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States of Christian Life and Vocation, According to the Doctors and Theologians of the Church/Part 2/Section 2/Chapter 6

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


FIRST, when a person has come to the conclusion to remain in the world and to content himself with the observance of the commandments, it yet remains for him to deliberate how he shall observe these commandments, and what profession or condition in the world he is to take up and faithfully pursue. This demands careful examination, so that his life may be well regulated.[1]

When we have to deliberate, not on the choice of a state of life, but on some undertaking, as, for instance, on accepting or refusing some office, we should keep to the rules laid down in the foregoing chapter, taking care always for this is a capital point to act in view of God's glory and not for earthly interests.[2] Who does not deplore the sad neglect of this principle in our days ? Passion, human advantages, drive men into careers fraught with danger for salvation, and that for some trifling and perishable gain. Who can tell the amount of evil that flows from such conduct?

As in the time of St. Gregory, so in our own day there are many avocations which a man can scarcely, or even not at all, take upon himself, without committing sin: "Sunt pleraque negotia, quae sine peccatis exhiberi aut vix aut nullatenus possunt" (Hom. 24, in Evang.) Therefore, after his return to God, a man must be exceedingly careful not to expose himself anew to anything that would lead him into sin.

When a person has decided to enter the religious state, the next thing to be done is to examine what order should be preferred. Some orders are more given to solitude ; others devote themselves very much to the service of their fellow-men. Considering only a person's qualities of mind and body, it is easy to see that one order may be very suitable, and another altogether unsuited.[3] Above all, no one should enter any order in which religious discipline is not well kept.[4] St. Liguori, who also gives this counsel, adds that a confessor should consider it his duty not to recommend such an order.[5] "Inquire first," says Lessius, "whether the essential vows are well kept in the order you intend to enter, so that you will find there neither property, nor superfluities, nor too easy communication with the opposite sex.[6] Inquire also whether peace and fraternal union reign among the religious."[7]

Among fervent communities, the most perfect is to be preferred. To judge of this perfection, one should be acquainted with the teaching of St. Thomas, and know the strength, inclinations, qualities, and talents of the aspirant.[8] Now, to understand the doctrine of St. Thomas, we must define the various kinds of life that a person may lead in a religious community. There are the active, the contemplative, and the mixed life.

"According to St. Gregory, the active life is : to feed the hungry, to teach the ignorant wisdom, to bring back to humility him whom pride is leading astray, to take care of the sick, give to every one what is profitable for him, and provide for the wants of those intrusted to our charge. The contemplative life retains, indeed, love for God and for our neighbor, but it rests by keeping from exterior activity. Its sole aim is God ; outward marks have no charm for it, it tramples all earthly cares under foot, and burns only with ardor to see the face of God."[9]

The mixed life unites action and contemplation. The active life is good ; the contemplative is better; the mixed life, which comprises both, is perfection itself. Jesus Christ, St. John the Baptist, and the apostles, led the mixed life. Our divine Lord spent his nights in prayer and preached during the day.[10] "Works of the active life which spring from the fulness of contemplation, such as teaching and preaching, are preferable to mere contemplation. It is better to enlighten than to shine only ; and it is a nobler kind of life to share with others what we have contemplated, than to confine ourselves to contemplation. Other works of the active life, whose aim is exterior care, such as almsgiving, exercising hospitality and the like, are inferior to works of contemplation, except in cases of extreme need.

" Therefore, religious orders that teach and preach, hold the first rank, and come nearest to the perfection of bishops. Contemplative orders occupy the second place ; and those that devote themselves to exterior works are in the third." Such is the teaching of St. Thomas.[11]

Among communities of the same rank, those have the precedence whose works are noblest, though belonging to the same species as those works of other communities. Thus, in the active life, it is better to ransom captives than to give hospitality or shelter; and in the contemplative life, it is better to pray than to read. Another form of superiority in an order arises from its doing more kinds of work than others, and from its rules affording more efficacious means for the attainment of its end.[12]

The perfection of an order is not always a pledge of its security. The contemplative life, though less perfect than the mixed, is, nevertheless, safer. Salvation is there surrounded with greater protection.[13]

Cloistered houses have the immense advantage of shutting out all occasion of sin that is to be found in the world. Those who, in the world, have learned to know their weakness, do well in preferring them as their place of rest, and as a port after shipwreck. The approbation of the Church is the basis, the support, and the strength of religious societies. Happy the associations that have received this blessing, the value of which cannot be too highly esteemed ! When, in accordance with the rules we have given, a person has chosen the order in which he is to pass his days, he must still be on his guard against inconstancy and negligence in following his vocation. "He who has made a good choice," says St. Ignatius, "has no reason to recall it, but should endeavor to strengthen himself in it more and more."[14] To give up a greater good is, according to St. Thomas, an act of imprudence. A salutary project which has been determined on, cannot be abandoned without some defect and error on the part of reason, from the fact that it rejects what it had deliberately accepted.[15]

To renounce the religious life after a prudent determination to embrace it, is to rob one's self of the greatest good.

