A Gap in the Market for Meaning: Vocations Sunday 2015

In previous years I’ve written what I hope were thoughtful pieces on the nature of vocation and the role of family, friends and religious communities in helping those trying to make sense of a call from God. This morning I’d like to address something different. The arresting phrase forming the title of this post, uttered recently by the Director of the National Office for Vocation (NOV) in response to an increase in the number of entrants to religious communities for women (see report here), strikes me as symptomatic of the way in which the Church all too often approaches the subject of vocation. We play the numbers game, talking up increases and minimizing decreases, speaking our own special gobbledegook incomprehensible to outsiders (sometimes even to insiders) and criticizing or ostracizing anyone who dares to question what is going on. In short, we take a very secular attitude towards something that is, by definition, the reverse of secular.

I am an optimistic person, but I can’t help thinking the reported increase in the numbers of women joining Religious Orders in England and Wales may prove to be more Arab Spring than Second Spring. Even if all stay, and the report indicates we are talking about entrants to religious life, not those who have made profession (i.e. committed themselves by vow after several years’ membership of a religious  institute), many Orders and Congregations are going to shrink beyond recognition. The impact on the Church, already considerable, will be profound. We have had decades of down-sizing, abandonment of traditional works and undertakings, and withdrawal from the public sphere. Many people have never met a nun or sister. Even those who regard themselves as active Catholics are sometimes very vague about religious life. It is beyond their ken.

At the same time, the Church herself seems to have lost confidence in religious themselves. I am not thinking so much of high-profile events like the investigation into the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious as the more mundane neglect of nuns and sisters who are, to all intents and purposes, the invisible Church except when statistics are collated or bland statements about the importance of prayer and witness are made. Some dioceses give the impression that fostering consecrated life is a low priority. A dutiful Day for Religious, with Mass said by the bishop, is about the limit of engagement. The sisters have their uses, perhaps, but nuns are a waste of space (for the difference between nuns and sisters, see here). I exaggerate, of course, but not as much as you might think.

In fairness to the NOV, a great deal has been done in recent years to try to raise the profile of consecrated life at a supra-diocesan level and we should applaud its efforts. One unintended consequence, however, has been that smaller, poorer, possibly older, communities have effectively been excluded from participation in some of its initiatives. My own particular bugbear is the various forms of Vocation Awareness Days at which only nuns and sisters under 35 are welcome. Youth attracts youth, we are told, and of course that’s true, but are some secular ageist assumptions also at work? Let’s not forget how inspiring older religious can be and how much sympathy they can have with the young and not-so-young. I know my own vocation was greatly influenced by the older people I met at Stanbrook. They proved monastic life was worth pursuing, and I am eternally in their debt. Apart from anything else, they knew what they were talking about. Having lived monastic life for forty, fifty or sixty years, they were transformed by it. To use a popular phrase, they were authentic — and it showed.

The way in which the British media responded to the statistics released by the NOV also has a bearing on how we interpret them. Many treated the whole thing as a good story, a bit of a joke really, with predictable puns and an irritating display of religious illiteracy (the BBC World Service drove me demented with its references to women taking Holy Orders). There was a sudden flurry of activity as reporters and editors scampered through the ether looking for young nuns to ‘tell their story,’ the less expected the better, or re-ran old stories on people like us, who are using contemporary technology in different ways. Some, mainly the religious press, trumpeted the figures with an air of triumph as though they ushered in an era of religious plenty. It would be churlish not to rejoice that the people the statistics represent have found their way, but I suspect ‘the gap in the market for meaning’ they are alleged to have bridged is as wide as ever.

Unless there is a massive increase in numbers, we face a future in which both active and contemplative religious will be far fewer. The vocation in which I have been privileged to share will become less and less intelligible. I don’t think that’s a problem in itself, indeed I have a hunch that the religious communities of the future will be smaller, closer in spirit to the Desert ideal from which they originally sprang, but it does invite urgent examination of some of the strengths and weaknesses of religious life today, especially insofar as they concern women. We cannot and should not expect those entering our communities to be anything other than people of their time. If the Church accords religious women less respect than secular society accords women in general, we have gone very wrong (for some of my own reflections on this topic, see here).

