Sometimes I am a very slow learner.
It has taken me a long time to understand the meaning of vocation, and I'm not certain I understand that meaning in its fullness even now.
The Lord has raised up a great many orders with lay associations from which lay people who are called may profit mightily. However, those who are not called can often wreak havoc and distress the communities to which they wish to belong. How do we begin to discern a vocation?
I'm not sure I can answer that question in its fullness, but the other day, while pondering something in The Ascent to Love I suddenly realized one of the reasons I am called to be a Carmelite. Quite simply, I cannot do otherwise.
God uses all that we are--physical appearance, personality, intelligence, charisma, etc. When He calls us those things operate like homing beacons to hear the call. We will be naturally drawn to what best fits what God has made. So for example, it has been my experience that nearly every Franciscan I've ever encountered has been downright giddy. That's not meant to be judgmental, but rather a perception. What I perceive as giddiness is a manifestation of the Franciscan joyous charism. But my perception of that is distinctly negative--I don't want to be that. I don't mind other who are--in fact, I deeply grateful to them because they serve a critical role among God's people. But my temperament is not naturally suited to that sort of effusiveness. Cross the Franciscans off my list.
Then I turn toward the Jesuit/Domincan orders. These are people who are drawn to the rigor of logic and argumentation. (Not solely, mind you. No one is all one thing.) The method of Aquinas appeals to them in its organizational and logical beauty. The preeminence of intelligence and intellect in the approach to God is a hallmark. I thought for a while I was cut out to be a Jesuit or a Dominican. Truth is, I haven't the mind for it. I cannot pursue my quarry with such persistance, and the more I think about some things the more morose, estranged, and distanced I become from God. (As an example--"Just War" theory.) From this, in retrospect I conclude that I was not called to be a Dominican or Jesuit. Now, my comments here should not be taken to define the true Charism of either order--I do not know that because I do not belong to them. I'm only talking about perceptions.
The order that most appealed to me didn't appear to have a lay association. I found out later that I was wrong, the Cistercians actually do have lay associates--but I think that this knowledge was withheld from me until I had found a home. The Cistercian Charism might exacerbate my already extremely low receptivity to others. On most personality indicators and by most measures, I'm just about as far from extravert as one can be and still be breathing. I don't mind being around a small number of people, but I do not seek out company. The Cistercian turn of things might have amplified this tendency to a point where the pursuit of sanctity became impossible because of my reclusiveness. I don't really know. God alone knows why He called me where he did.
I ultimately ended up with the Carmelites. Now it's hard for me to identify why this feels so much like home. But part of the feeling comes from the certain knowledge that St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila described very clearly my early experiences in faith and prayer. They also struck a chord in that I recognized the road to God in their words. There is a certain melancholy, which is not to say depression, but a kind of pleasant longing, which may typify many charisms, but which I could recognize here. The whole idea of "dark night of the soul" and of "dryness" in prayer rang true to me. I knew in hearing it that it was the truth. Now, it may in fact be the truth only for certain types of people. That is, not everyone will go through these spells, nor will everyone need to exprience dryness to experience closeness with God. But, I suppose, in a sense, this "dryness" is honoring and tempering the desire to be alone that so typifies the extreme introvert. God let's us experience that fully without ever allowing us to be alone. I don't know why I am called. I just know that there is something in the charism that speaks in a way nothing else has. I recognized a call.
In recognizing my own vocation, I started to discern the whole sense of vocations. I've had some very promising aspirants to the Carmelite order, who were simply not called. They moved into the group hoping to change and transform it into something else--more charismatic prayer, more thoughtful discourse, more appreciation of the fine points of liturgy, more apologetic, more. . . You name it. Most of these people found for themselves that they were not Carmelite. Some found other orders, other found prayer groups or other Churchly associations that benefited from their gifts.
Sometimes people will say to me that they want to belong to an order. My question to them is, "Does God want you to belong to an order?" Belonging to an order is not a guarentee of sanctity. In some cases it may interfere with our life's journey toward God. Belonging to a lay association of an Order is not the only means to intimacy with God. For many it is not a good way at all. But I understand the longing to find people of similar ways of thought and similar dispositions toward prayer. I think this is what people have in mind when they say they want to belong to an order. If God is calling you, you will belong. However, God may not call you to an order, but may call you to service with others. I would love to belong to St. Vincent de Paul society. But every time I make strides that direction, I find my entire life derailed in one way or another. The limits of my ability to associate consist in giving the goods that the society will disburse to the needy. I am not called there.
And that is another very interesting point. There are a great many vocations that have nothing at all to do with Holy Orders or Religious Communities. Every life is a vocation. God is always callilng, always yearning for us to turn to Him. He calls each one of us and it is in careful listening that we ultimately begin to hear and shape our lives according to His will. For some, matrimony is a vocastion--but it does not end there. In matrimony some will have many children, some a few, some none at all--these circumstances in turn will shape our vocations. Those with few or none who have longed for them will find ways to care for children who would otherwise not have families. Or they will find ways to serve children and be around them as in daycares, nurseries, teaching, nurses, etc.
Our vocation is built into who we are and how God has crafted us. It is the homing signal He built into us to call us home. The very best thing we will be able to say upon entering heaven is "I heard you call and I came." Our vocation is a way of living in response to that call and it may or may not involve association with a group of like-thinking, like-praying people. More often than not, it does not--and yet those who are not called to these aseemblies are still irrevocably called to discern their vocation and to serve God.