Helps for a young lady discerning her vocation
1) How must a young lady discern her vocation? First and foremost she must discern through prayer. A vocation must be nurtured and developed through a life of prayer.
There is a special need of entrusting her vocation to the maternal mediation of the Immaculate. In fact, if, as the Carmelite mystic, St. Mary Magdalen di Pazzi affirms, “A religious vocation is the greatest grace God can give a soul after holy Baptism,” then it is Mary Most Holy who obtains this grace for each soul since, by God’s design, She is the Mediatrix of all Graces. She it is to whom those discerning their vocation must turn for help and guidance, in order to ensure that the discernment process will go according to God’s holy designs and the grace to correspond may be secured.
There is also a particular need for cultivating devotion to Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist, with Holy Mass and Eucharistic Adoration as frequently as possible. She must pray the Lord to show her His Will and beg Him for the grace to generously correspond, especially if it is the Divine call to the religious life. Why generously? Because all too often it happens that those who understand that they are being called to serve the Lord in the religious life do not pursue it, for one reason or another (see point # 4 below).
Another excellent means for discerning, together with prayer, is a spiritual director or confessor. If a young woman has the grace to have these aids, she should take advantage of it. If there are no Priests available, then the grace of God will work through other means, such as holy parents who are open to the religious vocation or a friend who leads a fervent prayer life and who also encourages priestly/religious vocations. One should seek a Priest who is spiritual and supernaturally wise and who does not discourage a religious vocation for any illegitimate reasons.
Being a Spouse of Christ!
2)The religious life is first and foremost about being a Spouse of Christ! A common mistake that many young ladies make in their discernment of a religious vocation is to think how they can give their talents to God. Obviously, this is a good thing and not to be discouraged. But it should not be the driving force behind her discernment. God does not necessarily need or even look for our talents. In fact, often times it happens that the talents we believe He would like us to use to help souls are the very ones He has us put aside, although not necessarily permanently. Often times the religious life can be looked upon almost as a career, although even if not done on purpose. The religious life is not something but rather, some One, namely Jesus!
Fr. Stefano Maria Manelli, in his splendid book for discerning vocations, “Come and Follow Me,” writes most beautifully on this point when he says:
“Virginity and divine nuptials, virginity and divine joy, virginity and spiritual maternity—these all go together. The angelic St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote these beautiful lines: ‘To be Your spouse, O Jesus, is to become a mother of souls through union with You.’ Oh, the heavenly charm of a life of consecrated virginity! The Church has always taught this. In his splendid encyclical Sacra Virginitas and his discourses to consecrated souls, Pius XII wonderfully expounded these themes. He calls consecrated virgins ‘true spouses of the Lord,’ following here the ancient Church Fathers, who considered holy virgins to be “spouses of Christ” in the truest and highest sense. St. Methodius of Olympus, for example, composed this prayer for a consecrated virgin: ‘O Christ, for me You are everything. For Your sake I remain pure, and with lamp brightly burning, I come to meet You, O my Bridegroom.’”
What then is the correct way of discerning? One must keep in mind that she should base her desire primarily on becoming a future Spouse of Christ, on becoming a saint, and a great saint, as St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe would have us desire! God is looking for hearts, not talents! This does not mean, however, that one will not feel a particular attraction to an Order based on their apostolic work, such as caring for the poor, nursing, teaching, etc. It is just that the young lady discerning must not lose sight of the primary goal of the religious life, which is to be a Spouse of Christ and to become a saint!
See For Yourself!
3) There is also another very important aspect in discerning her vocation. Many young ladies (and even young girls who are mature enough) should visit various convents of religious Sisters to see if they have any attraction either to the religious life or, if they are already aware of an attraction, to see if they feel a pull towards a particular religious Institute. The longer the visit, the better. If she goes only for a few days, she will not fully have the chance to experience the life of the Sisters and discern whether she is called there. A minimum of one week is suggested, and even up to a month, if possible. Why? We know that God speaks to us only in silence. The world we live in is full of noise. When a young girl stays longer to visit, she is able to “absorb,” so to speak, the atmosphere of prayer and silence. She is really able to see the life of the Sisters: how they pray, how they live and work, how they recreate! She will be able to tell whether or not she feels an attraction to a particular way of life.
Some girls have discerned that they were not called due to their visit (although for some it might be beneficial to make a second visit to confirm whether this discernment was accurate). Other young women discern that a particular religious Institute is not for them. Still others may discover that they are called to the particular one they visited. There are even some who find a complete aversion to the religious life the first time they visit and upon visiting again, discover it was only a temptation and find they truly are called.
It is not necessary to visit many different religious Orders; it depends on the person. Visiting many religious Orders helps some, while others have no need for this. Ultimately, only good can come out of making visits. If a young lady discerns she is not called, hopefully she will have deepened her prayer life, which may benefit her even in the married state of life.
Do Not Delay!
