HAVE I A VOCATION FOR A SISTER'S LIFE?
The Manifold calls of God--Particular Calls not given for One's own Benefit Only--All Christians have Vocations--Times when the Way divides and Questions of Duty Arise--Am I called to be a Sister?--The Question perhaps Unwelcome--Two General Considerations for all Persons--Why we should put the Question--And the Needs of the Church in our Times--What, then, is it to be Called?--How to Recognize a Call--Three External Signs, Capability, Providential Orderings, Parental Consent--Interior Signs--Shown Early in some Cases--The Real Test of a True Call--Need after Decision of Discretion and Patience--Particular Directions for Conduct--Duty of being Open with Parents--What Priest to Consult--How to gain Grace and Strength for one's Duty.
ONE and yet manifold are the calls of God. The voice of God sounds throughout the world, calling all men into fellowship with Himself. ItTfills the Church of Christ with a sanctifying power, calling all Christians into an active correspondence with the energies of Christ's life. Its vivifying power vibrates throughout the mystical body, calling all its members, by the thrilling impulses of its loving utterances, into unity of effort for the kingdom's sake. All the particular calls heard by the individual soul are but single notes recognized in the vastness of the one divine harmony, as articulate with some love-laden message to itself.
Such special calls being thus subordinate to the general one of Christ to His Church, do not assign duties or bestow gifts as private treasures for individual enjoyment, but that some new blessing may spread its lustre throughout the City of God. In the intense unification of life which exists in the kingdom of Christ's Church, none can live for himself alone, and the spiritual gifts any one possesses are for the well-being of all. No one need look with envy on another's position in that kingdom, whatever it may be, and no one who has discerned his own call to any place or work may think: "This is given me for my own personal possession or advantage."
It is not, therefore, some few in the Church who have vocations, like the clergy or Sisters, but all are called of God. Each man has his vocation. It is that design for him which lay in the Eternal Mind ere he had being. He has been from all eternity the object of a divine choice. His Heavenly Father has created him for a special purpose, and has made him different from every other human being, and given him a special work to do, and loves him with a special love. Enfolding all in the embrace of His great love, yet no child of His creation but is especially dear to Him. It is a trite enough thought, but one tender with the freshness of God's never-withering youth, that "God loves me with an individual love, and is not merely the God of the universe, but my God, my own God, my own dear personal God;" and one's vocation is that line of life-duty or conduct, issuing out of God's predestinating love, along which He calls one, as along a road angel-watched and guarded by His providence, home to Himself.
It is not necessary for all persons to see what their vocation is. Some pass through life looking to God's direction taking the daily step before them, and only, it may be, as they reach the distant hills of age, can see, as they look back, how the Divine Will has chosen for them and shielded them from danger, and made them instruments of His merciful designs. But there are important crises in all lives, when decisions must be made, when the question must be faced: What is my present duty?--when we must consider the alternate course presented by the life of faith;--when we must solemnly seek the meaning of God's dealings with us, and to what they call;--when the truth forcibly presents itself, that one thing only is entirely worth the knowing, and that is God's will in our regard, and one thing only is entirely worth the doing, and that is obedience to that will.
For at times God allows some signal trial to come, and all the land, like "the land of Egypt as thou comest to Zoar," is spread out before our sight, bright with the sunshine of earth's honours and delights, and a choice for life has to be made, as by Abraham and Lot, between the right hand and the left. Until the eye has been schooled to discern the glories of the Cross, and the heart captured by its self-effacing sacrifice, it can but be attracted by the brave show of earth's royalties, or by the fair landscape where lies the sheltered home, embowered in flowers and childhood's laughter, and affection's living green. Until the holy will of God is recognized in its sovereignty, and the soul has trustingly yielded itself to its blessed-making control, it may seem that the peaceful rest of convent life is more to be desired than the harder and more homely task of caring for some aged and infirm parent, by which a loving Providence calls the soul into union with the Lord, in His own hidden but fruitful service to His foster-father St. Joseph. Until the magnificent vision of the City of God, with its many-crowned Monarch, and the saintly hierarchy of the Incarnation, and the Apostles and prophets on their thrones, and the innumerable multitude of the redeemed, shining with the internal glory of Eternal Righteousness, is in a measure participated in, the exciting politics of earthly empires, or the pursuit of scientific discovery, or the self-culture of the soul, or an elevating philanthropy, must command our obedient homage.
