09 December 2015

Followup on Dating While in Pre-Discernment Regarding a Religious Vocation

[[Dear Sister, I read your post on dating while in the "pre-discernment" process of entering a religious order (cf., Dating While in Pre-Discernment). I was surprised to hear you talk about dating while doing this. Shouldn't you be pointing people to celibacy and to religious life instead? You said that perhaps the person would find that they were called to marriage or associateship, but what happens if they are called by God to religious life and then get pregnant or decide to marry because they are infatuated? What happens if they never are able to enter religious life? I wonder about your advice!]]

Thanks for your questions. I am happy to answer them and try to show why I advised what I did. First though let's get something really clear. I am not a recruiter for a religious congregation. My "job" is not to point people to any specific vocation or try to get them to live in any particular way beyond as an authentic Christian (or human being!). Instead it is to  answer whatever questions I am asked in a way which is honest and which, I hope, will open up a future to the person. Sometimes this has to do with religious life generally, often with eremitical life specifically, and sometimes with the requirements of canon 603, etc. In cases dealing with religious life of any sort I am going to try to stress the maturity required, and quite often, the formation needed to achieve this maturity.

Secondly, in advising the person to go ahead and date someone whom she thought she was in love with, I also reminded her she was called to chastity in whatever state of life she found herself. Nothing I said suggested transgressing chastity simply because I recommended dating! Quite the opposite in fact. When a person is considering entering a religious institute to discern a vocation in a mutual process they should not only be considering this single vocation --- or better put maybe, they should be open to other possibilities entering their life as their true vocation. The person who wrote me had at least as much chance of discovering she had a vocation to marriage as to religious life. A number of other possibilities also existed and may still! It is incumbent on her to maintain her spiritual life and to focus on truly growing in her capacity for love and generosity in mature relationships prior to and during any vocational step she might eventually take.

I am troubled that you connect dating so automatically with having sex. Of course I know that this is not only your association. It is part and parcel of the society and culture and that is profoundly troubling to me. I am not sure we have ever lived in a time or culture where something as sacred as sexual intercourse was so thoroughly demeaned and trivialized. But if a person cannot date without giving him or herself away to another in this manner, if "hooking up" is a routine transgression of significant boundaries everyone does because it is fun or expected or simply meaningless --- much less a way of exploiting another or "proving" one's masculinity/femininity or demonstrating one's love for someone, then how can we expect them to live a life of radical generosity in celibate religious life without transgressing significant boundaries there as well?

The same goes for marriage. Dating is a time of exploration, yes, but it is also a time of restraint and real care while each one learns to honor the other, their God, and the boundaries which help constitute and protect each person's selfhood and personal integrity. Dating is an intense process of learning to love another and maturing in that capacity (as well as helping them mature in theirs) so that, should one discern one is called to marriage (whomever that involves!!), one will be able make the complete and unique self gift that implies. If that self-gift is to be made instead in religious life, then the process of dating while remaining chaste will have helped the future religious prepare for this complete and unique oblation in celibacy. It also will enrich his or her life in ways which are almost immeasurable. A male or female religious who is capable of healthy, chaste, and strong relationships with someone of the opposite sex is an incredible gift to the Church and world. Dating helps prepare the way for this as much as it helps prepare the way for marriage.

It seems to me then that two young persons who are dating need to realize they are helping one another to grow in their capacity for a life commitment. It is as much about the fact that God is calling the other person to a unique vocation as it is that God is calling oneself to that! One needs to bear in mind that God has a singular calling for each of us! Parents help form the foundation for such a commitment, but it really is with peers that our capacity for this is solidified. If one is only thinking about their own vocation while dating another then they are not nearly generous enough in their relationship. BOTH persons have divine callings and both need to grow in their capacity for responding to and living such a calling --- not only in learning to love others genuinely, but in developing the capacity to sacrifice one's own immediate desires and so forth for the sake of the other and the other's vocation as well. Dating can serve as a significant part of this specific form of maturing.

Will young (and not so young) people make mistakes? Yes, they will. Some will get pregnant, some will marry before really being sure this is what God is calling them to. But some will be able to act wisely and lovingly and some relatively few of these will also be called to religious life. The real or most fundamental vocation any of us are called to is authentic humanity and this itself is about being loved and loving in genuinely mature ways. Thereafter we may find one path or another is the best way for strengthening and expanding this capacity in us, but, whether we miss that path or not, the essential or fundamental vocation is still the same. While I think it is a terrible shame if someone fails to discern a genuine call to religious life, for instance, I recognize that God does not cease calling any of us to be ourselves in the most exhaustive ways possible. We have to trust in God's creative power and will. We have to focus not on what we missed (or on mistakes we made) but on the future God calls us to nonetheless.

You see, the greater risk I see is in religious vocations embraced and lived by those incapable either of mature relationships with persons of the opposite sex or of living a mature (and chaste) sexuality than with "missing" one's specific vocational path. The first is genuinely disastrous and may hurt many people; the second may be a significant bump in the road but it does not end the vocational journey itself.