4) What must a young lady do if she feels called? She must not delay. Jesus in the Gospels and all of the saints teach us this. A very important thing to remember is the warning of Jesus in the Gospels about not delaying and not being attached to family, home, occupation, etc, more than to God (Cf. Lk. 9: 57-62). This is especially so because God gives the grace to enter, which is perhaps one of the hardest steps in all of the religious life, and if she delays, she does not know if this grace will come again. With this in mind, if she has a spiritual director she should definitely consult him, always remembering that a spiritual director should be in favor of a possible religious vocation. If a young lady does not have a spiritual director, then perhaps the Sisters to whose Institute she may be seeking admittance and whom she has befriended should be consulted. If she is still not sure, she should visit those particular Sisters again, and this will be helpful.
5) What are some of the main obstacles to responding generously to a religious vocation?
a) Usually, the first obstacle is our own difficulty in being completely detached from those people and those things that are dearest to us: mother, father, family, friends, job, possessions, country. Again, we must keep the words of Jesus in mind: “He that loveth father or mother more than me…is not worthy of me.” We must realize that the more difficult it is to make the necessary detachment, the greater will be both our reward and our loved ones’ reward, even if at first the latter cannot see this.
b) Another great obstacle may be our own family members and friends. It is obvious that a mother and father love their child most passionately and would very easily give their own lives to save that of their child’s. Unfortunately, it often happens that this protective and passionate love loses its focus and true purpose. The first preoccupation and desire of parents and family should be to see their children get to heaven. If parents recognize that we ultimately all belong to God and to God we must return, their whole focus changes. The initial pain of separation does not change, but if this supernatural vision is in mind, it actually eases the pain, knowing that that their child is going to the most beautiful and safest place, only to prepare to become a Spouse of Christ! Parents are freed from any dread that their child’s Spouse will in any way harm them or abandon them or, even just as painful, be unfaithful to them!
c) Still another common obstacle to responding generously to God’s call is attachment to her occupation. If a young woman is called, she must realize that the service of Christ in the Church is the noblest of occupations. Not everyone is given this most precious and noble gift of a religious vocation. While it is true that those who are called are no better than those who are not, it does not change the fact that the religious state of life is, according to Holy Mother Church, the highest calling. If she is working for her own selfish gain, she must remember that she can take none of it with her in the next world! If she thinks that by her work she can give glory to God and help many others, she must remember that only by doing God’s Will can this be true.
d) Another very common reason why a girl who has discovered she is called does not respond is fear. Fear of the “unknown,” fear of making a mistake, fear of possible failure, fear of suffering, fear of detachment from family, fear of the opinion of others, fear of not being able to do all God will ask of her in that state of life, fear of this or that other thing. St. Pio of Pietrelcina says that fear is a worse evil than sin, because it paralyzes the soul. If she is truly asking God to enlighten her through prayer as to where she is called, God will not abandon her. Is not God our very tenderest of Fathers who desires our happiness and holiness? Is it not He Who has commanded us to become saints? And will He not then aid us in this command and desire which He has for our holiness? Besides, it is to be emphasized again that to enter a particular religious Institute is just to further your discernment. When one is sure, she goes forward with joy and peace in making her vows. The religious life is, by Divine design, the easiest place on the face of this earth, in this “valley of tears,” to become a saint. In fact, while the priesthood and marriage require sacraments due to the great difficulties involved, the religious do not require a sacrament! It is actually the easiest life. Of course, this does not mean that there are no sufferings or crosses. That would be unrealistic; but so would it be to think that there is anywhere on this earth where we will not have sufferings or crosses.
e) Finally, there are also those whose obstacle to responding generously to God’s call is that they think they cannot enter the religious life because they are not worthy. This is completely a misconception of the religious life. Those who are called are never worthy. God does not give us His graces because we are worthy but solely because He loves us. The religious life is not the life of the perfect but of the perfected! A young woman enters not because she is a saint but because she wants to become a saint. And, by Divine design, the religious life is the easiest place to become a saint
6) How must a person approach the issue of discernment?
a) One very important thing for a young lady to remember is that her entering the convent must be a free choice. It is her “yes,” her “fiat” to the Lord’s plan for her life, in imitation of Our Lady: “fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.” It is very important to keep in mind that the purpose of a vocation visit is never to force or coax a person into having a vocation or even into entering a religious Institute. The result of this type of coercion would be that the girl would eventually leave. The religious life is a free choice to respond to God’s call. We are all free to say yes or, unfortunately, no to God’s plan for our life. God will never abandon us, even if we do not correspond with His plan for our life. He will just go to plan B. However, we will never experience that fullness of happiness we would have known, had we said yes to that plan, be it the religious life or marriage. In choosing not to say yes to God’s plan, we trace out a more sorrowful path for our lives, although God will still love us and give us His graces.
b) Another very important thing to keep in mind is that even should a young woman join a religious Order, it does not mean that she immediately signs her life away on the dotted line! To enter is to further discern if she is called. If she is sincerely discerning God’s Will for her life and is willing to do whatever He wants when He wants, she must not fear that He will fail to guide her. There are many years of formation before she makes her vows, and usually by the end of her novitiate, she knows for certain whether she is called. If she should discern that she is not called, then she gained valuable religious formation for her spiritual life!