These and like cases tell of times in all earnest lives when the ways before us divide, and the soul is perplexed with doubt, or, it may be, assailed by fear; when thick darkness seems to blot out the sun at noonday, and the moon ceases to give her light; when we can only choose our way by the ^lantern of God's word, as it is swung about our feet, or catch the echo of some angel-voices to direct our course, or listen to the heart-beat silently responding to some inspiration of God.
As some are reading these pages, may not the question arise in the mind: Why should I not give myself to Christ in a Sister's life? May it not be my privilege and honour so to be united to Him?
Why may I not be of that band of devoted ones who through all the ages followed Him hi this consecrated state and ministered to Him of their substance? If there be those who along Heaven's high pathway follow with a special nearness the Lamb whithersoever He goeth, why should I not be of that company? Is it for this that the direction of a kindly-guiding Providence has at last revealed such a life-purpose for me? Why does this thought of waiting on Him in His poor, sick, and needy ones, of giving myself to a life of prayer, attract my heart, unless God has placed it there?
Possibly the question presents itself as a somewhat unwelcome one. It has been partially heard before and put aside as beneath one's social position, or as involving too much sacrifice, or as too exacting in its discipline, or as unsuited to our natural disposition, or as repugnant to our love of freedom. Perchance one may have seriously considered it once, but now, grown wise with worldly wisdom, the desire has faded. When the Voice spoke to us we delayed, and when we arose to open to Him, "Lo, He was gone." It may be the call never came in so pronounced a way as to satisfy us of its divine origin, and so we were content to go on in our comfortably devotional way without placing ourselves under rule. Perhaps we heard stories of the failure of aspirants, or criticisms on the conduct of some Religious, and have deemed it safer not to strive "to wind one's self so high," or we have never had the courage to think seriously of the matter, and with mistaken humility have said, as we dwelt on its privileged and wedded nearness to Jesus, "It is not for me."
Now, to all these classes, however they may finally answer the great question of their vocation, we would address two general considerations; one, respecting the call to the Religious Life, and the other, the place and time in the Church's history in which it comes to us.
First, you are not to conclude you have no vocation because you have no natural liking for the Life, as some of the best of Religious have become so by the very violence by which they gained victory over self. Nor is it clear that the Life is not for you because your gifts look small--as small as the widow's two mites--or because you can but gather up the fragments that remain.
Neither are you to decide that you have no vocation because as yet you have experienced no self-demonstrating and controlling call. It is true that God may in some cases excite the soul by such an abundance of grace and force of desire as to exclude all doubt as to His call. But in a large number of cases, without producing so powerful an impression, the longings of the heart in all its better moods may be such as to make it dangerous to neglect the obvious drawings of the Holy Spirit. If these are faithfully listened to, they will increase. We cannot stand still and continue to hear God's call. For God's calls draw us, as the cry of her child the mother's heart; and He allures us into the solitude of the wilderness that we may the better hear. God speaks to persons according to their temperament. He that draws the affections can enlighten the understanding. He that speaks to the hearts of watching shepherds by the angelic hymn draws the wise men across the desert by the leading of a star.
Secondly, consider the time and place in which God addresses us. We are living in times and in a Church in which it is given to persons to do more for God by embracing the Religious state than in any other period. The millennial days, when the Church was united by its faith and discipline, and Satan was bound, are over. The worldly-minded darkness of the age of Hildebrand and the darkness of the fleshly-minded age of the Renaissance have been succeeded by the brightness of this latter Satanic age, in which either the existence of any personal spiritual energy is denied altogether or a counterfeit supernaturalism is substituted for the true. Is the Christian dispensation, called "the last time" by St. John, drawing to a close? At the end, along with the prophesied falling away, will there be a heroic correspondence to Divine Grace? The gates of hell will indeed never prevail against the kingdom and destroy it. Yet there will come a time when the light of the moon will suffer eclipse and the stars will fall and the powers of Heaven be shaken. The convulsions in every national Church are but forewarning preludes of the catastrophe which ends with the victory-bringing advent of the King of Kings. All times of peril are good to live in, for they are glorious with splendid opportunities of saintly service.
