Vocation and Reality

Every week I spend a few hours trying to answer vocation enquiries. Each one is different so requires a different answer, and I never write until I have thought and prayed long and hard how to respond. There is one group, however, that causes me more difficulty, if that’s the right word, than any other: those from people who have married, had children and decided ‘in the evening of life’ that they wish to live the monastic life. I have absolutely no doubt that some are genuinely called — indeed I have known one such personally — but it is a very rare vocation and requires exceptionally careful discernment.

The first point I usually make is that small communities like ours are not well suited to receiving older candidates. The impact of age or ill-health is much greater on a small community, and though one may be a vigorous 70 year-old now, at 75/76 (the earliest one would be professed) the creaks and groans may be a little more pronounced! It is not only that one’s own health may be impaired, but one may require much more from the hale and hearty members of the community who may be fully stretched already. Therefore, I usually advise older candidates to approach larger communities which are often better able to cope with those whose health is not strong or whose age makes it impossible for them to live the whole monastic schedule. Again, this is not set in stone, but it is a practical consideration one should take into account.

The second point to be made is that Benedictines understand vocation as a call to join a specific community, with its own individual ‘take’ on the Rule of St Benedict. There are family likenesses among all Benedictine communities, but ours has a very definite identity shaped by our particular monastic history and experience. Whenever anyone applies to join the community, we look to see how well she would adapt to, and grow spiritually through, our way of living the Rule of St Benedict, with its emphasis on contemplative and liturgical prayer, scholarship and the internet as an expression of monastic hospitality. A reality check is often provided when people realise that a lot of hard physical work is required to keep the whole enterprise going — and it will be work that is given, not chosen for oneself. Nuns don’t retire, either; so there is no prospect of saying, ‘If I can just keep going until I’m x years old . . . .’ Monasticism is the original whole-life project!

The third, but perhaps most important, point I try to get across is that sometimes the perceived desire to live a monastic life is masking a more hidden and possibly harder call from God: to deepen one’s relationship with him in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life. I can never say often enough that each person IS a vocation, uniquely called and gifted; but just as we are never completely satisfied with our looks or intellectual ability, so we never seem to value what is right under our noses: the beauty and holiness of what God has called us to be through the way our lives have unfolded. That is not to say we oughtn’t to be constantly striving to become better people, but it does take away a lot of the stress and strain of wondering whether we should do this or that. We are in the right place now. It may not be the right place tomorrow, but if we open our hearts and minds to the love of God, we can be quite sure he will guide us where we are meant to be, at the right time and in the right way. It is, as always, a question of focus, of being real. ‘Not my will but thine be done.’

Please pray for those who entrust their vocational hopes/enquiries to us — and for us, too, that we may respond with charity and wisdom in each case.


21 thoughts on “Vocation and Reality”

    • YES! Never think that because you are not a monk, nun or whatever, you don’t have a vocation. You do: it is to be ‘you’ — as God made you and wants you to be (which may require a little work on your part, too.)

  1. Another beautiful blog. Thank you.

    I have this struggle to accept the now as it is. Thank you for giving me another perspective on it.

    • We can only live now; past and future are both beyond us in different ways. I think that is why the scriptures are so insistent that ‘Now is the day of salvation.’ Now is the moment in which God’s grace is active, and for him, of course, everything IS, always.

  2. Thank you for this. “if we open our hearts and minds to the love of God, we can be quite sure he will guide us where we are meant to be, at the right time and in the right way. It is, as always, a question of focus, of being real. ‘Not my will but thine be done.’” is precisely what I need to hear this week, with many possible changes in the air, but none of them may happen in the end.

  3. This matches my experience when I was a Benedictine novice. In retrospect I was seeking a place of love and affirmation as well as a place where God was overtly the centre of everything we did and the ground of our being, and I certainly found what I was seeking; but as my soul found healing, I realised I wasn’t called to the monastic life per se, but rather to what should be the usual Christian life out in the ‘real world’ – full of compassion and acceptance and forgiveness of all of the diverse cacophony of the beautiful children of God’s creation. Sometimes it seems that this can only be found in monasteries and in the hearts of monks and nuns these days, but I believe it is the almost-forgotten calling of all of us.

    I can say from some small experience that when wearing a habit (even – or perhaps especially – one with a white veil) I was assumed to be pure of heart and endowed with selfless compassion, and this was quite intoxicating! It was such a temptation to try to ‘use’ that image to ‘do good’, which was why novices were never allowed near guests if at all possible :).

