Finding the right fit
Image: HOW YOU RELATE in and with a religious community is important to consider. It has to be a comfortable fit!
WHEN I WAS VOCATION DIRECTOR for my congregation, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia, I often met young adults who had a relatively clear sense of a call to follow Jesus in religious life but weren’t quite sure which religious community was the right one for them. They benefited greatly from time spent looking at what I called the personality of the community. Just as each person has distinctive qualities, characteristics, and traits that blend together to create their personality, religious communities do, too.
As a group the community has an identity that takes shape in the particularities of how they live, work, and interact in the contemporary world. How you relate in and with a religious community is important to consider. It has to be a comfortable fit!
Given the importance of this mutual fit, I never stopped reminding discerners that if you are going to leave home, wherever that is at this point in your life, you need to be sure to find a place where you can be most at home. In other words, you need to feel comfortable and able to continue to thrive and grow as well as function within the personality of the given religious community to which you are attracted while respecting your own personal identity. The time you spend inquiring about the details of life in a specific community is certainly time well-spent. Seeking answers to the questions you have can help you discover if your personality fits with the personality of that religious community.
The profession of the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience are fundamental components of consecrated life. These vows, however, provide a stark contrast to the values of our culture in which sex, money, and power reign supreme. In your discernment it’s important to consider these natural drives. Then look at how the human dimension of your personality and temperament matches with the expression of the vows as the religious community lives them on a daily basis.
So let’s explore some of the daily living issues of religious life as they relate to the vows to see how they might inform your discernment with a particular religious community. Don’t be afraid to ask the questions that will assist you in discovering if this is the best place for you to live, grow, and become the person God invites you to be.
Chastity: A different way to love
In religious life the vow of chastity calls you to a profound and personal relationship with Jesus through prayer, to love all people with the love with which God has loved them, and to be ready, available, and free to go where sent on mission. This vow points to union with God as the only way to satisfy the deep human longing for love. The vow does not nullify the need for friendship, intimacy, and love. Rather it is a life-giving choice to live these aspects of sexuality in a radically different way than our culture proposes.
Given this focus and freedom through the vow of chastity, how are relationships with other community members, family, and male and female friends outside this religious community viewed? Do you get to choose how and when you spend time with them? Do you celebrate holidays together in community? Are you expected to pray with the community for your personal as well as your communal prayer? How are decisions made regarding when and where you are sent for ministry? What kind of freedom do you have in terms of social activities? Are you free to travel? How is a healthy balance of work, rest, prayer, and leisure achieved? How does conflict or disagreement get expressed and resolved?
Poverty: The freedom to give
The vow of poverty calls you as a priest, brother, or sister to offer your time, talents, and gifts—in fact, your very person—in union with Jesus for others. It invites you to live simply with basic necessities and prioritize what you need over what you want. As a consecrated religious you hold all things in common and steward and share what is available to you in light of the gospel mandate and your congregational mission.
If poverty is not about being destitute but really about being free for mission, then how is money handled and used in this religious community? Do you receive a salary for your ministry, and what happens to that money? Do you have access to money for personal use? What is the practice around receiving gifts, including money? How is ownership of material things like cell phones, laptops, iPods, or a GPS determined? Is it possible to have a credit card? How are decisions made about what is “needed” and what is “wanted”? And once you have discerned your vocation to a specific religious community, how do you know what to bring with you and how much is appropriate?
Obedience: The call to listen
The vow of obedience calls for a listening and discerning heart. Through this vow you promise to listen for God’s voice through prayer and discernment as well as through the voice of other members of the community, those entrusted with authority in the congregation, and the events of daily life.
You look to your congregation’s constitutions for the guidelines that help you to live your consecration faithfully. Constitutions are the formal documents of each congregation that explain its nature, mission, and purpose along with particular details regarding areas significant to this life such as prayer, governance, membership, vows, and community life. Obedience also calls you to participate in all the levels of congregational involvement by bringing your own initiative, judgment, and personal responsibility.
In connection with the vow of obedience you will want to consider how a specific religious community regards decision-making, communication, the opportunity for the voice of members to be heard, accountability, and the balance of personal needs with the common good of the congregation. The more concrete this information is the more helpful it is in your understanding of living this vow.
Some questions to consider are: Can I initiate a change in ministry or residence? Is there a forum for asking questions or voicing insights and opinions? To whom am I accountable? What does governance or authority look like in the convent, monastery, or friary? How are responsibilities delegated for household chores? Do I need to ask permission regarding my free time, use of a car, or other personal responsibilities or needs? What is the process for determining possible ministry, further education, and course of study? Do I participate in conversation and consultation about these things?
Ask and you will receive
Finding the right community is as important in your discernment as responding wholeheartedly to Jesus’ call to follow him. Knowing how a community operates can help you discover if it is the place for you. So as you search for a community that fits, I encourage you to consider what you value and what gives you life. Imagine yourself in the process of becoming a member and then down the road a few years a vowed member. Can and will the personality of this religious community complement your own personality? Will it be sustaining and nourishing for you? Will it be a place to develop and use your gifts?
Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:7-8: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Trust that the loving God who has led you this far will continue to guide your search and inquiry for a suitable community to call home.
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