As from the agonies of the French Revolution came Religious Orders filled with souls more noble in their devotion than even by their high birth, so it may be with England's Church. If she is fully to recover her lost heritage, and her daily Sacrifice, and her penitential discipline, and extend her borders, it must be by a large number of able, refined, devoted persons, men and women, giving themselves up to the Religious Life. A few thousand such will effect more than Bishops and parochial clergy alone can do to catholicize the Church and raise the standard of Christian holiness, and more than all the opponents of the faith within and without the Church can do to overthrow it. Does it not seem as if now, in the last hours of His contest with evil, and from the Cross itself, Christ were plaintively asking for some alleviation of His sore distress? And strange it is that any Christian should not welcome love's high privilege of waiting round that death-bed and holding up the hyssop of a devoted life to slake a dying Master's thirst for the consummation of the kingdom and the salvation of souls.
Is it not, then, the urgent and imperative duty of every Christian woman whose path in life is not already determined, to consider, What does God desire my life should be? How shall I best consecrate it to Him? And yet, if the answer to this question is to be the service of a consecrated life, it is a most consoling assurance to know that such a choice is not wholly dependent on our own purpose. For the Religious Life is not something we are to seek or to select to please ourselves. We cannot give ourselves a vocation or make ourselves Religious. Our being such depends on the calling of Christ Himself. He chooses the person, He seeks the opportunity, He bestows the needed gifts, He inspires the thought, He orders the events, He enlightens the soul, He makes the voice to be heard, He removes the obstacles, He offers Himself in so definite a way that we cannot, with reasonable care, mistake it. The voice, which pleads with the agonized earnestness of His Passion for our union with Himself, becomes articulate through His providence and inspirations, and is made audible in the loving heart by the Holy Ghost.
Let us, then, see what it is to be thus specially called, and how we are to know it.
To be called to the Religious Life is to receive a summons from a Person. In the performance of ordinary duty we acknowledge our obligation to law, but vocation is the voice of God to the individual soul. It is a direct message from Him, and it calls for a response. It is addressed to an individual, and the proposed duty cannot be assigned to another of Christ's servants. "The Master has come and calleth for thee" It is a manifestation of God Himself, for it reveals God in the heart. Not by learned studies or high speculations do we know God, but only in proportion as we hear His voice within. It is none other than the voice of the Incarnate Word, calling us, not to the performance of some service, but into union with Jesus. Enlightened by His indwelling wisdom, difficulties disappear, and in union with the will of Jesus the soul finds entire satisfaction. It is a call into the heart of Jesus, not as into a mere resting-place, but into its life. United to Him, He puts forth His own power and reproduces Himself in us. It is a call which, as we surrender ourselves to it, goes on continuously, progressively unfolding the graces of His life. The Religious is not a person who has once been called. The voice of an earthly master once heard dies away. The call of the Divine Master to Discipleship is a single act, but vocation is an abiding gift of the overshadowing Spirit. The Life that is born in thee is of God. It is not like some jewel possessed only of a limited value, or like an earthly treasure that may be exhausted by use. It is a living Gift, a living Utterance, a sound that swells out more and more distinctly within the soul as the years go on, ever fresh with the love of Jesus, ever drawing the soul into a more wedded union with His desires, and enriching the life with endless revelations of His Goodness and Beauty.
Has the first cadence of that divine call wakened an echo of desire within thy heart? Not in its final fulness, tested by time and experience, certified by the Church's acceptance, and authoritatively sealed with its blessing, canst thou now possess it; yet if truly called it may even now be discerned to be God's message to thee!
