Br. David Vryhof, SSJE; Novice Guardian
Reprinted from Cowley, the community’s quarterly magazine
In my role as Novice Guardian in the community, I have particular responsibility for working with the men who have recently entered the community and who are actively engaged in discerning whether or not this life will become a ‘vocation’ for them. Invariably this is a time of joy and of struggle, as they discover new things about themselves, about God, and about living with others in this way of life we call “religious life.” Some will eventually arrive at the decision that God is indeed calling them to this way of life, and will choose to stay. Others will leave, believing that this is not their vocation and looking elsewhere for God’s calling in their lives.
Choosing to stay can be a difficult and costly choice. Not unlike other choices that involve making a long-term commitment, a choice for religious life will effectively rule out other options one might wish to explore. To choose this path means choosing to forego other equally attractive paths, and the cost of this choice is sometimes so daunting that we hesitate to make it. Choosing has its own rewards – such as the inner freedom and clarity that come from knowing and embracing God’s call, and the deepening of relationships that can only happen in the context of mutual commitment – but the choice is costly nonetheless.
Why do we choose to stay when so many other options are available to us? What is it about this life that gives us sufficient reason to give our whole lives to seek God here, in this particular place and with this particular group of men, in vows that bind us for life? If we were to poll the community we would undoubtedly find a range of answers. Here are some of mine – reasons why I (and others here) have chosen to embrace religious life as the particular way in which God was calling us to love and service.
Seeking God. Those of us who come here, come seeking God. We share the desire of the psalmist who said, “One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (Ps 27:5,6). The desire to know, love and serve God lies at the heart of every true vocation to the religious life.
Gratitude. A joyful vocation is one that arises out of a sense of deep gratitude for what one has received from the hand of God. “How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?” asks the psalmist (Ps 116:10), and our hearts rise up to answer, ‘I will give myself to God as completely as I know how.’ Gratitude fuels our love for God and our service to our neighbors. It is an essential quality of every Christian life, and certainly of every true vocation to religious life.
A life of worship. Whether we have come to sing the Chant or simply to say our prayers in the company of others, most of us are drawn to the rhythm of worship in the monastery. Having the day punctuated by regular offerings of worship and praise reminds us that our lives revolve around God, something we are apt to forget in a culture in which individuals are so obsessed with the pursuit of their own goals and desires. Worship orients our life towards God.
Opportunity for prayer. Silent spaces in our life, times for meditation and for retreat, give us opportunity for individual prayer, and the chance to draw near to Christ as confidant, friend and brother. In our community the icon of the Beloved Disciple leaning on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper has a place of special significance, reminding us of the opportunity each of us has of sharing this same intimacy with Christ through prayer.
Conversion of life. We expect, through these divine encounters, to be transformed and to be made more and more into the image and likeness of Christ. Most of us have come with this hope, that we will grow in freedom from the world of sin and into union with God. Transformation is our desire and our goal.
Life with others. A good number of us would list ‘community life’ as one of the chief reasons for our choice, in spite of the challenges and difficulties that living together brings. The rewards of life together are significant. Most of us have grown into deep friendships here, have found other like-minded men committed to similar ideals and values, and have discovered a place of freedom where we can be ourselves, and where we experience what it means to be loved and valued by others. Community life can be a great gift to us.
Availability for God. We find in this life the freedom from many of the cares and responsibilities that others bear, for themselves and for their families. Because we share all things in common and because we forego the responsibilities of marriage or committed partnership, we find a freedom and availability that allows us to be ‘men of the moment,’ responsive to the movements of the Spirit in the present age and available for the purposes of God in the world.
Service to others. We offer ourselves here in the service of Christ’s Church, and of the world that God has made. Religious life gives us many opportunities to serve Christ each day, in meeting the needs of our brothers, of those who come to our monastery, and of those whom we find opportunity to serve in the world about us. We come to serve, just as Christ did.
Preaching, teaching, interceding. Our service takes many forms. Some of us have come because life in the community gives us special opportunities to proclaim God’s good news, through words but also through our life together. We work and pray for the sake of others, preaching and teaching the gospel, and offering our prayers and intercessions on behalf of, and in union with, all people throughout the world. We have a sense that we are here to work and to pray for others.
Becoming the person we have been created to be. Many of us have found in religious life a life that uniquely ‘fits’ us, that suits our personality, temperament and gifts. We have recognized in this life, perhaps more than in any other, an opportunity to become the person we were uniquely created to be. We are daily stretched and challenged by its demands, but also find ourselves rising up to its challenges with hope and expectation for what we can become.
The call of God. Finally, there is the “call of God,” the sense that our coming to this life was not our own doing, but the gentle beckoning of God’s grace in our lives. “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn 15:16). In times of difficulty or stress, we rely on this deep and abiding sense that God has desired this for us, and that “the Lord will make good his purpose for [us]” (Ps 138:9).
Undoubtedly, there is more that could be said and many ways in which to say it. The bottom line is that we have chosen this life as our way of “loving God above all” and “loving our neighbors as ourselves.” It is not the only way, or necessarily the best way – but for us, it is the way that beckons most strongly and in which we find our true vocation. To live it faithfully requires choosing it again and again, embracing it day after day, renewing our purpose and our hope, and relying on God to give us all that we need.
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