‘God’s Call and Man’s Response’ by Paul M. Quay, S.J. [1974/75]

‘God’s Call and Man’s Response:

Structures for the Analysis of True and False Vocations’

Published in Review for Religious, vol. 33 (1974/5): 1062-1099

At the writing of this article, Father Paul M. Quay, S.J. (1924-1994) was associate professor in the Department of Physics and adjunct associate professor of spirituality in the School of Divinity, St. Louis University, 221 North Grand Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri 63103.


The dramatic efflux of Religious over the past ten years, coupled with a sharp dropping of suitable applicants, has signaled a “crisis in vocations” which touches deeply those who remain. Yet, though striking and novel means of “vocation promotion” have come into use as older ones seemed to fall, though careful psychological screening of candidates is becoming routine to the point of generating tension between those who see the Spirit’s action blocked principally by undisclosed psychological problems and those who see Him blocked by psychiatrists, though “discernment” would seem to find in vocations its connatural subject matter, though formation programs have been repeatedly revised, one may still question whether these and many other efforts have really brought us to grips with the fundamental problems.

Orientations of the Article

This article has as its principal purpose to take seriously the fact that vocation is, before all else, God’s own action in calling people to some concrete activity which He desires of them personally, and that in consequence our actions, concerning vocations or anything else, have value concretely only insofar as they are pure response to His sole initiative.1

This approach will lead not only to questions and, I hope, some satisfactory answers concerning mistakes in individual vocations but also to ascertain the effects such mistakes have on the institutes affected and, conversely, how false attitudes thus generated within institutes foment spurious vocations. Taking God’s callings seriously will show quickly why the present situation is as poor as it is, not only for individuals but for groups.

I shall sketch out in this article in modern language a somewhat classical view of vocation?’ It is not that there are not many other interesting and novel viewpoints; but in an article which will follow this one, I wish to deal with the immediate practical consequences that flow from the approach I take here. When dealing with matters that affect people’s lives, more solidly based and less speculative approaches seem preferable.

It will be clear already that I cannot hope to do much more than to uncover some of the basic structures, theoretical and practical, of vocational dynamics and to show how the more pressing problems appear in such a context. Likewise, the range of the material will compel me to take positions on all sorts of current theological and Scriptural disputes, without even the time to point out the fact as we move by. This is not to imply that these positions have been taken at haphazard, however; for, what is presented here is but that fragment of a theology of vocation which relates directly to religious. Evidently the integral theory must deal not only with all Christian states of life but with all possible Christian activity as well.

The spirituality which undergirds this article is largely Ignatian, though my students have opened to me many valuable insights from their own traditions. But, as will be seen if what follows here is correct, each religious institute would, in any case, of necessity rethink within its own spirituality what is here presented under penalty of serious misunderstanding. What is said or implied about Jesuits or Ignatius is needed to concretize the discussion, but must perforce have no further value than illustration or example.

Our basic practical concern is to be of help to those, individuals or entire institutes, who find themselves somehow in a false position in the matter of vocation. Since the variety of such cases is well-nigh infinite, we shall consider only those that are especially simple or important; only so are we likely to be able to make any headway in the handling of the real and extremely complex cases that are the “ordinary” ones we meet.


God calls every Christian adult, at least of those who desire to hear Him, to some particular way of life.

Calling and Call

The “calling” that act of God by which He calls, is one with Himself, and by that fact escapes all but our faintest understanding ‒ minds dazzled by His brightness see but little more in some ways than if they were in the darkness. A sound theology here will direct one toward the mystery by pointing and gesture, inciting rather to worship than to elaborate scaffoldings of ideas.

The “call,” however, is the created manifestation of that calling. What God is for His creature impinges in space and time upon the creature and terminates in his “hearing” or “seeing,” a “perception” which, though created and finite, somehow truly expresses God’s knowledge of how that person is now related to Himself and how, in His love, he might be still more closely” related to Him in Christ.’ Hence, a call cannot be reduced to something rooted in or originating from the person as its source. It may be knowable only in those terms, but it has its total origin in God Himself as free and independent source and agent of it and of its direction. Whether one considers God as outside, acting in, or as more intimate than the self, the gratuity and originality of the call are His.

All the above would appear to be true of any conscious relationships between the creature and its Creator. What is proper to “calling” and to “call” is that they designate God’s making known to us His will in the mode of invitation or, more rarely, command.5 But His “will,” when this term is used, implies nothing whatever as to any communication with creatures concerning His will.

Contemporary Difficulties

Yet today, a somewhat corrosive atmosphere of opinion surrounds us which denies that God really calls anyone to a particular way of life. Though often supported by an impressive array of theological and philosophical arguments, this attitude grows chiefly, it seems, from hidden and painful disappointment, from a conviction that, whatever He might be doing for others, He has had nothing to say to me–unless somehow I arbitrarily interpret my own doings and choices as His call. This sense of being let down does more, I think, to render Christians susceptible to the systematic rejection of the possibility of call than any intrinsic force of the reasoning.

The arguments are well known: God gives us ourselves; and with our liberty, an initial endowment of self-creativity and wishes us, with whatever unperceived, unconscious grace may be necessary, to work out our own way to Him. As self-actualizing beings, it is we who must accept the full responsibility (and, though not mentioned, receive all the glory) for the determination of our lives. Anything else would render us perpetually immature and our liberty only apparent. For the adult Christian of the modern Church, such perfection as there may be consists in deciding for himself what to do with his life, what he wishes to become, and then in setting resolutely to work to achieve it.

Nor, it is said, even apart from the above difficulties, would God want to communicate with us about vocation. He has no need to speak with us individually, apart from the Christian community, about what we are supposed to do in life. Since we are freely self-creating, it makes no sense to say that we are “supposed to do” anything, least of all in these days when a “blueprint” picture of His providence is no longer acceptable. A superstructure of grace can be erected on these foundations according to taste, God pointing out, for example, further possibilities to man’s initiative than he could have conjectured on his own, for example, the Catholic priesthood.

One may admit a value to these arguments insofar as they attack a quite unworthy sort of passivity — “inertness,” better — too often found in Christians, without conceding their excessive claim to human autonomy. But this is not the place to argue the matter. Jesus is our model; it is towards His full stature and adulthood that we grow if we mature as Christians; and He did nothing and said nothing except as the Father gave Him to say and do, in accordance with His will.

Call and Revelation

It will be, I think, much to our purpose to see in greater detail the intensity of God’s desire to speak with us — or, if you prefer, to communicate with us personally. For His calls are merely particular cases of such communication, those cases in which He tells us of His preferences as to our serving Him and all His children. “Call” is continuous with, is of the same basic nature as, any other mode of divine communication explicit enough to convey the details of the message.

God’s personal speaking to man is most obvious where it is most explicit: in divine revelation, taken in its narrowest and strongest sense.

This revelation we find as far back at least as the time of Abraham ‒ and it is precisely in God’s call to Abram that this revelation first comes. Glimmerings of it are seen long before. The author of Genesis, at least, finds no difficulty in picturing God communicating personally, even familiarly, not only with Adam and Eve, after the Fall as well as before, but with Abel and with Cain, a sinner still in his sins, with Enoch and with Noah, with whom He established a covenant. His personal concern for man is clear enough though close converse did not occur frequently, for it was only “at that time [that] men began to call upon the name of the Lord,” (Gn 4:26); and even long centuries later, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision” (1 Sam 3:1).

After Abraham we know almost nothing of His self-revelation save to those who were of the chosen stock, descended from Abraham, His friend. He dealt with them most familiarly, though apparently only on occasion, not in continuous fashion, almost as if He were another one of the same tribe or clan but living at a distance. But when He sent His Son, that distance vanished altogether, and He lived among His people.

Most importantly for us, all this was also meant to reveal Him to us who live now. His revelation was to be transmitted, some things jetted down as His own writing by those who heard Him, in the Scriptures; other things reaching us via the tradition of the Church, that complex totality of the lived and living faith of the Church, never exhaustively describable ‒ in whatever fashion, however, intended for all those to whom He wishes to make Himself fully known.

The Speaking of the Present God

Now when we speak of public revelation as communication, we are implying also that God is now present and at hand, in some way illuminating the text or the tradition for us by His present grace, enabling us not merely to give the basic assent of faith but to hear Him speaking to us personally at this moment.

So, for example, we take a passage of Scripture for meditation and suddenly we find one line, one word, one aspect of the mystery illumined for us in faith. We see it as if for the first time; it enters easily into us and into our life, far more deeply than our busiest ratiocination could ever make it go. We are changed, not merely our thoughts or feelings. The ideas that couch the “insight” may be false, we may even know them at the time to be false; and yet they are the vehicle of truth. The meaning we grasp in the text may have no significance or resonance for anyone else; yet it is clearly true, and assists us in serving and praising God. This truth is not something adventitious to the text, a gloss spun out by our own fantasy–no, it is something that is there in and from the text, but it is a meaning of the text which it could not have had for its original author, who knew little enough, say, of modern fears of nuclear destruction when singing of God’s power over the thundering waves of the sea. God acts individually upon each person in prayer and frequently, through the divers movements of grace, enlightens or even, perhaps, obscures those things which at the time will aid us or be too much for us.” It is important to see that the “already-givenness” of His public revelation does not take away its personal quality. The fact of a general revelation to all men does not in any way deny the co-presence in the same text or tradition, of particular and individual revelation to each.

The structure, then, for which we have been looking in this long digression, is this: God, working through and by individual men, forms or establishes an objective, public, and universal manifestation of Himself, which is directed towards and actively effects some universal social good, which yet can only be fruitfully and effectively appropriated or received by this society through and by individuals, in the personal exercise of their freedom in response under grace to the general gift, given once, yet for all, to all, by God.

Other examples exist, so many and so consistent in their structuring that one might well conjecture that all God’s communications to men have this form. Here let me merely point to a few illustrations and move on.

Some Illustrations

The natural moral law has exactly the same structure mentioned. One of the fathers, I have been told (though I have never been able to track down the source), put it this way: “Deus legisfert creando” — God legislates by creating. The natural moral law is communicated, intimated to all intelligent beings, by the very nature of their concrete mode of existence in the world. But this, also, is individual. It is not the communication of an abstraction, as if God had a kind of codex of laws and norms sitting in front of propositions He reads off and declares to us. Rather, we, in our concreteness, are the natural law. By our being what we are in that world in which in fact we actually exist we are subject to law. It is the individual pers0n’s nature-in-the~w0rld that is the natural law. The natural goal of man is built into each man, not in the sense that it has been reached, but that, by what he already is, only one kind of goal can satisfy him and constitute his fulfillment and reward. Thus, God does communicate with each person by the very act of creating him to be whatever he is, wherever he is, under whatever circumstances he is. If we take it seriously that He has a plan for us and also for the world’s history, a plan specified in terms of initial “givenness” and a goal which perdures through all changing angles of approach and vantage points,’ there is a communication of at least parts or aspects of that plan right where we find ourselves and in what we find ourselves to be. So that all our natural inclinations, aptitudes, circumstances, incapacities, inabilities constitute a true message from God to us concerning, among other things, the work He would have us do in our life.

