Beacons of hope

At some point just before my search for God really began, I had a sort of 25-year delayed reaction about the priesthood and religious life. I read some Catholic writer’s lament that so few people follow God’s call to religious life these days, that not very many young men and women are willing to leave the world to serve God alone, and I thought with shock: “You mean there are any?”

I guess I did know that nuns don’t marry, and I’d heard something about priests and monks staying single, but it had never sunk in. When I really got it through my head that there are actually people out there who live just for God, I felt bewilderment and surprise…and an odd sense of hope.

At the time my life was extremely “worldly.” I didn’t believe in God and was completely immersed in socializing and career and vapid entertainment, so I really couldn’t imagine why someone would become a nun or a monk or a priest. I tried to figure out what their payoff was: obviously, I thought, there must be some selfish reason for choosing to do this. But, from a worldly perspective where things like the pursuit of pleasure and being able to do whatever you want were extremely important to quality of life, I couldn’t figure out what it was.

I know it sounds ridiculous, but all my life I held on to this vague notion that nobody seriously believed in God. Looking back, it’s a little disturbing to think of what a great determination I had to cling to cynicism and sarcasm when discussing Christianity. I simply refused to entertain anything related to this religion that rang of selflessness or sacrifice or hope, immediately explaining it away with some cynical retort. I looked at my Christian neighbors and chose to focus only on the worldly aspects of their lives, noting that they drove the same cars, wore the same clothes, ate at the same restaurants, went to the same schools, and even watched the same movies as we did. I interpreted all this to indicate that they were hedging their bets, so to speak. In a testament to just what an uncharitable, deeply cynical person I was, I claimed that the driving force of Christianity was selfishness; that Christians were all about God when it came to judging others, but not so much when it came to actually sacrificing anything.

In this area, the whole notion of consecrated religious life was a bur in my side. Once I was aware of the concept, I tried to brush it off my telling myself that only people with “issues” would enter religious life. That notion didn’t last long, especially once I realized the sheer number of people who do this.

If you had asked me a few years ago to guess what the total number of priests and religious brothers and sisters there currently are in America I would have said 50. Maybe 75. But when I started to learn more about Christianity and found out how very wrong my estimate was, I couldn’t be intellectually honest and tell myself that every single one of these people had some kind of issue that led them to make such huge sacrifices (by worldly standards). In fact, the more glimpses I had into this mysterious way of life, the more I realized that it was likely that the vast majority of these people lived this kind of life because…well, because they believed in God.

Pondering the fact that so many men and women had walked away from American life and willingly vowed not just to accept but to embrace chastity, obedience, and in some cases poverty — ideals that are utterly counterintuitive to those of us who were caught up in seeking comfort and completely unrestrained freedom — was a ray of hope so bright that even my extreme cynicism couldn’t quite block it out. Thousands of people in America alone had given up the ability to date, to marry, to have kids, to wear what they wanted, to live where they wanted, all for this God I couldn’t seem to find. The way I saw it, they’d taken all their chips and put them on the “God exists” square. It was a huge bet. I was intrigued.

It occurred to me that with all the comfort and decadence that comes part and parcel with modern American life, every single person who walks away from it to join the priesthood or enter a monastery or convent is like a prince or princess doing so in a previous era: most people in our society have access to luxury and sex and totally unfettered freedom that only the richest of the rich could have even begun to imagine in any other time in history. From a materialist standpoint alone, there’s no good reason to walk away from such a society where opportunities for riches and decadence abound. Yet some people do — not just a few, but thousands. And sometimes even the most cynical atheists stop and take note, and can’t help but feel a little bit of hope.

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14 Responses to “Beacons of hope”
  1. Katherine says:

    Ahh. I love your writing so much. In my own walk of faith, as a cradle catholic, and now a mother; I find myself in a permanent My Cousin Vinny moment. “You were serious about that?” Yes, very serious and intelligent people put away worldly things in order to follow God. There is a reason for this.

    Katherine

  2. LSK49rs says:

    I am 51 years old and a widow. I am also a faithful, obedient daughter of the Holy Mother Church. I live a chaste and celibate life. My sanity is questioned, my sexual preference is questioned, my feelings toward men are questioned – all this because no one can believe that it is possible to be healthy, happy and faithful to hard teachings.

    Thank you for your wonderful blog.

  3. Catholic Mom says:

    Jen,

    I must add a link to this post to my current post on a hopeful Advent. It truly is the theme of this season. God Bless and a joyous Advent to you!

  4. Anonymous says:

    In high school I knew I had a calling but no one would listen. My parents were fairly anti-religion although to hear my mother tell the story…she was very religious *snort*. All these years later I still feel the pull but my path is different now and it’s too late to turn back. Still I am curious to know what could have happened if I’d had a support system.

