Let’s Give It Up For Vocations: Life-Long Vocational Discernment in the Catholic Faith

It really irks me when I hear someone ask a young person, “are you discerning a vocation”? This question, although well meant, is quite misguiding. It leads one to believe that only those called to religious life or the priesthood ought to pray about their future. It also usually elicits an answer of, “no”, as the young person is embarrassed to think that he/she might in fact be called to something different. That which is different is often not comfortable, as it would make him/her stand out. In order to understand the whole concept of vocations more deeply, we need to ask two questions: What is a vocation, after all, and how does one discern it?

Every single person on the face of the Earth has a vocation. The primary vocation of the human person is to love. As baptized Catholics, we further acknowledge three states of life, or three vocations, which are in accordance with our faith: priesthoo_MG_8894d (men only), consecrated life (men or women) and marriage (one man and one woman). Surprisingly, the Church does not acknowledge a vocation to be single (stay tuned for more on this). Many Catholic speakers have taught that the single life is an acceptable vocation, and yet it is not. This may be upsetting to some, but the Church has very good reasons for this.

First of all, what is a vocation? Simply put, a vocation is a “calling”. The Latin root of the word vocation literally means “to call”. At the moment of baptism, the soul receives the seed of a vocation, so to speak. Over time, this seed grows and matures. Ever planted a seed? If you have, you are aware of the process. As a seed germinates, it sends out a root. As the seed continues to grow, a tiny green blade appears above the ground. For most plants, this first blade is indistinguishable from other types of plants. The same is true of a vocation: at first, God causes the vocation to root itself in the soul. This is a hidden portion of the development of one’s calling. Next, the vocation begins to bring forth a tiny indication of itself, until eventually it comes to be revealed in the light. Sounds easy, right? Just sit back and wait for your vocation to pop up out of the ground and reveal itself! Well, truth is that no one really has that sort of a “ta-da” moment with vocational discernment. This is why young people are often asked if they are discerning their vocation.

Discernment is a necessary step in any person’s vocational search. God speaks to the human heart on a very personal level. This is why discernment is a process of prayer and reflection. Many people search out a spiritual director to help them through this often challenging phase of life. Remember the seed planted in baptism? Well, the Lord wants us to search out the tiny plant it produced, and to distinguish it from amongst a meadow of other plants! There are so many distractions (both good and evil) in our world: work, school, family life, hobbies, multi-slacking (come on, you know you do it!), and so on. All these put forth a plant in the meadow of life. But which plant is your vocation? Think of it this way: what are you willing to give your life for? Look at your own life, and identify the different things/activities that fill your day. Are you willing to give your life for any of them? Sadly, many people put work, school and Facebook before other priorities, thus making these things/actions their selected vocation. But a vocation requires more than an attitude of acceptance; it requires sacrifice. This is why the single life is not a recognized vocation in the Church. Let me clarify. As a single person, you have the freedom to do what you want, when you want and how you want. No one really grinds your rough edges with rules or ways of doing things. Yes, there are social constructs which dictate a certain code of behavior, but as a single person you don’t have to fight with your new spouse over the toilet seat being left up/down! I think we can all agree that is harder to live with others. The same is true of religious life (mens’ or womens’ communities); suddenly you are faced with not one, but several others who do things a particular (often quirky) way! And what of the priesthood?   You get to serve an entire parish of quirky people! Putting aside the comical extremes, we come to realize that we need others. No, we don’t need them to drive us to the point of insanity. Rather, we need them to drive us to the point of holiness.

Holiness cannot be achieved in isolation. Our pilgrim way, which (God willing) leads to Heaven requires a testing of our virtues by our neighbor, as well as the witness of our neighbors to us, and our witness to them. This is not a popular thought, especially in an ego-centric culture. If I am to live in proximity to another person, it will require a certain level of sacrifice. So, why would anyone do such a thing? One answer alone suffices: love. Love demands a response, and that response is sacrifice. The greatest sacrifice we can make is the gift of our very self. This is what drives a young woman to abandon all her earthly possessions and enter a cloister. This is the same impetus that causes a young couple to vow their lives to each other. It is also this same self-gift that motivations a young man to accept the invitation to become conformed to Christ in a radical manner. Are you noticing how the single life is lacking? Just to clarify, by single life, I am referring to the self-centered and “unattached” life so many young people are choosing. It is one thing to be single for the Lord and quite another to just be single. Those who are single for the Lord, accept the radical call to chastity and/or celibacy for life. They make vows or promises to that effect, and these undertakings are accepted and approved by the Church (usually under the watchful care of the local bishop). Such single vocations include consecrated virginity and life in a society of apostolic life (for more on the different forms of vocations, see Vita Consecrata, written by St. John Paul II. Go on…it’s available online for free!  Did you click on it yet?)