The same structure appears again in the Eucharist: The physical Body of Christ., now in glory, is received by each individual Christian, giving him the grace of union and intimacy with his Lord-but precisely in order to build up and nurture by Charity the one Mystical Body of Christ, Christ Himself living in each and all, drawing all into oneness with each other. The grace of the sacrament is our union with each other in Christ, the building up of the whole Christ, a social and corporate grace for the Church, for the Body, as a whole; yet this is participated in and of profit to each by the individuals’ active living of lives of Christian charity.

God’s communication of pardon and forgiveness has again the same structure; the reader can easily add further examples.

Structure and the Call to a State of Life

But this general structure of His communication with us is exactly the structure to be found when He invites us to take up one or other state of life. For the life must be lived by the individual and in accord with his unique gifts from and relations with the Lord. Yet it is for the good of his whole institute and, so, for the whole Body of Christ that his life is to be lived-that is what constitutes it one of the Christian states of life. These states, publicly approved and made known by the Church, can be preserved and nourish, however, only insofar as they are embraced by individuals, through God’s grace individually given, drawing them each to what He desires.

But if He has spoken to us so often and so fully, why must we envision this last speaking? Cannot a person choose his way of life among those the Church approves through the use of reason and ordinary grace, without a further intervention by God. Why is an individual call or vocation needed?

One reason becomes clear as soon as we reflect that more than one option may lie open before a person, options all commended, to greater or less degree, by reason in the light of faith. We can know much of His desires for us from consideration of our concrete situation and from His other modes of communicating with us. All that will more or less strongly limit or at least weight the alternatives before us. But it seems in principle impossible that these limits could eliminate all concrete courses of action save one, without His personal intervention. Which of many good lines of action He prefers, only He knows, and the person with whom He shares this knowledge. It is that final intervention, this element that is irreducibly reserved to Himself, that most properly and fully deserves the name of “call” whatever other elements of nature and of grace truly belong to and form part of His call to us.

More deeply, God alone is in a position to have 21 will wholly His own, because He only has none above Him, He only is perfectly good and perfectly wise. It is His will alone that counts or that will ultimately prevail. It is, therefore, His will that we have to find, But God alone knows His concrete will for any of us. Only if He chooses to communicate with us about it, can we come to know it. Urs von Balthasar states it thus: “The man obedient to his mission [“Mission” here is, closely enough, equivalent to “call”; in a few lines, to “objective of call”] fulfills his own being, although he Could never this archetype and ideal of himself by penetrating to the deepest Centre of his nature, his super-ego or his subconscious, or by scrutinizing his own dispositions, aspirations, talents and potentialities. Simon, fisherman, before his meeting with Christ, however thoroughly he might have searched within himself, could not possibly have found a trace of Peter. Yet the form ‘Peter,’ the particular mission reserved for him alone, which till then lay hid in the secret of Christ’s soul and, at the moment of this encounter, was delivered over to him sternly and imperatively–was to be the fulfillment of all that, in Simon, would have sought vainly for a form ultimately valid in the eyes of God and for eternity.”

A priori, it must be admitted, He could content Himself with whatever choice we make; He could want neither this line of action nor that, as such, for us but prefer whichever we pick, s0 long as our motivation and attitudes are centered on Him and the good of our fellowmen. As we will see later, there is an element of truth here we shall need to retain; but it is an inadequate viewpoint if taken as total.

For we are, in Christ, His children. Now, it is true that better human fathers would seem to deal with their children as they mature in just the manner I have set aside as inadequate. Yet this comes simply from the fact that they can do no better for us. Full knowledge and infinite love is not so easy to content. Nor may we forget that His plan and providence govern all things for a single goal; our choices have implications thereby which we can in no way foresee.

More basically, though, God would like to deal with each of us as He dealt with Christ, and will do so to the degree that, living in Christ, we let Him. As He was wholly open and free with His Son, so will He be with us in proportion to the intensity with which we live the life of Jesus. He has given us His Spirit, who will teach us all things He hears from the Father. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are given us to make us able to receive His impulse, so that the Spirit may blow whithersoever He wishes, and that we will go where l-le goes. Such are all that are born of the Spirit of God.

What God Wants When He Calls Us to Something

To understand vocation adequately, however, we must turn to the topic of what it is that God wants when he calls us to do something, for example, to enter the Religious life. Earlier on, I distinguished between God’s call and ‘God’s will in what must have seemed an exaggerated carefulness for a non-technical article. But now we shall have to make full use of the distinction.

If God invites a woman to the Religious life and she, for whatever reasons, marries instead and raises a family, what is God’s will for her as to her state of life? It is to be a Christian wife and mother, at least till some, presumably far distant, date. Thus, we have to say that He can will that people stay in states of life which they have entered without His calling them there, or even against His call.

Nor is His willing of such a situation to be interpreted as a call to it, that is, as a new call taking account of the new circumstances, though often in such cases He may. In the case just above, that God speak to this woman about remaining in her married condition rather than going to a convent, especially if she is on bad terms with Him generally, while quite possible seems in no way required. Or it would be God’s will, should a man steal some great sum of money, that he make restitution. Would He have to call him to restitution ‒ by any stronger means, at least, than the natural law? God might will, at least permissively, that a man contract syphilis while whoring. There is clearly no invitation to do so, and no command. On the other hand, He wills that men follow an invincibly erroneous conscience, say, to kill and eat in some religious rite some other man. But He does not ordinarily call them thereto.

God wills things, then, to which He does not call. He wills that we will what we are convinced that He wills, not what He does will; and He need not call us to either the one or the other. The basic reason for this lies in the gratuity of His calling, in His freedom as to how, and Whether, He will communicate with anyone on anything.

Turning in another direction, we find St. Ignatius Loyola writing to St. Francis Borgia to tell him that the same divine Spirit can, for reasons of his own, move Ignatius to obstruct Borgia’s being made a cardinal and can, for other reasons of His own, move other people to seek Borgia’s elevation, and Himself will that the latter be successful. Both sides in the conflict are called, constituted indeed in opposition to each other, by God; He wills that only one of them win out.

It is a commonplace in religious literature that God may truly call a man, say, to go on the foreign missions and, in fact, will that he never leave his native city. The classic case of this sort, of course, is that of the call (of command) to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. There He called to a sacrifice He did not want and, so far as the text indicates, wanted a sacrifice to which He did not call. A further situation, apparently not infrequent according to Vatican II, is this, that God call a Christian to perfection and yet not will unconditionally and, therefore, in the concrete case, effectively that he or she reach it. God, then, calls to what He does not will.

Unlike the former set of cases which hinged on God’s freedom to speak to us, this set hinges upon the temporality of man. It is the neglect or failure to grasp the full significance and importance of this temporal aspect of God’s calls that has chiefly bedeviled this whole domain.

Two Aspects of God’s Call

God’s calling, His own action, is eternal, apart altogether from time. Hence, His call, that which His calling produces in the created order, will have two aspects: From and in its relation to God, it will appear to us in some way as all-at-a-moment, as instantaneous. The ancient definition of eternity as “the entire and perfect possession, all at once, of life without bound or limit” fits here with the insistence of Christian mystics, Ignatius apparently among them, on the quasi-instantaneous quality of the purest of God’s interventions in the soul.” But from the human side, His call not merely takes place into time but in time. It is spread out in time. It is always a process, having an intrinsic temporal structure, no matter how tightly compressed, Hence, though there may be “peak experiences,” “strong times,” and sudden interventions, useful indeed for structuring and understanding our experience, still there are, from our side, no true point-events. Any call will still retain, despite its brevity a certain structure and pattern in duration.

Even in the calls of Matthew and Saul, classic cases of “instantaneous” call, the temporal element is not, for all that, wholly suppressed. Even apart from the call’s being couched in the temporal duration of human speech, it brings Matthew first internally to respond by leaving all things, then to rise, to follow, then to confirm all by the feast and reception; and Saul, dazzled within as well as without by the flash of Him who is eternally New, stammers in the back­-and-forth of an overpowered nature seeking to some hold or point of reference for the mind in what has happened to it, yet Christ too enters into this back-and-forth, pressing home the call, then bringing in Ananias to heal, but also to testify to and confirm that call. No matter how instantaneous we may suppose God’s action into time to have been, the human reception of it is a process in time.

When, then, God invites or commands a human being to do something makes no least difference is necessarily setting the person into motion, initiating a process which begins as necessary, reception but which at once and in ever­ growing measure involves more and more the human will until a response is given in full liberty. If the call is accepted, the person sets about taking the means suitable for achieving the expressed objective of the call. A command, then, “Do this now” is implicitly equivalent to: “As you come to grasp what I am saying to you, accept this command on my authority as your own will and set about its accomplishment!” A command is a direct but not an express manifestation of His will that I accept His injunction actively (that is, in the sense of choosing with my own freedom to tend at once towards the actions indicated). What the command states expressly is the objective of the call, what is to be aimed at, sought, achieved, but which, no matter how perfect my response, may in fact never be achieved or realized, for example, I might drop dead the next minute. This temporal disjoining is, if anything, accentuated in an invitation, which by its very nature as asking for a response that God does not require to be given, interjects a note of consideration and reflection.

Whence, if God calls, He must will (absolutely, unconditionally) the initial non-free, at most merely voluntary elements of my response. Further, He wills (conditionally: should I live so long; should I wish to please Him; and so forth) that I engage my full freedom in response to His call, accept it, and choose to take appropriate action to achieve its stated objective. But He need not will that I reach that objective ‒ nor indeed that it be attained in any manner by anyone ‒ which then serves but as the Pole Star, the direction-giver, the compendious specifier of the response which He does desire from me.

Whether, then, God desires for someone the objective towards which He calls him (something he will not ordinarily know except by the fact of reaching it) or not, He does desire this first movement of free response, this particular, concrete engagement of this person’s liberty, and indeed in an affirmative sense: by accepting and making his own God’s manifested desire. This free response need not be regarded, I think, as ever strictly simultaneous with the moment of call, but it is initiated thereby as a temporal process. Since the human act of freedom itself is a-temporal and quasi-eterna1, some flow of time at least will elapse between these moments. If God were to call someone who dies before his liberty can become operative in responding, then it is for some goal or reason lying quite outside His personal relations with that person.

