Religion during adversity: What it tells us about vocation candidates

Religion during adversity: What it tells us about vocation candidates

By Joseph J. Guido OP

Vocation ministers often hear stories of how grace has triumphed over adversity and in the process revealed or confirmed a vocation to church life and ministry. Candidates tell stories of conversion, renewal and return to the practice of the faith, of turning away from sin, the development of prayer and the deepening of understanding, the decisive importance of a mystical experience, a devotion to Mary or the role of a confessor, and the sudden or gradual conviction that one has been called. As often as not these stories are told with reference to an experience of adversity. The crisis may be expectable, as in the transition from late adolescence to young adulthood, or it may be extraordinary, as in the case of trauma. Also it can be both personal—the death of a loved one, professional failure, illness— and communal—immigration, war, an intimate acquaintance with poverty. The stories are frequently moving, the faith and courage that they entail evident, and it is tempting to believe that candidates have proven their mettle for the fact of having survived the furnace of adversity.

Such temptation is best resisted. As vocation ministers, we are charged not only to appreciate the stories that candidates tell us but with estimating what these stories reveal about a person and his or her aptness for a given life and ministry in the church, and the fact that one meets a crisis with faith and courage does not in itself suggest whether the crisis has been met well or what its resolution might imply about a vocation. To know this we must inquire further, and to this end I draw upon the psychology of religion to suggest that we can obtain important information about candidates by attending to three aspects of how they respond religiously to a crisis: the religious orientation that is evident, the forms of religious coping that are brought to bear, and the image of God that is revealed. To conclude, I propose several questions based upon this research in the hope that they may aid in the task of assessment.

Religious orientation

The concept of religious orientation was developed by psychologist Gordon Allport to help explain why social scientific studies of religion find that it is correlated both with desirable behavior, such as the altruism of Mother Teresa, and with undesirable behavior, such as the ethnic warfare in the Balkans. Allport distinguished between an intrinsic religious orientation, in which religion is an end in itself, and an extrinsic religious orientation, in which religion is used in service of some other and ultimate end. As Batson and Ventis note, people with a fundamentally intrinsic orientation regard religion as a “master motive. Other needs, strong as they may be, are regarded as of less significance, and they are, so far as possible, brought into harmony with religious beliefs,” while those with an extrinsic orientation view religion as “always instrumental and utilitarian”, including the use of religion for “security and solace, sociability and distraction, status and self justification” (p.152). Not surprisingly, research suggests that the desirable aspects of religion are associated with an intrinsic orientation while the undesirable aspects are correlated with an extrinsic orientation, and that on average, people with an intrinsic orientation bring greater maturity, tolerance and flexibility to their religious beliefs and practice than do those with an extrinsic orientation.

The implications of this for vocation discernment are apparent, as the best candidates are likely to be those who are drawn to religion for its own sake, who are psychologically mature, tolerant and flexible, whose lives are marked by altruism and who, therefore, have an intrinsic orientation to religion. Yet even the best among us also “use” our religion when confronted with adversity. Few of us waiting in a doctor’s office or fighting a bout of insomnia has not used prayer to soothe or distract ourselves, and I expect that most of us have inveigled religion in service of self justification when our motives have been called into question by others or we find ourselves under attack. What is important, therefore, is not that a candidate be motivated solely by an intrinsic orientation toward religion but that on balance it constitute his or her fundamental and pervasive stance, as in the following example.

Ben is a 24-year old executive in training, bright, good looking with an easy smile and charming personality. He is discerning how best to serve God and minister in the church, and attributes his sense of calling to an experience of Christ at the age of 17. At the time, Ben was a patient in an alcohol rehabilitation clinic, having taken up drinking when he was 13 and in response to multiple experiences of sexual abuse as a child. Mounting a flight of stairs at the clinic, he was surprised to find himself suddenly, unaccountably and intensely aware of the presence of Jesus and with it, an assurance that “everything will be all right.” As he describes the relationship of this experience to his present discernment, the predominance of an intrinsic orientation is evident. “It’s him, I guess, that I want and that I want to follow. Yeah, the peace is great, the sobriety and healing that’s come to me, and I know I couldn’t have those without him. But I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corp, and am now thinking about this, because I can’t get him out of my mind. I’m like obsessed with him and what he wants, and want to be like him.”

