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.