Now, the objective of the call, when God effectively wills that also, and also the first free response are always particular and concrete as seen by God. God has only a concrete will (though in no way an isolating, “individualistic” one). He does not think or choose by abstraction. And every existent is only because and insofar as He wills it to. This does not do away, of course, with the distinction between His antecedent and consequent willing; He can will to bring to be whatever we choose while also willing or repudiating the thing we choose. But from our side, it is not by any means always clear what He has in mind in some call, neither what precise objective is aimed at nor what precise response He at this moment desires.

This necessary gap in time between a call and the achieving of its objective can itself be something not merely tolerated, so to speak, by God till the person addressed can get himself in gear and attain it. It can be directly chosen by Him. For, God is not constrained to give His call only at the point in time when it can be realized or when it first lies with the person called to be able to take effective action. He can and does call long before this point as well as (the case we more easily envisage) long after. There is nothing to prevent His calling to and willing an objective which it is, and long remains, quite impossible for the person called to reach or even to know about, save by ostension, or in any direct fashion to move towards.

Thus God can call a young girl to the cloister, a young boy to the priesthood, either to the married state, even to marrying a particular spouse. These calls are not void or vacuous, even though their express objectives are strictly impossible of present attainment. A generous response, however, can be made at once in every case; and it is this response, presumably, that God desires in making His call anticipate possibility by so many years. It is extraordinarily important in practice to keep in mind that the mere fact of a genuine call to a particular way of life in no way implies that God wants this person to enter upon that way of life or that, even if He does want him to do so, there is any need for him to do, or be allowed to do, anything directly towards achieving it for, perhaps, many more years.

While discussing the temporal aspects of a call, we should consider such questions as, “Does God call a person more than once? Does He call him continuously or only at some favored moment? Does He call a person to one objective now and to another later?”

It seems, on the basis of the Scriptures and of experience, that God often calls a person more than once, in the sense of renewing or repeating His call towards a given objective. Consider the case of Samuel, though there the reiterations are so close that distinguishing them would be trivial in any other context. God keeps calling Jonas to the same mission until he responds in the desired fashion. Note, however, that each repetition of a call is to the person differently situated, since each earlier call has been turned down, misunderstood, forgotten, and so forth. It may happen, too, that a person hears a call from God, responds positively, and is then in a position to receive another call to a further and different objective; and if he responds well to that, then another call may come which takes him further still.

Two types of situation, the repeated call to one objective and the sequence of calls to consecutive objectives, seem to differ only in that the repeated calls, when not declined, are in some way inadequately or inappropriately received, whereas the sequence of calls supposes a correlative series of positive responses. It seems likely, too, that what appears to us as a sequence of calls, broken up into discreteness in time by the discontinuity of our free choices, is seen from God’s side as one call, gradually being fulfilled, to a particular, historical, essentially temporal manifestation and imaging of the Lord of history who is Christ, God enfleshed in time.


We have briefly glanced above at some of the structures to be seen within a call

from God. But if it is the free response by which the person moves to embrace that call that is the only thing we can be wholly certain that God is willing when He calls someone, then we must give attention also to the structure of that response. It will, clearly, be more important to know how to respond to His call than to know how to attain its objective, much as we tend to invert this order in practice.

The Call Must Be Known

Since what God desires is free response, we must know that we are responding, that is, that someone is addressing us, to whom a free response can be made, about something which specifies the content of our response.

Thus, I could conceivably walk into a friend’s house by chance at such a time as to join in a party he is giving. But that would not be a response to the invitation which he had sent me to this party, since I had only carelessly glanced at that, mistaking it for an invitation sent by an acquaintance whom I had but little desire to see again. In fact, if I still do not put things together properly once I find myself at the party, I could be a little miffed that I was left to discover this party by accident.

Response, positive or negative, to an invitation, then, is much more than doing or not doing that to which one is invited. The invitation must be known as such. When it is, then there will be a gratitude for its being extended to me, a growth in affection, and a sort of interior consolidation: it is good for my self-esteem that so-and-so has shown again his friendship for me this way. And so, to respond to God’s call in that manner which He desires and for which, in some primary sense, He gave it, I must know that He is calling me and that it is He, no other, who is calling.

Firmness through Knowledge of the Call

No greater solidity, groundedness, firmness can be given to anyone’s mode of life than by the knowledge ‒ admittedly in faith, not vision ‒ that it is the Lord who has called him to that state. No matter how agonizing his situation may be, no matter how much his own sins have contributed to make it so, he can hold on and fight his way through because of the consciousness that it is to this way of life that God has, in His love, invited him and in this He has preserved him. This knowledge of His call is also the grounding of the great joy that is so characteristic not only of the saints and blessed, but of ordinary holy people. I know there is much theological writing today which argues that if you really believe, then you are totally in the dark and uncertain and insecure about everything above the natural. But Scripture speaks otherwise, as does the teaching of the saints.

When our Lady stood beneath the cross, Simeon’s words remembered made clear that to this seemingly idiot horror the Father Himself had called her: and so she stood in the darkness, physical and spiritual, of her agony. And for St. Paul, how much like a refrain, in slightly varied language, is his speech of his call as the basis of his confidence, as an apostle not from man nor through men, called by Him who had set him apart before he was born, who had called him through His grace.

It is from this same source, it seems, that come the peace and joy and enthusiasm that characterize the early days of the foundation of Orders and congregations. These are groups in which they know that they, each and all, are called to this; thus, they can take any amount of other uncertainty, humiliation, suffering, contradiction, and the rest, because, whatever God may ultimately have in mind, they know that this is where He wants them now to be. The great reason, then, for being so careful about whether a person is truly called by God to a particular way of life, helping him to get where God is indeed calling him, is so that he can serve the Lord with this enthusiasm, this wholeheartedness, this joy which, setting him free of self-concern, flows out in that mutual love, which speaks Christ’s praise loudly to all men and is the strongest witness to Him short of the martyrdom of blood, of which the white martyrdom of religious life is the undying reverberation. This true knowledge of our call is the great ground of building up the Church and of apostolate. Few things else draw men so much as this rootedness in God, which all men’s hearts are made for.

Admittedly, no matter how much we know our call, we can always betray like Judas and can always deny like Peter, and have much to repent of ‒ yet the ground of Peter’s repentance, when Jesus turned and looked at him, was just this awareness of Christ’s call as the manifestation of His love for him. If we are aware of being personally called by Him who loves us and who is faithful, if we are brought here not merely by circumstances, laws of nature, or hidden mechanisms of the psyche, or even by the free decision of an adult human person, choosing what seems best under essentially unknowable circumstances, or by some general providence forcing us, then, apart from the weakness of our own freedom and from our own sinfulness, there is nothing on this earth that can shake us ‒ “who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” There, Paul is speaking of the Christian life in general; can it be less true in relation to His more personal and intimate calls to living the Christian life in those ways which please Him most?

This is the foundation of any Christian life fully lived: the Rock which is Christ ‒ not abstractly considered but present, in glory, calling me, and promising to sustain me; we are grounded in Christ, since it is He who calls.

Ways of Coming to Knowledge of God’s Call

Protest can be made that too much in the way of knowledge is demanded here; that, were all this correct, God’s call would be not less, perhaps more, than the clear, quiet, but unmistakable voice in the inner heart that would constitute a call more extraordinary in its most basic aspects than if it were mediated visibly by an angel. And it can rightly be urged that St. Francis de Sales ‒ to mention but one ‒ and Pope St. Pius X roundly denounced such restrictive ideas of God’s call.

St. Ignatius, in the Spiritual Exercises, offers, I believe, a response. There he distinguishes three characteristic ways of coming to this clear and reflex knowledge of God`s call which is under discussion. God can and does ‒ not as infrequently as is often assumed ‒ make His call heard by acting directly and immediately on the soul, bypassing created media, stirring and drawing the will so mightily that the person follows His call at once without doubt or power to doubt. Matthew and Saul are given as typical instances, much more frequently, He acts less directly, bringing about a gradual dawning of knowledge and clear realization of His invitation through the consolations He gives, mostly through His angels and other creatures, and the desolations He permits from the side of fallen nature or the powers of hell.

But there is a further and fairly common way in which God’s voice can be heard and recognized. For, there are times when God indeed calls, but when the created manifestation does not appear to the person called in the guise of invitation or command. All that a person sees or feels is simply his own activity, calmly weighing in the light of faith and reason the various opportunities; then, in peace and full tranquility of soul, choosing that which seems most to God’s glory and service and his own soul’s good; finally, offering the choice so made to God, asking humbly for His confirmation of the choice and being willing to make it over again if He should so indicate. Ultimately, the decision is taken with God’s grace; but it seems at first as if there were no element of communication in it, no apparent initiative there from God’s side.

Well-ordered Decisions as Hearing God’s Call

What, then, justifies our treating such well­-ordered decisions as modes of hearing a call from God, especially as I have already set aside the notion that God would be content with any well-made choice?

Firstly, as Karl Rahner points out with great acumen, the very silence of God can be an indication that He wishes us to make our choice in this fashion, without the consolation of a more direct awareness of His speaking. As with men, so with God, much can be said by silence. But the meaning of the silence depends crucially, in both cases, upon the total situation. For, it is not merely that God is silent that convinces us that we have in such case heard His call ‒ this is the gross but common error that some make in their gibes at the Spiritual Exercises ‒ but that He is silent in a precise way, in a precise context, at a precise time.

He is silent, but in such a way that the presence of His grace is manifest in its power. This son or daughter of God, who has (if we take the strong case of the Spiritual Exercises) been two or three weeks in deep prayer and penance, learning to receive His grace, to hear Him speak, to respond to His Word, is now in tranquility and peace, firmly desirous of sharing everything and living everything that Jesus lived and endured, not in the least put off by the thought of the humiliations, hardships, and austerity that await him in varying degrees in any Christian state of life, but rather drawn to them by and because of his love for Christ. Yet there is no strong movement of soul, no waves of consolation and desolation. Many states of life seem good and possible; all have problems connected with them. But in peace, the person works through the pros and cons to see where the weight of argument would seem to incline, to see what God will show him through faith and reason.

Were God not powerfully and operatively present, this pattern of effective (though little felt) love of Christ, purity of heart, and simple and unanxious tranquility would not be possible, certainly not for long. That a man can make his choice in the manner which Ignatius indicates without moving out of this context, save, perhaps, for transient difficulties, shows well enough that God is supervising the process and acting effectively to bring it through to a successful conclusion.

