‘Virtues make you powerful’: An amazing resource for men discerning religious life
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September 12, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — A Living Sacrifice: Guidance for Men Discerning Religious Life. Fr. Benedict Croell, O.P., and Fr. Andrew Hofer, O.P. Foreword by Abbot Primate Gregory J. Polan, O.S.B. Valdosta, Georgia: Vianney Vocations, 2019. xxiii + 277 pp. $22.00 + s/h if ordered from Vianney Vocations; more if ordered from Amazon.
This new book is one of the best additions to vocational discernment literature that has come out in the last half-century. Why do I give it such high praise? For two primary reasons.
First, most discernment literature is rather generic, about “giving your life to God,” without distinguishing between men and women, or between the call to the priesthood and the call to religious life. This book sets its sights squarely on men who are discerning a call to religious life. (Vianney Vocations published a similar volume for women in 2017.)
Second, lots of vocational materials are what I would once have called “touchy-feely,” before this adjective became absolutely the wrong one to use. This book is not sentimental or vague or mushy or dreamy. It speaks in clear language about realities, both material and spiritual. It confronts challenges from modern society, broken families, technology overdose, and bad moral habits. It does not, for example, ignore the present abuse crisis in the Church. Even on the first page, the authors bring this up:
Do you see problems in the Church today? We do. So do many young men we’ve worked with over the years. Their complaints may be familiar to you. ... It’s plain to see that the Church today suffers from a crisis of faith and morality, which has profound effects on regular Catholics. ... When a man awakens to these problems, something stirs in his heart. ... Most Catholic men we’ve encountered — those serious about their faith, that is — yearn for a transformed Church. They want to be personally involved in making the Church stronger. And more than that, they themselves want to be transformed. (1–2)
This book takes the approach, the only sane one, of presenting religious life as a noble challenge to which God calls men who want to give themselves radically to Christ and His Church. It is the ultimate army to fight on, the greatest of all adventures, the most demanding and most rewarding way of life. It promises everything and demands everything, as Christ Himself, the exemplar of religious (and priestly) life, told His disciples. In this way, A Living Sacrifice, even as its title announces, does not pathetically plead with men to deign to think perhaps once of religious life, or worse, present it as just another choice in the aisle marked “Catholic Lifestyles,” as do those who make all vocations equal. The book is for real men of faith who are eager to know and do God’s will.
The book is divided into five parts, each comprising three chapters, which I will summarize.
Part 1. The first three chapters already do a great deal to address the most common issues that affect young Catholics in discernment. Chapter 1, “Ten Truths to Set You Free from Discernment Traps,” covers things like forgiveness of past sins, how to think about natural desires when discerning religious life, and following God’s providential indications. Chapter 2, “Ten Do’s When Considering Religious Life,” suggests, among others, why and how to talk with one’s parents, and the writing of a brief spiritual autobiography — very helpful for knowing oneself, and perceiving the patterns of God’s activity in your life, or realizing what one is looking for the most. Chapter 3, “Ten Don’ts When Considering Religious Life,” advises readers not to get trapped by FOMO (fear of missing out), so common in our society where we are always comparing ourselves to everyone else — a vice to which young people are prone. The authors hit hard against the plague of pornography. “The man who is looking at porn is not in a position to enter initial formation. In fact, a man who views porn would also have problems entering a Christian marriage.” As they say, such things prepare a man for no vocation at all and must be left behind and repented of in a radical way in order to achieve human and Christian maturity.
Part 2. Chapter 4 speaks of a man’s relationship with God the Father — taking up, among other things, what true manhood looks like and refuting the shallow view that religious life is emasculating. Chapter 5 looks at the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and how they play out in religious life in our day (poverty for a Franciscan has a slightly different purpose from its purpose for a Dominican, and poverty will look different for Missionaries of Charity from how it does for Dominicans). Chapter 6 discusses the holiness that the Holy Spirit desires to give to those consecrated to Christ. “The word virtue means in fact, power. The virtues make you powerful. Holiness is not for wimps” (86). This chapter also unflinchingly deals with the abuse crisis and how, above all, it results from a lack of fidelity to the gifts of God.