The human heart longs to give of itself in love. Without this outlet, the human person is unfulfilled. Think of the many false “loves” in the world today which try to fulfill this longing: promiscuous sex, drugs, pornography, etc.  All these promise a sort of quasi-love, but without any effort on our part. Love, in order to be true, requires sacrifice. What sacrifice is there in selfishness? None. This is why we have to start asking our young people a different question. Instead of simply asking, “are you discerning a vocation?”, we need to challenge them by asking, “how is the Lord calling you to give of yourself?” or “how will you pour yourself out for others, out of love for Christ?”. This sort of question goes beyond the initial vocational discernment (e.g. am I called to religious life or to marriage?), and digs deeper into the daily life of the individual. Just because I am married, for instance, does not mean that my vocational discernment is complete! God help the family or community in which there exists such a though! Each day is a new challenge to find ways to love and to give of myself (even when it’s hard) for the sake of Christ. So, I ask you: how will you sacrifice yourself today, so that another soul may come to see Christ in you, and thus come one step closer to Heaven?

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Silent Yet Strong: The Counter-Cultural Witness of St. Joseph

Little is known about St. Joseph, other than what Scripture tells us.  There are, in addition, many pious traditions and legends, which help us understand the great love that surrounds this saint.  He lived 2000 years ago, and yet he is still honored and venerated today.  Why is St. Joseph important for our modern world?

A Man of Mystery and Silence

St. Joseph led a hidden life.  His life was so hidden, in fact, that Sacred Scripture does not give us a single word of his.  St. Joseph is, possibly, the least quoted saint, simply because we have none of his sayings written down for us.  And yet, in this shrouded lifestyle, Joseph teaches us how to contemplate the face of God in our daily life.  His silence josephcan be seen as an awe-struck adoration before the King of kings, whom he held in his arms!  Joseph also reminds us that, despite all the distractions of our modern society, we need time for silence and reflection.  This is especially true today, since there is an overpowering attempt to make loud all that should be kept silent, and to uncover all that should be held as a mystery.  At one point in history, seeing a woman’s ankle was considered shameful.  Today…well, I won’t describe what is considered shameful, for it ventures into a pornographic realm.  Suffice it to say that anything veiled seems to suffer the buffets of a culture of revelation, in which nothing should remain mysterious, and thus, nothing should remain sacred.  Joseph’s example of silence in the presence of the mystery of the Incarnate Word is a reminder of what our attitude should be before God.  Since the Second Vatican Council, many unfortunate abuses and “creative” additions have evolved in the Sacred Liturgy of the Catholic Church.  Some of these attempt to demystify the very mystery of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and thus make it a Protestant-style Catholic event for worship.  By way of clarification, I am not here in any way criticising or condemning any of our Protestant brothers and sisters; rather, I am claiming that we, as Catholics, need to be Catholic.  We are different, and that is part of our vocation—to maintain and uphold the beauty of our faith.  In his earlier days, St. Joseph, too, had doubts about his vocation and the path he was to follow.  Recall how he painstakingly pondered over the idea of secretly divorcing Mary, his betrothed.  It was then that an angel of the Lord appeared to him, and gave him a clear direction for his life.  He was never the same again.

A Man of Chastity and Solitude

In the family home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, there was a strange solitude in the heart of St. Joseph.  He alone was not physically involved in the conception of Jesus.  It was our blessed Mother who carried Him in her immaculate womb. Joseph’s role was to defend her purity and virginity by his own pledge to chastity.  A unique marriage indeed!  And yet, what great love it expresses.  Many couples today sadly rely on sex as a standard of love.  Some even ask, “without sex, is there love?” as they continue to live out a falsification of this act.  In Joseph, we find the courage to live a chaste life, as appropriate to our state in life.  For the single person (heterosexual or homosexual) that means abstinence from all sexual activity.  For the married couple, it means fidelity to each other in all matters, including sexuality.  At times, chastity can feel like a deserted island, where we stand alone.  However, St. Joseph chose to follow his vocation to love Mary even more deeply than could be expressed through the limitations of the body—he was called to love her with a much greater purity than is required of most married couples.  This should give us hope as we strive for our own chastity.  Yes, it may be challenging, but often the source of challenges is the over-sexed media images we see and hear.  My husband and I do not have cable TV for many reasons, but one of them is the seductive nature of so many TV ads today.  I do not need to fill my mind (and my heart) with such images and ideas.  In days gone by, people practiced custody of the senses, meaning that they guarded carefully what they received through their senses.  The senses are a gift from the Lord, though which we experience the world around us, and thus come to know and love God more and more.  Disordered sexuality or seduction do not lead us toward God, and therefore must be avoided.  Most temptations require a head-on battle.  Temptations against chastity, however, require us to flee into the pure Hearts of Jesus and Mary, for we are often too weak to face these alone.