Nor does the matter ordinarily rest there. Some sort of confirmation or positive sign of God’s accepting the choice so made is to be looked for. Is there any resonance afterwards between what they have chosen and the gospel? anything that indicates that indeed God is closer to them than before? Is there any greater ease in prayer, any greater openness in charity to other people, any greater solidity in their spiritual life? any sense of reso1ution of conflict (something more than simply cessation of conflict; for if one has been struggling with a question, there is a certain sort of peace which comes from the mere fact that one has made a choice in either direction)? Do they give themselves quietly but energetically to the way they have chosen, without looking back, without regrets, without saying, “Maybe I’ve done the wrong thing” and wavering, even when confronted with obstacles or difficulties growing directly from the choice? And, with all of this, can they seriously and freely consider new alternatives proposed to them or old ones, indeed, when asked to do so? Is there a sense that, were God to indicate, however slightly, that their choice was not His, they could bring their own choice around gladly, without upset or turmoil?

The exigencies made by grace, if one is clearly to hear God’s call in this manner, are evidently not trifling. Yet neither are they impossible or infrequently met ‒ it is not human strength but God’s grace that is primarily at work here also. It is easily possible to meet Religious in numbers who, without any express advertence to the context and structures we have mentioned, have made their choice in basically the same fashion. For example, a young woman needs to take a direction with her life, asks God for His help, and considers the various ways she might best serve Him and her neighbor; and, as a result of all the evidence she has carefully gathered and weighed, decides that this is the way of life for her, one that she has the grace to live well and in which the road to her own salvation and others’ stands wide open. But any such person has not merely arrived at a choice but at a knowledge, only implicit, perhaps, but genuine, that God has helped her in her choosing, and that the choice made was God’s concrete will for her. The choosing itself was the free response to God’s calling, not only in its being made in freedom but in its discovered objective (a free agent must needs choose something; those poles are inseparable).

On the other hand, it has happened often enough that people have chosen their way of life without such a resultant knowledge. Either God did not call or they did not hear well or understand correctly. In my following article, such situations will be discussed at length. Suffice it here to say that they are serious situations and deserve careful consideration. 

The Range of Appropriate Responses

While God’s call is always concrete and particular with regard both to the free response desired when He calls and to the objective, whenever or to whatever extent God effectively wills its attainment, as also to whatever lies between these, under the same condition, still the person called does not have to know any one of these conditions in its concreteness to begin with. As to the call’s objective and intermediate actions, who is it that does know on entering the seminary that he will in fact be ordained? Who knows on entering a novitiate that he will be admitted to final vows in that institute? Who knows, even, that the more general and wholly essential call to glory will attain a fulfillment in him?

It is true that God does, at times, not merely call a person but promise him that He will bring him to the objective. This greater gift, of course, invites a greater response. Hence, the high point of Abraham’s faith with regard to the sacrifice of Isaac was not merely that he was willing to make the sacrifice but that he still believed, hoping against hope, that God’s promise to him would hold and that in and through Isaac would his chosen and blessed posterity inherit the world.

As to ignorance of the first free response which God desires, one common result of a call in the concrete ‒ one that a director should keep constantly in mind ‒ is that the person begins to wrestle and struggle to discern it ‒ the process we noted above in Saul, and which is evident in Zachary and even in our Lady herself ‒ that is, to make himself reflexly aware of it in its true nature. Here, in general, he will be acting freely, though not yet in the response of acceptance (or rejection).

Further, a little reflection shows that there is a great range of appropriate and free responses, all of which could be lumped together under the general label of “inquiry” into what God might be saying or has said; primarily with God in prayer, but also in reflection, discussion with a spiritual director, making some kind of retreat, checking out one’s natural psychological state and balance, and so forth. For one can know that something has happened without knowing it is God who has acted; one can know that He has acted without knowing that He has spoken; that He has spoken without knowing what He has said; what He has said without knowing His meaning, His intent, still less His goals. Any of the responses indicated could presumably be sufficient reason for God’s calling, even were all others to fail. But in the most ordinary cases, at least, He desires not only the inquiry into but the acceptance of the call.

Thus also, not every call comes to a liberty disengaged, to a freedom that has no decisions already taken. When it comes, it may seem to contradict or, at least, accord but ill with what has already been accepted and known, not merely as His call but as His will. What then? Then the response must be a questioning, if not about the fact of the call or the author of it, then at least as to its meaning or its content, though evidently a question on any of these could have repercussions on all the others.

Consider Mary’s question which, not concerned as Zachary’s was with possibility, was deeply concerned about consistency. Yet she does not ask if this message, seemingly from the Lord, is indeed consonant with the promise she had already made Him of a virginal body and heart. Even that would imply a challenge and fail in reverence. But how it is to be, that she must know, lest she assent to something displeasing to Him; for, He is ever the same, however different in our eyes, and cannot undo the work of grace which He has done, however He may choose to add to or alter it. Thus, I think no apodictic norms can be given concerning what in detail He first is looking for from His creatures when He calls them. In questions of vocation, direction, consequently, one must be very careful about judging too hastily those movements as unworthy or as some cowardly refusal to respond.

The possible positive responses, then, are manifold; and in response to a single call, a whole series may be evoked. Corresponding negative responses, declining or rejecting the call or inquiry, are always possible also. But there are other patterns of response which we shall want to consider in great detail in the article devoted to practical applications. Thus, a person can hear, but only partially. This partial hearing is often an instinctive refusal of one or other element in the call ‒ or thought to be in it, since this instinctive repression usually precedes any adequate inquiry into the content or direction of the call.

Conversely’, calls can be “heard” that have never been given, an unfortunately common situation. Or a call may be heard but the response can be mistaken: the person may interpret the call as pointing one way when in reality it was aimed in some wholly different direction. The reasons for such mistakes can range from simple error, whether through misinformation given them by others or through inadvertence, all the way to a deep-driving warping and twisting of the impulse of grace received in order to satisfy some need or craving in its recipient.

Detailed investigation of the reasons for these situations can be remanded to my following article. Here it will be of interest to look at those general structures of our knowing that render this whole area so difficult.

Difficulty of Obscurity

The most obvious, generic difficulty is that the knowledge of one’s call is a knowledge which always remains within the domain of faith; being known through faith only, it can never be stronger or clearer than the person’s faith. Hence, there will always remain in our knowledge of our call an element of obscurity. But the obscurity of faith is that of the luminous cloud which overshadowed the Apostles on the mountain of the Transfiguration ‒ antecedent to the human acceptance of and free action in and from faith, all remains dark; one can make no necessary argument; if there is no conclusive proof that one should not believe, yet one can see no real reason for doing so. But once one acts in faith, once the leap is taken in the dark for the act of faith in conversion seems to set the pattern for all subsequent acts of faith ‒ and faith is not just assented to notionally but carried into choice and action, like the faith of Abraham on the summit in Moriah, then all is light, a light which illumines all, though without explaining, which .floods the understanding and the heart without any least diminution or “solution” to the mystery.

Nor is there any reason why God’s call need add any obscurity of its own to all else that is known by faith. If one knows Christ, His Church, His mysteries, and so forth, the call may be just as clear, having no darkness proper to itself (once heard and accepted, for what is said in the last paragraph above remains true). The converse need not be true, however. Without apparent influence on the other areas of faith, one’s vocation can seem, at one time or another, plunged wholly into darkness.

As noted above, feelings can be mistaken for faith. So also ‒ a point that has many practical repercussions ‒ the response of freedom is all too easily confused with a response of feeling. The former is, however, always a choice, an action of liberty, an acceptance or rejection ‒ something in the person himself is irretrievably changed for good or ill. In the latter, nothing is truly changed, except perhaps as a result of some impulsive action brought on by the strength of the feeling. The confusion may come, in part, from mere carelessness or from the current addiction to “experience.” But more basically, it comes from the way our choices can cover themselves with our feelings in elaborate mechanisms of defense against what we fear to face squarely and in truth. Hence, also, the response that God clearly desires in many of His communications with us is a change of heart, an opening up of some such defense to His light, and a healing of ancient feelings, long buried, repressed, feared or, perhaps, secretly nurtured. But whenever such is the case, human freedom, if it is not engaged in the discovery and the opening and healing process, must yet ratify and accept what God has done ‒ or else refuse it. And it is more often in this context of refusal that feelings, from that time onward, parade as will.

Difficulty of Our Unwillingness

The other major type of difficulty is pointed to in Augustine’s remarks in the Confessions (Bk. 10, n. 26): “You reply clearly to all, though they ask about different matters; but all do not clearly hear . . . they do not always hear what they wish. But your best servant is the one who does not look more to hear from You what he would wish, but rather to wish what he shall have heard from You.”

If, then, we have grounds to complain that God does not speak to us, is not the problem less that He is unwilling to speak than that we are unwilling to hear? As Jesus with the men of His day, so now: the ordinary condition for God’s free communication with us is our openness to hearing His voice, our ability to listen to all that He desires. For He loves us and would rather not have true of us that, hearing, we hear but do not understand or that, seeing, we see but do not perceive and, so, fail to turn to Him that He may heal us.

It is easier now to understand what Ignatius is about in the Spiritual Exercises. Ever desiring to seek the best service of His Lord, he could almost be said merely to have picked up the last sentence just quoted from Augustine and to have written a practical commentary, a “How-to” handbook on it. To many devout Christians the Exercises have seemed almost blasphemous, demanding that God come when I snap my fingers and tell me what He wants me to do with my life. But neither in the Exercises nor in all the less structured appeals to God in prayer, of such endless variety among Christians, appeals for light to know and strength to do His will, is there any question of “snapping one’s fingers.” It is rather that Christians see very clearly that God wants to talk to us; He would like to be with us as He was with Adam, walking with him in the cool of the day; His delight is to be with the children of men. It does not hurt Him in any way or detract from His majesty or goodness to be with us, to talk with us, to make His desires known to us.

The only problem is that we are so terribly unready to pay Him any attention or,  like Adam, run to hide from Him our sinfulness and nakedness, and we rise so swiftly in revolt when He even intimates from a great distance what He would like that often, were He to come closer, it would be for our condemnation rather than for our blessing. Remember The Dream of Gerontius where the soul in purgatory flies up toward God and in that light, because of its own impurity, instead of reflecting the light in glory, absorbs it and is heated and turned, until burned pure, into a spark. We would burn were we too much in His light but not receiving it as it ought to be received. God is silent for very good reasons, most frequently to protect us from ourselves, to purify us, but also, to strengthen our faith, to intensify our hope, to enlarge our capacity to love Him by making us desire Him the more, and so forth ‒ but not because He does want to talk to us.