Now, in order to answer to yourself the question, am I called, you must observe that God's will is manifested in two ways: externally and interiorly. Externally by His providences, interiorly by His inspirations.
The external signs are these: First, the possession of those natural and physical gifts which are necessary to keep the Rule and be of service in the proposed Sisterhood. Of these something has already been mentioned. It is sufficient here to say that a convent is not for the reformation of the indolent, the undisciplined, or the hysterical, nor a field for the self-opinionated, the morbid, or the designing; nor a home for the feeble, weak-minded, or destitute. It is the court of the Lord, and the maidens there gathered are as to Shushan, the palace. A mind well cultivated, good common sense, a cheerful and contented disposition, a teachable and docile will, and some natural greatness and generosity of soul, are the qualities which most fit one to be a maid of honour to the Great King.
The second sign is such a freedom from family duties as will allow of one's rightly leaving home. Where there is an aged or infirm parent or relative dependent upon a single daughter for pecuniary support or personal care, the case is plain. The daughter should remain at home. There is a middle class of cases which can only be decided by a knowledge of all the facts, and in which much forbearance should be exercised by all parties, and particular and wise counsel sought. There are other cases also quite plain. Where there are other daughters in a family, then ordinarily no reason exists why one should not be spared to the Master's service. It may be here noted that the call comes not only to the one drawn to be a sister, but to all the members of the family, and although all may keenly feel the separation, yet in some degree the sacrifice is to be participated in by all. It is a helpful, but not universal, rule that where a young person would not feel it her duty to remain at home, but might be married, she might leave it to be espoused to her Lord. True, there are other opportunities of Christian service, and duties other than those of home, which must be left. This is but God's usual way of dealing with us. He does not promote idlers to honour, but the faithful. He calls from duties to duties. In our self-importance we are apt, in regard to our work, to estimate ourselves as necessary to Divine Providence. God often calls His servants from most productive service to a most seemingly barren field in order to train us to trust to His providence what we leave, as well as to His love in what He calls us to. In this matter of vocation duties need not be weighed against duties. We need not try to balance our supposed usefulness in one state with that in another. To be a perfect Religious is to become the most perfect instrument for service in God's hands, and so to do the highest and most effective work it is possible for man to do for God. As there is no parish work of sufficient importance to hold back any young clergyman from being a Religious, much less should the parish. or social duties hold back any woman. Save, therefore, in rare cases where high or State interests are concerned, no other than important home-duty need prevent any daughter from becoming a Religious. What we leave for God, God will bless.
The third external sign, although not so held by all writers on the subject, is the Christian father's consent. The Scriptures regard the father as the head and mouth-piece of the sacramental entity formed by marriage. He is the natural priest of the family. So that properly the privilege belongs to him of giving his daughter to the Lord. To this reference is made, in the judgment of many wise commentators, in I Cor. vii. 38, 39. If he cannot give his consent, and so approve, he may assent, and so put no hindrance in the way. God has indeed the first and highest claim, and the father should learn by his own love to trust that of the Heavenly Father. He loves our children better than we do, and He expresses His love for us in promoting them to honour. He, who has a right to take your child away by death though you must shed tears over her grave, asks you now to trust her with Him to be His bride, that you may rejoice over her espousals. And as in the call of the patriarch and child, of old, each took part in the sacrifice and shared in a common blessing, so now will God most richly bless and unite more closely in the end parent and child. The God for whom together they laboured, and in whom together they rejoiced, will knit their hearts together in an eternal jubilation of love and praise.
The interior signs of a vocation are discerned in the desires of the soul. All good desires come from God, and are His voice speaking in us. These signs of a call to religion may be tested by the questions: Do you desire the Life? What in it do you desire? And why?