In contrast, Phil gives evidence of a rather more extrinsic orientation to his religious belief and practice. At 40 and a former seminarian, Phil is also discerning a religious vocation and, like Ben, comes from a troubled background of alcohol, divorce and sexual abuse. He describes his long standing attraction to prayer in this way. “When I pray for a long time, a couple of hours, all the fears and temptations go away. I’m calm. And when I leave I feel like I can face life. When I don’t pray, I can’t and get scared. So, I really think a more monastic or contemplative group is for me.”

It is not that Ben and Phil differ in terms of suffering, nor by dint of courage and faith, but rather that Ben is drawn to Christ in himself, while Phil is drawn to prayer because of the effect it has on him. Peace and sobriety, healing and calm are good things, and both Ben and Phil find them in religion, but from the perspective of vocation discernment, there is a difference between pursuing them as an end in themselves, in which case religion is a vehicle to another goal, and experiencing them in consequence of finding God, in which case religion serves as its own end. That difference matters, for while both Ben and Phil may have vocations, Ben’s has the greater likelihood of being mature and integral to who he is, docile to formation, companionable with the call of others, and rather more generous than self serving in its effects.

Religious means of coping

Martina lost everything and gained even more. At 30, she was exactly where she thought she should be, working in international banking, earning a six figure salary, and enjoying her weekends as a youth minister in her parish while planning for the day when she could minister full time. Then came a diagnosis of non- Hodgkin’s lymphoma, several rounds of chemotherapy, and a bone marrow transplant that failed. Forced to retire and weakened physically, she was compelled to make sense out of the sudden reversal of her life. “At first I thought that if I just fought and prayed hard enough, I’d win my way back,” she said, “but then when that didn’t seem possible, I got really angry and depressed, like God had let me down. But as the kids from the parish and all my friends from church kept visiting and praying for me, sending me cards, remembering me at Mass, I began to realize that this was my life, my way of serving, and that somehow it had a meaning and purpose and a benefit for others. It was then that I trusted I was in my Father’s hands, and that it all made sense somehow.”

Martina is an example of successful religious coping with adversity, and of the ability to find anew the faith and meaning that was otherwise put at risk. In his study of how religious people cope with crises, psychologist Kenneth Pargament has found that religious forms of coping fall into three categories: those that are helpful, those that are unhelpful, and those that can be either. Helpful forms of religious coping include a perception of support and guidance by God, collaborating with God to solve a problem, support of a congregation and religious leader, and benevolent reframing, that is, the ability to find positive meaning in otherwise negative events. In Martina’s case, several of these are quite evident in her conviction that she was in God’s hands, in the visits, prayers and support of the youth and friends from her parish, and in her ability to find meaning, ministry and purpose in her sickness. As Pargament notes, when religious people cope with crisis in these ways they are more apt to resolve the crisis successfully, with higher self esteem and better mental health than those who cope with adversity in the absence of religious faith.

In contrast, unhelpful forms of religious coping are associated with poorer outcomes, a failure to resolve the crisis, and increases in depression and anxiety. These include discontent with God and one’s religious congregation, often expressed in persistent anger, bitterness and disappointment, and negative reframing in terms of God’s punishment, as if to say “God failed me, the parish didn’t care, and I probably deserved what happened to me.” It seems, therefore, that helpful and unhelpful forms of religious coping can be distinguished in terms of the relationships they entail and the meaning they embody. Loving relationships with God and others and the ability to find meaning in suffering provide a rich resource in the midst of adversity. In contrast turning away from God and others, defining one’s associations negatively and in opposition, and assuming the worst fail both to meet the crisis successfully and to sustain the individual.

Of particular interest to us as vocation ministers is the fact that many of the things that are staples in the stories candidates tell us—prayer and the sacraments, turning one’s will over to God, conversion— are neither helpful nor unhelpful in themselves but rather depend on whether they are associated with helpful or unhelpful forms of coping. Conversion, for example, nearly always provides some initial good feelings. Whether it has long term benefits to the individual and results in an outpouring of grace for others depends on whether it occurred in response to anger or joy, is to a loving God or a despotic creed, and is understood positively as a response to grace or negatively as the avoidance of evil. In effect, much of the practice of religion in a time of adversity derives its power to help or hinder from whether it is embedded in sustaining relationships and a capacity to find meaning in adversity, or is associated with the abrogation of relationships and a determinedly negative understanding of what has befallen an individual.