We wish now to look at the objectives of God’s calls. For, important as it is to distinguish between initial free responses to His call and attainment of the call’s objective, yet in far the greater number of cases, it seems that God does will the objective also (although, in view of human ignorance and sin, conditionally). He desires the vocational goal to which He calls us and offers us full opportunity and means to reach it.

For the Good of the Body of Christ

The objectives which He chooses for us are chosen primarily for the good of the Body of Christ, through and in which the whole of mankind is meant to glorify the Father. As in our bodies the individual cells are mostly grouped in tissues, organs, and members, with some few able to move about freely, so in the Body of Christ, with individual Christians as its “cells.” These “cells” group together (or are meant to) according to the objectives of His calls to them. Each unit so composed serves the whole through some relatively restricted, precisely laid out pattern of functioning-though, as in the human body, all sorts of hidden powers enter into play in complex programs of adaptation in time of emergency or in case of failure of other parts. Again, as in the natural body, some few in each “organ” are called upon to maintain express communication with the rest of the Body (like nerve cells) or to situate the “organ” properly and hold it in its proper shape and structure to do its work (like connective tissues).

Each class of “cell” by its efficient and proper functioning, serves the whole Body, for example, generating essential products to circulate throughout, catalyzing reactions in other units, purifying the system, enabling it to move about, helping it in the preservation of its temporal existence, and the rest. But note, each “cell” insofar as it reaches its objective serves each other “cell,” directly or indirectly, so that it too may function well for the good of each and of all. This good is mostly done by the “cells” acting in unison (not necessarily in uniformity), acting according to their individual objectives in collective modes of function, ranging from the relatively simple additivity of muscle fibers to the still unfathomable complexity of cellular interactions in the brain.

So also, as each cell in our bodies is stamped with identical genetic information,” each Christian has the same seal and sign of his divine begetting and inheritance through baptism and confirmation.

Likewise, as each cell, no matter how similar to its fellows, has its own characteristics and aptitudes, strengths and weaknesses, peculiar environment and “history,” so, in far stronger fashion, each person in Christ is called to an objective which retains in some manner his special, God-created gifts of nature and prior grace. Yet the objective of our call may fit us into the Body in a manner requiring high specialization. Thus, as the welfare of our bodies depends most upon such uniquely specialized and irreplaceable cells as the great nerve cells of the spine or those brain cells which stretch out to form the retina of the eye, or the strange muscle fiber of the heart, or the mysterious “chemical factories” of the pituitary gland, so the Body of the Church requires specialization, with all its correlative drawbacks for the cells in question, if they are ever considered simply in themselves. Most specialized, they are also most vulnerable to disease or injury, least capable of recovery or adaptation to drastically new and adverse situations. Thus, the aptitudes and capacities of which we are aware may have minimal significance in God’s eyes in comparison with those others which only His call and favor can make prominent and effective for the Church.

The beauty of the body lies not merely or even chiefly in the perfect balance or dynamic interrelations of the forms and movements of all of its parts, but in an all-suffusing and inexpressible shining-forth of the person himself. So, in the Church, what God is seeking to bring about in this Bride for His Son is a loveliness of the whole through that balance and graceful movement of action between all parts which best permits the world to see her aglow with the Spirit, yearning for Christ alone.

In this context it should be clear that, although for the health or life of an entire organ or member a cutting away of some group of cells, even an amputation, may be needed, most surgery in the matter of vocation will deal with “grafts,” helping people move from where they are, when perhaps they have long been in some religious institute, to some other institute or state of life, not in punishment or repudiation but so that they can find that place where God is now at least calling them or wishing them to be and where their greatest hope of happiness and salvation lies.

The Call Makes Possible the Reception of the Call

I have spoken of God’s consideration of our natural aptitudes and other endowments; but here a basic and difficult question arises. As indicated by von Balthasar in the remarks quoted above, there is no way in which, looking at Simon, with all his natural aptitudes, temperament, dispositions, and desires, you could have deduced Peter ‒ probably not even if you knew what God’s grace had done in him up till then. And even if you were given what Peter was to be, you could not have known what you would have needed in Simon in order to have Peter. Here, indeed, we touch the mystery of God’s calling.

The Father asks: “I wish my Son to become man, to take human flesh. Who would be a suitable person in Whom He might be conceived?” How would you go about finding a suitable person for that? There is nothing in human nature that could make anyone suitable or qualified for such a vocation. It is not given to man, as man, to be suitable to be the mother of God. Even though all natural endowments come from God, it is not given to the creature to be qualified for the objectives of God’s calls. This is the rock bottom truth for any vocation: everyone is utterly unfit for whatever it is he is called to if his fitness be measured by whatever he has of his own self and of antecedent grace.

This is deep-rooted in the faith: reread the Canons of the Second Council of Orange, magnificent in their spiritual depth, taken up again by Trent. No vigor of our natures can suffice for any good effects in the order of salvation and for the upbuilding of the Body of Christ. Even when we have been reborn in grace and healed, we still cannot achieve any objective to which He calls us without His further help, which we can only pray for as we ought if He gives us the desire so to pray.

But this indicates not only our lack of qualification, but also the solution to the puzzle: no qualifications are possible in advance; none are needed; but, by His call, He Himself makes possible the reception of the call and a positive response and, whenever He wishes the objective, He gives the qualifications, or the promise of them, along with the call itself.

So, for Our Lady, God having chosen to call her to be the Mother of God, she, so chosen, is formed by an immaculate conception, grows sinless to maturity, and virginally gives birth to the Son of God. So she becomes a fit instrument ‒ recall all those prayers at Mass: “a worthy habitation,” “a fitting dwelling-place,” “who merited to be the Mother of Your Son,” “He whom you deserved to bear,” As Karl Barth remarked, opposing our doctrine concerning Mary, she stands in a certain way for every Christian; if these privileges belong to the Mother, then to some degree they belong to each of her children. It is not that we are sinless and the rest, but that precisely this same pattern of grace and merit is at work in us. So that if He calls us to something, and wants us to arrive at it, to that same extent He will grace us and give us all that we need for that mode of life in His service.

This indicates another reason why it is so important for a person to know with some certainty whether and to what he is called by God. What is being attempted in the following out of any Christian state of life is beyond human capacity; and without His call and the gifts which it supposes and grants, there can be no good outcome. This does not deny that God can draw good from and remedy all our mistakes and blunders; but that is another matter.

Dimensions of a State of Life

The objectives of God’s calls are of enormous diversity. There is no mode or manner of Christian life to which He does not call; and He would seem steadily to generate new manners of life, hitherto unthought-of of.

In order to obtain some insight into this diversity, to find some key to its structuring, and to deal with the almost unmanageable richness of the concrete cases we must look at, it is helpful to note, without any attempt to treat the matter exhaustively, what can be called the “dimensions” of a state of life in the Church, in order to indicate how one might situate, relative to one another, the different states, actual or possible.

Degree of Sacramental Power

The simplest dimension in structure is that of the degree of sacramental power in the service of the Church. Its divisions are well-known: the lay state, constituted by baptism and confirmation (since these two are not meant to be permanently separated, no stable state is constituted by baptism alone) and the three states constituted by orders: diaconate, priesthood, episcopacy.

The Secular to Religious Spectrum

A second dimension is characterized most easily as that which extends from the secular to the religious (in the sense used in “a religious order,” for example). At one pole is the life of the married secular Christian, whether lay, diaconal, or as in the Eastern rites, priestly; then in some sort of rough ordering, the so­ called secular institutes, the communities of common life, the religious congregations, the religious orders, and the eremitical life. This is evidently a dimension of spirituality rather than of power. Since the various categories of “religious life” are to some degree defined by their position along this axis, it will be useful to spell out how the “polar” states are specified, at least for our present purposes.

Secular spirituality helps man to use, develop, and enjoy the temporal order under the action of grace, thus bearing witness that the value given to temporal things by creation has not been diminished but consecrated through Christ’s taking up of our human nature ‒ and all else natural in connection with it ‒ in His Incarnation. Hence, the man of purely secular spirituality serves the Church by preparing the necessary natural conditions for the spreading and support of the kingdom of God. Most distinctively, he works within the temporal precisely to bring about the Christianization of the social order, illuminating the city of man, as it is being built, by the light of Christ.

The spirituality of a Religious Order, strictly so called, has as its primary aim as conscious and immediate a union with God as possible. This union, however, of the sin-stained creature with the Divine Majesty can only take place in and through the redemptive mysteries of our Lord’s Passion and Glorification. Renouncing, then, such foundation stones of the temporal order as possessions, family, and the free disposition of his own activity, the Religious strives to give every element in his life the imprint of Christ’s redeeming death in order to share more intensely, now, His risen life. As was early learned in Christian history, however, God always remains the master of His gifts; mystical graces are not due to religious or essential to the full living of the religious life. Hence, the Religious state is a way of life characterized by having all of its elements directed to producing that purification of its members which will make them open and ready for whatever degree of conscious union God may choose, in His freedom, to give them. Through its bond with man’s redemption, the Religious state possesses its own form of intrinsic apostolate; the multiple witness which it bears before the world to the possibility and immense desirability of divine union, as well as to the necessity of crucifixion with Christ before men can make an integrally natural use of the temporal order, and to the trifling value of temporal goods insofar as these act concretely as hindrances to our eternal sharing in His glory. It is this witness which forms the core of all Religious apostolates.

The Dimension of Apostolic Engagement

A third dimension exists, again “at right angles” to the dimensions already considered, that of apostolic engagement. Thus, at all roughly the same position in terms of the and second dimensions, one finds, for example, Carthusians, Trappists, Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits, arranged roughly in order of the increasing influence which an active apostolate has upon the inner spirituality of the contemplative. Some of these, I believe, as originally founded and first approved by the Church, were lay institutes, others priestly, others comprising laity and priests; and all have, though in different modes, the same strongly contemplative emphasis on total purification and abnegation of heart characteristic of the Religious Order. The effects of these relations to apostolic action we shall return to shortly. At another position, there are the congregations: Ursulines, Servites, Christian Brothers, Passionists, Redemptorists, and so on through a lengthy list. Or, at roughly the same level of the secular, there are not only both the married and the unmarried secular lay states, but the secular institutes (Opus Dei, the Nardines, and so forth) and the Oriental secular clergy. These lists can be greatly extended by filling in the apparent “gaps” and much subdivided by what might be called “internal coordinates” proper to the various groups, for example, in the Jesuits, there are three permanent “grades” (the solemnly professed, the spiritual coadjutors, the temporal coadjutors) who differ in their manner of supporting and assisting the particular apostolic intent characteristic of the Society of Jesus. It is here that the sexual coordinate belongs: the distinction between Trappists and Trappistines, Franciscans and Poor Clares, the male and female branches of Carmelites, Maryknolls, and so forth. 

