5 Common Fears with Discerning your Vocation
In his inaugural homily, Saint John Paul II said, “Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power.” His words echo the refrain heard from Jesus throughout the Gospel Resurrection accounts where his disciples are often struck with fear. Jesus comes to them and simply says, “Peace be with you.” Many men and women who are discerning a religious vocation hesitate in taking the next step because they are restrained by any number of fears. Acknowledging and expressing these fears is usually the first step to overcoming them. Listed below are five fears common to men and women discerning religious life and some helpful advice to banish the fear and draw near to the Risen Christ who offers you “peace.”
1. What if I am making the wrong (or a bad) decision?
If you are praying daily, striving to live a virtuous life, and remaining close to the Sacraments, you will know if you are making the wrong decision. Applying for seminary or a religious community does not necessarily mean that you are definitely going to be a priest or religious. Religious formation is a process where you continue to discover and realize God’s call in your life. The Church has specific processes where an individual tests his or her call to see if it feels right. When you enter a religious community, there is a period of one to two years (or longer) that you experience before you profess vows or make any further commitment. God only asks you to be open and be willing to follow. During this time of testing one’s vocation, you will know if it is or is not right for you. You will sense God’s peace in the direction He is leading you. Additionally, religious communities are wise in the discernment process and only want candidates who have an authentic call to commit themselves to the way of life, and this call is most fully realized when it is tested over a period of time.
2. The fear of what others will think, especially parents or friends
Everyone wants acceptance, support, and affirmation, especially from those that they are closest to. Sometimes due to disagreements in faith, or for a variety of other reasons, friends and family members may not understand or completely accept your decision to enter religious life. This experience can be painful and a burdensome cross to bear. You might find consolation that Jesus’ relatives didn’t always understand his mission and thought he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). It is important to be patient with others if they do not support you—it might be their way of being protective and looking out for your best interest. Our loved ones want to see us happy and fulfilled, but many mistakenly believe that if you enter religious life, with its rules, structure, and sacrifices, that you could not possibly be happy or fulfilled. It is important for friends or family to visit the religious community for themselves and have the opportunity to meet and interact with its members. If you decide to enter a community and find peace and fulfillment, it often alleviates the pressure that comes from friends or family members, because their opposition diminishes when they see your joy.
3. Focusing too much on the sacrifices
When considering religious life, many young people focus excessively on the sacrifices, or “what you have to give up.” The culture often tries to tell you what you need or must have to be fulfilled in this life. It is true that there are sacrifices that a person has to make to follow Christ in religious life. However, the sacrifices can be exaggerated in your mind, and often once you test your vocation, what you thought would be a significant obstacle, may not be so difficult after all. Besides that, sacrifices are also only part of the picture. Ultimately, God is loving and generous with us beyond all measure. Jesus assured St. Peter, “Everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:29). In the face of such a fear, you have to be willing to be generous with your life. Do not be afraid to live no longer for yourselves, but for Christ. There are many joys and blessings in following Christ in religious life, and many times you find yourself surprised by how good and generous God truly is!
4. I’m afraid that I’m following my own voice and not Jesus’ voice
Listening to God is difficult because God doesn’t normally speak to you with an audible voice. We have many ‘voices’ and influences that we have to sort out at any given time throughout the day. While you are in prayer, you must express your desire to follow God’s will. In an ever-changing world, you must listen carefully for the steady and consistent message that God speaks in the peace of your heart. If you truly desire to hear God, the call will not remain hidden, nor will it be presented as a puzzle that you have to ‘figure out.’ Gather all the information necessary to make a well-informed and prudent decision, pray as if it all depends on God, but when it is time to act, place your trust entirely in God. The Holy Spirit will guide and direct you. If your decision was made peacefully and with a desire to please God, then you can move forward with confidence. Since it is a real challenge not to be guided by self-will, it is most important to find a priest or spiritual director, someone wise and attentive to the Holy Spirit, to listen and guide you throughout the process. Whenever you place your trust in your spiritual director, it shows humility and a sincere desire to follow God’s will in your life. The Rule of Saint Benedict adds this advice: “Do everything with counsel, and you will not be sorry afterward” (3:13).
5. I’m not worthy or holy enough
Many young people who see religious men and women from afar can think that they are somehow more angelic than human. You can have lofty ideals of what your prayer life should be like or how you should do a better job avoiding sin, and when you find yourself struggling, many can find themselves disappointed or frustrated. You might even fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others. These experiences lead people to think they are not worthy or holy enough to enter religious life since they still wrestle with any number of sins. Religious life is not for the perfect, but for those who desire holiness and strive to call themselves to conversion each and every day. Jesus said, “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners“ (Mark 2:17). Most religious men and women seek community life because they are aware of and readily admit their need for the support and encouragement of others to persevere on the path that leads to God. The call to holiness requires that you embrace your humanity, with both your strengths and weaknesses, to become the man or the woman that God desires you to be. God’s grace is more powerful than your weaknesses and your perception of yourself. You just have to remain open and willing to allow grace to change you.