Eamonn Clark, STL
The fullest I have ever seen a very large church, other than the papal basilicas for a major event, was this past autumn in Naples. I had intended to pay a visit to this particular church, but I did not know it was the feast of a saint entombed there. The church was the Gesù Nuovo, and the saint was Giuseppe Moscati.
The Gesù Nuovo is a perplexing structure. On the outside, it looks a bit like a Communist library. But on the inside, as you can see, it reminds one of the Lateran or some similarly impressive church. One might be somewhat inclined to say the same of Giuseppe Moscati – a man who “on the outside” did not “look” the way saints normally appear, but who nonetheless was burning with charity. For those who aren’t aware, Giuseppe Moscati was not a priest or a religious. He was not a hermit, and he was not even particularly involved in ecclesiastical affairs. He was a medical doctor and researcher. And here was his path to sanctification… While he was a miracle worker, he was holy because of his love of God and of souls, which love was made manifest by running hospitals, conducting medical research, and so forth.
The impetus for sharing this example and the following thoughts is a recent article in Crux on the alleged non-existence of the “vocation to the single life.” I found the analysis good in the sense of pointing out the issues with the idea of being “called to remain as one is” and the problems one might find therein (ranging from self-deprecating despair at “being left out” to presumptive self-indulgence in “not committing”), but lacking in the way of distinctions and context. I think we want to say that St. Giuseppe Moscati had a vocation, but we also want to make it clear what that actually means.
I would like then to offer a paradigm, based on Thomistic principles, for understanding what a “vocation” is, and also opine briefly how one can “discern” that vocation.
What is a vocation? It seems we can distinguish between two genera of vocations: to be something, and to do something. I’ve asked many kids what they want to be when they grow up – and the standard answers follow. Never has one of them said, “a spouse,” or “a parent,” until after I ask about that. Then they all agree, if they are old enough, “Yes, well of course, but I wasn’t thinking about that.” Leaving aside the troubling fact that family life is just presumed without a thought by so many youth, it is also unfortunate that there is no training in kids (or even adults) to think of what to be rather than what to do. As the old adage goes, agere sequitur esse – doing follows being. Until a thing exists in such-and-such a way, it will not be able to do such-and-such an action. Fish cannot ride bicycles, orchids cannot play the violin, and something that does not exist cannot do anything at all. (As obvious as this may seem, its relevance cannot be overstated today – think especially about what men and women can and cannot do because of what they are respectively.)
A “vocation of being” is a call from God to enter a certain state of life, such as marriage or priesthood. In the strict sense, one who enters into a state of life has then fulfilled that vocation – the call is answered, and the vocation ceases insofar as the movement towards “being” is complete. One now is a spouse, or a priest, or a religious… So such a person only “has a vocation” in the sense that he or she was called to become what he or she now is.
The question is now before us. What about “single life”? Well, using the word in the strict sense, a person who is already single cannot be “called” to remain single, insofar as there is no invitation to change from being one thing to being another; rather, if God simply wants such a person to stay as he or she is, that’s that. In some cases, God may indeed want a single person to take certain vows and enter a consecrated state, but maybe not all. It is true that Giuseppe Moscati did take a vow of chastity, and this does change what one is in a certain sense (making one “sacred” in a way) but he was not thereby enrolled in any special order or society. The Saint simply already was otherwise in the right state of life.
There are people who do not have a vocation to religious life, or to marriage, or to Holy Orders, or to the Orders of Virgins, Widows, or any other special kind of consecrated single life. And there are even people who should not take a private vow of chastity, despite all that, unlike Giuseppe Moscati. Sometimes, such a person has a very good reason not to “commit” to such a state, whether spiritual or natural. Other times, one might have tried to enter consecrated single life and been turned away by the local bishop or by one’s spiritual director, whether for good reasons or not. So it is very important not to assume that such individuals are just being selfish, lazy, or inconstant, even if some are. They have no vocation of being, except to keep being what they already are – but this is like inviting someone to a table he is already sitting at… It doesn’t really make sense to speak in such a way.
