Vocation ministry and the mystics

Vocation ministry and the mystics

By Father Kevin DePrinzio O.S.A.

Saint Teresa of Avila is depicted in the play God’s Gypsy. Photo of Laura Dooling by Silvia Spross, from the play God’s Gypsy by Coco Blignaut. Used with permission.

AFTER AUGUSTINE AND HIS FRIENDS had been baptized, they set out to return to Augustine’s hometown of Thagaste in North Africa to establish a way of life based on the Jerusalem community in the Acts of the Apostles. The Thagaste community quickly gained a fine reputation as “servants of God,” attracting new members from near and far. The story is told that it was an inquirer from Hippo that first brought Augustine to the city, changing his life and ultimately changing the course of history. Staying in Hippo for some time as he discerned with this individual, Augustine hoped to bring the inquirer back to Thagaste to join the community. Instead, just the opposite happened: Augustine caught the attention of the Christians there who “seized him” after recognizing his gifts, “called him forth” to minister as their presbyter, and “dragged him” to the altar for ordination, though he himself was admittedly reluctant, even to the point of tears. (See Augustine’s Sermon, 355.2, for his own reflection on this dramatic occurrence, as well as his friend and biographer Possidius’ Life, 4.)

It is not an understatement to suggest that had Augustine not gone to meet with this discerner, well, the church simply would not be the same. Consider the rich sacramental theology offered in his Easter sermons, his articulation of a theology of grace; his classic spiritual autobiography Confessions and his Rule, which, to this day, is a foundational document for countless religious institutes of women and men—all of this resulted from his coming to Hippo for the purpose of vocational discernment. Could this have been the fruit contained within the seed that he thought he was planting in that conversation with the inquirer? Could Augustine’s accompaniment of the individual have also been about the way God was nurturing Augustine’s own vocation?

It seems that the answer is a resounding yes. However, it begs the question of how much Augustine actually knew he was getting himself into when he agreed to go to Hippo. He simply wanted to welcome and accompany a new member to his community, but there was a certain “publicness” that came with that desire, the public witness of his own vocation.

We cannot know

This event serves as a cautionary tale for all vocation directors—one never knows where or what vocation ministry might lead to. On some level, we all know that one new member can change things, or at least that is what we tell ourselves, but to have one new member actually have such an impact that it changes our own trajectory, our own direction, putting us into a new place and space, is a prospect that is difficult to fathom and grasp, let alone desire. I can imagine some members of Augustine’s community in Thagaste asking him this question when he agreed to set out for Hippo: “Do you clearly understanding what you are undertaking?” And it is one that may sound familiar, as it has baptismal echoes.

“You have asked to have your child baptized…. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?” This is the question posed to parents and sponsors of a child at the entrance of the church at Baptism. I always laugh to myself whenever I reflect on this important moment at the beginning of life in the church, as parents and godparents seem to give their assent so quickly. In fact, I sometimes wonder if they even really pay that much attention to the question, not only because they are distracted by the baby in their arms coupled with their excitement for the day, but the very weight of the question could be too much to bear and take in.  

If that is the question asked at Baptism, then with religious life as a marked intensification of this sacrament, imagine its weight on the mentor of a discerner and new entrant. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking in vocation ministry? Do you clearly understand what is being asked of you by God and your community in walking with someone who is discerning religious life, a deeper expression of Gospel living begun at Baptism? Do you clearly understand that your life can be significantly altered, as was Augustine’s, bringing you to a new place in your own life and your own understanding of your yes to God? Do you understand? Clearly?

The answer, of course, might be a comfortably Catholic one: a resounding yes—and no—which makes for some obvious discomfort. To what extent does anyone understand clearly what they are undertaking when it comes to any commitment in life, let alone the nurturing and mentoring of a new member of a religious institute? Those entering our communities might understand they are undertaking the Gospel journey, a journey that will call forth gifts, seize them, and drag them reluctantly at times into a life not yet imagined and a future not yet revealed. This is not to discount the need for garnering good information from mutual discernment. But, when it comes down to it, one will not—and cannot—have every aspect, or every impact of the religious life commitment figured out. It is not the way life works, and it most certainly is not the way life with God works, no matter how intentional, prayerful, and discerning that life is.