The Varieties of “Religious Life”

It seems clear, then, that “Religious life” is a term nearly empty of useful content so far as specifying the objectives of vocations is concerned. Indeed, it can do more harm than good unless it is seen that it is used only analogously of the different institutes to which it can be applied. In fact, only a highly abstract form of analogy is useful here, for example, the relation between Franciscans and their vows, say, is analogous to but in no way the same as the relation between Trappists and their vows.

The poverty of Franciscans, mitigated though it may be from what Francis was called to by the Lord, is still very different from the poverty, say, of Benedictines, not merely in its concrete forms and embodiment but in its spiritual function within their respective modes of life. The poverty of the Franciscans is meant, I believe, to generate a close relationship with the poor of both cities and countryside, as well as ease of movement and continued nourishing of popular devotion wherever they happen to be on their journeys. This differs greatly from the stable austerity and hospitable sharing of the fruits of their own toil which characterize the Benedictines. The obedience of Jesuits differs profoundly from that of Trappists. The corporal penances, simplicity of life, and labor in quasi-isolation of the latter call for a submission of will different in kind and function from that which is meant to serve as the dominant instrument of abnegation, purification of heart, and bond of fraternal union among men immersed in continual converse with persons of every condition of life and disposition of soul. The chastity of Carthusians is not that of Dominicans; not necessarily a greater but a different quality of chastity is needed by the active apostolate of the preacher than by a quasi-eremitical life. The solitudo cordis, the reservation of the heart for God alone, the aim in some way of all religious chastity, can, since true charity is but a single virtue directed at the same time to God and to all men for His sake, and must take on varied forms as the institute lays greater or less stress on communal life and on spiritual ministries to women as well as men. The differences in these and endlessly many other respects is far greater still between any order, say, and a congregation or, in turn, a community of common life.

Diversity among Religious desired by God

This brings us to the central point of this section: all this diversity among religious, to go no further afield, is desired by God, who generated it by personally calling people to each of these ways of living the Gospel. This multiplicity and specificity of orientation, structure, and function is His choosing. If, then, we try to suppress any authentic differences among institutes, it is God whom we are resisting.

There has been, however, at least during the last generation or two in this country, a strong tendency to try to level all degrees and to make every spirituality basically the same. “All vocations are equally holy. Married people are as holy as religious, priests are no better than laymen but just have a different function.” Now, if the question is of concrete holiness, that is, a person’s degree of active charity, then, of course, all Christians are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity, whatever their state in life; and only God Himself knows who is called to the higher holiness or who will respond the more generously to the calls He gives. But to argue on that basis that the various spiritualities found in the Church are not different in important ways is simply wrong.

Or, it is said, “Really, Franciscans are no different from Jesuits except that Jesuits tend to favor teaching, especially in universities, more than do Franciscans. Spiritually speaking, there is only one spirituality and that is Christian spirituality. If we all love God with all our hearts and minds and souls and strengths and our neighbors as ourselves, then what difference do these other things make?” Of course, if we love Him that way, then these other things do not make any difference. But we are not yet in heaven, and we do not love Him that way, and these details make a great difference. Due to the Incarnation, our own natural diversities of temperament, ability, interests and the rest are taken up in true if unforeseeable ways into Christ’s plans for us and His Father’s objective in calling us. One cannot make light of specific differences in spirituality without what is basically a denial that God does not call everyone to be everything, that He calls in virtue of roles within the Body of Christ, of distinctive functions in the service of the whole, which functions can only truly serve if truly diverse.

That leveling attitude seems also to have been fostered by the seeming insistence of the Code of Canon Law on trying to define “Religious life” in non-analogous terms through finding a lowest common denominator, some property, however minimal, which would be possessed in the same manner by all “Religious institutes.”

Few things, in my opinion, show as strikingly the working of the grace of God in Vatican II as that much maligned little decree on Religious life. Enacted by bishops who, for the most part, had little detailed knowledge of the spiritualities of Religious, who in some cases were much more concerned to limit their exemptions than to understand the complex dynamics of ways of life which the Religious themselves did not grasp clearly, it contains much that is unclear or lacks distinctions. But, in spite of or perhaps because of all that, Perfectae caritatis made the all-important contribution of sending each institute back to its sources, to the original spirit and purposes which God’s call had in view in His objectives for the founders and to the healthy traditions which distilled from the seeking of the concrete objectives of those He personally called over the centuries to serve Him therein.

Moreover, the purpose spelled out there for this return to the sources, that is, “It contributes to what is truly the good of the Church that institutes have their own particular character and function,” becomes one of the Council’s perduring themes. So true is it that this diversity of characteristics serves the best interests of the Church, that, for example, the Council invariably restricts what bishops or others can ask of Religious to those things which fall within the special nature and characteristic functions of their own institute. All that, moreover, was given priority over any kind of modernization, though explicitly not so as to exclude the latter. But modernization was to take place within that framework of characteristic nature and function, the better to achieve them; there is no hint that the special character of any institute be changed for the sake of modernization. With that, religious are not merely free but obligated to live their own special modes of life ‒ with God’s grace leading them back even further to the first priority always, the gospel.

Stating the matter a little differently: the different spiritualities characteristic of different institutes represent the results of His calls over the centuries, gradually achieving their objectives more or less effectively in accord with men’s cooperation. It is like the growth of coral. The coral animals begin life free­-swimming, then find their “objective” and are drawn back to the social structure from which they emerged, each to make its contribution according to its species, retaining always the same specific orientations and functions, and thus forming bit by bit the gorgeous riot of colors and forms that constitute the great reefs. So, too, a key factor in the incredible beauty of the Church is the extraordinary diversity which is compatible with her life in the midst of the most profoundly organic and tightly knit unity.

Importance of the Diversity of Religious Objectives

But once it is seen that the diversity of “Religious objectives” is more God’s doing than man’s, and is willed by Him, we can see still further reasons for care in trying to hear His call. Each objective has its function in glorifying Him in the Church; insofar as people do not hear their calls or go elsewhere than called, something is damaged in that harmony and order of the Body which He desired for it. Evidently, too, the possibilities for a substantive mistake are vastly greater than is usually thought, And not only can a person be called to one group and, if not listening attentively, wind up in another, but he can fail to hear God calling him to begin some way of life that does not yet exist.

For, indeed, God does call to objectives which do not yet exist in the Church. Every religious institute is evidence of at least one person so called for its founding. And there are always “anomalous” calls, such as that of St. Benedict Joseph Labre, which lie wholly outside any standard patterns.

All this can be summed up by referring to St. Paul again ‒ reread 1 Cor 12 and see how all the charisms of which he speaks are things whose source in God is knowable, which represent calls, if not always to states of life as for apostles and perhaps prophets and evangelists, at any rate to the habitual performing of some useful and highly specific service to the Church. So for the diversity of calls to states of life: these objectives are intended by God and knowable as such. Vocations, rightly heard and responded to, are charisms for the service of the Church. Both for the individual and for the whole People of God it is important that each one hear the message given him and carry out his own God-designated ministry for all.

Here there is neither space nor need to rehearse in detail what little is known about the onset, prior to Vatican II, of confusion in the Church over the specificity of religious institutes. Briefly, the problem seems to have become serious in the early l600’s, first simply as a mixing, in practice, of elements from different groups, each borrowing what struck it as “great ideas” from others, but failing to see that these good points were organically united with the entire structure and so, when borrowed, were perforce thrown out of context. Over the next sixty years or so, there came a confusion as well of the canonical classifications, that is, it ceased gradually to be apparent how the reality of the various institutes and the classifications of the law enmeshed with each other. All this took place, however, without much confusion at the level of vocation ‒ people still easily recognized in the concrete lives of the institutes the objectives of God’s calls to them. But this ceased in the turbulence of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars; so that, from the 1820’s till now, an ever growing number of groups and individuals have been wandering far from their first inspirations, drowning their distinctive traits in a flood of “practical measures” largely designed to keep themselves in existence or to meet the ever-­present needs of the Church all around them, without much concern as to whether it was they who should seek to meet them. At least, let us learn the lesson: Each group must see and accept its own spiritual physiognomy, without apologies and without attempting to take on the good things practiced or discovered by others. Whether higher or lower on the scale of vocations, one is at least different. Vive la différence!

Diversity with Regard to Time and Development

There is a mode of diversity between religious institutes of which I have said nothing so far but which may be the most important of all in the practical order. This is their diversity of attitude with regard to time and human development, though the spatial images of threshold and keyhole serve most usefully to describe it.

Let us go back for a moment to the question of what qualifications are to be required in a candidate for a particular institute, say some Religious Order. Now, at first glance, one would tend to think that such a way of life, which is more strongly supernatural in its means, if not in its ultimate goal, and therefore less merely natural and “normal,” and hence, more difficult in itself than marriage, would require a greater maturity, a greater possession and assimilation of one’s own sexuality, a greater openness to other people, and a greater emotional balance than needed to enter the married state.

Yet there are difficulties with this, the chief being Church history: in its earliest days and in many groups even to the present, Religious life apparently requires far less maturity at entry than does marriage. At the time of the desert fathers, free access and entry were offered to anyone who asked and no questions were asked him. Even after cenobitic life had begun, a man still had only to knock at the gate; he was received, given his sackcloth, sent to a secluded cave or cell, assigned or given choice of an older monk to guide him; and he would set about growing in the Lord. It was up to him whether he honored his vows or not, stayed or left.

It is important to see just what was happening there: people could and often did enter the monastery as sinners with the wounds of their sins still bleeding. Vagabonds, criminals seeking to escape punishment, all categories of human sinfulness and weakness were allowed in. The religious life, however, had then, as now, its essential work in bringing about the purification necessary for divine union. It will clearly take much purification for a man long steeped in sin before he is ready for such union; but with Christian confidence in God’s forgiveness, the religious community could guarantee that purification for him, should he honor his vows and remain under its discipline.

