You should want to be a religious!

September 2, 2012

Thomas Merton in the fields near the Abbey of Gethsemani –

When thinking about religious vocations a memorable exchange between Thomas Merton and his good friend Robert Lax following Merton’s reception into the Catholic Church comes to mind:

I forgot what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question:
       “What do you want to be, anyways?”
      I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas merton the assistant instructor of Freshman-English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:
      “I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic?”
      “What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”
      The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it all.
      Lax did not accept it.
      “What you should say” — he told me — “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.” (The Seven Storey Mountain, 260)

Merton was immediately taken aback by this suggestion, but the more he thought about it the more he understood its correctness: there are only two ends for the human being and the alternative to sainthood is not at all desirable.  So he sought to be more than merely “a good Catholic;” he sought to be a saint.

In a book Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery, the author makes a similar claim concerning the religious life.  Too many young men (and women) think that the religious life is something for the select few: those with a special calling, those who have “heard a voice from heaven” or some other spectacular Damascus Road experience.  He spends most of the book dispelling this myth of the extraordinary nature of the call to religious life: just as all are called to sainthood in the Church, so all are called to live a religious life in fulfillment of the double command to love God and love neighbor.  He simply points out that the religious state is “an established state in which one can achieve, more safely and securely, the common Christian goal of perfection in charity.”  And since all are called to live a life of love, it is the religious vocation which should in some way be the “normal” response to God’s love, not an exceptional calling or vocation.  He thus defines religious vocation as: “a divine invitation, extended to all by Jesus Christ, to the practice of the evangelical counsels in the religious state, to which a capable subject, under the impetus of grace, responds through generous devotion.”  Just as Merton was forced to see that sainthood was not an exceptional goal for all Catholics, so too should the religious state be seen as far from exceptional in the way of living out the Gospel.

Now, it is true that while all Catholics are called to be saints, not all are called to live as a vowed religious; but what is important in the analogy is to realize that if all are called to perfection in charity and if the religious life is a more secure and sure way of achieving perfection, everyone in principle should consider the possibility and even seriously pursue it.  And this means that the “call” to a religious vocation should come into a person’s life in no different way than the call to sainthood occurred to Merton: a simple question from a friend may suffice.

The religious vocation may be an “unnecessary mystery,” but only in the sense that it is a purely gratuitous offer of God to live a life of perfection leading to union with the ultimate Mystery, the Triune God.

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