People are drawn to religious life for all kinds of reasons, but the reasons they stay are usually the same — they have, however imperfectly or provisionally, found traces of God and been utterly captivated by him. That is what we need to convey, as a Church, as Orders/Congregations and as individuals: the supreme value of seeking God through a life of prayer and service lived under vows in community, the joy and beauty of it. That is what we need to celebrate, rather than numbers which can prove misleading.* That is also, crucially, what we need to make it easier for people to discover.

We often receive vocation enquiries via our web site and I have been shocked by what some of the enquirers tell me has been their experience of other houses or Congregations. They have been told they must write a letter rather than email in the first instance; must visit before they can have their questions answered; must do this, that or the other before the process of discernment can even begin. True, some of the questions we are asked make me suspect a wind-up at times, but we are aware that travel is costly and finding out about religious life isn’t always easy. People come before systems. Our job, surely, is to try to help people see beyond the externals to the core of our life, to enable them to answer God’s call freely, maturely, joyfully.  Above all, we need to give encouragement.

How what I say above fits in with the ‘culture of vocation’ to which the NOV report refers, I’ve no idea. I can only speak of what I know. I believe God still calls people to various forms of religious life and we must all make a response of some kind, whatever our role in the Church. A lack of conviction, a desire that vocation should concern some other person, some other family, is not just a form of half-heartedness, it is a fundamental lack of willingness to let God be God in our lives — and that letting God be God is at the heart of every vocation, whether it be to marriage or singleness, priesthood or consecrated life. This Sunday we shall be on our knees asking that His will, not ours, be done, ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus, that God may be glorified in all things — even that strange marketplace for meaning with its even stranger gaps.

*If you look at the  latest Annuarium Statisticum, you will see that between 2005 and 2013, the number of female religious in Europe declined by 18.3%. The increase in vocations noted in the developing world was cited by some as evidence of vitality. I am slightly sceptical because my limited experience of communities in Africa and South America suggests a much more complex picture. Where joining a religious community represents a step up, both socially and economically, other factors may be at work; and historically, newer converts tend to join religious communities in disproportionately higher numbers.

Note: I have written about ‘religious life’ because that expression comes more easily to my pen. The officially preferred phrase is ‘consecrated life’.


Vocations Sunday

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is also the forty-ninth anniversary of the Church’s Day of Prayer for Vocations. Do you ever ask yourself what exactly are we praying for on Vocations Sunday? Even more importantly, do you ever ask yourself whom we are praying for?

I suspect most of us are praying for someone else. Our prayer is, may he or she have a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. May their son or daughter respond to the Lord’s invitation. (In many cases, most definitely may it be their son/daughter, not mine!) Very few of us consciously advert to the fact that when we pray for vocations we must also pray for ourselves. Vocation isn’t a once-for-all call in the sense that once we answer we need do nothing more. The Benedictine vow of conversatio morum reminds us that we wake every day to hear what the Lord asks of us, and it is always something new. Vocation is on-going for each and every one of us.

When it comes to what we are praying for, many of us are probably more muddled than we like to admit (I know I am). We believe, in some vague way, for example, that priests and religious are a useful part of the Church; at any rate, they have ‘always’ been there, so we don’t want to lose them now. We need priests to celebrate the Sacraments, and religious can always be relied upon to pray for us when times are hard. Having a few around is therefore a good idea, a kind of celestial insurance policy if you like (I exaggerate, of course). Have we forgotten that when the Lord Jesus likened himself to a shepherd, he was using some very tough imagery about himself? It  should remind us that following him can never be comfortable or easy, that holiness is not, so to say, for wimps. Those who follow the Lord as priests or religious need to have similar qualities — toughness, courage and resilience, above all a willingness to sacrifice self, as well as the gentler and more immediately attractive qualities of love and compassion.

I like to pray on this Sunday for the graces I myself need to follow my vocation as a Benedictine nun as well as the graces others need to follow theirs. Whatever our vocation, all of us are called to be part of the Church. Together we make up the Body of Christ, flawless in beauty and holiness, perfect in faith, hope and love.