The meaning of his vows was correspondingly different from what is now often taken for granted. Their first meaning was simply penance, chastity being a harshly ascetical practice of dominating one’s lust; the others, equally ascetical renunciation of other roots of grave sin. But other meanings were not lacking ‒ as the person grew sufficiently to understand them. Even in our own day, the penances done during Lent, say, can be seen and practiced at various levels, one level succeeding another in importance gradually: they are a means of bringing the body into submission to one’s will; and the will, to grace; then they are penances for one’s sins, as a token of the disorder of that sinfulness and of sorrow for it; then, a token of receptivity to what the sufferings of Christ gained for the penitent personally; finally, the penances are done precisely in order to suffer with Christ and in Christ, to share in what He suffered by union of life with Him.

All the elements, then, of religious practice were geared to straightening a person out (as Aloysius remarked of his motives in joining the Jesuits: “I am a piece of twisted iron, and have entered the Society of Jesus to be hammered straight”) and forming him to the model of Christ, leading him onward and upward to whatever union God might give him. The religious life, at least in its earlier forms, was conceived of as a dynamic process in time–whence its ancient designation as “a state for the acquiring of perfection” even when starting from zero.

But later on, many forms of religious life came into being which concerned themselves with spiritual ministries for others. Thus, people were no longer merely being purified for the sake of contemplative union, though that remained and remains the dominant and defining element in any religious order. But, especially in the clerical orders, the purification came to be seen as being of help to other men, especially in conjunction with the priestly or diaconal ministries. Contemplative union, though not put at the service of an apostolate, which would reverse the divine order of things altogether, is put in tune with and brought into strong interaction with the particular apostolates, by the special graces of the founders. Further, this concern for helping others made necessary entrance requirements; for example, to guarantee an effective part in the Dominicans’ ministry of preaching, some conditions concerning the ability to learn could be imposed which would have had no reason in the desert where neither reading nor writing was needed for the vast majority. So the question of qualifications begins to enter, qualifications for particular duties or functions proper to this or that mode of religious life in its service of others within the Church.

But more, if you are working for the perfection of others, then you ought to have a certain perfection yourself, especially in a clerical order where you are called to ordination to the priesthood; you need to have a certain perfection already achieved, not in the sense of “having arrived,” where no further progress is possible, but in the sense that real progress has been made, that, for example, the qualifications listed in the Pastoral Epistles can be met; the newly baptized convert from paganism or the just reformed murderer is not a suitable subject. Thus, even to enter a group called to some active and genuinely spiritual ministry, you must already “be somewhere” spiritually.

Such an Order cannot accept those who must start from scratch, with the first conversion, since there is already, so to speak, too much ground to cover in the available time. The clerical Orders have, then, a perfectly legitimate right to say: “We could indeed accept those still in their sins; but we would not know, even were they obviously working hard at their purgation, that they would arrive at the requisite holiness of life in good time for ordination. Let us rather wait and see where in fact they get, and take people in only when they have reached a suitable level and still seem to be headed upwards.” Here one can begin to grasp the importance of knowing exactly how the group sees its own function within the Church, better still, how God sees that function, at least as that is given approximately through the views of the founders and the ratification by the Church.

There exists, therefore, a set of qualifications for admission to or entrance upon some state of life which depends critically upon the nature of that state in its detailed, concrete embodiment. These qualifications are called for, not by the ultimate goal of the state or by the objectives of those called there but by the state’s apostolic relations to all those outside itself, by the characteristic service of the Body of Christ.

We can, therefore, speak of a “threshold” of a way of life: It is the complexus of special characteristics and functions of the way of life considered from the point of view of engaging smoothly the spiritual dynamic of any person called there by God with the dynamics of the life. If his growth and development in time are such that, on entry into this particular state, those processes in him will mesh and integrate with the intrinsic one of the institute so that he can move with its aid to the perfection of that particular state, to that particular coloration and shape of charity which is its charism for the People of God, then he is at the threshold of that state. To enter into the process which will bring him towards the objective of the life without tempting God by requiring miracles, a human being must have, over and above his call from God, such-and-such capabilities and possessed Christian maturity.

The threshold, however, is not simply a level, whether high or low, but is shaped and structured, like a keyhole or the ancient gates of some oriental cities, requiring a very special configuration in both the person and the state and a detailed matching of their psychological and spiritual qualities. Does the person mesh well enough at present with the special characteristics of the institute to be able to profit from their working upon him and shaping him from this point onwards? For the threshold is not, like the call, a personal thing. It is something that inheres in the very nature and structure of the way of life in question. It is not an artificial norm, a legal contrivance, or an adventitious or partly arbitrary exercise of piety. Thus, also, in an Order where not one single person was living the life, the threshold would still be where it was ‒ though with garbage and junk piled on it so that it would be effectively higher for a young person thinking seriously of trying to live that mode of life.

The threshold, then, of any way of life is an exigence for that complexus of basic qualifications (in a person actually called there by God) such that, if possessed by him, the way of life can, according to its intrinsic patterns of functioning, carry this person on from there and help him to achieve the objective to which God has called him, but which, if lacking, render that normal functioning either concretely impossible or else harmful or deleterious to the person, blocking him out from the objective of his call. Thus a particular Religious institute is able to help onwards only people who can step easily across its threshold. It is not competent to deal with those falling below its threshold save by way of exception, if then. Instead, it would be hindered in its helping the growth of its other members and in its own apostolate if it were constrained to care for those who should not (yet, at least) be among its members.

Importance of the Threshold for the Call

If a man falls short of the threshold but is admitted nonetheless, he will soon find the life impossible or intolerably difficult, even though God called him to it. Consider a simple example. Suppose that God calls a boy of ten to the married state. At sixteen, however, he gets a girl pregnant; and though still in search of his own identity, as is she, is pressured by both sets of parents into marrying her. God’s objective in calling him six years before, however much he may have obtained in terms of the free response, is most unlikely now of attainment. Such a marriage seems doomed, save with the most extraordinary assistance. The threshold for marriage ‒ from its very nature and in this cultural context ‒ lies at that stage of maturity which Eriksen designated as “generativity.” The further one falls short of that at the time he marries, the more nearly impossible it will be for him, even if called by God to marriage, to achieve the objective of that call.

The existence of a clear call from God in no way exempts one from His will: that each person mature to the point of being able rightly to seek and to reach the objective of His call. So if the threshold as a whole is too high, a person can suffer considerable harm, even if he is excellently qualified in some ways and is holy and relatively mature. The converse is not true. On the contrary, if a man is well beyond the threshold, then no harm is done him ‒ he sails along, perhaps a bit annoyed or bored; but basically nothing there is able to injure him, except for pride in his “being so advanced.” By assumption, he is already far enough along to understand why what is done is being done.

The drawing carefully, in all its varied aspects, of the threshold pattern, though of major importance, is often overlooked. What will require even more attention, when we come to deal with the practical side of things, is that many in vocation work do not realize that even a perfectly drawn threshold cannot, by itself, indicate whether a person should enter but only when: now, or later.

Temporality and the Religious Institute

There is, of course, more of temporality in the objectives of God’s calls than merely the configurations of growth processes in the people called to those objectives or the intrinsic dynamics of the ways of life. Modes of life themselves can come and go and change within. Thus, there would seem to be nothing in revelation, which would argue against God’s calling individuals to start some way of life which will die out quickly after the individual dies. Is it necessary that everything begun be perpetuated forever? The Church alone has been given any such guarantee. Only insofar as the individual organs share in that eternal covenant by functioning properly and specifically within the Body of the Church can they gain some share of perpetuity.

Yet even that assumes too much. God wants the Church to be an organism that grows toward the full stature of Christ. Now in our own bodies there are parts that are much needed at one time but later atrophy and disappear. An example is the thymus gland in the chest of a baby, which is practically gone by late adolescence; another: the body of an adult stops producing the enzyme which makes possible the digestion of milk­-sugar, so that milk becomes more or less indigestible for adults and much of its food value is wasted for them. In the other direction, there is the well-measured increase of sensory acuity at adolescence, as also sexual maturation with its new powers and drives. It is hard, then, to see that any particular institute should be able to flourish under all circumstances, in all cultures, at all times. Since God is God of the living, who acts in history and who wants things to change and develop, individuals and groups alike, the objective of His call has to be understood dynamically. Every institute, no matter which, is repeatedly thrust by circumstances (under His providence) into choices between alternatives, each of them perhaps involving a great good. We do a certain work according to our institute in a region where it is desperately needed ‒ but no one joins us there; or we change our work appreciably, deviating from our institute, and young people are attracted in crowds. Which should we do ‒ if either? We shall take a closer look at this in the article on practical applications.

But just as the body’s ebb and flow of powers moves with great harmony, so is it of calls from God, the creator and lover of harmony. God calls to change but He does not call to disorder. Thus, if any group is to die out, its task completed, they should die out in fidelity to their call and their mission. God has called them here; let those He calls elsewhere go there. To attempt to survive, contrary to or apart from one’s call and mission, only breeds confusion within the Church. If the Lord has no further need of us, with our specific functioning, it will be for some good reason; let us accept it and leave the ground free for some new and healthier or more suitable growth. If He does not wish us to die out, He will send us the people we need. This requires, indeed, a great trust in God on our own part. But nothing in the nature of religious life is intended to make it easy or successful in even a minimal (human) way all the time. Indeed, its nature would seem to promise that, if we lived, it should be continually threatened with suffering and destruction.


One essential aspect of religious life has been omitted here till now. In talking of ways of life, I have used the phrase interchangeably with “states of life”; but this latter phrase is, in ordinary Christian usage, reserved to designate those particular ways of life in which one consecrates oneself by vow. This matter of vows is the final topic to be glanced at here.

What is the purpose of vows which bind a person in and to a certain way of life. The answers that have been given are many: to offer in sacrifice to God what is most precious: our liberty to dispose of ourselves as we wish; to offer the will itself to God; to render myself a holy thing by making myself God’s possession, consecrated like a chalice to His solo use; to render our wills firm in the good; to merit more, since now acting or refraining out of the virtues of religion and fidelity as well as the virtues which form the proper subject of the vow ‒ to give but a few examples.” I have no complaint to make about these and similar answers. But I should prefer to come at the question in a way more consonant with the rest of this article.

Vows, like calls, refer to created manifestations of God’s action which involve our own; and on the human side they have a strong relationship to time. Here, at least, the temporal aspect has always been in evidence. It is implicit in most, if not all, the answers listed just above, and is usually rendered explicit in any explanations of them.

