Fr Timothy Radcliffe
PART FOUR: LIVING THE CALL TO THE END
I've lost count of the times I've been told that "the young people of today" can't make lifelong commitments. The young, it is said, live in a fast-changing world where jobs and relationships are shortlived. But it is precisely because we live in a culture of brief and negotiable commitments that a vocation unto death is a beautiful and powerful sign of hope. I wrote at the beginning of this series that priestly and religious vocations speak of the long-term story in which every human being is summoned to God. Lifelong vocations are an extravagant gesture, but we must ask young people to make brave and crazy gestures and to believe that they can, with God's grace, live them out.
Recently, four young men made their solemn profession for the English Province of the Dominicans. They could all have flourished in the world, have had happily married lives and made lots of money. No doubt there were some people who said: "What a waste! They would have made good husbands." Unfortunately. I don't think anyone said that at my profession.
God never gives you a vocation that will cause you to be unhappy. He may give a vocation where there will be suffering on the way, but that suffering will be part of a journey to a deeper joy. God doesn't want anybody to be miserable. People who join religious life or the diocesan priesthood to run away from problems from their sexuality or a relationship will never succeed. That's not a vocation. You only have a vocation if you are embracing a path that leads to life.
It does sometimes happen that a priest really does find he cannot go on. And, after fighting for his vocation, we must just accept this. In these cases I believe that he probably never had a vocation in the first place. But, in the vast majority of cases, running away from such a crisis is to throw away the chance of growing up. There's bound to be some moment when most priests and religious say: "I don't see the way ahead." Then you have to trust that God will offer you the way. I had a time before and after ordination when I didn't cease to believe in God, but God felt distant, even absent. I knew deep down that I had a vocation and that I just had to wait. And I remember the very moment when I felt God's presence again: it was in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. But what I experienced there wasn't a feeling that God had appeared on the scene again and that he had been hiding behind one of the bushes. It wasn't as though I sensed somebody else there in the garden. I had got down to a deeper depth in my own being, where God is.
At the Last Supper Jesus placed himself in the hands of his fragile disciples. God dared to be vulnerable and give himself to people who would betray him, deny him and run away. In religious life we take the same risk. We place ourselves in the hands of fragile Brothers and Sisters, and we do not know what they will do with us. These Brothers of mine may send me on missions, or ask me to be the bursar and do the accounts, or elect me to be the prior or maybe just forget me. I cannot know in advance.
So we do not just say "yesonly at our profession. We promise to go on talking to God until we die. And that conversation also includes the "yes" we say to our Brothers and Sisters. We call each other. Our Brothers and Sisters should call us beyond fear when we feel paralysed and stuck. We call each other to live more fully.
One day, I was walking with some of the brethren in Scotland. We came to a cliff where the path disappeared. You had to place your feet in a slit and work your way along. It was all rather frightening, being suspended above the waves and the rocks. When we got to the end we realised that one Brother was missing. He suffered from vertigo. One of us had to go and say: "Gareth, put your hand here. Now stretch out your foot..." Slowly, he made his way back to safety. For the whole length of our life's journey we call each other. And that is the voice of God, calling each of us to freedom and courage, even though we do not know what lies around the corner.
People should look at those who have a vocation to the priesthood or religious life and say: "They've given everything. Whatever happens, they've said `yes'." Aquinas says this beautiful thing: the radical generosity of the vows is that you give what you don't know your future. You don't know what your life's going to be. You have no idea when you become a priest what you're going to do, and even more so with religious life.
We are called to live this uncertainty with joy. One of my close friends in the Dominican order, a Frenchman called Jean-Jacques, was sent to teach at a university in Algeria. It was hard work, but he was happy. One day, his Provincial phoned to ask him to come back to France to teach. He was bitter ly disappointed. Then he remembered that he had given his life away joyfully without condition. So he went out and bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate his freedom with his friends. A few years later, I was elected Master of the Order and I was desperate to have someone I knew in the General Council. I asked Jean-Jacques to join me. He said he needed a month to think about it. But I needed him to decide that day. He said "yes" and broke open another bottle of champagne.
At the heart of our vocation is the joy who is God. There will be moments of pain, but you know that God is wishing you to attain the fullness of happiness. If you know that, then when you go through painful moments it's much easier. It's a bit like when you're walking in the rain in the Lake District and you know that the pub is just a mile away. You are soaking wet, but you are already enjoying a foretaste of the pint.
BY SISTER CAMILLA OBERLING
Inever dreamt that my life would involve being at the founding stages of a new religious community. Since the age of 15 I had thought of religious life and, although I had a strong desire for marriage during my university years and beyond, I knew that God was asking something else of me. Discovering exactly what that was has taken some 25 years since the first inkling of a call to give myself "warts and all" to him. At the same time, I constantly tried to run away from him but, as the poem "The Hound of Heaven" aptly shows, running away from God is running away from our true selves and any chance of real happiness in life.
I come from a close knit and loving family and I believe that my Czech-German background has given me a certain strength and stamina that has helped me get through the ups and downs of my vocational journey. I was in London, but I joined a new religious community in Italy after I graduated as a nurse in 1985 as I could not find what I was looking for in terms of religious life here in Britain. I was there for 11 years, but chose not to take final vows as the experience did not satisfy the hungers of my heart and, although it was a community founded in 1978, it still used the old models of formation. I believed that there must be some other way of living a more contemplative, but not enclosed, religious life responding to the signs of the times and, at the same time, respecting the needs and using the gifts of women in today's world. On my return to England in 1997 I met a lot of young women searching for their path in life and, after a providential meeting with Fr John Armitage, the Vocations Group was born. We desired to create a space for young people to grow in the freedom and maturity necessary to make their own choices. One of my greatest joys is to see someone "move on" from the group into a vocational commitment of some sort, whether it is to marriage, committed single life, priesthood or religious life, but especially when one follows a call to give one's all to Christ and his Church. As one young woman said to me, describing why she felt called to the contemplative life: "I just really, really love Christ. I want my whole life to say 'I love you." And yes, there is a lot of love for Christ and a great generosity among young people today.
Cornerstone, a discernment community, developed from the Vocations Group, and out of that came the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham of which I am currently the community servant (or leader) as well as forrnator. God certainly "writes straight on crooked lines", although we often do not recognise it at the time. Without my experience of youth work and of religious Life in Italy, I could not be doing what I am doing now. The Vatican recognised that experience and approved our rule of life in October 2003. Cardinal Connac Murphy-O'Connor issued the decree establishing an official novitiate in time for our foundation on the Feast of the Epiphany in 2004.
Since then, the sense of being part of a much bigger plan has continued to grow in me, especially seeing that Providence is providing everything as our various needs arise. It is truly one big faith journey and I am sure that Our Lady will help us to discern the right way ahead. It is she who helps me to dream big because, as St Therese of Lisieux said, "my hopes touch upon the Infmite. Holding tightly to the God who sustains me allows me to be authentic in my joy and in my witness. In addition to my relationship with God. personal relationships with people who know me well and with whoml can be totally relaxed also allow me to have the strength to keep going, despite the inevitable difficulties of the founding years. Friendships within community and outside of community, along with my Wady, are a vital part of who I am as a person. I need other "pilgrims"to both support rue and challenge me to be my best self. and I need time for serious heart-to-hearts, as well as some time with no purpose other than to enjoy the life God has gin us and watch his dream for me and the community unfold in time.
The Conrramity of Our Lady of Walsingharn is holding a discernment vieekend (May 18 to May 20) for women aged 18 to 35 who are considering religious life. For more information, visit the events page of www.walsinghamcormnunity.org