You are God’s unshakable hope

You are God’s unshakable hope

By Fr. Joseph Delargy O.C.S.O.

Across cultures and around the world there is a basic human desire to nurture hope. Vocations ministers in England and Ireland believe in hope. In that regard they share a common sentiment with their American counterparts, as well as often sharing common congregational roots and similar challenges and blessings. In 2009 many of them gathered in Birmingham, England under the theme of hope in the future. We present the keynote address here.

The ministry of being a vocations director can be one of the most blessed ministries in the church today, or it can be one of the most difficult and lonely ones. It can be wonderful to accompany people as they discover their call from God, to help guide them along the path in responding to God’s call. On the other hand in those orders and dioceses and congregations that are receiving no vocations, and sadly that can be many of us, it can be a very disheartening job; the vocations director can see little fruit for his or her work, all efforts coming to nothing. As Pope John Paul II said in Vita Consecrata (64): “Great spiritual and material energies have been and are being expended in the sphere of vocational promotion, but the results do not always match expectations and efforts.”

I have even heard of cases where vocations directors receive hostility from their communities, as if they are to blame for the lack of new members, or as if they are not doing enough to attract them. Also the vocations director is at the front line, at the interface between the congregation and the broader world. The future of the congregation or order or diocese, to a certain extent, is held in their hands, so there is also the great weight of responsibility.

Today we have gathered to look at ways to revitalize our commitment to vocation promotion, to see the vocations director as a person of unshakable hope, and hope is so important. The Congress on Vocations to the Priesthood and Religious Life meeting in Rome in 1997 said in its final document, New Vocations for a New Europe, that those in charge of vocations promotion must have “a hope that is stronger than every fear and doubt.”

Quintessential vocation story

I would like to frame what I have to say within the story of one person’s vocation. That person is St. Aelred of Rievaulx. The story of his vocation provides a framework to hang eight thoughts or ideas on for our reflection. I choose St. Aelred for—apart from him being a Cistercian, as I am—2010 is the 900th anniversary of his birth.

St. Aelred was born in 1110 at Hexham in Northumberland. When he was 24, he joined the recently founded monastery of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire. Eventually he became the abbot of that monastery, and it flourished under his leadership, increasing to over 600 monks. He died in 1167. His feast day is the 12th of January.

St. Aelred’s Life was written by his contemporary, Walter Daniel, a monk who lived with Aelred for the last 17 years of his life. In this work we hear about Aelred’s vocation and call to religious life. It is not particularly different from anyone’s call—that is why I am using it—but I believe by looking at it clearly we are given eight lessons as vocations directors. I would just like to look at that section:

When he was 24 years old, God willed that Aelred, for the welfare and comfort of many, should give himself to the way of holiness. God willed, by his grace, to call Aelred to the laudable and happy state, inspired him to despise the vainglory of this world and to make profession of the religious life. In thinking about this Aelred realized that (for him) the monastic life was the way to receive the heavenly promises, but, fearing to give open expression to his intention, he concealed his wish from those around him.

Shortly afterward he was in the neighborhood of the city of York. By a happy chance he heard a companion telling how two years ago certain monks had come to England from across the sea, White Monks. They venerated poverty, were joined together in charity, spurning vainglory; everything they did was at the motion of the abbot’s nod; the humbler one was, the greater he was among his brothers…and so on…. Such was the story which Aelred was told by his friend. At this point he exclaimed “And where, oh where, is the way to those men and that place?” His friend replied, “Don’t be disturbed, they are close by at Rievaulx.” They then made arrangements to visit the monastery the next day.

The next morning Aelred went to visit the monastery with some companions. He was met by the prior, the guestmaster and the gatekeeper. They took Aelred to prayers, and after prayers they preached the word of God to him. The power of their talk of spiritual things was almost too great for him to bear. Yet it was not on that day that the call of the place made Aelred choose it as his home. He returned to his lodgings and spent another night there, and after some talk among the company, he went to bed.

