Thursday, May 26, 2005

Vocation, Calling, and Vows

One of the issues I have been struggling with of late is finding the balance between solitude and sociability. While I find my relationships meaningful and valuable, I also find that I need generous amounts of solitude to restore my soul. One good friend of mine thinks that life is all about relationships, and he cannot relate to my need for solitude. In fact, there are a lot of people who do not understand this. So, I did some searching for information about the monastic life because, ironically, I needed to reassure myself that I am not alone in my valuing of solitude!

I have long been attracted to the monastic contemplative life, and have very much appreciated how the Catholic faith and other faith traditions as well do have a category and a structure for this way of life. My own faith tradition (The Religious Society of Friends, Quakers) also has an appreciation for this way of life, but not such a clear and explicit structure for it like the Catholics have. My question is whether I can still claim that kind of life for myself anyway, and live it openly and unapologetically.

So, I was looking up information about discerning whether one is called to the religious life or not, and came across this web page, and passed the test with flying colors: Catholic Update �2001 - Vocations: How Is God Calling Me? by Fidelis Tracy, C.D.P.

It is not that the website actually has a test, but everywhere it says, "If you feel ________, you may be experiencing a call to religious life," I found myself nodding my head vigorously.

What really surprised me was how unobjectionable I found the three vows! The three vows are chastity, poverty, and obedience. At first glance, I thought I would find reasons to reject these particular vows. Not chastity, because throughout my life, I have almost always been in love with someone; not poverty, because I'm trying to "embrace complexity" after all! Not obedience to any human community, because what I care most about is discerning God's call for me.

But the way the author of this web page describes the three vows helped me to see them in new ways. Chastity is not about not loving people, but is about keeping your life centered around God, and from that centeredness, reaching out in love to all. You set behavioral limits in ways that help you to keep the human love focused on the spiritual, and help keep your relationships developing in healthy, mutually respectful ways. All of this makes sense to me -- it is exactly how I want to live. To accept this "vow" would free me to engage in relationships in exactly the way that feels right for me.

Poverty is about simplicity, and is about keeping your work focused on what matters, without being distracted by having to pour too much attention into caring for material things, and without being distracted by tasks and diversions that are not really necessary. This has been important to me. The kind of "complexity" I wish to learn to embrace is not an extravagant, expensive, material complexity, but a different kind, and a kind that demands that I keep the rest of my life as simple as possible. So I have already been striving for this: a simplicity that is just enough to support my work; the rest gets "given away" in the various ways a person can truly and meaningfully give.

And obedience! Obedience is about obedience to God's call, which, translated, can also be described as living true to your integrity, ideals, values. It's about trying to bring goodness more fully into being in the world. To do that does mean to subvert your own pleasure, sometimes, for a greater good. It is rooted in a radical respect for all people -- which also includes respect for the institutions and organizations you believe in and choose to be connected to, which entails a kind of obedience then to the rules and principles that govern these institutions. This does not have to be a blind and thoughtless obedience -- you are still allowed to question and even try to modify some of the rules. But the notion of obedience is a notion of respect for the value of the ways that rules and principles do structure and guide our behavior towards each other and our working with each other, and it is good to honor that as much as possible. Only if conscience itself brings you to question particular rules does obedience then intervene at a higher level. In these cases, I believe that the obedience we are really called to respond to is the higher call of our conscience. But even here, there is a fundamental difference between an angry rebellion and a strategic attempt to change the rule. The latter approach remains respectful towards the organization or institution and tries to make it better. In my life, I am embedded in a community I very much like. This notion of vows is very meaningful for me, helping provide guidelines for how to orient my life within this community: how to engage in relationships, and how to structure my work and my life.

Many people initially think of vows as restrictive; but the right vows for a person help them to accept and live true to what they know about themselves, in ways that enable them to bring their best into the world.

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