This morning I had the chance to catch-up with a friend who has been working with some women religious in the last month or so. In a conversation with one sister, there was a concern raised that those entering the religious life these days often want to know – above all else – what they have to do to reach final vows or solemn profession. There is a sense that this goal – the culmination, as it were, of postulancy and the noviciate – must be achieved, and that a plan to reach that goal needs to be laid out clearly from day one.
Nobody can blame an enthusiastic discerner, either of the Religious Life or the Priesthood (or Marriage, for that matter), for wanting to know the path that leads to solemn profession, final vows, holy orders, or matrimony. It is entirely natural and good to want and desire to fulfil the vocation that is being discerned, and to want to see how God and the Church expect one to be prepared for that call. What is wrong, though, is when this attitude becomes influenced, as my friend wisely pointed out, by a culture of ‘project management’, as if the process of discernment and formation is less a journey through life to be travelled, and more a process to be undergone.
In any process of vocational discernment, the Church gives clear guidance for the means of discernment and the path of formation that is required, but she also asks the individual to be open to the will of God in all things. This means that, in a profound sense, to see profession or ordination or marriage as merely achieving a ‘goal’ – even though it is rightly seen as a significant step – is to seriously misunderstand the fundamental idea of what a vocation is. So, too, in our catechetical and sacramental programmes, we fail to present a coherent picture, if the formation and teaching given is simply viewed as a means to ‘getting’ baptised, confirmed, Holy Communion, marriage, or ordination.
What do I mean by that? First, that a vocation (and that, of course, is also applicable to the universal vocation given through the sacramental life) is a call from God to a way of life which is our intrinsic path to salvation. In other words, God calls us by virtue of our baptism to share in the divine life of Jesus Christ by means of a particular state. This is the way the Lord has prepared for us – for you and for me, each – to reach heaven, and so to see the vocation fulfilled merely at the point of religious profession or ordination or marriage, or formation as ending or completed at the reception of a sacrament, is to very seriously miss the point. We live our vocation as the means of achieving the sanctification we require to enter into the eternal presence of God, and the formation and catechesis we receive prepares us to live that vocation, not simply receive it.
Secondly, to see the ‘event’ of religious profession, or ordination, or marriage, or the reception of a sacrament, as a culmination or goal reduces the purpose and process of formation – pre and post ‘event’ – to simply a track of study leading to some form of qualification. My friend referred to ‘living the journey’ as a way of better understanding this idea. We might also think of this as the process of ‘continuing conversion’, in which the work of our sanctification requires us to grow in virtue and in holiness of life, by forming within ourselves habits and practices that enable us to become more and more closely united to Christ the Lord. The ‘event’ or reception of a sacrament is a renewed starting point for our vocational life, not the fulfilment of it – that is heaven.
The question we must ask, then, is how – as religious or priests or lay faithful – we live the journey that will, one day (we pray), lead to us to eternal life. Do we ‘live the journey’, or do we see the obligations and processes and paths open to us as merely necessary hoops through which we must jump, like a prize puppy at Crufts? How do we view our sacramental programmes and processes of faith formation? Do we see them simply as school classes culminating in a final exam or award, or as the means by which we grow and deepen our relationship with Christ, through the Church, in an organic and sacrificial relationship of love?
The Lord calls us to more than mere mediocrity; he calls us to friendship with him and discipleship of his way. To live that journey leaves no room for a lowest common denominator approach to the Christian life, in which we merely tick the boxes required of us, as to ‘achieve’ an end. Rather, it demands of us an integrated and complete desire for union with Jesus Christ – in the sacred liturgy, in the sacraments of the Church, and in our service of others – because only that will lead us go beyond our human, earthly, horizontal, project management view, and to lift our eyes up to the Lord, who calls us to be in his very presence for all eternity.