Is Religious Life Repulsive?

A monk of the St. Louis Abbey, Br. Justin Hannegan, recently wrote a piece about vocational discernment which faulted most vocation programs with leading people to reflect in a way that was ultimately counter-productive to vocational recruitment, because it is opposed to the nature of religious life itself. My Eastern Province Dominican brothers already responded to this piece on their blog, and I advise you go take a look yourself at their response, but I thought I might throw in my "two cents" on this debate. I think there is a terribly important lesson in reflecting on this article – one which touches on the essence of Christian life, holiness, and what religious life is all about.


To summarize Br. Justin's argument, he begins his piece by noting the problems with the significant decline in religious vocations as something that needs to be faced head-on. We might think the Dominicans are doing well, comparatively, but Br. Justin argues that, “Orders like the Dominicans look successful only because everyone else has hit rock bottom.” He compares figures today to those of 1965 and notes a tremendous decrease in religious vocations – nearly 90% fewer today. What happened? While his diagnosis of the crisis mentions other factors, he thinks a primary reason for the lack of vocations is a faulty strategy for discernment. In sum, “the prevailing opinion amongst those who talk and write about discernment is that God calls men and women to religious life by placing an innate desire for religious life in their hearts.” In fact, however, this is contrary to the whole nature of religious vocations, he argues. Instead of an innate desire, “Religious life, in itself, is not a desirable good.  Religious life is a renunciation.  It is a kind of death.” One cannot expect an innate desire for death, and so it is entirely counter-productive to advise vocation candidates to discern a desire for the life. “...Each of [the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience] is repulsive.... Such a desire [for them] would be mere perversion.”


How do we sell such a repulsing thing? Br. Justin counsels we need first to give up the idea of an innate desire. This is the only way to encourage authentic vocations. “Instead of asking people whether they desire religious life, we should ask them whether they desire salvation—whether they desire to become saints.  If sanctity is the goal, then religious life and all its harrowing renunciations begin to make sense.” Ultimately, it is a question of purely objective factors: religious life is the most effective means of salvation, better suited to achieve holiness better than marriage or single life, and so you should choose it if you desire salvation.


Br. Justin makes what seems at first to be a good case, based on classical spiritual doctrine that religious life is a “higher” way of life, intrinsically better suited to achieving salvation. This much continues to be Catholic doctrine (Vita Consecrata, #18 & 32), although sadly less emphasized today. However much this is true, there is a fatal flaw in this reasoning: it can easily forget the role of God's grace.* In this respect, it opens the danger of a “Pelagian” understanding of vocations.


Who was Pelagius? Pelagius was a 4th century British monk who famously denied that we needed God's effective help to be saved. God gave us a good example in Jesus Christ, but we can be saved by our own efforts. Pelagianism, put simply, is therefore the view that salvation is merely a matter of my effort, rather than God's grace. It was the main heresy St. Augustine of Hippo spent his life fighting. A Pelagian view of religious life, consequently, forgets the role of grace. At most, it holds that we need grace to help ourselves live religious life's renunciations, but we don't need it to receive the call to the gift of the vocation in the first place. We ourselves create the call.


Why is Pelagianism wrong? Because God's grace precedes us and shatters our deafness, drawing us to Himself with the sweet stirring in our hearts; “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart” (Jer. 1:5). We cannot do anything apart from God's grace; as Christ said, “Without Me, you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). Religious life itself is a product of grace, as is our whole Christian life, and so cannot be reduced to objective factors of my activity or initiative. There is no formula to calculate a vocation; it's not merely “If I am able and willing, and the Church accepts me, then I have a vocation.” In fact, it was precisely in my opinion a Pelagian view of vocation that led to the decline of religious life after the 1960s. Many people entered, as Br. Justin noted, but many more left in the turbulent times after the Council.


Undoubtedly, many left who had authentic vocations but were misguided in the confusion. But many also left because they did not. Many had entered religious life without ever having an interior attraction to the life, and so they lacked roots that would last when the rains came (I have heard this personally from those who left). We need only think of how many more were entering religious life and seminaries in 1965 than even in the 50s or 40s – it was a significant and unsustainable increase. And the decline and departures cannot merely be explained by Vatican II's changes. There was already rot in the air that was waiting to see the light of day; the Council was merely the last straw.