    I am so glad that monasteries still exist. Many of them, with good leaders over many years, are oases of God’s compassionate Kingdom in a world which has largely been reduced to following ethics and morality. It would be a shame though if we Christians-at-large started to imagine that only monastics are called to love God *that* much, and that if we do love God *that* much then we should be monastics. The monastic vocation is, I think, something else again, and I for one don’t pretend to understand it. For me it was like a foretaste of Paradise or Heaven or Home – something I have come from and have the faintest beautiful memories of, and which I will always long to recreate wherever I am.


    • Thank you for your comment. The trouble with novices is they can look the part so well: ‘the beauty of holiness’ and all that. Maybe that’s slightly better than being thought the devil incarnate which, sadly these days, is sometimes the case; but I think it is good for us all to remember, from the pope downwards, that we are, first and foremost, members of the laos, the people of God and our particular calling is always situated within that. What greater glory could any of us claim than to be a child of God?

  4. Thank you for this, Sr Catherine.

    Your third point (para 4) sums up the whole thing beautifully and is something I came to realise about twenty years ago from the outside!

    I wonder whether the world, communities and individuals, begin to realise how much they benefit from the sacrifice, dedication and devotion of our monastic powerhouses. The real force is not in the halls of Government, but with those praying that God’s will be done.


  5. Thank you for honoring those who have a calling and live their lives with it in the center but not in a community such as yours. Most people I find, no matter how “spiritual,” don’t understand that. Or maybe they do and are trying to live their own way.

  6. I’ve wondered why someone would want to join your community in particular as opposed to one in their own country, aside from the adorable Br. Duncan et al, so number two explains that. Perhaps a good point when someone is considering marriage as they join a family as well as the spouse.

      • Yes, exactly – a community we know well was taken over by another province and while it seemed a reasonable endeavor to us, the members were filled with anxiety and dread. We didn’t understand why and didn’t want to pry with questions. I’m not sure things have settled down even years after the fact. Please tell your new postulant we continue to pray for her, as for the your entire community. Bro. Duncan, as well.

  7. Thank you for a very reflective piece, which while focused on the Religious life, has much to say to those of us to still struggle to discern a vocation, and it actually is a show stopper for many whose whole identity is wrapped around a particular view of where God is calling them to be.

    I can see the beauty of just celebrating how and where we are now and where God has brought us to. But somehow that nagging call to do more remains, and despite my best efforts to ignore it, it will not go away.

    I’m coming to accept that it might never be discerned and try to be content with what I have, and just let God decide. Life will become much simpler.

    • I think your first para makes an important point. It’s very nice when God’s will coincides with ours, but it is possible sometimes to want his will to be what it isn’t, and it can be a long, hard process to accept that we are not called to marriage/priesthood/religious life or whatever it may be. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I am saying that we should never seek to be anything other than what we are already or no one would marry, have children, become priests/religious, etc. It’s really a question of trusting God to lead one and celebrating/accepting/rejoicing in his leading, knowing that he will always show us the right path provided we don’t put any deliberate obstacles in his way.

  8. I understand the desire for monastic life. I also understand (and have seen) the burdens aging members add to the the duties of healthier members. That is why I am pursuing the vocation of Oblate. Joined in prayer with a community, yet living my vocation in the world.

    I wanted that deeper connection to a community of like minds and hearts, was looking for a deeper prayer life and spiritual direction. But I am a married mother of three teen-agers.

    I have found what I hope will be a spiritual home with a community of Olivetan Benedictine’s at the convent of Holy Angels in my home state of Arkansas, USA.

    Through them I have learned the beauty of the Liturgy of the Hours, and have found a place where I am welcome to come for spiritual nourishment and can join in prayer with the hearts of other like minds.

    It may be a good alternative for some of your inquirers.

    • This response is what occurred to me: so many women I know these days have entered into the discernment process to become associates or oblates of a religious community. There are many ways to be part of a community–I suppose part of the push to join a religious order is that we lack imagination! We can only think of one way to draw closer to God, not knowing God has many diverse ways to draw and enfold us.

  9. the perceived desire to live a monastic life is masking a more hidden and possibly harder call from God: to deepen one’s relationship with him in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life.
    Yes, I have come to realize that my vocation is indeed to be where I am, and be the best I can be. It just has taken me a long time to understand this.
    Thank you.

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