Part 3. Chapter 7 considers what is distinctive about religious life, as opposed to secular or diocesan priesthood, while Chapter 8 — one of the most helpful of the book — looks at various types of religious and their charisms: monks, canons, friars, missionaries, etc., also briefly listing things to think about when checking out a newly established community. Chapter 9 gives stories of saints from different orders, examples of the variety discussed in the preceding chapter: St. Anthony, St. Bernard, St. Francis Xavier, St. Martin de Porres, St. André Bessette, St. Maximilian Kolbe.
Part 4 (Chapters 10–12) discusses the application process, stages of religious formation, and what to expect. The section about what to expect from oneself is of particular value: “Expect lingering questions, some confusion, disappointment, and loneliness. ... You may have even more questions than answers as you move through religious life” (192). As you grow spiritually, God opens you up for more and more dimensions of yourself — and of Himself. Religious life is a school of charity, in which you can expect failure and mercy. You mustn’t expect to become some other human being, nor expect that you will have lots of time to pray the way you want to pray. God will take the raw material you are and shape it in His way, through the common life.
Finally, Part 5 brings together meaty quotations from saintly religious men in the past, a “day in the life of…” from modern religious, and advice from religious brothers. All of this makes nourishing food for reflection and prayer. One brother gives this refreshingly blunt advice:
You know what allowed me the space to discover this world, my identity? I was unplugged. ... [Y]ou absolutely, positively need to turn off your cell phone. You need to shut off the TV. You need to get off the video games. If you want space in your heart to encounter Christ, unplug. (247)
I have heard the very same thing from monks at various monasteries. Other sound advice includes: “Make your life Eucharistic! Your vocation is rooted in Jesus Christ; he is the one who calls. And Jesus is alive and present in the Blessed Sacrament, waiting for you to discuss your vocation with him” (244).
“Go and check it out” is a common theme in the book. A visit is not a commitment; it’s a chance to see, to listen, to pray, to open one’s heart and mind. There is no other way, short of direct private revelation — which does occasionally happen, but shouldn’t be relied on! — to figure out if a community might be a good fit. (I talk about this too in an article here.)
The authors conclude with the advice to “give everything to Mary” — yes, this is the consensus of all the saints and every good spiritual director! One of the appendices offers great “Rosary Meditations for a Religious Vocation.”
I have a few minor criticisms of the book. The price is too high: at the main website, it is $22 + s/h, at Amazon $27 + s/h for a paperback (total $31.49). (Stepwise discounts are, however, available if you place bulk orders.) Many chapters follow the same opening style, reminiscent of self-help books; “cut to the chase” would be my advice. The book ends up on the hefty side (about 300 pages) for a modern audience. Granted, one might say young men serious enough to be thinking of religious life will be serious enough to read through a book like this, and I would tend to agree, but I still wonder if a concise edition might not be a good idea down the road. The authors seem to presuppose that young men today are of orthodox faith, and they hint that heterodoxy is a problem in the Church, but, in this era, when Pope Francis and his appointees are wreaking such havoc (as LifeSite, among others, has documented in painstaking detail), I would have appreciated a more forthright statement that a sine qua non before looking into any religious community is its forthright orthodoxy, as well as a frank admission that many religious communities today are nauseatingly heterodox. The idea of young orthodox Catholics infiltrating corrupt or worldly orders and turning them around from within has a certain James Bond appeal, but in practice, it can destroy people and their vocations. Similarly, no attention is paid to the turn toward tradition occurring among more educated Catholic youths; symptomatic in this regard is the absence of one of the USA’s most flourishing communities, the Benedictine monastery of Clear Creek, as well as the steadily growing Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. Fortunately, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter is mentioned (131). The recommended readings listed in Appendix F present Paul VI as if he were the author of Vatican II documents — an elementary blunder for which I have chided many students on their papers. This list also lacks the books on virginity/celibacy and poverty by Fr. Thomas Dubay, who, in my opinion, is superior to Fr. Cantalamessa.
But these things are truly minor in comparison to the immense good contained in these pages.
A Living Sacrifice will be extremely helpful for any man discerning a vocation, for those who work with or advise young people (in which category I would include parents), for college chaplains, and for parish priests who may not have much experience of religious life as a distinct calling. If you know a young man who is thinking of religious life or priesthood, let him know about this, or go ahead and buy him a copy as a gift. You might want to get additional copies for people in any of the above categories.
Given that the basic health of the Church depends radically on generous souls embracing a life of perfection, it is both surprising and disappointing how little Catholics talk about and advance the cause of religious life. Fr. Croell and Fr. Hofer have done the Church a great service by publishing just this book at just this time.