Regardless of the causes of that crisis, our religious vocation is a deep mystery that cannot be fathomed even with the exterior signs of a vocation. It is not because I saw a poster that I became a Dominican, nor because I read a book, nor that I went to a “Come and See” in St. Louis and thought, “I can do this.” All of these are important things, but they are all merely exterior signs – they do not provide the real rationale for vocation. Like conversion to the faith, religious life is primarily the result of an interior inspiration from the Holy Spirit. To quote Bl. Pope John Paul II in a beautiful passage:


“In response to this call and the interior attraction which accompanies it, those who are called entrust themselves to the love of God who wishes them to be exclusively at his service, and they consecrate themselves totally to him and to his plan of salvation (cf. 1 Cor 7:32-34).


This is the meaning of the call to the consecrated life: it is an initiative coming wholly from the Father (cf. Jn 15:16), who asks those whom he has chosen to respond with complete and exclusive devotion. The experience of this gracious love of God is so deep and so powerful that the person called senses the need to respond by unconditionally dedicating his or her life to God, consecrating to him all things present and future, and placing them in his hands. This is why, with Saint Thomas, we come to understand the identity of the consecrated person, beginning with his or her complete self-offering, as being comparable to a genuine holocaust” (Vita Consecrata, #17).


Exterior signs of a vocation only have value when they witness to this deep and mysterious inspiration. It is only God's grace, preceding anything I did, that brings me to embrace this vocation.


Religious life is a sacrifice, it goes against our natural inclinations to family, autonomy, desire of possessions. But it is not something intrinsically repulsive, even though it goes beyond the demands of nature. If it were, it would be unnatural and unethical to bring people to it. Rather, religious life is a mysterious call that flows from our supernatural life, a call to enter into the perfect life of Jesus Christ, as He lived in constant union with the Father. It is a call to perfect consecration of all we are, interior and exterior, to God.


Vocation ministry is hard, no way around it. But it is hard just for the same reason that evangelization is hard: because it is God's initiative and not ours. We can plant and water, but it is only God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:5-9). All of our work in vocations is one of two things: first, getting young men and women to listen to the voice of God in their hearts; second, to help them understand those inspirations in terms of where they point. The theological reason is simple: our call to religious life, as it is to holiness of life in general, is not a matter merely of virtues or behaviors. We cannot do something to earn a vocation, nor will we discover it merely by acting in a certain way. Vocation, and holiness is, instead, developing the gifts of the Holy Spirit – learning to be responsive with our whole lives to God speaking directly to me in my heart. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas puts it very simply that, if we feel the call in our hearts, we have a moral obligation to seek religious life without further hesitation because we know it is from the Holy Ghost: “...for him who seeks to enter religion there can be no doubt but that the purpose of entering religion to which his heart has given birth is from the spirit of God, for it is His spirit 'that leads' man 'into the land of uprightness' (Ps. 142:10)“ (ST II-II, q. 189, a. 9, ad 1).


This attraction to religious life, of course, requires exterior signs to verify its authenticity, like a fruitful “Come and See” visit to a priory or having the physical ability to do the work of the religious order in question. But these signs are only verifications of what has already been planted by God. They are the flower of the plant, not its roots.


So, in sum, if I had to give practical advice to a vocation candidate, it would be a quite simple four things:


1. Practice frequent, weekly confession and communion. Pray before and after Mass. 

2. Find and consult regularly with a priest who can act as your spiritual director . Be honest with him. 

3. Spend at least 15 minutes daily in silent, quiet prayer listening to God in your heart.

4. Try to live every moment in the presence of God and offer yourself to Him to be His instrument.


Much of this I would give to any good Christian. But that's the point: we achieve holiness and discover our true vocations by being faithful to the voice of the Holy Spirit at every point of our lives. Holiness requires poverty of spirit to hear the voice of the Triune God in your heart, it requires you to put aside natural desires and embrace death, it requires less “you” and more “God.”


And, to agree with Br. Justin, that is the hard part.  




*I don't believe Br. Justin holds a "Pelagian" view of vocations as I have painted it; I only offer my thoughts as to make his account more balanced.