A Vocation or a Cross?

A Vocation or a Cross?

At Danielle’s blog a conversation about vocations and the single life

. Danielle highlights one commenter who says that single life is not a vocation, it is a cross that people must bear:

A thwarted vocation – whether to religious life or to marriage – is a painful cross, no matter why a person has to live with a thwarted vocation.

But I think she proposes a false dichotomy and has too narrow a definition of vocation.

All vocations are crosses. Christ says: “Take up your cross and follow me.” We are all called to bear the cross. Vocational discernment is simply listening to the voice of God, asking him: What is your will for me? What cross will you have me bear?

The commenter writes as if vocations to religious or married life were not crosses. But that is a false view of these vocations.

I am a married woman, a mother. Those are my crosses. I love my husband and my daughter. But that love, if it is to be conformed to Christ, must be self-sacrificial. I must continually die to my own desires and live to serve my family. I love being a mom; but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a cross when my daughter cries at 5 am and I want to sleep in until 10. Sometimes I grumble and throw a tantrum, sometimes I prayerfully embrace the suffering getting up entails. I can either accept the cross that God presents me with, carry it with Christ in union with his suffering on the cross, or I can reject it. From the outside acceptance and rejection might look exactly the same: I get up and tend to my daughter’s needs; but God knows the difference and so do I.

In my brief married life I have borne many crosses: three months of vomiting several times a day when I was in my first trimester; a Cesarean section; months with no more than three hours of sleep together; dishes, laundry, housework, grocery shopping when I’d rather be doing anything else; compromising on meals. All these, great and small, have involved death to self, suffering, surrender. 

The religious life is no different. For example, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, certainly has a vocation to the priesthood. More specifically he has been called to sit in the Chair of Peter. He accepted the call, he is following his vocation.That doesn’t make it any less of a cross. Before his election, Josef Ratzinger was looking forward to retirement, time to write books and relax. But God had different plans. And so he changed his name, picked up his cross, and became Pope Benedict. And thanks be to God for giving us such a Holy Father and thanks too to the man who followed God’s call.

I don’t disagree with the complaint the commenter has. Certainly single life is a cross and in a different way than married life or the religious life is. It is all the harder to embrace when one if certain that one’s vocation is to a different state and has been thwarted. And I know that the way we talk about vocations doesn’t help. It is cruel to console a single person who longs to be married by telling her she perhaps has misunderstood her vocation.

I know. I’ve lived it. I was single for a long time and I suffered, knowing that God had put into my heart the desire for a family, to be a wife and mother. But I had a choice. I could either embrace that cross or I could reject the suffering that was handed to me, refuse to carry it. At that time in my life, because I had not yet met my husband, my calling was not to the married state. I was called to be single, to wait, not knowing if I would wait a year, ten, or a lifetime. I had to trust in God one day at a time.

And so it is with the married life. I don’t know how long we will be granted to live together. Tomorrow tragedy could strike and one or the other of us could die. I have to trust in God one day at a time, do my best each day to listen to his voice and to follow his call.

We have a transitional deacon at our parish this year. He was married for 20 years and then his wife died of cancer. When she knew she would die, she asked him to consider the priesthood. Now he’s a seminarian. Soon he will be a priest. He has had many calls from God in his life. First, to the single life. Then, to the married life. Finally, to the religious life. And each of them was a cross. Each had unique joys and unique pains and frustrations. And in each he had to discern how to live God’s call.

However, I dispute the claim that no one is called to the single life. I have known women who have felt neither call to married life nor call to religious life. In fact there have been many such women throughout history. Women who have been called to be single have played and continue to play important roles in society: sometimes they are caretakers of elderly parents, they are teachers, nurses, doctors, professionals who are able to put their all into their life of service because they are not dividing time between their job and their family. They are lay women, not called to religious life nor called to married life. My sister-in-law is one of them. She loves children and is a wonderful aunt to all her nieces and nephews; but she feels no call to motherhood. Since she is the only unmarried sibling, her mother lives with her. She is not waiting for a husband or yearning to become a nun. She is single. I don’t think many are called to the single life; but there are individuals for whom it does seem to be their chosen role in life.

Yes, this is a fallen world and many of us have desires that will never be fulfilled. But your state in life now is what God is calling you to do now. We can argue about semantics, about how to define vocation. We use the word in different ways and I think that is the source of some confusion. Sometimes we say “vocation” and mean only vocations to the priesthood. Sometimes it means vocations to the priesthood, to married life, to the religious life or to single life, for a season or for a lifetime we never know how long we have to follow a particular call, to bear a particular cross. 

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