Five signs religious life might be right for you

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One sign that you may be called to religious life is that others affirm that such a life seems right for you. (Photo: Shutterstock)

A YOUNG WOMAN once posed this question to me: “Does God send signs?” She had been praying to God for a very specific sign that would alleviate any doubt in her mind once and for all that God indeed was calling her to religious life. Don’t we all long for that kind of clarity?

But can you really expect that God’s will for you will be revealed through tangible signs? Whether or not that may be, often young men and women are hoping that God will show them an obvious sign that will confirm where God is leading them. The simple truth is that you cannot really calculate the exact “sign” God should send nor expect God to answer on cue.

Nonetheless, our faith assures us that God is always communicating God’s will to us. God’s message is consistent, sure, and irrefutable. The first chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians summarizes God’s intentions for us: God has given us the wisdom to understand fully the mystery, the plan to be decreed in Christ in the fullness of time, to bring all things into one in him, in the heavens and on the Earth.

That’s the plan! And every sign that comes from God simply reminds us that ultimately our vocation will be a means to a lasting union with God. So that we are not alone on this journey, Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit to guide us on the way. In fact, the Holy Spirit teaches us how to read signs that point us in the right direction. Here are five signposts I have noticed on the discernment journey.

1. A peace like no other

Saint Ignatius of Loyola teaches in his Spiritual Exercises that when your own will is aligned with God’s will, you shall know great consolation. God’s will is completely directed toward allowing you to know God and love God in return. Thus, Ignatius writes, “Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me” (no. 23).

God would not call you to consecrated religious life and then not somehow reveal that vocation. Rather than some sort of external sign, the Ignatian tradition says that a deep inner peace is the truest sign. Over and over I have seen young women feeling a great sense of unrest in their discernment process, but when they finally surrender and say yes to what their heart tells them is God’s plan, they experience a profound peace. The pivotal moment comes when discerners recognize that God is not calling them to be anyone other than their best selves. One woman described this sense to me when she said, “I feel like I just came home to myself.” A peace like no other or, as Jesus says, a peace “not as the world gives” (John 14:27), is the first sign that you have found God’s will.

2. Your deepest desire

The second sign is also integral to the Ignatian spiritual tradition: Your own deepest desires do in fact reflect God’s deepest desires for you. A young woman tearfully once said to me, “I so hope God is calling me to religious life! I want nothing more than to give my life completely to Him!” “So why are you still so conflicted?” I asked. “Because,” she sighed, “what if that’s not where God is calling me?” Ignatius assures us that God has placed God’s deepest desires for us within our own hearts. Ask yourself, “Would I be disappointed if God were not calling me to religious life?”

In order to know what you really desire, moreover, you have to get beyond all the cultural messages that tell you what should make you happy. You might need to get beyond your family’s expectations of who you could be. Through silence and prayer, you will gradually come to hear that quiet voice within and, with God’s grace, have the courage to trust that these deep inner longings are really from God.

Often in the beginning men and women called to religious life resist God’s promptings. Even Saint Peter cried, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Yet, if we’re really honest with ourselves, there is a subtle attraction to this life. We are drawn to consecrating ourselves to Christ, to praying in common, living in a loving community, and witnessing to the gospel in a radical way. Through good spiritual direction, prayer, and silence, you can come to name your deepest desire that just might be to leave all behind and answer Jesus’ invitation to “follow me” (Luke 5:27).

3. With God all things are possible

Another sign that God might be calling someone to religious life is that gradually the impossible becomes possible. If God is calling you, then would God not give you whatever graces and gifts are needed for that to happen? Nonetheless that does not mean the road is always perfectly smooth. Sometimes there are obstacles—some of our own making and some from outside of us.

When Mary gave her yes to God at the Annunciation, there were clearly some obstacles to overcome: what to tell Joseph; how the community would respond; the need to register for the census. Yet to show Mary that “nothing will be impossible for God” (Luke 1:37), the angel told her that even her cousin Elizabeth had conceived a child in her old age.

Repeatedly I have marveled as God has seemingly moved mountains in the lives of those who are called. One young woman did not have the means to pay for her own health insurance during the postulancy period of entering my community, but on her last day of work she was amazed when her former employer announced that her parting gift would be a year of health insurance coverage!

Another young woman struggled interiorly with accepting that she would never bear her own children. Acknowledging this painful inner conflict before God while at Eucharistic Adoration, she suddenly realized that though she would not bear children of her own she would be called to “mother” many of God’s children. The amazing gift was that this insight brought great joy and suddenly she was ready to embrace her vocation. Once again the impossible became possible.

4. Others can see it

Another signpost along the way is when other people see God’s grace in your life and affirm that indeed you would make a wonderful religious sister, brother, or priest. Often candidates distrust their own worthiness. Though we know in our hearts that God calls us in our human weakness, sometimes we rationalize the many reasons why we should not be called. We need to leave this choice to Christ and recall that Jesus said that “it was not you who chose me, but I who chose you” (John 15:16).

One young woman who had just begun the application process to enter my community, the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, ran into a friend from high school. When her friend asked her what she would be doing once she graduated from college, she replied, “I am applying to enter as an Apostle [of the Sacred Heart of Jesus]!” Her friend immediately responded, “Of course! You have the Apostle charism!”—my community’s spirit. While not seeking a direct sign, this young candidate reflected that she truly felt God was speaking to her in this moment. Oftentimes when God is calling someone to religious life, God confirms this call through other people.

5. Joy: The irrefutable sign

The Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminds us, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” The surest signpost of all is a tangible joy that bubbles up and overflows in all aspects of life. As you open yourself to God’s will and say your own fiat—like Mary’s “let it be done” to the angel Gabriel—a palpable joy will soon emanate.

Jesus’ own prayer for his disciples was that his “joy might be in them and that joy might be full!” (John 15:11). God wants nothing less than fullness of joy for you; therefore, the clearest sign of all is a deep sense of joy that cannot be contained. One young woman wrote to me, “Even my coworkers notice that I smile every time I talk about the Apostles!” Joy is clearly the most vivid of God’s signs!

What does it all mean?

As I was working on this article on a plane heading to a discernment retreat I was leading, I gazed out the window and asked myself again, “Does God really send signs?” I nearly laughed aloud as I beheld a rainbow stretched across the clouds. “Just as in the days of Noah,” I pondered, “God continues to send us signs.” I now realize that all of God’s signs continue to point to the same reality: “I am with you! I will never leave you!”

God is constantly communicating God’s will to us every day of our lives: “to bring all things into one in Christ” (Eph. 1:10). You can be sure that God’s plan is unfolding as you experience an unshakeable peace, you discover and trust your deepest desires, the impossible suddenly becomes possible, others affirm God’s grace in you, and finally an unmistakable joy gives that telltale sign: God is with you. 

A version of this article appeared in VISION 2014.

Related article:, “Unravel the mystery of your call.

Sister Colleen Therese Smith, A.S.C.J.
By Sister Colleen Therese Smith, A.S.C.J., a member of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.




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