Discernment Part 3c ARE YOU BEING CALLED? A vocation series by Fr Timothy Radcliffe


The first thing I experienced when I joined the Dominican order was delight in belonging to a community and the joyful freedom of having a simple way of life. I was very romantic about it. I came from what I suppose is described as a privileged background, and I can remember staying in the guest room and seeing mushrooms forming on the ceiling and the whole building falling down. It was a tremendous liberation.
But you can’t retain a romantic view of your vocation for long. The moment comes when you think: “I rather feel like driving across the country.” Then you realise there isn’t a car and that, if you are going to travel, it will probably be by bus. You can’t just have your holiday anywhere anymore. You can’t have the latest computer just for the fun of it. In the end, what you are left with is the freedom to be content with what you have – and the wonderful discovery of all the things you don’t have to have. Our society is telling us that you have to have all these things. And it’s a tremendous joy to find you don’t.
The first time I put on my habit I thought that immediately I would never have another impure thought! But it doesn’t work like that. When I joined the order the subject of celibacy was largely left in silence. I received no formation in this area, apart from the vague suggestion that jogging and cold showers helped. And yet misunderstandings about celibacy are one of the key reasons why people are put off exploring vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
One of the best ways to think about celibacy is to see it as a love story. Now, that will sound strange to people who grew up watching romantic films in which two people meet, fall in love, go to bed and live happily ever after. Celibacy adds an extra twist to this classic love story. The love at the heart of celibacy doesn’t end with “happily ever after”; it stretches on beyond the grave. Celibacy makes no sense at all unless you believe in the resurrection of the dead. If I didn’t believe in that, I wouldn’t be hanging around; I’d get married immediately – presuming anyone would have me.
It’s not just in conventional romances that the path of true love does not run smooth; celibate love stories also have their crises. I fell head over heels in love shortly after I was ordained. My life was thrown out of kilter and I asked myself whether I should leave the order to marry or embrace the life to which I believed God had called me. I knew that I would be really happy if I chose the latter. It was an extremely painful decision, but I realised later that the struggle had brought a new joy and fruitfulness to my life.
The great Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe once said: “If you love, then you
will be crucified; if you do not love, then you are dead already.” Crises help to deepen celibate love, to make it less self-centred. Bede Jarrett, the Provincial of the English Dominicans in the 1930s, once wrote a wonderful letter to a young Benedictine monk who had fallen in love with someone we know only as P. Bede rejoiced that P had entered the monk’s life because until then the monk was “in love with the Lord but not properly in love with the Incarnation”. “If P had not come into your life, you might have blown up,” Bede wrote. “I believe P will save your life. I shall say a Mass in thanksgiving for what P has been, and done, to you. You have needed P for a long time.”
It is only by placing your fragmented self in the presence of the merciful gaze of God that you can become a joyful and loving celibate. This may take a long time, even your whole life, but you must keep coming back. You can dare to bring all the loves that you have to God since God is present in every love, whatever its name.
If you are to flourish as a loving celibate, you need deep, long-lasting friendships. You need friends whom you can trust and with whom you can relax. Jesus called his disciples “friends” and we are called to be friends with each other. In most people’s experience not having sex is not the main difficulty; the difficulty lies in learning how to be intimate in a non-possessive way. You need intimacy. I love the origins of that word – intimare, which means being in touch with what’s deepest.
If God is truly calling you then you will have to face your own fragility with trust in God’s mercy and also be able to laugh at yourself a bit. No one aged 20 or 30 is ever entirely emotionally mature. I’ve been in the religious life for over 40 years and I still don’t think I’d describe myself as entirely affectively mature. I hope I’ll manage it before I die.
You’ve got to accept that there’s something slightly crazy and extravagant about a vocation. Our society’s norms of sanity should be challenged. The totally well-balanced, utterly normal person wouldn’t want to be a priest or a religious. It’s a kind of sane folly, a craziness that is creative and is without destructiveness.
Someone who embodies this is the Dominican priest Fr Pedro Meca, a chaplain to the tramps in Paris. He lives on the streets and he comes back to the friary about once a week for a wash and something to eat. He’s hairy and looks like a tramp, but he’s one of the most joyous people I know. I met him at Lourdes when I went to preach at the annual Dominican pilgrimage to Lourdes and Pedro had brought along a lot of really poor people, a whole crowd of tramps. He found a way to get them there and, most important of all, he did it with joy.


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