By Ray Smith, C.M.F.
Perhaps you have already been accepted to religious life or the seminary. You went through the long application process, the interviews, the psychological evaluations and are living your dream. At first, it is wonderful; you feel appreciated, wanted, and you are where God wants you to be. This is often called the honeymoon period, but honeymoons don’t last forever. Many have or will have the experience of disillusionment, as the charism doesn’t seem to fit, others treat you poorly or unjustly, or you struggle with loneliness. Does this mean your vocation is over?
We may hear our friends say, “Get out while you can!” Yet, Jesus never promised his followers an easy road or to take away all difficulties. He only promised to accompany us in our journey. So the good news for anyone facing difficulties in their vocation is that it does not always mean its end. So what are we to do when religious life is not what we expected or hoped for?
The challenge of a mature vocation is saying yes not only in the joyous moments when we enter religious life or the seminary, but learning how the difficulties invite us to give a different yes to God. Discernment is an ongoing process, not just when we enter. Many true vocations are lost when they face the fires of life because they do not have good guidance to understand the hand of God in these moments. Many seminarians think, or are told, they just need to pray more. While prayer is crucial for all vocations, it is not the only answer.
One common reason many people leave their vocation is that they struggle with the charism or lack of one in their community. The question in these moments is not do I belong or not, but is God calling me to find a new charism. Just as married people do not find their spouse on their first date, we must be open to look for the place where we fit, even if that means trying out a new community.
Another challenge for many is when they are treated poorly by other community members. It is normal to think this should never happen in religious life, but people are still people and this will happen even there. Again, this does not mean the end of a vocation. It could be the invitation to work on interpersonal relationships or, in the case of entering an unhealthy community, it may be time to look for a healthier one.
A final challenge many experience in religious life is coping with loneliness. To be in a new place with all new faces can make people feel lonely, especially if they are introverted. Rather than automatically assume that religious life is not for you, consider that even married couples experience loneliness. In these moments it is better to see this feeling as an invitation to work on building better relationships and to remember that cultivating intimacy takes time.
If we come to religious life to follow Jesus, then difficulties are not a signal that our vocation is over; rather difficulties are a call to follow Jesus more closely and that is where our vocation is truly born. Vocations are born in joy, but they mature in the heat of the fires of life.
What would you ask a religious community? Do you back away from the things you want when you encounter difficulties?