Always Discerning, Never Deciding

Yesterday I read a thoughtful article by Br Gabriel T. Mosher O.P. on the subject of the shortage of vocations and the kind of everlasting discernment process many engage in rather than coming to an actual decision (you can read it here). Inevitably, some commentators concentrated on what I took to be a secondary argument about the objective superiority of religious life (Br Gabriel’s a Dominican, so you’d expect that, wouldn’t you?) and, being unfamiliar with the precise terms the author used, took umbrage. So, I want to make it clear that what I am addressing is Br Gabriel’s main thesis: the way in which discerning a religious vocation becomes almost a way of life, with no final resolution.

I spend hours every week answering vocation questions. Some are perhaps rather trivial, but I try to take every one seriously because we all move at different speeds and what may seem minor to one may be quite major to another. As a community, we also ‘accompany’ people in their search for God. Some of those who are in regular contact have been discerning their vocation for years. I sometimes have the uneasy feeling that discerning has become — quite unintentionally — a way of avoiding commitment. If I am discerning, I do not have to face the ultimate test of placing myself and my sense of vocation in a concrete situation where others will judge whether I am called to this way of life or not. Moreover, if I am discerning, I can look for a community or rule of life that meets all my requirements/desiderata: I can take the risk out of commitment. The problem then is that no community on earth is ever likely to come up to my standards — they all seem to be full of cranks and crotchety old codgers I’d rather not have to deal with, and no situation is ever really risk-free. Finally, there is the fact that discerning can lead one into the trap of looking too much at oneself and forgetting the Lord. It is nice to talk about one’s soul with someone who is, or should be, sympathetic. I liked Br Gabriel’s snappy take on this, ‘Many will come and see . . . few will stay and pray.’

What can those of us who dwell in monasteries do to help people who find themselves endlessly discerning? Here at Howton Grove we are undertaking a major revision of our web sites and are keen to try one or two ideas which we hope will help those thinking about religious life. For example, we already insist on video conferencing before anyone makes the journey to Hereford to stay with the community for a period of discernment. If you are a young person, thinking about religious life, we’d be interested to know what you have found helpful, what has helped you towards a decision rather than just discerning. There is a kind of ‘vocational voyeurism’ that is unhelpful, both to the individual and the community. Our starting-point, however, is that people are full of goodwill and sincerity. We take discerners seriously because we take God seriously and we want to be of service. You can help us.

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Steadfastness

St Agnes was martyred early (at age 12 according to Ambrose, 13 according to Augustine) and is today chiefly remembered for being one of the female saints mentioned by name in the Roman canon. She is the patron saint of virgins, rape victims, gardeners, etc (there is a lot in the etc. but we’ll leave that for the moment) and has a singularly beautiful Office, so it would be easy to drift off on liturgical and historical reminiscence, but I think that might be to miss the point. The saints are not given to us so that we can commemorate them with exquisite art (though we often do) nor are they meant to be the subject of historical enquiry (though they often are). Saints are given to us for our encouragement. What encouragement can we derive from this young Roman girl martyred more than 1700 years ago?

For a start, she is a wonderful example of holiness in the young; and not the namby-pamby kind of ‘holiness’ which is in the eye of the sentimental beholder alone, but the real thing — gutsy, determined, tough-minded. Agnes stood up to her elders for what she believed and paid the price. Moreover, she stood up for something that many today find laughable or even an embarrassment: the freedom to choose whether to marry or not, whether to have sex or not. In her case, she chose a state of permanent virginity as an expression of love for Christ. That was the original ‘woman’s right to choose’ which she defended at the cost of her life. It is worth remembering that whenever we hear her named in the Mass, whenever we hear of someone being forced into an arranged marriage or raped. Let us ask her prayers for all vulnerable girls and women today.

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