  5. Darwin says:

    Not like your reading list isn’t long enough already, but if you don’t already have them there add on The Rule of St. Benedict (short) and This House of Brede (yes, I know you don’t read fiction, but you’d like it — I’m serious.)

  6. Jennifer F. says:

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Darwin – done. I think Mrs. Darwin recommended This House of Brede a while back and I’ve actually been planning to give it a try.

  7. lyrl says:

    Thank you for sharing this story.

    I would like to add that belief in God is not necessary to find the monastic life attractive – I have believed I would be happy as a nun for as long as I’ve known nuns existed. I was disappointed to learn you had to be Catholic to be a nun!

    I guess it’s unusual to find the life in an abbey itself attractive apart from any belief in God. But I exist :p

  8. beez says:

    Hey Jen! I’m a seminarian and I am going to let you in on a little secret. There is a selfish reason for entering seminary…

    Since I started (August, on the five year plan to ordination, God willing) I have been busy, tired, confused, addled and occasionally convinced that I was completely off my rocker for coming here. Then, about two weeks before Thanksgiving, as the novelty wore off and as my personal prayer life reached a level of comfort with the Lord every day, there was a change…

    Some of my brother seminarians like to joke with me. They tell me I need to stop smiling so much, because the faculty will think I am up to something. I don’t always smile, of course, sometimes I am tired and I have an annoying pain in my upper back from trying to stand up straight after 40 years of slouching. I’m not always cheerful, but I am always happy.

    I feel, I don’t know, a real sense of “rightness” in my life that every other attempt to find a niche just didn’t fill. Even after I returned to the faith in 2004, and started to feel better than I had in decades, I didn’t feel this content – this confident that, come what may, it IS the absolute best thing for me.

    My Vocations Director (I think) once said, “If you are called to the priesthood and religious life and you say No, God won’t stop loving you. But, you will never be as happy as you truly can be.”

    Following a call to priesthood or religious life isn’t a sacrifice when you finally realize that God made you to be a nun, monk or priest. When you finally realize that the calling isn’t God saying, “I want you to do this because I said so,” it’s God saying, “For this you were conceived and for this you were made.”

    God created each of us through an independent, willful act of Love, and He did it with a specific purpose in mind. When you realize that God made you to be something, being that something isn’t a sacrifice at all. It’s the greatest joy in the world, provided that you always let God lead, and you simply continue to follow.

  9. Adoro te Devote says:

    anon ~ I don’t know what your path is, but if you truly have a calling, there is still hope. Go to google and look up “St. Frances of Rome”. Then pray to her for assistance.

    Also remember…each call has to be confirmed by the Church.

    One other detail; a friend of mine recently went on a discernment retreat at a cloister, which she will be entering soon. She told me that the Mother Superior there told her that many women have the call to religious life, but they can’t recognize it because they have been so injured by broken families.

    Never stop trusting in God; He has a plan, and even when it seems that your path has taken you away from it, He can answer and bring you to where He has called you to serve. God can never be taken by surprise. He knew what would happen to you and what choices you would make…and why. Have no fear….His plan cannot be thwarted by anything other than our own indifference and disobedience. If you sincerely seek His will…you will find it.

    God bless you!

  10. Jennifer F. says:

    Beez -

    God bless you for being open to the call to religious life! How wonderful.

    Also…

    Following a call to priesthood or religious life isn’t a sacrifice when you finally realize that God made you to be a nun, monk or priest.

    I hope it’s clear that I didn’t mean that I currently see it as some huge sacrifice. In theory, all of us who are trying to live out our vocations to the best of our abilities make great sacrifices, whether it’s in married life, religious life, single life, etc. My emphasis here was that, from an atheistic perspective, it just made no sense at all. It kind of forced me to consider that maybe some people do believe in God.

    Thanks for your comment!

  11. Jhem says:

    Hi Jen,

    I just discovered your lovely blog. Speaking of beacons of hope, have you seen Philip Groening’s “Into Great Silence”? It’s a documentary about Carthusian monks and it managed to show to the viewer, in an uncanny way, the beauty of the sanctity of these humble men. What’s interesting is that this film was a hit in secular Europe…

  12. beez says:

    Jen,

    I wasn’t suggesting that you were saying it was some great sacrifice. I was simply trying to let others who read this great blog know that, once you put your trust in God, you discover that there is no big sacrifice.

  13. Jennifer F. says:

    Great point, Beez. Thanks!

  14. Sarah says:

    I read this post a few days ago, but just found this blog and thought I’d share it . . .

    http://holyvocations.blogspot.com/

    Merry Christmas!