A Man of Devotion and Prayer

Walk into any Catholic Church for daily Mass.  Who do you see?  Most of our churches are filled with devout woman.  This is beautiful, but at the same time alarming.  Where are the men? It is true that in many families men are the primary “bread winners” so to speak, but what about the rest?  It seems that, over the ages, religion has been relegated to a feminine quality.  St. Joseph was a man of deep prayer, and he can be a source of renewal in the hearts of men.  Even though we do not know how he prayed (e.g. we do not have any of his prayers transcribed for us), we do know that he, indeed, must have prayed!  Each act of love for his spouse and foster-child was a prayer offered to the Lord.  Furthermore, his devotion to Mary and Jesus must have flowed from a heart filled with prayer.  Why else would he have stayed when things got tough?  Consider the flight to Egypt—Joseph was asked to take his spouse and child and flee to Egypt.  He could have thrown in the towel then, and claimed it was too difficult.  Aft_MG_9091erwards, it was more than a simple walk through the park!  Had he not already walked enough on his trip to Bethlehem?  I am sure that, thought his life, Joseph had many opportunities to turn away, and leave the Holy Family, even if just for a time.  And yet he stayed.  St. Joseph’s courage in times of trial, and devotion to his family in times of difficulty is proof of a prayer-filled soul.  Couples who pray together share an intimacy that is beyond a physical one—they share in the life of the soul.  It is the vocation of spouses to draw each other toward Heaven, day by day.  How else can a husband or wife know how to help his/her spouse on this pilgrimage unless they pray together?  It is through prayer that the Lord speaks to our hearts.  My husband and I take a few moments each day to pray together (yes, out loud).  It was very difficult at first, I will admit, but I think that this is simply due to the fact that Satan knows the power of prayer, and even more so, the power of a sacramentally married couple who is praying as one.

 

St. Joseph is a model for all Christians, men and women alike.  As head of the Holy Family, he is a great beacon of hope for all men in a particular way.  Our culture often tries to artificially equalize the sexes.  In St. Joseph we find a powerful reminder of the beauty of Christian fatherhood and manhood.  For myself as a woman, I find in St. Joseph the courage to live out my vocation as wife and mother, since I know that I have a husband who is striving to be like Joseph: prayerful, faithful and chaste.  St. Joseph, pray for us, that we may always run toward Heavenly things in a world full of noise and distraction!

 

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Gender Crisis: Authentic Catholic Femininity and Masculinity in a Culture of False Equality

Boys and girls are different.  I am sure you smile as you recall the differences, and this shows that you understand what I mean.  Take any dimension of life and you will undoubtedly see the differences.  But should this dissimilarity be a means of division between the sexes?  Should it, perhaps, be abolished in the name of “gender neutrality”?  No, it must rather unite us in a desire for a deeper understanding of each other.  It is through understanding our “self” in relation to the other that we come to know God more fully.  This is vital for your holiness and salvation.

In Genesis we read that God “created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27) This wording is interesting, if you stop and think about it, and John Paul II draws this out magnificently in the Theology of the Body.  Man was created in the image and likeness of God, but this does not refer to males only.  Men, meaning both men and women, are created as a communion of persons, sharing in the love of the Trinity through complementarity.  That’s a mouthful, but essentially John Paul II is saying that each of us is incomplete without the “other”.  Take a look at Adam, all alone in the garden.  Even though he has every kind of flamingo, lizard, baboon, and flying squirrel imaginable, he is still seeking after someone like himself—he knows he is not enough for himself by himself.  This essential compliment of his being comes in Eve, who is formed from Adam’s own rib.

 Eve appears and Adam cannot find the words to extol this great gift from the Creator.  Listen to what he says: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23).  He sees Eve as another “I”.  This attitude is not a one-way street; it is meant to be reciprocal in the lives of men and women even today.  If we move into the New Testament, we see a tremendous pronouncement of the role of man and woman in the plan of salvation.  St. Paul says, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.  As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.  Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” (Eph 5:21-25).  The wife is to be subject to her husband, but he is to love her as Christ loved the Church!   He gave his life for Her!  Suddenly this gives a new prespective to the words, “till death do us part”!   And yet it is a partnership based on mutual love and trust.

