear it is not so.

  8. Thank you, Golder. I’m sure you’re right, that some people have had very negative experiences of nuns or religious sisters when they were younger; but I think the problem nowadays is twofold. On the one hand, western society isn’t very comfortable with women who rather publicly proclaim that chastity is liveable and society’s goals — career, success, material well-being — are of no interest. On the other, there is the fact that nuns don’t really fit into the hierarchical ordering of the Catholic Church (which is laity/clergy). I think single women probably understand this better than married women do. They often feel ‘outside’ the parish structures and quite lonely. What I can’t figure out is why people often have such condescending attitudes to nuns, as though we had no brains or ability. Perhaps it is because our communities are usually less well-off than men’s communities, and because we usually have no public role. Canon law is, of course, another factor to take into account. The rules for women are much stricter and can sometimes seem archaic, even to those who have no desire to live as men do.

    • “What I can’t figure out is why people often have such condescending attitudes to nuns, as though we had no brains or ability. Perhaps it is because our communities are usually less well-off than men’s communities, and because we usually have no public role. ”

      Well said. Probably a lot of people think “Oh, what do nuns do? Just sit around and pray” or they might have some knowledge of orders who do teaching or missionary work but still, they spend their lives ‘just’ praying – what is THAT all about?

      This is such an interesting topic, maybe a book should be written on it: Cloisterphobia – The Fear of Nuns.


      (Title copyright Golder)

  9. I’ve been pondering this and I wonder if it is more a Western problem than anything else. With the push for equality, for ambition etc., people in the West seem to think that by becoming a nun, a woman has given up on her potential. If only they knew how much potential it takes to embrace the habit.
    Here in Japan, and elsewhere that I’ve lived in Asia (I’m an old colonial 🙂 ), nuns are treated differently. They are respected by young and old alike, and treated as such. I’ve never seen any nun given a hard time, thank God.
    If priests are seen as alter Christi, then for me nuns are the next best and closest thing to our blessed Mother, Mary.

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