By Sr. Clare Matthiass, CFR
Adapted from the new book Discerning Religious Life
Available at VianneyVocations.com
Can you imagine starting a relationship with someone by taking him by the shoulders and exclaiming, “Am I supposed to marry you?” If he doesn’t break free and run away, he might respond, “How about we go out for coffee first before we start planning the wedding?” Discernment of a religious vocation sometimes starts like that! We want to throttle God for an answer to our vocation before we ever even pause to try to get to know Him. Your relationship with God is of utmost importance. You should be a friend before you become a spouse.
How do you begin a friendship with someone you can’t see? A divine Someone? Sometimes young people are tempted to ask the question about a call to religious life (or priesthood) before they have begun this journey of friendship with God. Maybe having attended a powerful weekend retreat, or after a mission trip, the question of a religious vocation is suddenly there, urging a response. Sometimes at the suggestion of a priest or a parent, consecrated life suddenly becomes a question that needs answering. But genuine discernment flows from relationship, just like deciding to marry someone flows from falling in love.
Do you have a relationship with God? Do you spend time with Him regularly? Do you know that He loves you? Not just that He is Love, but that He loves you. You personally. God is looking on you with love right this minute as you read this. He sees you, He knows you and He loves you. His gaze is always on you. It always was, and it always will be, a loving gaze. This is the starting point, not just of religious life, but of Christian life.
If, as you read this, you realize you are asking the question about vocation without a relationship with God, I recommend putting your vocational discernment on the back burner and investing your time and energy in forming a friendship with God and our Lady. Regular Mass, frequent Confession, and personal prayer time, especially with the Scriptures, are pillars of a strong friendship with the Lord. Growing in your relationship with God will never be time wasted. It is from this place of personal relationship that your vocation will come. If He is calling you to consecrated life, you don’t have to worry about the call going away because you set the question aside for a time. As St. Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” The call will be there and it will grow.
Your prayer, by the time you are considering making convent (or seminary) visits, should include longstanding sacramental practice. Along with steeping yourself in the sacraments, Eucharistic adoration is also a great means of deepening your friendship with God and preparing yourself for your vocation. “It is impossible to exaggerate the close relation between the Holy Eucharist and the vocation to the priesthood and religious life,” wrote Fr. John Harden, S.J. In fact, he asserted that the Eucharist is the best way to foster vocations: “Persons who attend Mass, receive Communion, and invoke Christ in the Blessed Sacrament obtain light and strength that no one else has a claim to.”1 Our relationship with God, like our other relationships, is meant to grow and change throughout life. Surely your relationship with your mother and father is very different today than it was when you were in second grade. Investing time and energy into your relationship with God is a needed predisposition to discernment.
In my own vocation story, the breakthrough came when I hit a wall. Suddenly the obvious truth finally occurred to me that I was getting nowhere in my discernment. I was twenty-four years old, doing work that I loved, dating on and off, and feeling called but confused. I remember that suddenly my plight seemed urgent. I was making no progress. What would become of my life? Would I ever be clear enough about anything to make a decision?
I had been going to Eucharistic adoration at St. Bonaventure’s Church in Troy, Ohio, a few towns away from where I was living. My prayer was, “Give me clarity, Lord. Please make it crystal-clear so that I can act.” I knew enough to know I could not make a decision so big while still enveloped in a fog of uncertainty. I’ll admit I felt a certain urgency and even desperation. I had a growing confidence that I was quite capable of ruining my life, and I knew I needed some help. Finally, I did what I should have done from the beginning: I turned to Our Lady.
In my prayer, I imagined myself as an infant, utterly helpless, in the arms of Our Blessed Mother. “Carry me to the Father’s will,” I prayed. “I can’t do this by myself.” Finally a moment of truth! I really did not know anything, and at last, I had sense enough to reach out for help from one who is ever ready and ever able to give it.
Within one month of turning to her for vocational help, I had the answer to my prayer. I was attending a young adult conference with some friends. It was Pentecost Sunday, the last Sunday in May that year, and a crowd of more than a thousand was gathered for Mass. I did not have my vocation particularly in mind as Mass began; I was just trying to concentrate and do my best to pray, in spite of the handsome Italian-American attorney sitting to my left. It was the point of the Mass when the priest elevates the Host. In that moment, I looked up at Our Lord held high in the hands of His priest, and I experienced the deepest, most profound sense of knowing. What I knew was that Jesus was the only one who would satisfy my heart. The significance of this is hard to express adequately. The question of whether or not my heart could truly be satisfied in religious life was the giant obstacle which had prevented me from moving forward. This question was being answered in the affirmative. Not only that, but I took it as a promise. Jesus was saying to me, “I will satisfy your heart.”
In that moment, I knew the call that had been placed upon my life. I knew for what I had been made, for Whom I had been made. When the Father had first called me into being, He envisioned me as His, for Himself alone. And finally, I could say yes to this plan. For the first time since the thought of religious life had occurred to me, it filled me with joy. This new clarity, this new promise, changed everything. I immediately remembered my first attraction to the CFR sisters I had met on a pilgrimage to Denver to see Pope John Paul II. I called almost immediately. To my surprise, the mother superior herself answered the phone, and I blurted out my whole story to her from the beginning. Now that the chief obstacle had been removed, my joy and eagerness were boundless. Mother invited me to visit, I purchased a plane ticket for New York, and I just kept going forward from there. In three months, I joined the community as a postulant.
A religious sister’s (or brother or priest’s) prayer life did not begin when she entered the convent; she is in the convent because a rich prayer life led her there. For me, this longed-for grace of clarity and peace came at the intercession of Our Lady. She is the secret that all the saints have found. There is no surer way to travel safely this pilgrimage of life than with one hand in hers.
1 Fr. John Harden, S.J., www.therealpresence.org/archives/Religious_Life/Religious_Life_037.htm