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States of Christian Life and Vocation, According to the Doctors and Theologians of the Church/Part 2/Section 2/Chapter 2

< States of Christian Life and Vocation, According to the Doctors and Theologians of the Church


IT often happens that aspirants to the religious state do not present the three conditions enumerated by St. Liguori as signs of a real vocation. Now, according to the same doctor, it is vocation that entails obligation to enter religion, as we have said above: De vocatis dico teneri ; and as those who feel no liking for the state are not bound to enter it,[1] unless they have vowed it, or that their salvation is, to a certain extent, impossible in the world, where the vocation is not clear, the obligation to follow it is uncertain. Here is the case put by Suarez : "Sometimes a person, having neither leaning to nor desire of the religious state, experiences, however, certain thoughts and impressions from grace with respect to the dangers of the world, the excellence and advantages of the religious life, the importance of the choice of a state, and the indifference in which one should be, so as to seek in that choice only the holy will of God. In this case, according to the ordinary manner of judging and speaking, one is not supposed to have a religious vocation, even where these thoughts and motives are the beginning of a call from the Holy Ghost. In such circumstances it is not rash to think of the religious state, or to take advice about it. To warrant the taking of advice, some incipient good thoughts on the religious life, inspired by grace, are sufficient : Loquendo praedicto vulgari modo, negandum est esse temerariunt sine vocatione Spiritus Sancti, de religionis ingressn tractare ant consultare.

"It is reasonable to consult another to learn whether it be right to enter religion without a supernatural inclination, or without a special desire for the religious life, but solely from an efficacious choice of that state made after deliberation with ourselves, and advice from others. That a choice so made suffices, and that it is often useful to enter religion through that only influence, is proved by reason and experience. When other works of virtue are in question, it is frequently proper, or rather necessary, to act in this manner. So is it also with reference to entering religion ; for there is no reason to await an extraordinary grace, to expect such a call from the Holy Ghost as will give an efficacious desire of the religious life before we take counsel. We must hasten to draw profit from every occasion, from every holy thought, at least to reflect and seek judicious advice."[2]

We have thus seen the line of conduct to be followed when there is only a germ of religious vocation. Counsel should then be taken ; and we have heretofore said from whom it is to be sought. " We should immediately correspond," says St. Liguori, borrowing the words of St. Francis of Sales, " and cultivate the first motions of the Holy Spirit."[3]

Let us here inquire : How is he to act who is consulted in a doubt of this kind? Suarez replies : "The truth must be told openly to the one who asks advice. He whom the Spirit begins to move, must be helped, either to make him remain firm in his purpose, or to prevent him from resisting grace, and to induce him to merit, by prayers and other good works, more abundant graces."[4] This should be the conduct especially of ministers of the Lord, who are God's coadjutors, (i Cor. iii, 9.)

Is it allowable, under pretext of trying their vocation, to keep languishing for a longtime in the world souls that begin to desire to abandon it ? Lessius says : "In this matter no more pernicious counsel could be given. What can be more opposed to right reason and to real prudence than to seek in so dangerous a way to know what in another way can be known more surely, and without any danger at all? The world is not the place to remain in order to test one's self. Fly as quickly as possible to some secure asylum."[5]

Should we view as doubtful the vocation of persons who, on account of the deceptions and misfortunes of life in the world, resolve to enter religion ? To throw light on this question, we first admit, with Suarez and St. Liguori, that the most essential condition for a religious vocation is a right intention. "This disposition," says Suarez, " is required for every good, and therefore still more so for a work of such grave importance. Hence they deceive themselves who become religious on account of family troubles, and the hardships which they endure, or to escape poverty and contempt. Motives of this kind are not good, or at least they are not so good as the holiness of the religious state requires motives to be."[6]

St. Liguori has told us that "an intention is right or pure when we purpose to shun the dangers of the world, to make our salvation safer, and to unite ourselves more closely to God.":[7] "However, we must not," says Suarez, "confound an intention with the occasion which prompts it. For, frequently, the desire to enter religion springs up in the soul on the occasion of some temporal misfortune, while afterward the motive which decides us to put this desire into execution is not the temporal misfortune, but the will to serve God. At times some failure, some sorrow, leads us to think on eternal goods, to despise everything transitory; and thus a man comes, little by little, to wish to seek after the things of heaven, and renounce all that is earthly. Therefore we should be slow to think lightly of the tendencies of a soul to the religious life, even when they arise on the occasion of temporal evils. It is then that these aspirations should be studied with greater attention. When a misfortune is only the occasion of a desire for a perfect life, it is no obstacle to a divine vocation. It is rather a means which God uses often to draw us to the practice of his counsels."[8]

