What is a Monastic Vocation?
Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs, nor just a code of conduct, though it includes both of these elements. Rather, it is a whole way of life that involves every aspect of our being. This way of life is what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” His mission was to invite all human beings of every time and place to enter into this kingdom. This invitation is a call addressed to us. The Latin word for call is vocatio.
The Christian vocation, then, is a call from Jesus. We are invited to respond to it by faith, that is, by full acceptance of God himself and of all that he wishes to tell us and to ask of us through Jesus. Faith brings us to a realization of the genuine meaning of life and the purpose of our existence. Thus it enables us to live in such a way as to realize God’s design for us and to achieve happiness both now and in the life to come.
This call or vocation, then, is the same for all Christians, who are all equally invited to enter into life in the kingdom of God and to follow Jesus. Nevertheless, there is more than one way to follow him, for his own life embraced more than a single path. He worked in the obscurity of Nazareth, he taught by word and example, he alleviated the misery of those he encountered, he enjoyed the company of others, he prayed alone upon the mountain, he suffered intensely and experienced death.
A person is called by God not only to follow Jesus, but to follow him in a particular way. The usual way is that of family life and of involvement in the ordinary human pattern of work and social relationships. But almost from the beginning some followers of Jesus have, by their vocation, been directed into another path. This way of following him involves the renunciation of marriage, family life, and participation in the usual social and economic structures. This call invites a more solitary response, as did Jesus’ own response to the call he received from his Father. This is the monastic life, so-called from a Greek word meaning single or alone.
The monastic life is always marked by a desire for solitude, though this is usually experienced in a community made up of others who have the same aspiration. The purpose of the solitude is to free a person from distraction and self-absorption, thus facilitating knowledge both of oneself and of God. The means to such interior freedom are celibacy and a regime of renunciation and self-discipline, including serious work, but above all a constant effort of self-surrender and of prayer and reflection upon the word of God.
The invitation from Jesus to follow him along this path is what is called a monastic vocation. It involves an individual choice, but the person who chooses the monastic way believes, by faith, that he or she is doing so in response to a divine invitation. How does one recognize such a calling? It is a matter of grace and therefore of mystery, but it ordinarily manifests itself by a deeply felt interior attraction to this way of life. Monastic life is for the few rather than the many, but for those to whom the call is addressed it can become a way of joy and personal fulfillment leading to that love of both God and neighbor that is the heart of the gospel.