I have recently been reading St. Basil the Great’s ascetic writing every evening before going to bed. St. Basil was the bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century and is considered to be one of the greatest Christian authors of that particular era. St. Basil spent many years before he became a bishop as a monk and longed for the monastery long after he was consecrated bishop. Not only this, but he also composed his own rule for monks which directly inspired and guided St. Benedict when he wrote his own.
Last night, I read something in one of his sermons that cut me to the quick and confirmed something that I had been thinking about for a long time. St. Basil writes that vocational discernment is not something that should be taken lightly nor is a vocation to the monastic something that you can pick up and leave behind. Rather, it is like being enlisted into an army and then suddenly deserting because you don’t have the stomach for it.
Last year, I was presented with an opportunity to go and visit the Franciscan novitiate in Oregon. It was supposed to be a three day retreat in which we would visit with the friars and learn what they do. The trip was paid for by the friars, but I somehow didn’t feel that the time was right. It was an itching, nervous feeling.
I asked the advice of many friends, but the doubt was still there. What if they bombard me with books and CDs? What if they decide that I should stay? What if…? What if…? The question kept coming up over and over again. I felt like the Franciscans’ generosity came from the fact that they were desperate for vocations. I felt pressured to go and then my parents did not know what I was doing.
After praying to God and begging Him to understand my decision, I called Fr. Director. I told him that I needed more time to figure things out. He told me that it was fine. Things like this came up all the time and that I shouldn’t worry. The Franciscan thing ended there, but it also continued.
Over the last few months, I’ve learned a great deal about myself and where God wants me to go. My discernment process has taken me from extremely active communities like the Jesuits and the Franciscans to more and more contemplative ones such as the Benedictines and the Trappists. Looking back on it now, slamming those breaks was probably the best thing that I ever did for all of the pain that it caused me at the time.
When I read St. Basil’s words about patience in discerning the calling to become a monk, I suddenly recognized my own experience in his words. In all of my previous discernment experiences, I had acted too quickly and too rashly. I had called Vocations Directors only to be bombarded with information and then being told over and over again to show up for a retreat, conference, etc. Yet I had to refuse, it just didn’t feel right to me to fall head over heels. I knew it wasn’t God wanted.
St. Basil writes that the monastic vocation is not something that is to be entered into lightly. In his sermon, he uses extremely strong and military language to describe what the life of a monk is actually like. To paraphrase a sentence that stuck in my mind, “How are you going to live with yourself when you go into the monastery and deal with temptation if you can’t do it out here in the world?”
The truth is that St. Basil is right. The convent or the monastery is not the end of the journey, but only the beginning. It is where the testing begins and where a man becomes a monk. Being a monk is like being a member of the Marines. You are constantly tested. You are constantly being shown obstacles that stand in your way and you have fight through those obstacles to get to Christ. It is a life of constant sacrifice and prayer. It is life that demands a full commitment to God and to serving the community.
Monastic life is not about friars dancing in the fields or sisters playing guitars in a garden, it is about fighting the devil and uprooting him from one’s own life so that one can serve God more fully. To be a monk is to be free and happy, but one does not feel the happiness of the world but the happiness of being there with God and being surrounded by brothers that can help you and bear you when you are near to falling. It is a life that is worth giving your life for.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
St. Basil, pray for us!