"God," says St. Liguori, quoting St. Francis of Sales, " has many ways to call his servants. Sometimes he makes use of sermons ; at others, of the reading of good books. Some were called by hearing passages of the Gospel read, as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Antony the Hermit; others, through the disgust, calamities, and afflictions which they experienced in the world, and which led them to fly from it. Although these latter come to God in bad humor with the world, they still withal give themselves to him freely and generously ; and such persons often rise to greater holiness than those who entered the service of God with more apparent vocations. Flatus relates that a gentleman dressed in the height of fashion, one day, did all in his power, when mounted on a superb steed, to win the admiration of some ladies who were near him. On a sudden, the animal threw him into the mud, and the poor man got up in a sorry plight. He was so much ashamed and confused at the accident he had met with, that he fell into a violent passion, and resolved on the spot to become a religious. He asked admission into an order, was received, and led a very holy life.[9]

Even when secondary views, such as hope of temporal advantages, are connected with the supernatural motive, the vocation is still to be accepted. For, among other advantages, the religious state also comprises temporal good : and this good can be taken into account, provided it is neither the chief nor the only motive that sways us to enter religion. The gold dug up from the mine is none the less gold because some earth clings to it ;[10] so, a religious vocation does not cease to be true, though linked in a secondary way with some human motives. Here several questions present themselves for solution.

First : Do dissatisfaction and inconstancy in the desire for a religious life always make a vocation doubtful?

"For a proof of a real vocation," says St. Francis of Sales, " a sensible constancy is not requisite ; it is enough that one be firm in mind. We must not therefore judge that a person is not really called because he happens, even before leaving the world, no longer to experience the sensible emotions which he felt in the beginning ; nor even because dislikes and coldnesses arise in him which make him waver and suppose that all hope is at an end. It is enough that the will remain constant and not abandon the holy vocation ; or even that he continue to entertain some attachment for it."[11] "Should the pious desires of a young man slacken for a time, that may still be a proof of vocation," says Father Pinamonti. " For, why did he grow cold ? Why has he neglected prayer and the sacraments? Why has he allowed his soul to be stained with mortal sin? All these reasons go to prove that the inspiration came from God, since it is strengthened by good works and weakened by evil deeds. Sins and falls are of great assistance in teaching us the nature of divine inspirations, even while they trouble them, and seem to interrupt their course. "[12]

"People of the world are wrong when they think that want of perseverance in holy desires is an evident sign that these desires were ill-founded. It is not thus that the masters of the spiritual life reason. The works of God, says St. Thomas, in relation to this subject, are not unalterable,[13] and it would be heresy to assert that we cannot forfeit the grace which we have received."[14]

Can it be straightway said that a man is unfit for the religious state, because he has for some time led a life of sin, or still feels strong inclinations to sin ? As we have already seen, St. Thomas teaches that the religious state is suited for sinners who return to God. Experience, too, shows that, with good will and God's grace, men, very prone to anger or to other passions, have learned to practise all the virtues of religion in full perfection. Such men are bound in the world to avoid the defects to which their corrupt nature impels them : now, is it evident that they can triumph more readily amid the dangers of the world than in the religious life ? We must keep in mind the saying of a theologian cited by Suarez,--a saying that deserves to be noted as Suarez himself says, sententia notanda. It is this : " Every one should consider the religious state as suited to him, unless he has acquired a certainty of the contrary, either from solid reasons or from experience. "[15]

"When any one enters religion, we are bound," says St. Thomas, " to presume that he is led by the spirit of God. To put a good interpretation on men's actions, is angelical ; to put a bad one, is diabolical.[16] Besides, let us not forget that the decisive trial of a vocation is the noviceship prescribed by the laws of the Church. This method of testing a vocation is the best, and it is amply sufficient, as Lessius observes. It keeps away, as much as possible, all occasions and causes of temptation. It also furnishes every means that can protect and develop the precious seed. But, in trying a vocation amid the seductions of the world, the very contrary often takes place."[17] "Why would you," adds Lessius, " remain among the obstacles and dangers of the world ? What have you to gain there ? Knowledge of the world and of its vanities. But, in general, it is hurtful to acquire such experience."[18] Is it necessary to know evil in order to do good ?