In the morning he called his servants to bridle, saddle and harness the horses for the journey home to Scotland. Now on the way home he had to pass along the edge of the hill overlooking the valley, where a road led down to the gate of the monastery. When he reached the spot, still aflame with the heat of the Holy Spirit and the love of the Lord Jesus, he asked his servant if he would like to go down to the abbey and visit it again. As our father Aelred would tell us later, if the servant had said “no,” he himself would not have gone down to visit the abbey again. But the servant wanted to, so they went down and were met by the prior and guestmaster and gatekeeper again. The monks had a shrewd suspicion that the will of the visitor—who had come to visit them again—had been prompted by longing for his wellbeing, and they were led on to probe his mind with more searching admonitions. I need say no more. Aelred agreed at last to become a monk. There was no more dissembling for him now that his duty had been made clear. He divided all his goods, he abandoned everything that he had and entered the monastery. (Adapted and simplified from The Life of Aelred of Rievaulx by Walter Daniel.)

Eight lessons St. Aelred teaches us

As we reflect on that passage I believe we can extract eight lessons for us to reflect on in our work as vocations directors.

1) It was God who called St. Aelred. It is so obvious, but we do forget that. We do not call people to the religious life, nor do our orders. God calls people; God may use us as a medium, but the call is God’s. The person has to respond to that call from God, but so do we. With all our barrage of tests, psychological assessments and checks, we can turn the whole process into a very human thing and forget the aspect of “vocation” that is the call of God. The fact is that ultimately the call, the choice, is God’s, which is why it is so important to pray for vocations, and this is a fact stressed in all church documents and papal pronouncements on vocations. In Matthew’s Gospel we hear Jesus saying to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” At Mount St. Bernard we have a novena of prayer for vocations each year on the nine days before the feast of St. Joseph.

We are accustomed to speaking about the lack of new members, but there are new members. I am just back from Africa, and some of our communities are having to put a temporary stop on applicants because they can’t cope with all the people who wish to join. There are vocations, but just not here. God still can and does call people, as we see in Africa or Eastern Europe, calls them dynamically and numerously. So we can hope what he does there he can do here. That is why we must pray for vocations.

2) God called Aelred “for the welfare and comfort of many.” A person receives a vocation not solely for his or her own benefit but for the benefit of others,“for the welfare and comfort of many.” We have to feel that. No religious order is eternal, as Pope John Paul II said, the consecrated life will always exist in the church, but its particular manifestation can and does change. Orders come and go, some have fulfilled their mission, new orders start. But we have to see that we are not just here for ourselves; our vocation is not just for our personal benefit but for the welfare and comfort of many, and that is why we want and need more vocations. We don’t just want vocations in order to keep this or that house open, this or that institution going, but rather so that our work, our mission, can continue. We have to turn our attention away from ourselves and our own survival and fix it on the work that won’t be done, the people who won’t be helped, the charism that will be absent if we don’t survive.

3) Aelred’s call, as with all calls, is the call to follow Jesus. Only secondly is it a call to this or that religious order or vocation. I think that was probably our experience too; we felt something stirring within us, a desire to give our lives to God, to follow Jesus, and only afterward, after thought and reflection, did the particular way of doing that become clear. As the passage says, “In thinking about this Aelred realized that for him the monastic life was the way to receive the heavenly promises.” We have to present our life primarily as a way of following Jesus, a response to his call to “follow me.” Our different charisms are just different manifestations, different ways, of following the same call, the call of Jesus to “follow me.”

Aelred’s first response to his call was hesitancy: “fearing to give open expression to his intention, he concealed his wish from those around him.” Again this is a common experience, and it was certainly my experience. 4) When people first feel they have a vocation, they can feel scared, unworthy, not good enough, not holy enough, not clever enough, frightened of being rejected and so forth. We must be very sensitive to that. When a person first makes an inquiry of us, however tentative, that is a very big step for him or her, an enormous step. It is not something a person does lightly. We should respect that first approach, as we are dealing with something sacred.

Also people are very sensitive to the first response they receive from us. I would add that even in no hope situations (the applications we sometimes receive from married atheists or from psychiatric units) we should still respond with the utmost courtesy and respect, even if our response has to be negative. We should never be haughty. Whilst our assessment of candidates has to be rigorous, especially nowadays, we should also keep the situation in perspective. Some scenarios present the religious house as if it exists in a world solely inhabited by criminals, the mentally ill and abusers all clambering to enter religious life and that it is the principal job of the vocations director to keep these people out. I have encountered unsuitable applicants, but I don’t think I have encountered an applicant who is applying in bad faith or with a bad will. It is quite rare.