The Vows and Our Changeability

We are extremely changeable beings. No matter what we promise today, to God or to our fellows, we know that tomorrow we will feel, at least, like revoking it. Yet there are orientations of our lives and dispositions of our hearts that we would wish to make permanent in spite of all obstacles, including our own fickleness. A vow, then, is a means of using our liberty, when it is fully under the power of His grace, to bind our liberty for future times when it is so no longer or does not seem to be. It is a way to force ourselves, by self-imposed but not self-dissoluble obligations, to continue to do what we have discovered is pleasing to Him, even at those times when it seems that He is no longer in the universe.

On that basis, however, there can come a lurking disquiet that perhaps vows are not different enough from, “Though all deny You, I will never deny You.” The danger is not unreal. Peter’s fault, of course, was not in his desire never to deny his Lord but in his vigorous assurance that he could avoid doing so by strength of will. Now, in Religious life, as in other vowed states, there are in fact people who have entered, confident in their own strength, and who take their vows without God’s asking them. Unless they change their attitude quickly, they will usually come to share Peter’s experience of falling; it is to be hoped, also, to share his repentance. But if God calls a person to take vows, then at least he is able to confide in and bank on His strength. Again, the importance of being called and of knowing one’s only so can there be a Christian assurance which stands not on a putative human strength or permanent power of decision but on God’s own gracious invitation and goodness.

The Vows and Love

More deeply, however, engaging ourselves by vow grows from our desire to learn how truly and rightly to love and be loved. For, two things we know from our earliest days: we do not really know yet how to love or to be loved; yet we do know, somehow, that love that is not faithful and abiding should not be called love at all.

Consider in this respect the case of marriage vows, to which, from the beginning, the vows of religion have been seen as analogs. Whom does God call to marriage? Most usually, young people, in their late ’teens or early twenties. Rarely does he call anybody to marriage who already knows what marriage is all about, who understands marriage deeply, profoundly, and experientially. In most cases, He calls to marriage people who are incapable, given their age and their inexperience of life, of having any real idea of the nature and burdens of marriage. They like each other; they know something of the sexual pleasure that can be found in marriage; they may or may not have a strong desire for a family. But they do know that there is more.

The precise point of their marriage vows is that they bind themselves to hunt together for the true significance of the life they are undertaking together. The vow is for the future, to give stability to their search for understanding what they have done. They do not really understand what perfect love is or implies; but they are willing and desirous of it, and willing and able to commit themselves. That commitment is a commitment to growing in love. Even two people very much in love will still be aware that their love is not perfect, that they are not the world’s ideal couple, that each has a few faults at least, which they can take in stride, now, because they love each other. The marriage bond is the way to say effectively: “We bind ourselves to seek full love for each other together, knowing that we have to seek it, that our love is still imperfect. No defect of love is an argument against our marriage, since we know we are deficient in love and, precisely because deficient, we are binding ourselves to a situation which will goad us on as well as draw us forward to seek the perfection of love.” Therefore, no discovery that one or other party is hideously deficient in love, can offer any grounds for nullifying marriage.

The same thing is true of the vows of religion. The Religious is not so much asserting or promising future fidelity, like Peter, or seeking a created share of immutability. Rather he is engaging himself to learn how to love God, how to accept God’s free and gratuitous love for him, how to let His love expose all his defects and hideous deficiencies of love and so to learnNo other viewers

from God’s fidelity how to be faithful himself. Vows do not so much constrain my impermanence or fix once for all my mutability or prevent my sinful weakness as they place me in a situation where, whatever my weakness, I am still being forced forward towards Him, albeit reluctantly at times, in ardent love or in shame­faced penitence.

As with marriage, so in religion also, the fulfillment of the vocation, the objective of God’s call, is, of strict necessity, long delayed. Impossible at the beginning, it is the goal, not a presupposition or a necessary condition, nor even the goal we think we know and set before ourselves. God who calls alone knows what final objectives He has in mind for us.

Vows and the Fidelity of God

There is, however, a further aspect to vows, far too little treated, though representing perhaps their major function: to glorify God, who is faithful, by entering into a relation with Him, according to His invitation, in which His own fidelity is engaged, a fidelity which our sins and failures can be used to manifest no less than our progress in His love and service.

When God calls someone, He calls from His love for him; but He calls also from His faithfulness. He is faithful because He is God. He can choose not to engage His fidelity, that is, not to enter into a relation that leads Him to bind Himself; but He cannot choose not to be faithful. Since fidelity belongs to His nature, it is not contingent or dependent upon our behavior in His regard. But by His fidelity we too can be made faithful, sharing as His children this aspect also of the divine nature.

The vows of religion, then, are a special kind of response to His call, one in which His fidelity is engaged as well as ours ‒ the relationship of covenant. Indeed, while “no one rightly vows to the Lord anything unless he shall have received from Him what he vows,” yet our vowing in some way calls to God to respond to us. He does respond, with the response of eternal faithfulness.

If a man is unfaithful to what God has called him to ‒ this not a question of not accepting the call ‒ if he accepts His call, binds himself by vow and enters into covenant, espoused to God, and then betrays that trust, fidelity remains, but man goes into exile. But always He recalls a penitent people from exile. The exile is itself the preparatory part of that call back.

This is important to remember when dealing with priests, Religious, or married people who have messed things up thoroughly for themselves by their infidelity ‒ as is so common in these days. One must help them to see that, though they are, in truth, far off the road to which God had invited them, though they have been carried by their enemies into slavery, there is no desert between Babylon and the heavenly Jerusalem so arid that it cannot be crossed by His mercy. The way may be even more glorious and splendid, for the manifesting of God’s glory, than the way they had started on. God takes into exile both to punish and to purify. He purifies in order to bring back and to renew his covenant. The glories of Jerusalem after the Exile are more splendid than anything David or Solomon dreamt of. His fidelity remains in spite of our infidelity. It is on that basis and that basis only that anyone can properly call people to repentance when once they have set Christ aside.

Now, many of these things have long been spoken of in a somewhat dry or legal language. Thus, when a person speaks, for example, about the grace of vocation, the grace of the sacrament of marriage, the grace of ordination, what he has in mind is a grace given now, or pledged now, upon which he can always call to assist him in the future. It is a title to grace whenever he needs it in order to maintain his own fidelity. For, God’s fidelity is now engaged (the reality behind the legal “title to grace”) and anytime the person vowed is in need of Him, He is there, by His own promise. He is no longer a “free agent”; He has bound Himself. The same point can be made concerning the notion of “stability,” that is, the stability of the states of life. Stability is important for a state of life, but God’s faithfulness is why it is important. A common presentation is that it is more meritorious to bind yourself forever without knowing what is coming than to bind yourself successively as you see how things are working out. It is true; but notice how much is lost in the cramped legal style. Stability is a tremendous thing because it is something that no creature can have of itself. Non-angelic creatures, at least, are essentially temporal, mutable, changeable. This sort of stability is something that can only happen by the power of God and for His glory. A person can, of course, survive in some sense by simple rigidity, but that is death, spiritual or psychological mummification.

No individual covenant, however, can have standing independent of the New Covenant, in Christ’s Blood. For this reason, the Church, born from His side upon the cross, has in her full control and in entire dependence upon her will (so long as she subjects herself to Christ’s will) the taking of vows of religion or of marriage, and all else that relates to them.

There occurs in connection with perpetual vows one of the most difficult problems in theology: God seems to permit people to engage themselves validly and forever when He has not called them to take vows, when, even, it was flatly against His will and sinful for them to take them.

I think, indeed, that a sound theoretical position is possible concerning this problem. But theoretical positions, especially if and complex, are of small pastoral value. Consequently, I shall make no attempt here to meet that question head­-on, but I will leave to the subsequent article a consideration of how one may deal with it in practice, whatever the state of the theory.


1”Concretely” implies here, “for the individual and for the Church”; the statement above is not a metaphysical one, denying ontological worth to any creature. But, unless otherwise noted, we shall be moving at a different level, that at which, for example, sinful actions are bad and Satan is evil, leaving to the reader the standard exercise of translating everything into the language of metaphysical understanding, a mode of understanding with which I have no quarrel but shall not need here.

2 My theological framework here has been most influenced by von Balthasar, de Lubac, the two Rahners, and Fessard.

3The serious ambiguity inhering in the term “vocation” can be reduced somewhat by the language suggested here.

4An extended sense of “call” is also common, that is, that to which a person is called; this sense I shall avoid, using instead the phase “objective of call” or, perhaps “vocation,” which can, as in ordinary language, be used for any of these terms.

5God’s “will” usually corresponds to “the objective of His call,” thus pointing to what in fact He is willing conditionally or absolutely, though in standard parlance it is also used for that willing which is Himself in fact, what Aquinas calls His will of good pleasure.

6All this can happen less directly to us, of course, through our natures also; part of the illumination may be that today we are alert and clearheaded, or have a touch of flu, or stayed up too late the night before — in any event, our physical condition can help us penetrate more deeply what we are reading.

7Why is it that so many thinkers confuse the analogy of a plan of development centered on an unchangeable goal, which therefore admits of a continuous infinity of alternatives and of unceasing temporal adaptation without being overturned, with that of a set of blueprints of static plans for a static structure? 

8Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer, tr. by A. V. Littledale (New York, 1961), p. 49.

9We have stressed the punctual nature of God’s immediate and direct activity in man’s soul. It should be clear that He need not always act in this fashion. Yet neither will some trace of this aspect of the eternal be missing, however He acts.

10Karl Rahner, S.J. The Dynamic Element in the Church, tr. by W.J. O’Hara (New York, 1964), p. 105.

11This is indeed the only reason why Ignatius hedges this manner of choice with so many preparations, instructions, precautions: that it be possible for the retreatant to be certain that it is God he is hearing, that he is not fooling himself or being deluded. The more grounded the certitude, the better; and this is one major reason for the renewed interest today in the original form of the Spiritual and for concern to find competent spiritual directors.

12 Could God will that a timid youngster, who is wrongly and excessively fearful of Him, refuse His invitation to the religious life precisely so that he might learn something of the freedom of His children? I do not know; but I should definitely not want to exclude the possibility a priori ‒ one further difficulty I have with the position that would make of all God’s invitations merely covert commands.

13 I am referring here solely to the infused and supernatural gift of faith, not to any feeling or psychological “experience,” whether those somehow from or connected with faith or otherwise.

14The one exception is the germ cells. In the Church this difference, too, is preserved analogously. For the unbaptized has the “natural” components for a Christian being but is lacking the lifegiving power of the divine components to be given by the Spirit.

15Many more answers could be given were one to consider as well the purposes of the particular vows of religion or, more generally, if one seeks the rationale for the kinds of things that may be vowed.

In German: “Wahre und falsche Berufungen.” Translated by Jochen K. Michels. 2014.




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