Speaking of those who rejoice within themselves, and boast before others, of having been so prudent in allowing persons to enter novitiates that none whom they sent ever left afterward, Bishop Lucquet says that they pride themselves on what ought to be for their conscience a serious cause of fear before God ;[19] because they have required what the Church does not require. Some, who are really called by God, have trouble enough from interior combats, without having to contend with external pressure. Indeed, to follow the counsels of Christ, many are far more in need of encouragement than of trial.

In regard to those upon whom it devolves to receive persons into religion, they should follow the rules of prudence, and never receive only those who are fit for the religious life, who are called by God, and who have the qualities necessary for the order to which they aspire. The superior of a religious house or order is bound to follow these rules : it is a duty of his office, and it is also a duty of charity, in reference to the one seeking admission. Before admitting any one, therefore, superiors should examine and test him sufficiently so as to be able to pass a prudent judgment on his qualifications. But in what is this test or trial to consist? That is to be left to the decision of a prudent man.[20] Besides this, in admitting subjects into religion, the rules of the various orders should always be kept in view.[21] Let us here reply, with Suarez, to the following question : Is he who, in any religions order, has power to receive subjects, bound to admit a postulant that possesses all the requisite qualifications ?

The learned theologian says that he is bound by duty and by charity, unless he has some reasonable cause for refusing admission. To reject a candidate without good reason, would be to deprive religion of a member, and to shut out a soul from a great good in which the children of the Church can share. Hence St. Basil says: " When Jesus in the words, 'Come to me all you that labor and are burdened' (Matt, xii, 28), invites men, it is dangerous that those who wish to approach the Lord through us, should be driven away by us."

" However," says the same theologian, " this obligation is not so pressing for superiors that it cannot cease from various causes, such as, for instance, the inability of a house to support a new subject. Were several of equal merit to ask admission at the same time, some of them might be accepted and others refused, even though called to the religious life. Finally, in a doubt as to whether a postulant has the required qualifications or not, he may be rejected."[22] It is, however, to be remembered that a candidate need not be perfect before his admission into the religious state, because it is a state of perfection to be acquired, not of already acquired perfection. All that is necessary for religious profession is a sincere will to tend to perfection. In erring on this point, a community might secure greater peace for itself from the fact that it would mercilessly close its doors against certain troublesome characters. But is no account to be taken of the dangers that abound in the world ; and is no fear to be had of throwing among its rocks and shoals a poor soul that yearns after the haven of religion ?

" Let a young woman be as hard to deal with as you please," writes St. Francis of Sales, " if in her chief actions she is moved by grace, and not by nature, according to grace and not according to nature she deserves to be accepted, with love and respect, as the temple of the Holy Ghost ; though she is a wolf in nature, she is a lamb by grace. I do not think that monasteries ought to send away all repentant girls. Prudence must be moderated by sweetness, and sweetness or gentleness by prudence. At times so much is to be got from repentant souls, that nothing should be refused them."[23]


  1. Theol. mor. lib. 4. n. 78.
  2. Suar., lib. 5, c. viii, n. 5.
  3. Ascetic Works, vol. 3, p. 413, ed. Castermann.
  4. Suar., ibid , n. 10.
  5. Lucquet, vol. 2, pp. 312-314 ; Lessius, q. 7, n. 81.
  6. Suar., lib. 5, c. viii, n. 6.
  7. Ascetic Works, vol. 3, ed. Castermann.
  8. Suar. ; lib. 5, c. viii, nn. 6, 7.
  9. St. Francis of Sales cited by St. Liguori. (Ascetic Works, ed.Castermann, vol. 3, p. 413.)
  10. Pinamonti, " Victorious Vocation," c. iii; Lessius, q. 3, nn. 64, 67.
  11. St. Lig., ibid., p. 413.
  12. Pinamonti, " Victorious Vocation," c. iii.
  13. St. Th., 2, 2, q. 189, a. lo,
  14. Pinamonti, "Victorious Vocation," c. ii.
  15. Suar., lib. 5, c. viii, n. 2.
  16. De Erudit, Princip., lib. 5, c. xxx.
  17. Lessius, q. 7, n. 84.
  18. Ibid., q. 2, n. 22.
  19. De la vocation, vol. 2, p. 299.
  20. Suar., lib. 5, c. 10, n. 23.
  21. Ibid., n. 27.
  22. Suar., lib. 5, c. x, n. 28.
  23. Letters 598 and 600 cited by Bishop Lucquet, " Vocation, " vol. 2,P- 342.