Do I Have a Vocation to Monastic Life?
by Sister Monika Ellis, OSB
Do I have a vocation to monastic life? How would I know if I did? How can I recognize God’s call?Sometimes discernment of God’s will can be a challenge in today’s world because our eyes see so many images every day and our ears hear so much noise every day and our hands are occupied every minute with doing things. Discernment is the job of sifting through all that we hear and see and do – to hear and see and find God. Discernment is best done in quiet and calm, to give myself the opportunity to recognize God’s voice among the many voices clamoring for attention.
God is the source of our deepest desires. God planted those desires in our hearts even before we were born. When I set my feet on the path to follow my deepest desires it is in response to the God who is leading me. It is hearing God’s voice. Sometimes I feel this emotionally: joy, peace, enthusiasm, energy, contentment. Sometimes I have intuitions that I am responding to God: sense of rightness with my choice; sense of being drawn into a way that is fitting for me; a heartfelt knowing or being known by a God of love.
God brings us, usually, to a way of life that fits with our aptitudes. When the new membership director discerns with a candidate about joining the community she looks for aptitude for living the lifestyle as developed by the tradition of that particular community. At St. Placid Priory she asks, “Does this woman have the aptitude for living within a community, for making deep and lasting bonds with the sisters, and for being compassionate with others? Does she enjoy being by herself? Does she foster a spirit of silence wherein she can pray and read and reflect? Does this person want to attend the Liturgy of the Hours? Does she have a generous spirit to serve God’s people in whatever way the community might ask?
Ask yourself these questions. Do you have the aptitude for monastic life? If you do… come! You may be hearing God’s voice. Let’s talk.
COMPOSING YOUR LIFE
by Sister Monika Ellis, OSB
A thing of beauty is a joy forever. –Emerson
A life can be a “thing of beauty” or it can be otherwise, depending on how I compose it. A life as a “thing of beauty” is a wonderful legacy to leave the world. This legacy of beauty is certainly what I want to create and leave for the next generation.
Composing this life, however, like composing a poem, a piece of music, a painting, makes demands on the artist. It takes discipline and focus. A well-composed life, like a well-composed piece of art, has requirements.
One requirement: to LISTEN (the first word in the Rule of St. Benedict)
Listen to God’s voice. God is the Master Artist who created me with a bit of divine creativity within me. Where is God’s voice found? Listen to desires. What is it I want? What is it I desire most deeply? What gives me satisfaction? What gives me the most pleasure? What do I enjoy? To what am I drawn? The answers to these questions give me an idea about God’s voice. God made me with desires, longings, passions. When I follow these desires and passions I live out God’s purposes for my life. It is God, after all, who planted the desires in my heart. Joseph Campbell put it another way when he said, “Follow your bliss.” How different would our world be if each of us followed the deepest desire of our hearts?
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests that each person is an artist. I am creatively shaping my life all the time. Some of us follow our bliss more directly or more successfully than others. Cameron writes that if I hear myself saying, “I could do that” or “I wish I were that person doing that…” I ought be doing just that! Listening carefully to such self-talk is a great way to make discoveries about myself.
How do I listen to God’s voice? It helps to give myself a few gifts: quiet; time; space.
In quiet, I focus better and give attention to discovering my deepest desires. In quiet, I can look at my talents and capacities. Usually what I am meant to do flows naturally out of who I am, out of how God made me, out of my given capacities. What are my capacities?
In quiet I can meditate on God’s word as I find it in the Gospel, in the people around me, in the Church and in society. What is the Gospel telling me? Which words stir my soul? The book, Simply SoulStirring, by Francis Dorff, O. Praem., says that those moments in my day which move me emotionally are important moments. God speaks to me when my heart is moved by what I see or hear or touch. When I pay attention to these moments I hear God talking to me. When do I cry? What brings a smile to my face? When do I laugh? When am I most afraid? What stirs my jealousy? What raises my ire? All of these emotions give me clues about who I am and what God intends for me.
What are people around me saying? What are my friends telling me? How are my family members responding to the direction I am going with my life? Are the people who know me best generally supportive of my decisions? Community is so important. I listen to my friends and family in order to make my listening richer.
What is the Church saying? What are the societal needs in the community where I live? What are the needs in other areas in the world? Do I have the talents and capacities to serve there? (If I faint when it gets to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, I might want to reconsider plans to go to Tanzania for missionary work!) I need to give myself the gift of quiet in order to listen attentively to everything in my life.
In a separate, special space I can relax, focus, and dream. I can enjoy my environment, breathe deeply, be myself and fix my attention on listening. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf makes a convincing case for having my own space in which to create–space in society and also a real, physical space like a room just for my own work. To go to my own sacred space, like a prayer table, an altar, a corner where I keep an icon or candle, makes my listening a sacred ritual. I go there, to my space, in God’s space, to be with my thoughts and prayers.