Leave room for Mystery

There has to be some room for Mystery marked by trust. Again, on some level we know this to be true in theory; yet, on another level, it is a practice in, what Augustine calls at the end of his Rule, “living in freedom under grace.” And this spiritual practice is self-implicating, just as Augustine demonstrated. In other words, there is something about life in and with Christ, particularly as expressed so intently in religious life, that is more about the embrace of the unknown than the known. If we are going to invite others to join in our company and mentor them, then we have to be willing to continue going into the unknown ourselves.  We need to enter into the unknown at the prompting of newer members. Could this be one of the gifts that religious life can offer to the world in our day? Could this risk-taking be what we clearly know that we are undertaking?

It is safe to say that this embrace of the One who is both known and unknown—as expressed particularly in a call out of the depths and into the depths—has always underpinned religious life through the ages. But there is something about life and church in the 21st century that asks us to “return to the source(s)” in a newer, fresher way, or with a greater emphasis, perhaps different from what we thought Vatican II asked of our communities, though Vatican II’s invitation may very well have prepared us for this moment. It could be the shrinkage of many of our communities; it could be the abuse crisis within the church and the mistrust of institutions and authorities; it could be the increasing none-ing and done-ing of religion coupled with an embrace of seemingly untethered spirituality; it could be what the new cosmology offers us as we become more aware that we participate in an unfinished universe. More than likely, it is a combination of all of these, which together pointedly ask of us, “Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?”   

I would suggest that the response to this question speaks of a dynamic tension from the contemplative tradition. All our religious institutes have been born out of contemplation to varying degrees; one might even say that the communities and their respective charisms resulted from the tension itself that contemplation holds. What the contemplative tradition underscores is the necessary embrace of Mystery in our lives, in our “real presence” encountering and in dialogue with Real Presence; it is Eucharistic in its expression. And, true to its Greek root, mysterion, mysticism, as the undertow of this tradition, implies a hiddenness and mystery begging to be noticed and made known.

Too often this has been seen as the work and call of an elite few. Some might say this makes the understanding of this hidden mystery inaccessible to the majority, but that is a terrible misreading of the tradition. Instead, these canonized mystics (i.e., canonized as in part of an official list, not necessarily saints) could be seen as the women and men gifted with an ability to articulate, or attempt to put into words, the “deep calling on the deep” waters of our Baptism, which is not to diminish nor discount their own unique, personal, and intimate experience of God.

Teresa’s search for clarity, truth

For those tasked with accompanying inquirers to religious life, mysticism’s articulation and navigation of the spiritual life offers helpful tools. Both Teresa of Jesus of Avila and John of the Cross, for example, offer particular insight here. At the very beginning of the Book of Her Life, often referred to simply as her Life or Vida, Teresa appeals to claridad, clarity, which she couples with truth. She writes, “May God be blessed forever, He who waited for me so long! I beseech Him with all my heart to give me the grace to present with complete clarity and truthfulness this account of my life which my confessors ordered me to write. And I know, too, that even the Lord has for some time wanted me to do this, although I have not dared. May this account render Him glory and praise” (Life, Prologue, 2). While scholarly input has revealed several layers of Teresa’s motivation, authority, and voice in her own right, one characteristic of Teresian spirituality could be seen as this search and desire for clarity, that is, to understand, to put into words, and to name her experience of God. Teresa clearly knew this need in discernment, in not only her own self-presentation but in how she was received and perceived by others. She desired authenticity without deception. Her appeal to complete clarity and truthfulness could be understood as both an examination and manifestation of her interior life, which she was clearly trying to understand and articulate herself, as well as a request to her audience to be open to what she had to say.

At the same time, she highlighted the importance of mutuality in this process and spoke of her struggle in trying to find this mutuality. She expressed a need for those who accompany, mentor, and guide others to be in touch with their own experience. She often felt a lack of understanding from those who initially guided her (or even those to whom she confessed frequently) because they were not grounded in their own experience or simply had not done the interior work themselves. Teresa’s frustration speaks of the truly self-implicating character of guiding and mentoring someone in discernment, whether as a vocation minister or as a spiritual director. Even so, we could say that her frustration nonetheless compelled her to be as clear as possible—to search for the right, fitting words—so that the one who accompanied her could understand.

