I was asked to share with you some thoughts on how a person knows they have a vocation to the Religious Life. It is difficult to pin that down because a vocation is first of all a mystery. God does not just jump out of the sky and tap us on the shoulder or knock us off a horse the way He did with some people in the Bible. Ordinarily God uses very ordinary instrumental means to let us know what He is calling us to, and that is always a mysterious thing. It is very personal to each one of us. I can't give you any absolute rules for this. I guess, in one sense, that's a wonderful thing - that God respects our individuality and treats us all as persons. He respects our freedom and He wants us to use our heads and hearts in trying to discern our vocation. Remember that famous line in A Man For All Seasons, where Thomas More says something like "God made the animals to serve Him by instinct blindly but He made man to serve Him wittingly." That is, to use his wits. We have to use our wits to try to discern what God is asking of us.
In the history of the Church, you will consistently find spiritual writers and theologians saying that there are certain natural signs that God uses by which He inclines us, and draws us toward a vocation. The Church has always looked for those signs. If a person has those signs in some degree, then there is a good chance he or she is called.
You never know for sure until the day you are ordained or make final profession, but all the way along the line you will be asking yourself if there are present several discernable signs by which you can judge whether you are called or not. There are three basic signs and they are really very simple - nothing complicated about it. The three signs are (1) a desire for the Life, (2) the right motivation for the Life, and (3) fitness for the Life. Let us take each one separately.
The first sign I look for in myself or in anyone looking for signs of a vocation is "Do I have a desire for the Life?" Am I inclined, am I drawn toward it? Does it give me a certain amount of satisfaction to think about myself as a priest, deacon or religious brother or sister: a certain amount of enthusiasm or joy or some kind of positive feeling? I want to stress that, because God does not draw us to a vocation against our will: it is something that is extremely important. I have talked to people who said, "I want to be a priest, deacon, or brother, or sister, not because I want to, but because I think I should, because I think God wants me to. If I don't go, I'll be punished in some way or I will be miserably unhappy" - something like that. God does not operate that way. He draws us according to our natural inclinations and if we are inclined to a Religious Life, that is a good sign. If we are repulsed by it and are thinking about it only because we have to, I call that a "monkey-on-your-back vocation" and you carry it around like some kind of heavy load, that somehow God is zapping you, and you "gotta go or else." God doesn't zap people that way. The one thing God wants us to be is free - He wants us to freely choose our vocation. That desire is some kind of spontaneous attraction ... and it is one indication that a person is called. But that is not enough, because a lot of people have an attraction to the Priesthood, to the Deaconate or to Religious Life - the other two signs are also important.
The second sign is "I want the Life for the right reasons." This is a question of motivation. What motivation is behind my interest and attraction? Here the Church looks for some positive spiritual reasons, for example, "I want the Religious Life because I want to serve God in a very direct way" or "I want to further the love and knowledge of God" or "I want to extend the Kingdom of God" or "I want to live the Gospel Life as fully as possible" or "I want to work for the betterment of the world" or "I want to share a common vision of faith and spirituality with other like-minded people and somehow further the project of God's designs." Any or all of these spiritual, religious reasons are adequate motivations. That is what we look for - something based on faith, not just some kind of natural desire, but something based on faith - that is a spiritual motive - not because I see this as a very cool outfit which I want to join - like joining the Knights of Columbus - or because the Capuchins, etc. are a neat bunch of guys and I'd like to be a part of them. That is not yet a faith vision. Something has to touch us at the level of the Gospel - that we want in some way to profess a life based upon very solid Christian religious principles.
A number of inadequate reasons can creep in here, for example:
(1) A person sees the Priesthood or Religious Life as some kind of security blanket. After all, the Priesthood or Religious Life does have some security: you know where your meals are coming from, you have a bed, a certain kind of life insurance, social security in your old age, a place to live, a roof over your head, lots of things that people in the world have to struggle for. If a person has a lot of doubts about whether he can hack it in the world and therefore thinks the monastery is the place to go, chances are he is not really called. That's not an adequate reason for applying. As life gets more complicated and more demands are made upon us in the world out there, some persons may be drawn to Religious Life for that reason but security is not an adequate motivation.
(2) Another inadequate reason is loneliness. A person has a very difficult time making friends and he feels very alone most of the time. He might see the Priesthood or Religious Life as an instant friendship establishment, where all he has to do is walk in and he has a whole bunch of instant friends and that protects him from all the hard knocks of being a lonely person in the world. Again, that is not a faith or spiritual reason, a very understandable reason but not enough.
(3) Or say a guy has had some unhappy love affairs or difficulties with girls and he figures women are just no good and so the best thing to do is get away from them and flee to the monastery - "If I can't be happy, at least I can save my soul." So if a guy is afraid that he can't hack it with the opposite sex, he might be inclined to look to the monastery for salvation or protection or something. But again, that would be an inadequate reason.
(4) Another inadequate reason would be if anybody looks to the Priesthood, Deaconate or Religious Life as a kind of glamour experience or an instant status symbol. Years ago it was kind of neat if you were a priest or religious: you had recognition right off the bat; you walked out and people said, "Oh, he must be a good man, he has the habit on, he's a religious." You had an automatic, built-in status of recognition which was pretty nice; especially if you were a priest - think of all the gratification you get for being a priest! You stand up there and say, "The Lord be with you," and the whole Church has to say, "And with your spirit." Look at all that power-experience! You can control that whole group of people out there just by your presence. So if you are an "ego-tripper," that's a neat way to do it. After all, you are the center of attention at the altar and it is really kind of satisfying. If that's what motivated a person, the Church will blow the whistle and say that's not enough. Instant status-seeking or instant ego-tripping or controlling people is not an adequate motivation for Priesthood, Deaconate or Religious Life.
MIXED MOTIVATION: It should be rather obvious that we can have some of these reasons somewhere in the back of our minds. None of us have a pure spiritual motive for most things we do. There is always a mixture of this kind of inadequacy in our lives and that's O.K. You can live with a certain amount of this kind of thing, and there may be mixture of motivations in one's desire for the Priesthood, Deaconate or Religious Life, but the primary driving force ought to be something deeper. It is not always easy to discern our motives and that's why it's so important to have a spiritual director who can help us sort things out.
So far we have two of the signs - attraction and motivation for the right reasons. There is still something missing, because I know lots of people in the world who have adequate desire and pretty solid spiritual reasons for coming to Religious Life but they still were not called. Why? The third sign is missing.
The third sign is fitness, by which I mean the ability to live a Religious Life, or as a priest or deacon - to live it comfortably, cheerfully and generously, without going to pieces or without a constant drain on your inner resources or energies or without a whole lot of tensions. Somehow the life itself must suit you and you must suit the life so that you aren't paying a horribly high price just to stay in. Somehow there must be a meshing of your interests and ability and competency with those of the Religious Life. Both must mesh. Lots of people, very good people, have tried the life but found they just didn't fit - they couldn't live it. Some people are just not cut out for it anymore than some people can't teach or be airline pilots or engineers or salesmen or what not. Religious Life just doesn't fit some people - they haven't got the skills or the ability to handle the job. They are very happy and very good in some other vocation. Again, God does not do violence to the person. He respects the individual gifts each person has.
Likewise, there are a lot of people who are fit for the Priesthood, Deaconate or Religious Life, but don't want it - they are not attracted to it. A lot of married friends or your sisters and brothers could live Religious Life but they are not drawn to it. The desire is not there but the fitness is. All three requirements have to be there at the same time: ATTRACTION, RIGHT MOTIVATION, and FITNESS.