A Helpful Homily
Choose Your Own Vocation
by Fr. Maximilian
“Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
I know what you’re thinking: “He’s going to talk about vocations. Blah, blah, blah.” Yeah, fair enough. Because “vocation” is actually not a very helpful word—other than the one vocation that we all must follow: the vocation to heaven. But, other than that sense of the universal vocation, it’s a far less helpful word than most of us imagine.
“Oh, Father, I know that God is calling me to marriage.” No; that’s your flesh calling you. “I know that I have a vocation to the priesthood.” Sorry, actually you don’t know that—not until the bishop lays his hands on your head. I’ve heard lots of pious folks claim to have a vocation from God when really they are just following their passions.
The truth is: Each of us, by nature, is called to marriage and family. We Norbertines also, celibate religious, still have the “vocation to marriage,” according to what God has given us by nature. The vocation, the “call” to marriage, is rooted in what you are. No personal vocation or private revelation needed.
On the other side, the Lord’s invitation to the monastic life as a religious sister or brother also is not some private, special thing for a select few. It’s a public invitation, written in the Gospel: “If you would be perfect, go sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me,” and: “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” Let anyone who can accept this, accept it. That’s public revelation. It’s in the Bible. No personal vocation or private revelation needed.
So, yes, you young folks will have to choose a state of life, but it’s not very helpful to think in terms of “vocations.” Because, boys, the good news is: You each have a vocation to marriage—’cause, yeah, your nature is called to it. And the other good news is: You each have a vocation to religious life—you heard the invitation in the Gospel this morning.
Therefore, go ahead and feel free to choose a state of life, any one, in peace, without anxiety. Both holy Christian marriage, and holy Christian celibacy lead to heaven. And don’t worry about messing up and choosing wrong, because the merciful Lord can make either one work for your salvation.
Is one better than the other? Sure. And maybe that’ll influence your choice. But don’t stress over it. In the body, the heart is a nobler organ than the liver, fine, but the body kind of needs both to not die.
So, if you can, and you want to, dude, just ask that nice Catholic girl to marry you. It’s a good thing to do. Or if you can, and you want to, just apply to enter the monastery. You don’t need any special excuse or fireworks, because it’s a good thing to do. So, you see, a lot of folks can freely choose a state of life, without worrying about “vocations.”
Even more, we read in the lives of the saints, especially of former times, how many were just put into a state of life by their parents without any of their own say in the matter. St. Norbert’s parents dropped him off at the local church to begin training for ordination when he was about nine years old. St. Elizabeth of Portugal was twelve when her family arranged her marriage and sent her off.
The point is: They became saints! They, and myriads like them, didn’t struggle with any period of discernment over their vocation, nor did they even get to choose which they preferred. They simply accepted the state in life they were given—valid marriages and vestitions—and they followed the call, the vocation, to holiness.
So, then, there turn out to be three ways one might enter a state of life:
First: It certainly can be, for some, by a special, unique vocation: “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” That does happen sometimes, to some people. Don’t plan on it happening to you, but if it does, listen.
Second: You students are looking forward to your free choice of a state in life: “Let him who can take it, take it.” Learn your options, and choose something good.
Third: For some, their state comes by the necessity of circumstances: “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men.” It could happen that certain options are simply closed off to you. Trust in God’s providence. “But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.”
So far, so good. But, forget about the students for a minute. What about us, professed canons, and what about you married folk in the back? You boys might be able to freely choose a state of life, but I can’t. Sure, I did—but even if what you want gets you into a state of life, your wants aren’t what keep you there.
Example: My brother Dominic is married with four children. I am … as you see. But he and I are very similar. We both like craft beer and Star Wars and overly complicated tabletop games. We both need to be virtuous in order to live our states rightly and become holy and get to heaven.
So, get this: I could have gotten married to some nice Catholic girl, and it would have been a good and holy thing for me to do. Dominic could have entered a monastery, and it would have been a good and holy thing for him to do.
But, at this point, who cares whether either of us made our choice for good reasons? Because for either of us, now, it would be a sin to break the vows that we’ve made.
I know a young lady who, because of manifestly bad choices, found herself with a baby to take care of. Alright, confession, absolution, fine. But now she really is in the state of motherhood, and so it would be a sin for her to try to become a nun. She’s got a kid to take care of.
If you’ve already made a vow—of marriage or of religious profession—then you are obliged to keep it. Even if you find yourself in a state of life through no fault of your own, you still have to fulfill your duties of that state. And then what? Then you just do what St. Elizabeth of Portugal or St. Norbert did, and make the best, holiest life you can with what you’ve got.
I love Dominic. But that’s not what makes us brothers. “If I could, I’d ask her to marry me all over again.” Well, that’s cute. But it’s not what makes you married. “If I could do it over, I wouldn’t make vows.” That’s sad. But it doesn’t make your vows any less binding.
What I said earlier about arranged marriages back in the middle ages is not obsolete. The secret, what they won’t tell you, is this: All marriages are arranged—and usually not by someone older and wiser, but by stupid kids: their younger selves. If you have a fifty-year wedding anniversary, it will be the anniversary of a marriage to a spouse chosen by a kid fifty years ago.
And all of us Norbertines were dropped off here at St. Michael’s by someone else: our former selves. When St. Anthony was a hundred years old, he could have said, “That was an eighteen-year-old kid who enthusiastically ran out into the desert. Why should I have to continue what my idiot former self chose?” But he didn’t say that. He kept at it, which is why he’s a saint.
Remember this, when we shall, as sometimes we must, have difficulties, crosses, arising from, on account of, our state of life. The presence of the cross does not mean that we are in the wrong state of life, but that we are in the right one, following our crucified Savior to the joy of heaven.
So, if you are saying, “I don’t want to play anymore; I’m not free to do what I want;” to you Sirach says today, “God provides a way back; he encourages those who are losing hope and has chosen for them the lot of truth.”
The way back, the encouragement, the hope, come from what? From the lot of truth. What is the truth of your situation? What is your actual state in life? I really am a religious priest. I’m also happy about that, but that’s not what makes it true. Dominic really is married to Rachel, regardless of how they feel about each other four kids later; there is a real family relationship which has nothing to do with any feelings of “being in love.”
Yes, there are other good orders, probably even better ones, but you didn’t make vows there; you made vows here. Yes, there are other, more wonderful women out there than your wife. But just because you feel in love with someone else doesn’t mean you have to commit adultery.
Yes, things could have been different. But they’re not, so don’t worry about it. “The truth will set you free.” “It is well for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage.”
We are all members of one body in Christ, so if you end up a hand, don’t fret that you’re not an eye, and if you end up a kidney, don’t try to become an elbow. As members of one body, your hand does see, by means of your eye; and your eye grasps. The body of Christ has very good hand-eye coordination. I participate in the blessings of my brother’s marriage, and Dominic participates in the grace of religious life. “And all things are mine, and I am Christ’s and Christ is God’s.”
What is our vocation? For each of us, Jesus must be the bridegroom of our soul. He is enough. He is all.