God, who knows best how to plant the seed of grace, and how best to awaken the heart to respond, in some instances grants this desire at an early age. It is not unusual for a person to say: "I have always wanted to be a Sister. I do not know how the wish came or when;" or, "I remember, when quite a little child, it came into my heart." Thus, in old time, into the youthful hearts of Joseph, Samuel, and Timothy, and John Baptist, and pre-eminently the Blessed Virgin, the grace of vocation fell silently as light from an angel-hand. In other instances it comes later in life. God creates the germ in some by disappointment, by humiliation; the heart is empty, and it must seek rest in God. In others He brings it by fervours and aspirations; the heart is full and it must empty itself back into Him. It grows with an increasing gratitude for sins forgiven or for some signal succours in distress, when, with the Magdalen's courage and the Magdalen's devotion, it cries out, What shall I render unto the Lord for all the benefits He hath done unto me? It is developed into life by some text of Scripture, by some word of grace, or by the pleading cry of the Master in His Church's hour of need. It gradually takes shape in a desire to do what it can for His service, becomes more ardent with a longing to make some reparation for the neglect His love has received, craves at last a fuller sense of His nearness and a life closer to Him. It lacks now but little for its perfection. How is this to be obtained? The heart must catch sight of the inner life of Jesus and desire to be united to it. God loves souls with large desires, and loves to aid the formation of such desires. And so it may be that by some book or merciful providence the soul on its life-journey gains a view of the Religious Life, stretching out its arms and revealing God's eternal purpose for His chosen ones, just as, in Alpine passes, at some sudden turn, the traveller unexpectedly comes in sight of the Cross, and is forced to forget nature in presence of that symbol of surpassing love. Blessed are they who come to this knowledge of the Life. It is a knowledge hidden from many Christian souls. It is given to those who are called. They see that the essence of the Religious Life is not a dedication merely to works of charity. It is an entire surrender of themselves to Jesus. It is a new covenanted estate. It is a special and consecrated union to the Lord. He is bound to them as well as they are bound to Him. It is a wedded union to His inner life, a transformation of body, soul, and spirit by the practice of the same three principles which governed His Humanity.
Do you desire, for the sake of this union, to adopt these principles? This is the real interior test.
It may happen that persons may be able to say that they have heard an interior voice speaking to them, or have had some singularly confirmed dream, or have beheld some magnificent vision of Christ or His Saints, or that some remarkable and concurring providences, like converging lines, have declared their duty. No one should desire or seek any such signs. It was the wise prayer of a great saint: "Lead me, 0 Lord, by the common way." And no one should act upon any such extraordinary manifestation. God may use such means for warning or directing His servants. They are liable, however, to be misunderstood, or not to be from Him. They may be regarded as confirming and encouraging us, but should not otherwise be taken into account. Consider the Life: its end, union with Jesus: its principles, the means to the end. Is this end your desire? Are these means your resolve?
If this is your spirit and you are not governed by the desire to escape from an unpleasant home, or to exchange a laborious life for one seemingly less so, or by a wish to improve your social position, or by an affection to live with some particular Sister, but are willing to leave all for the love of Christ and give yourself up to be moulded according to the principles of His life, you have the interior sign of a vocation. He has given you the mind and will to desire what He would have you to be. You are called of God. Christ offers Himself to you, and by a humble recitation of either the Te Deum or Magnificat you should give thanks to Him.
Greatly now will you stand in need of discretion, patience, and courage. "My Son, when thou comest to serve the Lord, prepare thyself for temptations." Be careful not to make your concerns a matter of common conversation. If you are influenced by the vanity that seeks to make one's self an object of interest, you will not do for a sister. In the Apostolic sense: "Consult not with flesh and blood." "Winnow not with every wind, and go not into every way." "Let your complaints be made known unto God." "Wait upon the Lord and put your trust in Him."
If possible, go to some Retreat, or arrange a partial one by yourself. It would be well at this time to review your life, not in reference to your sins but to God's providential guiding and blessings. Eat, like the prophet, the scroll of life. Give thanks to God for all He has given you and all He has withheld. Make your Communions with special care, and for conformity to God's will.