What Teresa can offer vocation ministry is twofold: first, create the space so that the one who is discerning has the freedom to express his or her heart’s desire in a clear manner; and second, in making this appeal to clarity, note any experience of frustration or resistance on the part of the inquirer and/or the vocation director, for this felt tension might reveal something begging to be noticed in the discernment and very well may be the entry point to something not yet named. As an aside, perhaps like Augustine, little did Teresa know what she was getting herself into, when first entering Carmel of the Incarnation—admittedly because a friend was entering!—and when 20 years later something new was stirred in her prayer life that would propel her into a deepening conversion, ultimately reforming her way of life. No wonder Teresa desired good accompaniment during her vocational journey!

Unknowing as a path to understanding

Often rightly seen as her companion in the spiritual life and in the work of reform, John of the Cross offers another nuance helpful for vocation ministry. Like Teresa, his experience of religious life took him to places he was not expecting. Consider, for example, how it was his own brothers in community who imprisoned him, placing him in isolation, confinement, and physical darkness, yet it became the space from which John composed some of the most beloved poetry of Spain’s Golden Age, such as “The Spiritual Canticle.” In fact, some might  argue that his time of imprisonment became a source of ongoing reflection and subsequent commentary to his poetry.

At the beginning of his poem, “I Entered into Unknowing,” John suggests that unknowing is a way, even the way, of knowing: “I entered into unknowing, yet when I saw myself there, without knowing where I was, I understood great things.” Granted, these lines speak of an intense, mystical experience, not meant to be over simplified nor impoverished of meaning, but there is also an invitation in these words that is accessible to all. Among the learned of his day, John struggled with the privilege that having such intellectual leanings and credentials brought. Could the stirrings of his own inner life have been a way of navigating this struggle, while encountering the presence of God? Perhaps. What John also offers is the attraction and the embrace of the nada (or “nothing,” notably different from Teresa’s “Let nothing disturb you…”). Negation brought John of the Cross into greater freedom, whereby he was moved to let go of what held him from going deeper still. In other words, the insight here is that sometimes our own knowledge, or what we think we know (of ourselves, God, others, the world) can get in the way of what God may really want us to know.

This insight from John can be a focus of further reflection in vocation ministry, for both inquirers and vowed members alike, as we navigate new currents in religious life for the 21st century. Inquirers can sift through what they believe God is asking of them. Vocation directors have countless stories of women and men who enter into discernment with sometimes unrealistic expectations and assumptions. Coupled with Teresa’s call for clarity, the vocation director could mentor an inquirer in John’s practice of unknowing and unlearning as a way of knowing, learning, and deepening his or her discernment. How might we engage these individuals in such a practice that is respectful, challenging, and sacred?

What the contemplative tradition offers is a way not only to ask the deep questions of vocation discernment, but more importantly a way to sit with and ponder them, holding both the question and the answer in sacred tension. We would do well to express early on to discerners this contemplative dimension of life in Christ—the call of all the baptized. We see this contemplative dimension accentuated particularly in the lives of our charismatic founders who dared to set sail in new ways on the baptismal waters as they answered their own call. It was Augustine’s call. It was Teresa’s. It was John’s. And it is ours. Clearly.

Father Kevin DePrinzio, O.S.A. belongs to the Augustinians. He is vice president for mission and ministry at Villanova University. He served in vocation ministry for his institute from 2007 to 2012, during which time he served on the board and as a regional coordinator for the National Religious Vocation Conference.

Related articles

“Walking with someone in discernment,” by Virginia Herbers, Winter 2020 HORIZON, No. 1.

“Ignatian discernment: insights for you and those you serve,” by Father Timothy Gallagher, O.M.V., Summer 2018 HORIZON, No. 3.

Published on: 2021-11-02

Edition: 2021 HORIZON No. 4 Fall, Volume 46

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