On September 1, 2017, I made my final promise with the Paulist Fathers, promising to live the rest of my life as a member of the Paulist community. It was a moment that ended a long period of discernment and began a new journey for me as a lifelong Paulist priest. Yet here’s the thing: This significant moment began with one small thought, Maybe I have a vocation to religious life. The thought happened while I was driving, and I can remember the very place and time: at night, on Route 93, just a bit north of Boston, on my way to visit family. And that’s what it was, just a small, simple thought – an inspiration – that crossed my mind.
Perhaps you’ve had that thought, too (or you may in the future!). So, what do you do next? Here’s where to start:
1. Go to a deserted place to pray.
In the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus had begun his ministry. Our Lord was healing the sick and casting out demons, and many people had started to follow him. Basically, Jesus’ mission and ministry were off to a pretty good start. Yet, in the middle of this, Jesus rose “very early before dawn … and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.”
Because there are so many distractions around us, praying about something as important as a religious vocation should happen in a quiet place. And although some of us might have easy access to those delightfully deserted places in nature, even if you live in the loudest part of a busy city, you can still find deserted places to pray. This could be as simple as completely turning off your cell phone or putting in some noise-canceling headphones or earplugs and going for a long walk. Or you could look at your upcoming schedule and make some time to sit in the pews of a local parish with Jesus during Eucharistic Adoration. In my journey toward religious life, this quiet place for me was at Saint Anselm Abbey Church, on the campus of my alma mater, Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire.
2. Go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Think for a moment about the windshield of your car. Over days and then weeks, it gets dirtier and dirtier, but since this happens slowly, you don’t really notice how much you couldn’t see until you wash your car. The sins we accumulate in life are similar, building up slowly and progressively. Over time, it becomes harder to see where we’re headed, just like it’s hard to see through the dirty windshield.
Anytime we find ourselves thinking about a new direction in life, it’s good to check in on ourselves and see what sins have been weighing us down. An examination of conscience, then receiving God’s abundant mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation clears these sins away. Depending on your circumstance, you may want to consider making an appointment with a priest for confession instead of going when the line might be long, which could make you feel rushed. It might help to say something at the beginning of the sacrament like, “Father, I’m starting to think and pray about religious life,” so he has a bit more context guiding you in the ways of God’s mercy. In my own discernment, going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation made me feel free. And that freedom helped me better understand what I needed to work on to continue to align myself to God’s will.
3. Get talking.
A religious vocation is not something that we are meant to discern on our own; conversation and dialog are an essential part. While religious communities have vocation directors to help guide you on God’s path, you might not feel ready to reach out to them right away, and that’s OK. What’s important is that you talk to someone! This person doesn’t have to be an expert on religious life, vocations, or discernment. Find someone who listens well and let them know that you’re not looking for answers but voicing something that has begun to stir in your soul. Many times, a simple conversation with another person can guide you on the next steps of your journey of vocation. I remember vividly the first time I voiced these thoughts to someone else; it was with my good friend Craig while we were on a short weekend trip. And it wasn’t something I had planned to bring up then and there, I just said it, and he listened. And now, some 10 years later, I’m grateful to the Holy Spirit for those words and that conversation.
While these are a few steps to guide you if you think you might be called to a religious vocation, they can be applied to any occasion, especially when something new comes onto your radar and you’re not sure where to go next. Try them out and trust that the Holy Spirit is with you at every step and stage of life.