Consult with some priest; yet not necessarily a Religious, but one who knows what the Life is, and is not opposed to it. The different kinds of clergy have their own peculiarities, which need to be guarded against. Saints may be found everywhere, but perfection in the world is formed on different lines from that in Religion. The member of a Religious Order is apt to force his own Rule into the lives of others. We who are Religious are wont also to be over-eager in the matter of vocations. Always distrust those who would persuade or try to frighten you in any way into a Sisterhood. Vocation cannot be made by man. "No man can come to Me, unless the Father draw him." Parochial clergy, on the other hand, are apt to underrate the value of the Religious Life. They are often unwilling to lose good workers from their parishes, and so are prejudiced. Or perhaps they do not wish to go against the wishes of parents who may be their parishioners. They are also in danger of overestimating the importance of the family obligations. The family is indeed of divine origin, but there are other institutions equally sacred. The Religious Life is one of these. When one said to Christ, "Suffer me first to go and bury my father," the Master declared a primary and higher duty in His reply: "Follow Me, and let the dead bury their dead."
Two general cautions may here be given. Be open and straightforward with your parents. Never act in an underhand way. Do not be advised to do anything which is only to be told afterward. Such counsel is not of God. God does not need man's deceitfulness to help Him to accomplish His plans. And also do not allow yourself to be drawn into making indiscreet promises. The Apostles did not reply to Christ's invitation that they would follow Him when their parents were dead.
If God shows you that it is His will you should remain at home, He will perfect you there. Where He places you, there He will bless you. The Law of the Kingdom is now, as of old, they that tarried at home divided the spoil. If reasonable grounds exist for believing you have a vocation, and the external signs do not prevent, act at once. To defer responding to God's offer is to run the risk of losing it. It is a serious truth that, though we may be eventually saved, yet we may, by neglecting a distinct call, miss the special crown proffered us. We may go on piling up a large amount of "wood, hay, and stubble" which will have to be burned up, and we "saved as by fire," instead of doing our appointed task and building the "gold, silver, and precious stones" Christ had designed for us.
It may be you will have to wait. If so, wait so as not to lose. Patience is one of the best signs of a vocation. Tarry thou the Lord's leisure, be strong and He shall comfort thine heart.
Be loving in all your intercourse with others, but decided, because He has called you and you are not your own. Do not go over old matters in perpetual debate with self or with others. "God spake and it was done." If tempted to give up, look to Christ crucified saying, "This I have done for thee, what hast thou done for Me?" Listen to the blessed saints, weak once as you, but made courageous through the blood of the Lamb, saying, as you ask them how they triumphed, "Grace did it all."
If you are allowed to go to the Sisterhood, go as soon as you conveniently can. Arise and trim your lamp and go you out to meet Him. Acting under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in the strength of the Blessed Body and Blood, with the counsel of the Church, with a single eye to Christ, you cannot go wrong. If you really have not a vocation by reason of want of health, or of the needed capacity, or from failure of Community spirit, or other latent cause, it will be shown you in the Sisterhood. Act then courageously, as you would wish to have done when the short term of life is over, and its honours and delights and charms are fading, when the darkness of earth, with its troubles and sorrows and cares, is passing away, and Christ with His welcome of reward is seen standing on the eternal shore.
"Blessed are they who, in whatever outward lot, are with virgin souls espoused unto Christ, in faith entire, and grounded hope and fervent charity. Blessed, whether married or unmarried, are the pure in heart, who seek to make their souls a bridal chamber for Christ, fitted by His grace for His indwelling by His spirit.
"Blessed, thrice blessed, they whom Christ alone sufficeth, the one aim of whose being is to live to Him and for Him. For Him they adorn themselves; His eyes alone they desire to please through His graces in them; Him they long to serve without distraction; at His feet they ever sit; to Him they speak in their inmost souls, to Him they hearken; He is their light, their love, their holy joy; to Him they ever approach with trustfulness; Him they consult in all things, on Him they wait; Him they love, even because they love Him, and desire from Him but His love, desire no love but only His. Blessed foretaste of life eternal, to desire nothing on earth but the life of angels and the new song; to be wholly His, whom her soul loveth, and He, the Lord of Angels, to be wholly hers, as He says, "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine."