Just a few days ago, I wrote a response to an article by a monk at the Abbey here in St. Louis, Br. Justin Hannegan. He argued, in sum, that discernment for religious life should not be based on asking whether anyone has a desire for religious life. My response argued that this was a bad model of discernment because it ignores the role of grace.
However, Br. Justin posted a response which, in fact, endorsed what I used as an example of a flawed model of our discernment. His view is that discernment of a religious vocation is: "if you are able to live religious life, then do it." There's no desire or love involved; in fact, this is discouraged as misleading. Maybe after the decision to enter, but not before. The rationale? It is a simple syllogism, in Br. Justin's mind:
1. Religious life is a higher, more perfect state of life, which makes it easier to attain heaven. It is the "best road" to heaven.
2. I am obligated to pursue the best road to heaven according to my abilities.
3. Therefore, if I am able, I am obligated to join religious life.
To quote Br. Justin, "God is your goal, and religious life is the best road to get you there. If you can live the religious life, it’s the obvious choice."
To use an old Scholastic turn of phrase, I "affirm the major, distinguish the minor, and distinguish the subsequent." In other words, the problem with Br. Justin's reasoning is really #2 of the above. It can be taken in two senses:
2' - I am obligated to pursue the best road to heaven according to my physical abilities.
2" - I am obligated to pursue the best road to heaven according to my spiritual abilities, gifts, desires and the inspiration of God.
My view is 2": one should enter religious life without hesitation if one is inspired by an interior impulse of God's grace to have the desire to enter religious life. Not everyone has this grace and interior inspiration from God - not everyone has a call - and so not everyone should become a religious. Similarly, if you don't become a religious, you aren't going to hell. You are called to where God wants you according to His grace - where He leads you in your heart. Telling God about your superior state of life as a monk will hold no water if you go to hell for being a bad Dominican friar, while your neighbor goes to heaven for being a good husband.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in fact, says just this:
"Though it may be said in general that for an individual man it is better to practice continence than to enter into marriage, nothing prevents marriage from being better for a particular person" (Summa Contra Gentiles III, 136).
What I see as the problem with Br. Justin's article is that he seems to really hold 2' (i.e., "according to my physical abilities"). He ends his piece saying that capability is a gift of grace: "One becomes capable [of religious life] only by grace." But, as he puts it, grace is contrary to or at least separated from desire. It is the ground of the physical capability, but is not expressed in interior desire. He also criticizes the view I hold that desire is important for discernment. If I am supposed to follow my desires, he argues, we are obligated always to desire "the better thing." But religious life is definitely the better thing to do. Therefore, he reasons, if we go by desire, we have to say that everyone is obligated to desire religious life. But this seems crazy. Thus, we have to reject desire and go by physical capability as the only reliable standard.
The problem in this case is the same as with Br. Justin's earlier reasoning. We are all obligated to desire perfection according to the impulse of God's grace. This is the necessary and constant qualification. Not everyone has this, and so they aren't called to be a religious. But this grace is not merely physical - it's an interior impulse of God speaking to you directly.
This brings me to the most important point: If we hold that God's sign of a call is merely or only exterior, we do a great disservice to the whole truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The "New Law" of grace is precisely one which enables us to keep the Law, the external observances of the Commandments, through the interior gift of the Holy Spirit who gives us an interior love of God and the power to act as God Himself does. The interior movements of the Spirit, which we perceive with the Gifts of the Spirit, are the keystone to being a good Christian. If I merely observe the minimum of what I have to do, I am not a Christian.
Br. Justin argues his view from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. So, being a Dominican and lover of St. Thomas, I think it should be important that we see that St. Thomas' real view of religious life is exactly the contrary of a "physical ability" view of vocations. While I will try to represent St. Thomas' views, it is helpful to also know that no spiritual writer I know of would hold the view Br. Justin seems to endorse. In fact, each positively endorses the role of interior inspiration and desire as the chief sign of vocation to religious life (Ignatius Loyola, Denys the Carthusian, Therese, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, etc.). In my last post, I pointed to Vita Consecrata, a magisterial document of John Paul II, as also endorsing this common view. So there's more than enough evidence that this is the common and accepted view in theology. St. Thomas, however, is a good exemplar of how Christians can see vocation in the scope of the whole of theological wisdom.
To begin with, St. Thomas clearly holds that religious vows, the evangelical counsels, are better and more perfect than normal married life. So why isn't everybody supposed to take vows?
"[the vows] are themselves expedient for all [to become perfect], but from the indisposition of some it happens that to these they are not expedient because the affections/desires of these ones are not so inclined [by God]." (my translation)
["....quantum est de se sunt omnibus expedientia, sed ex indispositione aliquorum contingit quod alicui expedientia non sunt, quia eorum affectus ad haec non inclinatur" (ST, I-II, q. 108, a. 4, ad 1).]
In other words, St. Thomas is saying that, while vows are objectively better, they are not good for those who don't have the desire for them given by God. If you lack a call to religious life, it is better for you to seek the vocation God has given you.
In fact, contrasting the evangelical counsels - the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience - to the Commandments tells us something important about our Christian lives. The Law of Moses, the Commandments in the Old Testament, are something we all have to follow to go to heaven. You can't go to heaven if you keep all the commandments...except "thou shalt not kill," for example. Not a single one's optional.
What did Christ come to do? He came to free from the Law, not by taking it away, but by giving the Holy Spirit as the New Law of grace to dwell in our hearts.