Yet coping with adversity is not only about what we do but also what we believe. Pargament argues that we have a deep need to find religious significance in life and in the events that befall us and that when we do, we fare better. The nature of crisis, however, is that it often threatens our ability to do so. Our first response to crisis is to try and conserve the significance we have already found and to rely on what has worked for us in the past, what we already know and believe. This was evident in Martina’s attempt to fight and pray her way out of infirmity, and in her implicit assumption that God would reward her efforts. Most of the time and in most instances of crisis, such strategies work, our beliefs are confirmed and the crisis is managed well. There are times and crises, however, that shake the very foundations of belief and upend our best religious strategies. At such times we can find ourselves feeling abandoned, frightened and angry as if, in Martina’s words, “God had let me down.” The challenge then becomes to allow our sense of significance to be transformed by the crisis and to discover faith and belief anew and apart from the comfortable and familiar. Martina did just this when she came to understand that her illness was her ministry and did have meaning, and that far from abandoning her, God was holding on to her.

Religious coping in a time of crisis therefore involves both specific means of coping, some of which are helpful and some of which are not but all of which bear upon the religious practices we engage in, and the ends to which we employ them, either to conserve the religious significance that is under threat or to transform it in light of the crisis. What seems to determine whether we cope well or not is the match between means and ends, whether we can hold on when we must and let go when we ought to, but in all cases find meaning in adversity, strength and comfort in the support of others, and confidence in relationship with God.

Images of God

This latter point raises the issue of how candidates experience and understand God. There are of course understandings of God enshrined in creed and tradition that shape our experience, and also those that derive from culture and ideology, and for each of these there is a commensurate language and vocabulary. Yet the God who is most evident in a time of adversity may be the God embedded in personal experience. For instance, in a study of diocesan seminarians that I conducted several years ago, I found that the men talked about God in two different ways. When asked directly about God, the seminarians spoke eloquently about the Father and Son, about the Trinity, Incarnation and Holy Spirit. But when I did not ask them about God directly but rather about experiences that moved, pained or saddened them, the men spoke about a God who was variously close or distant, loving or absent, and about experiences of mercy, guilt, fear and peace. It would seem, then, that in addition to the God of explicit confession and faith there is a God implicit in personal experience and evident in the language of relationship. As psychologist Lee Kirkpatrick suggests, this may be owed to the fact that how we experience and implicitly image God as adults reflects the quality of attachment that we had to our parents as children.

Attachment theory maintains that children have an innate need to be physically and emotionally close to their parents, especially in times of need, and that on the basis of this early attachment children form enduring images of what it is like to be close to someone, how to engage with the world, and the extent to which they will be cared for and protected. Some children form secure attachments with their parents, carry into adulthood the conviction that being close to someone in a time of need is comforting and safe, and operate with the freedom of someone who believes they will be cared for and protected when need arises. Other children are less securely attached to their parents, and so are more anxious when left alone, less easily comforted by the presence of others, and somewhat wary of engaging the world. Still other children have a disorganized pattern of attachment in which neither with their parents nor with others are they confident about what to expect in a time of need.

In their studies of adults, Kirkpatrick and others have discovered that these patterns persist into adulthood and affect significant relationships. Of importance to us as vocation ministers is the fact that in adulthood, a relationship with God both reflects these patterns of attachment and can itself satisfy the need for attachment. Adults who have a secure attachment to God—who believe that God is close, benign and helpful—score lower on measures of anxiety and depression than those who have an anxious attachment to God, are better able to cope with adversity, recall a childhood marked by secure attachment to their parents, and, if married, are most likely to have a close and warm relationship with their spouses. Close, loving and protective relationships in childhood give us the capacity for a close, loving and protective relationship with God as adults, and both together permit us to engage with the world and others relatively freely and without undue conflict.

Listen for implicit sense of God

Two lessons can be drawn from this research. First, in listening to candidates’ stories of vocation and especially to how their sense of call may be related to experiences of adversity, we need to attend not only to their explicit confessions of faith and invocations of God but to their implicit experience and understanding of God as well. Second, how a candidate experiences and understands God in this way serves as a mirror both of their experience of significant relationships in the past and of their capacity for such in the future. Consider the examples of Matt and Casey.

Matt is a 30-year-old seminarian for a large diocese and Casey is a senior in college applying to a congregation of nursing sisters. Both have known their share of heartache, as Matt’s younger brother died and Casey was molested by a relative as a child. Both are intelligent, dedicated and serious about their vocations. When Matt speaks about God he says all the right things: God has a plan and purpose, mysterious though it is, and his brother’s death is a part of that plan. Yet in speaking about his brother’s death and its relationship with God’s plan, it is what he does not say that is most telling. Nowhere does he speak of God’s tenderness, comfort or compassion for Matt and his family, and when he speaks of his own sins and failings, he similarly emphasizes his own determination and God’s will in the absence of any hint of mercy. Casey, in contrast, does not pretend to understand why God allowed her to be abused or why her relative did what he did, but what she is confident of is that God saw her through it and has never abandoned her. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Matt describes his mother as “wise” but never mentions her love, and that Casey has a “close, we can talk about anything, she’s always there” relationship with her mother. Nor should it surprise us that Matt’s prayer is brief, focused and to the point while Casey speaks of prayer as a highlight in her day, and that Matt thinks of his preaching as priest in terms of “setting people straight” while Casey knows that oftentimes with patients, it is the “presence” that matters most.

It is obvious that how a candidate implicitly experiences and understands God is critical to consideration of a vocation, and so to our assessments. At the same time, it interacts closely with what has been noted previously, namely, the distinctions between intrinsic and extrinsic orientations, between conserving and transforming religious significance, and between helpful and unhelpful forms of religious coping. The capacity to seek God and pursue religion in their own right, and to be able both to hold on when appropriate and to let go of the familiar when necessary, as well as the choice of helpful means to either goal, depend in large part on whether the God who is known personally and best draws from a rich store of close, warm and dependable relationships throughout one’s life.

Conclusion and suggestions

How then to apply this research in the service of vocation discernment and assessment? First and foremost, cautiously, humbly and as only one part of a broader and richer process. Second, it may be helpful to consider several questions when listening to and assessing a candidate’s story of vocation, questions that embody the substance of the research but that are focused on teasing out the measure of a person and a vocation. These might include the following:

Where is the adversity? Every life has it, and a comprehensive assessment could well include inquiry about it: tell me about a crisis you faced and how you handled it, describe a failure you have experienced and what you learned from it, what is the hardest thing you have ever had to do and why?

In the midst of the crisis, is the goal to find God or something else? Although there is always a mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic orientations, it augurs best when God and religion in themselves are the object of a search, journey or striving and do not serve only as a means to another and ultimate end.

Is there evidence both of holding on to and letting go of significant religious experiences and ideas? Maturity will inevitably entail opportunities for both, and it is worrisome when only one is in evidence. We might therefore inquire: tell me about a religious experience from long ago that still has deep meaning for you, and tell me about how your experience of God has changed over time.

Who was relied on in a time of crisis, and how? All of the helpful means of religious coping involve relationships, with God and with others, that are marked by tenderness and the ability to find meaning in suffering. If, then, prayer, Mass or conversion is ingredient to the story told, an inquiry can be made as to who was present, with what meaning and to what end.

How is God described and implicitly experienced? Note what is and is not said, and how descriptions of God compare with those of others. Be alert to extremes: it is unlikely that God will truly be experienced as warm and close if early childhood experience had little of either, though others can well provide what parents cannot.

Many years ago a wise older priest told me that every vocation reflects something of what we have found and desire to possess all the more of, and something of what we have not had and hope for. There is much truth in this statement. It is a truth that adversity has a unique power to reveal, and one that we are entrusted to discern in the lives of others. To the extent that we can, we must weigh the relative balance between what has been given and what is wanting, and in this, to judge whether what is desired is what a given life can provide and a given work requires.


Allport, G. & Ross, J.M., “Personal religious orientation and prejudice,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 5, 447-457, 1967.

Batson, C.D. & Ventis, W.L., The Religious Experience: A Social Psychological Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Guido, J.J., “Schooling the Soul: A Psychological Perspective on the Implicit Theology of Roman Catholic Candidates for Ministry.” Toronto: Regis College, 1997.

Kirkpatrick, L.A., “Attachment and religious representations and behavior.” In Cassidy, J. & Shaver, P.R. (Eds.), Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Implications p. 803-822. New York: Guilford Press, 1999.

Pargament, K., The Psychology of Religion and Coping, New York: Guilford Press, 1997.

Joseph J. Guido, OP is a Dominican priest of St. Joseph Province and a psychologist who teaches and counsels students at Providence College in Rhode Island. He is also a member of his province’s vocation council and provincial council. 


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