c) One thing is certain: no one can discern “sitting on the fence”. That is to say, the young lady cannot always remain wondering and thinking whether or not she is called. If she feels uncertain, then she should visit. This will help in the discernment process. If a young girl is still in high school, it is best to finish before thinking of entering a particular religious Institute. It is still beneficial, however, to visit even while in high school, and for some who are mature enough, even younger. If a young lady is in college, she must discern well with her spiritual director whether it would be good for her to leave her studies. For instance, if she is in an atmosphere that will help protect her vocation, it is most likely that her spiritual director will counsel her to finish her studies. If she is in an atmosphere where her vocation may be in danger, then she must alert her spiritual director to these difficulties, and even have the courage to leave college and enter a particular religious Order, if he should so advise it. This, of course, can only be done through asking God for the grace through prayer. It is also to be kept in mind that some Orders require a college education while others do not.
7) Fr. Stefano Maria Manelli relates what the saints teach us about correct discernment of religious Orders. He writes: “But here is something that should be urged upon everyone interested in a consecrated life: he should not enter a community where there is no assurance that the life offered is one perfectly faithful to the founders and to the Rules by which the Order has produced saints. Today more than ever this is a painful point to make; but we are all the more obliged to make it. It is folly to enter where the life is unfaithful to the ideals, unobservant, and in a state of relaxation that destroys the very substance of a program pledged by its nature to sacrifice and daily immolation. It is better to look elsewhere, says St. Alphonsus—better not to enter.
“The Lord will preserve the grace of His call in the upright and faithful hearts that duly desire to find a faithful and grace-laden religious family. God certainly does not call all to the same vocation, nor to the consecrated life in an Order or Institute; for “everyone has his proper gift from God: one after this manner, and another after that” (1 Cor. 7:7). But the importance of putting God first in charity is paramount. “I am not against those who gave thought to temporal suitabilities when they enter their state of life and seek employment; but I am sure that a failure to turn first to God, making Him the single, final goal of all our considerations, and the failure to carefully consider whether a particular state, a particular prospective spouse, or a particular career or position, is the one better suited for our salvation—this failure is a disorder of disastrous consequences.”
“According to the doctrine of St. Anthony Claret (Mission Sermon, 3: 285 f. 1858 ed.) when one’s motives are perfectly upright, he is apt to consult wisely and decide wisely, and if his vocation is for the consecrated life, he is apt to check and see to it that the community he enters is one that is faithful to the ideals of the holy founders and that it appeals principally to supernatural motivation. A vocation to the consecrated life is something the majority of people do not have, and it is something very precious, being a sign of God’s special favor.
” St. Alphonsus Liguori writes: ‘One who feels he is called by God to enter an observant religious institute should understand that the plan of any observant community is to follow as closely as possible in the footsteps and example of the holy life of Jesus Christ, which was one of total detachment and mortification, full of suffering and contempt. I said “observant institute,” for if it is not observant it would be better to remain in the world than to enter a community where the observance is relaxed’—whether as to discipline or as to doctrine we say.
‘Therefore,’ he continues, ‘one who is resolved to come to an observant community should at the same time resolve to come to suffer and deny himself in everything, according to what Jesus Himself said to those who would give themselves over to following Him perfectly: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” ‘ (Mt. 16:24). Furthermore he adds: ‘Let one who wishes to enter the religious life not forget to resolve to become a saint and to undergo every exterior and interior suffering in order to be faithful to God and not forsake his vocation. And if he is not resolved upon this, I urge him not to deceive the superior and himself and not to embrace that life. For this reluctance is a sign that he is not called, or—which would be worse—that he is not choosing to correspond to the vocation as he should’ (Works on the Religious State, I, v. f).” (Come and Follow Me).
The young lady with a vocation to the religious life must realize the awesome dignity to which she is being called. It is a divine and sublime mystery for a soul who is called to be a Spouse of Christ! It in no way implies that she is a better person than someone who does not profess religious vows. It is just that God, for His own mysterious reasons and designs, has called some to live in union with Him in a very intensely intimate way. It is a complete mystery that God calls some and not others. If God is calling her, He is faithful and will not ever ask more than the soul is capable of doing with the help of His grace. He does not look on our worthiness, or unworthiness for that matter! God wants our hearts just as they are and through all the helps and graces that come with the state of religious life, will perfect and divinize that heart, that soul until it is fit for heaven by means of the purifications He will send her throughout her life. Therefore, take courage and do not delay if you feel the divine call to abandon everything of this world to gain the Treasure of treasures, Jesus, and Mary Most Holy in heaven for all eternity! Entrust everything to Jesus and Mary and generously say your “Fiat” as soon as you know to where it is God is calling you.
We end here with a concluding thought from Fr. Stefano from the above mentioned book: “Let the young reader pay serious attention. If the Lord is calling you, know how to choose the religious family generously and prudently which ought to help you to rise quickly in holiness. Do not be neglectful and unserious in the way you choose! Every consecrated life ought to be outstanding in love and heroic sacrifice.”
Sister Maria Cristiana
Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate
House of the Immaculate
4 Brownhill Road, Catford
London SE6 2EJ
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