The “vocation of doing” is the work which one’s vocation of being (or state of life once attained) is ordered towards that God wants one to do. The priest is a pastor, or a hospital chaplain, or a professor in a seminary. The husband and father is an electrician, a grocer, a banker. Etc. Giuseppe Moscati’s vocation of doing was clearly that of medicine. In this sense, he had a vocation, full stop. And so does everyone who has the capacity for any kind of work have a vocation of this sort; we must at least invest in the profit of our own souls with our time and energy, even if we do not multiply what we have been given in great quantities through much prayer and preaching; or at least that is one plausible way to read the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).
Well then, now that we have clarified a bit what we mean by “vocation,” how does one “figure it out”? I would suggest that “figuring it out” is actually the fundamental problem with the mindset that often surrounds this topic, with men and women both. If one scans the vast literature on the subject, one will encounter two realities: first, this literature is all very recent. Second, this literature typically urges one to “go do stuff” in order to “discern” one’s vocation. I propose that the latter is a function of the former. And, to be clear, I do not mean to suggest that one should not read such books, or that they are “bad,” but I do want to say that they should be seen in the context of the broader history of the treatment of this subject. (In fact, I profited myself quite a bit from one very popular “discernment” book, and then the author became my spiritual director for a year – it was great!)
We are in a hyper-informed society. You are reading this blog post because you were on some other website and saw a link, or someone emailed this to you, or you were scrolling through tags on WordPress and saw it; despite what I would like to imagine, not many people are checking my website directly. You might go on from here to check the daily news, watch a DIY video on YouTube, scroll through some other social media, then maybe look at some product reviews on Amazon… etc. Until recently in human history, that would be considered a pretty extraordinary amount of “non-human” information to collect and process. 100 years ago, to read the daily newspaper was sufficient. 1,000 years ago, only the most highly educated were really reading books at all, and to own more than a few volumes would have been rare indeed… one’s personal reading schedule would have been extremely minimal by today’s standards.
But the medievals had time to think about what they were reading. There was no pressure to hurry up and get on to the next thing. After all, you might only get this one chance to read St. Augustine’s Confessions – as there is only one copy in the university (unless you are up for copying it by hand, which was regularly done by students) – so you had better make it count, and the pace of work would have reflected this reality.
What does any of this have to do with vocational discernment? Well, of the few books that people were reading in the “good old days,” manuals on “how to discern your vocation” were not among them, at least to my knowledge. Sure, there are some lines in the Fathers and some nice quotations from various saints that have been around a long time, but I would suppose that there were no dedicated manuscripts until somewhat recently, at least after St. Ignatius of Loyola, and then things only really seem to have started moving along in the last 100 years or so. Maybe I am wrong – let me know in the comments – but it seems that if there is some substantial text that I am unaware of, it is probably somewhat obscure.
Anyway, the point is that the idea that to “discern” one needs to go visit this or that place, have this or that experience, pray in such-and-such a way, talk with these people and those people, then even try out the life for a while and see if it’s a good fit… Maybe this is not always the best approach. Sure, it is necessary to know at least something about what the options are, what one is getting into, and to make sure it is realistic, but here’s the center of the problem – someone who is actively living the Faith usually already has a lot of information. What is typically needed more is a moment to process that information, not add to it! The question simply should be, does x make sense in my life right now, or could it make sense in the foreseeable future? For example, a man who is visiting a seminary already has a “sign” that he should enter formation – of all the things he could be doing today, somehow his life has led him here. Does it make sense that he should turn around and go in some other direction? Maybe… but there should be a very good reason.
This brings me to a final consideration. It concerns the question of celibacy. (See my post on practical ways to improve in chastity here.) The young person – and sometimes even someone a bit older – will have this question in some version or other: “Can I really do that?”
Not unlike the foregoing, the basic way to “figure it out” is to ask what one’s life already consists of and what it realistically could consist of in the foreseeable future. Basically, an unmarried person who somewhat easily overcomes temptations against the 6th Commandment and lives chastity with pleasure should assume that he or she has the gift to remain unmarried; if this state is “within reach,” then work should be done to achieve it. This is simply the principle underlying the admonition of Christ, reiterated by St. Paul, that those who can remain unmarried should do so… The celibate state, if lived rightly, is an aid both to contemplation and to active ministry – but especially to contemplation. (More on that in an upcoming post.) If one can begin to live Heaven on Earth, without driving Himself into Hell through pride or despair (which can come on their own or as reactions to opposite ways of dealing with neuroses rooted in going “too far” in perfection) then he or she should. Why throw away the gift if you have it? Don’t bury the talent.