5) We see the importance of what Aelred first hears about the life. It is significant in his decision. How do people hear about our particular way of life today, and what do they hear? What do we say? These are important questions that cover the whole area of vocation Web sites, literature, advertising, open days and so forth. In an article in Human Development called “A Vocation to What?” by Catherine Harmer, a Medical Mission Sister, she writes:

In putting out our invitation for others to join us, I think it is essential that we convey the core of who we are and why we exist, in both general and specific ways. Some risks are involved. If our picture of ourselves does not attract others, we may need to look at who we are and what we are doing. It may be that our life is unusually demanding, which would tell me that we need to contact women and men who want such a life. If our life is too comfortable, we may need to look at ourselves to see how and when we lost the challenging and demanding elements. I am not sure that a comfortable life would have been very attractive to me when I first looked at a vocational brochure. I was a bit frightened by the challenge but decided I wanted to try. (Human Development Volume 22, 2001 p. 11)

6) We then see how important Aelred’s first contact with the monastery was; it was the welcome Aelred received that struck him. In the official church teaching this aspect of vocations promotion is stressed so much. In Vita Consecrata we read, “The invitation of Jesus, ‘Come and see’ (John 1:39) is the golden rule of pastoral work for promoting vocations, even today.” It is personal contact. Starting Afresh from Christ says how prospective vocations have to see “visible signs of joy, communities that are welcoming.” We have to be open to receiving people who “come and see.”

7) When Aelred visits the monastery, we see that the monks spoke the word of God to him—they believed in the life and transmitted their enthusiasm to him. At the right moment we shouldn’t be hesitant in speaking about our life or proposing it to others. Once again in Vita Consecrata (64) we read:

Following the example of founders and foundresses, this work aims at presenting the attraction of the person of the Lord Jesus and the beauty of the total gift of self for the sake of the Gospel. A primary responsibility of all consecrated men and women is, therefore, to propose with courage, by word and example, the ideal of the following of Christ, and then to support the response to the Spirit’s action in the heart of those who are called.

We need to enthuse people with our life. But in an interesting article entitled “Modelling: A Challenge for Formators,” Father Michael Casey, a monk of the same order as me, speaks about how being appointed or being asked to be vocations director can call us to our own conversion. Maybe we are going through our own period of midlife crisis or lukewarmness, and then the superior asks us to be vocations director. We are asked to look at our own commitment to our life; we have to be convinced of the value of it if we are going to communicate that to others. So a primary task of the vocations director is to rediscover the beauty of his or her own calling and vocation.

Finally Aelred’s decision, or the way he made it, was not completely rational; it depended on whether his servant wanted to visit Rievaulx again. 8) Somehow we have to encourage those considering a vocation to take the risk. Much vocation literature today speaks about the inability of the present generation to make a commitment, but I feel it is more a question of an inability of making a decision one can’t guarantee is correct. There is an element of risk in joining a religious order, and often people are reluctant to take the risk. This is paradoxical; for the same people may be from a generation that takes pleasure in extreme sports or gambling or drug taking, where the risk element is part of the attraction and pleasure. Like falling in love or getting married, entering religious life does not always stand up to rational analysis, and sometimes you just have to say that to people.

These are the eight lessons I believe we can extract from the story of St. Aelred’s vocation as we think of the role of the vocations director. I would like to conclude with a final thought from the 1998 Congress on Vocations to the Priesthood and Religious Life, New Vocations for a New Europe. The authors speak of new vocations and stress that if our novitiates become full, it will be something new, not something old. Often when we speak about vocations and our dream of full novitiates, there can be the unspoken subscript “like it was in the past when I was a novice.” But we cannot go back, we can’t re-create the past; the past has gone. If an influx of novices comes, it will be new, it will different, it will not be a repeat of the past. This may seem a subtle distinction to make, but it is an important one. We are not looking back with nostalgia; we are looking forward with hope.

Father Joseph Delargy, OCSO has been a Trappist monk of the Monastery of Mount St. Bernard in England for 24 years. He has been abbot of the community since 2001.


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