Monday, May 19, 2008

Autonomy and Freedom, Part 2

I've decided to answer questions and respond to comments on my previous post, which clearly touched a nerve. I hope to go on to speak about conversion soon, since I believe that there is a link between them.

First of all, Connie asks, "How does one discern Father? Especially a religious vocation? I know that I want to live my life for God, with God, and in God. It is very difficult for me to live in duality, i.e. a secular "life" with a job and its responsibilities and only time for God sandwiched in between. How do I know that my desire to live for, with and in God comes from God and not from me? Or would I even have these desires if they did not come from God?"

There are several questions there, and each of them could inspire a book (some of them have). In the context of my post, I was explaining the difference between a modern preference for autonomy (the ability to define one's own moral goodness and goals in life) and the Christian idea of freedom (in which we are set free to make morally good choices, given in the structure of God's creation and in His law, and to pursue the goals that God sets for us).

So discernment, in the Christian context, means first of all listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit. God speaks to us in many ways: through the moral law, through the sacraments, through our superiors in the Church (this can mean simply one's pastor or it could mean the pope). In any case, the voice comes from outside ourselves, and not infrequently poses a challenge to our sense of identity and comfort. I tell people that I never much thought about being a monk as I grew up, but the various signs that kept coming to me from the Church, from prayer, and from meditation on Scripture eventually led me to inquire into the possibility. When I did enter the monastery, I had no intention of becoming a priest, but in that case, the community asked it of me.

There is no possibility in the end of discerning a religious vocation without speaking to religious communities and letting them help you sort out which signs are from God and which are not. My general advice for anyone who has inclinations in this direction is simply to approach a religious community and begin praying with them, and if possible visiting with them. While the vocation director might be most helpful, it does not need to be someone official. Anyone with some experience of religious life can help interpret what God is saying to you.

What takes place once we open ourselves up to genuine dialogue with God and with others is that our own limited vision of reality and our subjective notion of the world undergo a challenge. The cultural forces that urge us toward autonomy will incline us to depart from dialogue if that dialogue suggests that our own opinions need revising. We might be inclined to say, "That's fine for you, but not for me!" Some of the prophets tried to do that with God, but He insisted that His idea was better. So we must commit ourselves to being disciples and students of the Church's wisdom. This being the case, we will want to entrust ourselves to teachers of good repute, but even poor teachers can mediate God's will if we take a real stance of faith.

Finally, we know that we have a vocation to religious life if the Church allows us to profess vows. Before that, there is always a certain amount of questioning going on, but it is not an existential sort of questioning only (of the sort, "Should I do this? Is it right for me? Am I selling out?"). These are only part of the questions that we should allow ourselves to encounter. The primary question is, "Is this what God wants?" and each religious order has its own criteria for determining whether a candidate is being called by God. In our Benedictine tradition, we look for zeal for the divine office, for obedience and humiliations. If a person does not show signs of having this zeal or a willingness to cultivate it, well, monastic life will probably be too difficult. If a person has all these things but is married, well, that is another sign from God that there is not a monastic vocation but a vocation to married life. And so on. Trust the Church's guidance and submit yourself to it! That would be my principal advice.

The last question is an excellent one: we all have thoughts and desires, too many to count. Which ones are of God and which ones are simply echoes of our own psychology? Are some even off demonic origin. It is a question right up our monastic alley, so to speak, and I will post on this next.

1 comment:

Bob said...

Fr. Peter,

As a man deeply drawn to the lay-monastic life, I find your questioner's statement puzzling.

Connie wrote:
It is very difficult for me to live in duality, i.e. a secular "life" with a job and its responsibilities and only time for God sandwiched in between.

This seems a 'modern' view of life as being separated into secular and spiritual components. The Rule, written before this split, seems to take great pains to emphasize the harmony and continuity between the Opus Dei and the daily work.

I think this is the beauty of the Rule that the work of prayer, the care of tools/clothing, the toil involved in the meeting of day-to-day life are all of equal value in bringing glory to God. The "responsibilities of a secular" job are not eliminated but are replaced by the responsibilities of a "secular" craft (be it making caskets or running a Bed and Breakfast).

Too few Christians see "secular life" as part of the Redemptive work we are called to--we feel that if we want to pursue the deeper things of God, we need to withdraw from the world and enter a religious vocation. This is to the world's loss, IMO.

Certainly, there is a great need for more people to be drawn to the religious vocations but not because they feel like they can't adequately pursue God due to secular responsibilities but rather that they see no other plausible future based their life's trajectory.


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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