In the Old Law, people were "directed to the performance of virtuous acts by reason of some outward cause: for instance, by the threat of punishment, or the promise of some extrinsic rewards, such as honor, riches, or the like." This would be compulsion for the sake of achieving salvation. "I need to enter religious life or I'll go to hell" is a bad motivation because it fails to respect our freedom as children of God.
On the other hand, Christ gave the Spirit as the New Law, "which derives its pre-eminence from the spiritual grace instilled into our hearts, is called the "Law of love": and it is described as containing spiritual and eternal promises, which are objects of the virtues, chiefly of charity. Accordingly such persons are inclined of themselves to those objects, not as to something foreign but as to something of their own" (ST I-II, q. 107, a. 1, ad 2).
Every Christian does the Commandments out of love for God and neighbor, not under compulsion or fear. And the whole Christian life is nothing more than growing in this life, becoming more submissive and obedient to the voice of the Spirit in our hearts.
God speaks to the Christian in the heart, and, as St. Thomas says, "this speaking is superior to any external speaking.... Therefore if one should immediately obey the voice of the Creator uttered externally, as they themselves say, much more should no one resist the interior speaking, by which the Holy Spirit moves the mind, but should obey without hesitation" ("Contra doctrinam retrahentium a religione," 9). This is because all our lives require us to follow the voice of the Holy Spirit. We need to learn to listen to Him with everything we are not only in vocations, but everything and always.
The evangelical counsels of poverty, obedience, and chastity are helpful because they help us withdraw from distractions and make our lives closer to Christ's. We are constantly reminded, as religious, of the need to be obedient to the voice of God in the voice of the superior and our constitutions and rule, of the need to avoid distractions in money or food, etc. The motivation for religious life is a call to a radical love which embraces everything we are:
"For when the mind is affected vehemently with love and desire for something, it consequently sets other things aside. Hence from this that man’s mind is borne fervently by love and desire unto divine things, in which it is manifest that perfection consists, it follows that all the things which can slow it down in being borne unto God, he casts aside: not only the care for things, and affection for wife and offspring, but also for himself" (Summa Contra Gentiles III, 130).
If we hear that voice of God in our hearts and fail to follow through, it would be a sin, not because we didn't embrace something better for us abstractly speaking but because we didn't love God enough to listen to Him. This is why Aquinas says we cannot ignore the spirit and should not "take counsel" as if we were afraid entering religious life was a bad thing, but move immediately under a desire given us by the Spirit to seek it out (Contra doctrinam, 9).
Ironically, it's not the exterior signs that confirm this, but the clear and persistent desire, the interior prompting of God, that should be the surest sign of our vocation. External signs are only that - external. The only real vocation comes from being drawn in your heart by God:
...[external] suggestion has no efficacy unless he is drawn interiorly by God; for by entering religious life, one sets out to follow Christ, [and no one can come to Christ unless the Father draws him]" (Contra Doctrinam, 10).
Of course, external signs are important. I would be deluded to desire something contrary to the faith, or to become a bird, or something else. The external signs and the internal work together, which is the process of discernment. True love is easily discernible in our works. That's why St. Thomas notes that we can be unsure of our fitness due to reasons of health, etc., and that, while the religious order has a duty to try people to see "whether the Spirits are of God," we cannot be deluded about our own good intentions from the Spirit:
"those whose duty it is to admit others into religious life may be uncertain of the motive which may lead a candidate to present himself. For he may be inspired by desire for spiritual perfection; or he may be influenced by curiosity, or by a wish to do some harm. Again, uncertainty may exist as to the fitness of postulants for religious life. Therefore, the Church ordains, and religious rules require, that candidates should pass through a period of probation. But the postulants themselves cannot be in doubt as to the motive which leads them to seek the religious habit" (Contra doctrinam, 10).
So, in the end, we would be making the biggest mistake of all to ignore the promptings of God in our heart, which is at the heart and center of any religious vocation. To enter a religious vocation because of some external sign alone, like pressure from family or a fear of hell or a calculation of what is the best way to perfection, is a horrible mistake. Of course, signs are important - but only as they display that "still small voice" in our souls.
Where Br. Justin is correct is that we must be careful that we are listening to the Holy Spirit and not merely my own desires, which can often get in the way. This is the biggest obstacle to religious discernment in this and every age.
The temptation is that, when Christ calls us to come and follow Him in poverty, chastity, and obedience, we will listen to the wrong desires: our desires for security, self-comfort, and self-love. For this reason "the young man went away sad, for he had many possessions" (Matt. 19:22). A vocation candidate could get on the wrong foot by thinking religious life is just a natural desire for being alone, or to do social work, or to "give myself" in service, etc. All of these are merely "natural" desires that get in the way.
But these desires of sinful human nature are easily discerned for what they are. True love of God is obvious because it is, instead, the desire in my heart to "pick up my cross" and pursue God in true poverty of spirit. It is a desire for great perfection in love, in absolute giving yourself to God without any remainder. How each person hears it is different, but the voice of the Speaker is easily identifiable. No one can call upon Jesus as their Lord, no one can come to Him and desire the life of apostolic perfection unless the Father draw him (1 Cor. 12:3, Jn. 6:44).
And so we have nothing to fear when the Spirit speaks to our heart. If you are discerning a religious vocation and feel that call from the Holy Spirit in your heart, throw yourself into it! Talk to your priest or a vocation director. Visit a community. Pray about it. Ask for light and guidance. But don't hesitate before taking the next step! What Our Lord calls us to is something which neither ear has heard nor eye has seen nor even our hearts conceived "the things which God hath prepared for them that love him" (1 Cor. 2:9).