Now, let’s bring it into our own time.   Let’s begin with a brief overview of recent developments in our culture’s attitude toward human sexuality.  You and I are probably equally aware of what occurred in the 1960’s—namely, the sexual revolution.  Suddenly contraceptives were promoted as a means to sexual freedom, which ultimately meant sex without responsibility.  It was during this time that Pope Paul VI wrote the phenomenal and prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae.  In this encyclical, he asked us to “consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards”.  He goes on to state that, “Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” (Humanae Vitae, 17).  Today, we can vigorously agree with the Paul VI, as we see before us all of these negative effects in our culture.

Pope Paul VI’s was not the only prophetic voice.  In a 1994 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta said that “The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men.”  (Wall Street Journal, 2/25/94, p. A14)  It is interesting that she mentions abortion as a cause of division between men and women.  In abortion, the wonderful fulfillment of the unitive act, namely a child, is destroyed, thus creating a rift in the dignity of every human being.  Studies have shown that the effects of abortion are felt by both men and women on a variety of levels.  Sex without an openness to life is selfish.  For a clearer understanding of why this is so, it is necessary to once again return to Theology of the Body of JP II.  In it he says that every sexual act which makes use of artificial forms of contraception is an act of lying with the body.  This is because every conjugal act of a husband and wife is meant as a re-iteration of their wedding vows; it is the body’s participation in the sacramentality of marriage.  When this is removed, sex becomes just an experience and not an authentic gift of self to one another.  Something is held back.

One more aspect of our culture that led to the current state of man and woman is the education young people are receiving.  So much of educational philosophy today is based on concern with self-esteem rather than results.  Some school districts go so far as to remove any form of competition from the school, even in PE classes.  This has a detrimental effect on students, as it prevents their growth in areas related to personal maturity, especially the ability to think and reason.  Why is this so?  Well, by telling a student, “it doesn’t matter what grade you get as long as you tried and you feel good about yourself”, it creates a mindset which places no value on achievement due to hard work and sacrifice.  When the element of sacrifice is removed, a student is shown that he/she can have anything he/she wants, as long as it makes him/her feel good.
This is why today’s world silently cries out for witnesses.  Why witnesses and not role models?  First of all, masculinity or femininity is not just a role you play; it is who you are in the deepest part of your being!  Did you know that in heaven we will not lose our masculinity and femininity?  It is amazing to think about that.  But how do you define a real man or a real woman?  The term, in and of itself, is indefinable, since it encompasses a multi-dimensional reasoning being created in the image and likeness of God.  This is where we feel the great need for witnesses.  St. Joseph and John Paul II are outstanding witnesses of masculinity.  Both knew how to sacrifice all for the love of their brides—Joseph for Mary, and JP II for the Church.  Furthermore, both of these men were protectors and guardians of the precious treasures entrusted to them.   What about women?  We can look at St. Monica, St. Augustine’s mother, who prayed daily for her son’s conversion.  One day, it is said, Augustine came home after a night of drinking and entertainment.  As he walked in through the house, he stumbled upon something lying on the floor—it was his mother, praying prostrate for his salvation.  He asked her what she was doing, and she lovingly told him she was praying for his soul.  What a witness of sacrificial and self-giving love!  And then there is St. Gianna, who died rather than have an abortion.  She was a medical doctor herself, and she knew well the risk she was taking.  Today, her daughter, the one for whom she sacrificed her life, has a mom in heaven who is literally a saint.  And then there is the Blessed Mother.  She is a powerful witness to all of us, men and women alike.  Her openness and fidelity to God though marriage and a consecration of her virginity to God, are a moving testimony of the call to authenticity.
But how can you and I reach these same heights?  How can we grow in holiness through being authentic men and women in a culture that degrades the very essence of who we are, as expressed, on the deepest level, by our sexuality?  The first line of defense, so to speak, is prayer and a deep spiritual life.  How can you become who God created you to be if you don’t consult with the Creator?  That’s like throwing logs, tiles, bricks, and so forth into a bag and hoping that a house comes out.  You need the instruction manual!  Secondly, spiritual reading is fundamental, as it helps us reflect upon God and His amazing goodness to us.  The devil can only conjure up temptations from what we have experienced through our senses, so why not fill ourselves with holy thoughts and good images?  Finally, holy friendships and relationships.  Who are your friends?  I am not saying that you cannot speak to those who are not of like mind, but I am warning each of us, that we need to be cautious.  Even though you may feel empowered to convert millions after a moment of deep prayer, start small, and start in your own soul.

We are living in difficult times, but we have a Catholic culture sprouting up around us that is full of hope.  You are part of that culture, if you accept the challenge to become authentic men and women.  Ask the Lord to help you each day.  He knows you better than you know yourself, for He formed you and knit you together in your mother’s womb.

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