In set times, too, I can optimize my listening, my attention, my reflection. Some people set aside morning minutes to listen, read, reflect, pray, write. Some set aside evening minutes to look back at the day and reflect on what happened. It is a good thing to dedicate time for listening. Once I start this, many things open up and I am sometimes flooded with grace and insight.
Sleeping With Bread, a book by Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn is about daily listening. It is a simple method of examen, that is, going over my day, saying thank you for the things I am grateful for, and recognizing all the things I am not grateful for. After making this kind of reflection over a period of time each night, I can begin to see a pattern of desires, leading toward something. It is a very gentle way to discover trends and movements in my life. It is a way of identifying when I need to make changes or recognize God’s blessings.
So, I Listen.
After listening, I DECIDE.
Decisions are made best when I have done my homework well. I need to collect information. Then I reflect on the information, I consider all that I have learned. I weigh, I compare. St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order, designed a way to make decisions, to discern. Listening Hearts, Discerning Call In Community by Farnham, Gill, McLean and Ward describes ways of discerning God’s purposes through communal work. These ways, the traditional Ignatian way and the communal way, two among many ways of discerning, help me make and be at peace with my decisions.
A personal example:
For most of my childhood I prayed to God for guidance about becoming a nun. When I was a junior in high school I was given an assignment in school to interview people in the profession for which I wanted to prepare. I began to interview sisters from several orders. When I told my pastor what I was doing he gave my hand a fatherly pat and said, “Now, don’t you go making any decisions until I take you down to see the Sisters at St. Placid Priory.” He took me to the Priory for a weekend experience and I knew instinctively, emotionally, immediately that this is where I wanted to be, this is where God was leading me. I prayed, I gathered information, I listened to my pastor, I recognized my feelings of strong attraction, and I decided. Then I acted: I entered St. Placid Priory!
After listening, after deciding, I ACT.
The moment one commits oneself then [God] begins to move. Many things occur that otherwise would not have occurred. A flood of events issues from the commitment, bringing all kinds of favorable and unforeseen episodes, meetings, and physical assistance, which one would never have dreamt possible. –Goethe
Life is fulfilled in action. Living means acting. It means doing. Living well consists in all the active verbs we can think of! It is not sitting back and watching other people live. It is not standing still, wondering when God will tell me what to do. It is not in telling myself that I cannot do what I want to do. Life is action. So, after I listen, after I decide, I DO something. Then, the cycle starts all over again with listening. I listen to discover whether or not my decisions, my actions, are bringing into being God’s purposes for my life in the best way possible. If not, I simply choose again. I do this many times. The activities of listening, deciding, and doing bring me much valuable self awareness and learning.
Another personal example:
I was disturbed by something that happened in my work. What happened was something that had happened before, many times. I was furious about it because it should NOT have happened in the first place, and still it DID happen again and again. I was very frustrated. So I handed in my letter of resignation, seeing that no matter what I tried to do, this awful thing would continue to happen and I would continue to be frustrated. The Prioress asked me to re-consider and take time away to think about it. With time away I did my work of discernment, slowly and carefully. In that discernment I heard God telling me to be steadfast, stay put, be faithful, “You can do it!” and persevere. I stayed on in the work, despite the frustrations and difficulties.
Eight months later I resigned under completely different circumstances. I did my work of discernment once again, and after carefully reading my own heart (rather than reacting to a frustrating event), reflecting on how I was living, and listening to friends, I heard a call to change my work. I spoke with the Prioress. My resignation was accepted.
The first time I tried to resign I was acting without discernment. I was reacting angrily to a hard and frustrating situation. When I took time away to listen and gain perspective I heard God’s voice gently calling me to “hang in there.” Then, in God’s good time, I eventually heard God’s voice leading me out of the situation altogether, into new challenges. I heard God when I listened to my Prioress, when I provided myself with space, when I was quiet, when I gathered information and weighed pro’s and con’s and when I became attentive to the ways God speaks in my life.
Onlookers might suggest that my first discernment was a wrong discernment. They might contend that I should have left the position to begin with, since that is what I ended up doing. I say, no. In God’s time I was brought to the truths I needed to realize about myself. I could not hurry God and God would not hurry me. I thank God for revealing truths gently and at a time when I could accept them. I felt that others’ acceptance of my final discernment confirmed the outcome as God’s will for me.
Be a listening person. Be reflective about and attentive to your life. Make thoughtful decisions. Do what you are drawn to do. Your life is a work in progress. It is up to you, the artist, to make it “…a thing of beauty.”