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



I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told that “the young people of today” can’t make lifelong commitments. The young, it is said, live in a fast-changing world where jobs and relationships are short-lived. But it is precisely because we live in a culture of brief and negotiable commitments that a vocation unto death is a beautiful and powerful sign of hope. I wrote at the beginning of this series that priestly and religious vocations speak of the long-term story in which every human being is summoned to God. Lifelong vocations are an extravagant gesture, but we must ask young people to make brave and crazy gestures and to believe that they can, with God’s grace, live them out.
Recently, four young men made their solemn profession for the English Province of the Dominicans. They could all have flourished in the world, have had happily married lives and made lots of money. No doubt there were some people who said: “What a waste! They would have made good husbands.” Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone said that at my profession.
God never gives you a vocation that will cause you to be unhappy. He may give a vocation where there will be suffering on the way, but that suffering will be part of a journey to a deeper joy. God doesn’t want anybody to be miserable. People who join religious life or the diocesan priesthood to run away from problems – from their sexuality or a relationship – will never succeed. That’s not a vocation. You only have a vocation if you are embracing a path that leads to life.
It does sometimes happen that a priest really does find he cannot go on. And, after fighting for his vocation, we must just accept this. In these cases I believe that he probably never had a vocation in the first place. But, in the vast majority of cases, running away from such a crisis is to throw away the chance of growing up. There’s bound to be some moment when most priests and religious say: “I don’t see the way ahead.” Then you have to trust that God will offer you the way. I had a time before and after ordination when I didn’t cease to believe in God, but God felt distant, even absent. I knew deep down that I had a vocation and that I just had to wait. And I remember the very moment when I felt God’s presence again: it was in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. But what I experienced there wasn’t a feeling that God had appeared on the scene again and that he had been hiding behind one of the bushes. It wasn’t as though I sensed somebody else there in the garden. I had got down to a deeper depth in my own being, where God is.
At the Last Supper Jesus placed himself in the hands of his fragile disciples. God dared to be vulnerable and give himself to people who would betray him, deny him and run away. In religious life we take the same risk. We place ourselves in the hands of fragile Brothers and Sisters, and we do not know what they will do with us. These Brothers of mine may send me on missions, or ask me to be the bursar and do the accounts, or elect me to be the prior or maybe just forget me. I cannot know in advance.
So we do not just say “yes” only at our profession. We promise to go on talking to God until we die. And that conversation also includes the “yes” we say to our Brothers and Sisters. We call each other. Our Brothers and Sisters should call us beyond fear when we feel paralysed and stuck. We call each other to live more fully.
One day, I was walking with some of the brethren in Scotland. We came to a cliff where the path disappeared. You had to place your feet in a slit and work your way along. It was all rather frightening, being suspended above the waves and the rocks. When we got to the end we realised that one Brother was missing. He suffered from vertigo. One of us had to go and say: “Gareth, put your hand here. Now stretch out your foot…” Slowly, he made his way back to safety. For the whole length of our life’s journey we call each other. And that is the voice of God, calling each of us to freedom and courage, even though we do not know what lies around the corner.
People should look at those who have a vocation to the priesthood or religious life and say: “They’ve given everything. Whatever happens, they’ve said ‘yes’.” Aquinas says this beautiful thing: the radical generosity of the vows is that you give what you don’t know – your future. You don’t know what your life’s going to be. You have no idea when you become a priest what you’re going to do, and even more so with religious life.
We are called to live this uncertainty with joy. One of my close friends in the Dominican order, a Frenchman called Jean-Jacques, was sent to teach at a university in Algeria. It was hard work, but he was happy. One day, his Provincial phoned to ask him to come back to France to teach. He was bitterly disappointed. Then he remembered that he had given his life away joyfully without condition. So he went out and bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate his freedom with his friends. A few years later, I was elected Master of the Order and I was desperate to have someone I knew in the General Council. I asked Jean-Jacques to join me. He said he needed a month to think about it. But I needed him to decide that day. He said “yes” – and broke open another bottle of champagne.
At the heart of our vocation is the joy who is God. There will be moments of pain, but you know that God is wishing you to attain the fullness of happiness. If you know that, then when you go through painful moments it’s much easier. It’s a bit like when you’re walking in the rain in the Lake District and you know that the pub is just a mile away. You are soaking wet, but you are already enjoying a foretaste of the pint.


One Response

  1. […] Discernment Part 3d ARE YOU BEING CALLED? A vocation series by Fr …But, in the vast majority of cases, running away from such a crisis is to throw away the chance of growing up. There’s bound to be some moment when most priests and religious say: “I don’t see the way ahead.” Then you have to trust that … […]

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