I have completed my first year in temporary vows in the Redemptorists. Beforehand I was in seminary discerning a vocation to the Diocesan priesthood. Previously I had been studying Divinity at University alongside candidates for ministry in Reformed and Evangelical Protestant denominations. I think it is fair to say that among the influences on my chosen path have been those ecumenical contacts as well as Roman Catholic priests I looked up to. At twenty-eight years of age, I am the youngest in the Province.
When I was applying for seminary, a priest I knew once told me how in his time as a seminarian and as a young priest, his idea of vocation evolved – that is, the reasons for joining differed from the reasons for continuing to ordination and the same went for the reasons for staying.
I think I have come to understand this as I have journeyed in the discernment process. At each stage, there are new experiences to draw from and at those stages a decision continues to be demanded: do I continue or do I take another path?
I get slightly worried about making it a question of ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ because ‘vocation’ can often be associated with the Annunciation and Mary’s Fiat – or ‘Yes’. People could be left with the impression that a decision to cease to continue along the path to priesthood, or indeed a decision to leave the priesthood is a ‘No’ in contrast to the ‘Yes’ like Mary. In life, there is always a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No’ involved in each decision. However, in each decision, the hope is that there has been the hand of God guiding us, even in the midst of our tainted judgements and imperfections of character.
A major factor in continuing the path I have taken in the Redemptorists is the discovery, and evolving appreciation, of the spirit of the Congregation. The spirit or ethos of a congregation or religious order is famously difficult to lay fingers upon and almost impossible to encapsulate in words. It is best perceived through consistent contact, by living in community with the group for some time. I found the following piece from Sandra Schneiders, I.H.M., very helpful during my novitiate: what has been traditionally called “the spirit of the congregation” is an important focus of discernment, which virtually has to go on after a person has become a candidate because it really cannot be described or known outside actual experience of the group’s life. It is an ethos that is cultural, social, spiritual, and practical. It is felt as a powerful determinant of behaviour and decisions. It is an indefinable something that makes a person gradually feel “at home” or, on the contrary, feel like a perpetual visitor in someone else’s family. But it cannot be isolated or analyzed discursively. In effect, the spirit of the congregation, which is an expression of its charism, is a kind of corporate personality within which a person must find her own way of being if she is to feel truly called to this particular congregation.
That said, I think there’s only so much that can be learned by reading things in books and websites about religious orders or the priesthood or married life. These things are useful and can help us immensely. However, when it comes to discernment, there needs to come a time when a decision must be made to give the life a go – to take the risk to live the life for some time. The likes of the period of postulancy in religious life is designed for this. A person will only begin to understand if a certain way of life is suited to them by attempting to live it.
One major difference I have noted between vocation stories of the older generation and the more immediately young generation is that the latter appears to have agonized over the decision for far longer than the older generation did.
My insistence on focusing on making a decision is partly down to a prompt I was given by someone when I was in the process of considering a call to religious life. It is also because I think decisions are a key element of discernment. Discernment, according to Wilkie and Noreen Cannon Au, as a process, ‘involves making decisions in way that allows God to be a telling influence in our choices.’
Going back to Mary’s Fiat, what is most inspiring in this is her wholehearted ‘Yes’ to God’s plan, and that can be held as the ideal for us. What we hope for is to discern God’s will, through an on-going, lifelong process of listening to his voice and commit to following it, making the decision to live it out wholeheartedly, albeit imperfectly. I finish with the wisdom of the late Karl Rahner, S.J. He wrote this in the context of discerning a call to lifelong celibacy:
There is no human freedom without decision. But decision means giving up other alternatives in favour of some limited good, which thus – by being chosen – becomes a living reality and as such establishes a more positive relationship to the alternatives sacrificed than a man can have who, wanting “everything”, never makes a choice and therefore never really gets hold of anything.