It is a duty to respect all the serious impediments that we have enumerated ; but it is an error, or at least a weakness, to stop at obstacles arising from unjust opposition on the part of parents, from excessive natural affection, from a groundless fear of not persevering, or of falling into greater sins in the religious state ; or, finally, from a misconceived humility that, on account of past sins, makes a person deem himself unworthy of the state of perfection. We should, therefore, rise up bravely against obstacles coming from men, or from our own want of courage. If the combat terrifies us, let the reward that is in store for us stimulate our ardor.

" When the hour has come to carry out our vocation to the state of perfection, a difficulty sometimes arises. In things painful to nature, human weakness keeps us back as much as possible. It seeks reasons to justify its delays and to deceive itself. 'The grace of the Holy Ghost knows nothing of such delays,' says St. Ambrose. We should follow the example of the apostles, who abandoned directly their nets and their relations. We should reason in this way : If I am one day to embrace perfection, why not do it now? If I do not take it up immediately, perhaps I shall never do so. For, at present, I am under the influence of grace, I feel its assistance : that grace may very easily grow weak, and then it would be more difficult for me to resist nature and the Evil Spirit. "[16] But there are some whom God really calls to the path of Christian perfection, and yet there are excusable hindrances in their way. For instance, a young man needs to recruit his health ; a young woman is only eighteen years of age, and she must wait until her twenty-first year, because the convent that she intends to enter will not accept her before she is of age, as her parents now refuse their consent. Or again, it is a young man who cannot leave his parents in their present extreme need. In cases of this kind, here is the advice given by St. Liguori :

"He who is absolutely forced to wait, should spare no pains, in order to preserve his vocation, since it is the richest treasure he can own. There are three means to preserve a vocation: discretion, prayer, and recollection. Generally speaking, one's own vocation should be kept secret, and made known to no one except a confessor; for people of the world usually make no scruple about telling young persons called to the religious state that God can be served in all conditions of life, even amid the seductions of the world ; and, what is most astonishing," says the holy doctor, " is that such remarks come from priests, and at times even from religious. Hence, my dear brother, if God inspires you to give up the world, take care not to make it known to your parents. Be satisfied with the blessing of the Lord. For the same reason do not let your friends know your vocation, because they would make no difficulty about inducing you to give it up, or at least about publishing your secret, which would thus come to the knowledge of your parents."[17]

Some persons may here say that these words of the learned and illustrious bishop tend to lessen the confidence of children in their parents. In deed this confidence would be unlimited if parents knew all their duties, and sufficiently appreciated the state of perfection to second their children's desire to embrace it. But experience proves too well that such is not the case. To set limits, therefore, to the confidence of children, is only to apply the words of the Holy Ghost : "We ought to obey God rather than men." (Acts v, 29.) As it is important to conceal our vocation from those who might thwart it, so it is good to make it known to a man of God, who has, as Suarez requires, right notions on the religious life. How many souls have foregone the religious state, because they considered the gates of religion closed forever against them on account of their slender instruction or temporal means ! They would have been readily admitted, had they but applied for information to the charity of some virtuous priest. There are many mansions in the house of the Lord. The poor and the ignorant can find place in it, if they only go to a zealous confessor who will prepare it for them.

"Rest assured," continues St. Liguori, "that without prayer you will scarcely preserve a religious vocation. Therefore do not fail to pray. Pay likewise every day a visit to the Blessed Sacrament and to our Lady, to beg the grace of continuing in your vocation."

The holy doctor next recommends frequentation of the sacraments, and then he adds : " All your prayers to Jesus and Mary, and particularly at communion, must have for object to obtain perseverance." Finally, he says : " It is necessary to live in retirement and recollection. But this is out of the question, if you do not keep away from the diversions of the world. What is required to destroy a vocation in the world ? Almost nothing : one day of amusement, a little vexation not properly borne, things of this kind are sometimes enough to put to flight all our resolutions to give ourselves wholly to God But whosoever allows himself to be carried away by worldly enjoyments, will infallibly lose his vocation. How many, from want of recollection and of keeping away from the world, lost, first, their vocation, and, next, their immortal souls!"[18]


  1. Director. , c. xxv, n. 8.
  2. Ibid., n. 9.
  3. Director., c. xxxv, n. 4.
  4. Ibid., n. 6.
  5. Praxis confess., n. 92.
  6. Lessius, q. 4, n. 53.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Director., c. xxv, n. 6.
  9. Hom. 2. in Ezech., n. 8.
  10. Corn. a Lapide in Luc. x, 42.
  11. Div. Th., 2, 2, q. 1 88, a. 6.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Gautrelet, vol. 2, page 180 ; Suar.. Tract. 9, lib. i, c. vi, n. 29, De varietate religionum.
  14. Exercit., introd, ad eligend., etc., quartum.
  15. Div. Th. 2, 2 ; q. 53, a. 5.
  16. Director.^ c. xxv, n. 7.
  17. Ascetic Works: "The Choice of a State." Ed. Castermann, vol. 3, p. 415
  18. Ascetic Works: " The Choice of a State." Ed. Castermann, vol. 3, p. 422.