….I was in religious life for five years before leaving fifteen years ago. At first things worked out well for me. I got a good job and then I suppose it's not a bad marriage. It's not great, but I know lots of people who are worse off. We have no children and I suppose I tend to brood too much. It was so different when I was in religious life. I certainly didn’t have time to brood, and people were there for each other. My life now feels bleak at times, and I wonder if I've missed my vocation. I can never figure out why exactly I left. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong. I had some sort of greed for something more. I think I should have stayed where I was, but I feel guilty saying that, because there's the marriage. On the other hand I feel guilty about throwing away my vocation: it was something God gave me and I had no right to leave it. I'm caught between these two waves of guilt. Can you give me some advice? Geraldine
Dear Geraldine, thanks for your letter. As I read it, I thought about the word 'vocation', but more so about the connotations that the word has gathered over time. The meaning of the word is quite clear: it is a call. But I think it has gathered a connotation of 'sentence'.
I looked up the word in the OED, and this is the first definition given: "The action on the part of God of calling a person to exercise some special function, especially of a spiritual nature, or to fill a certain position; divine influence or guidance towards a definite (esp. religious) career; the fact of being so called or directed towards a special work in life; natural tendency to, or fitness for, such work."
God's word and God's action are seen to have an absolute meaning: they do not depend on time or circumstance. When the rich young man asked Jesus what he should do, Jesus did not reply, "Well, what would you like to do?" Thus the idea of vocation seems to go beyond likes and dislikes. This makes it look like a sentence handed down by a judge, a life sentence in the case of a religious vocation. But a judge in sentencing is subject to the law he or she administers. The judge's word is not the law; the law is the law. But God is not subject to any law other than his own nature.
Your call to religious life was not an eternal decree, like the call to holiness; it was a particular disposition of God's Providence towards you at that time. Whether or not you were wise to leave does not alter the fact that you are now a married person and God's Providence has never been withdrawn from you. "I have loved you with an everlasting love."
There is a passage in Meister Eckhart's Talks of Instruction, alternatively entitled Counsels on Discernment, that contains a great deal of common sense in this matter. I would like to quote it at length for you.
"Whatever good God has done and given in one way [of life], can be found in all good ways. For in one way [of life] you should take all good ways and not cling to the peculiarities of the way. For you must always do one thing, you cannot do everything. It must always be one thing, and in that 'one' you should take everything…. Choose a good way and keep to it, introducing all good ways into it and bearing in mind that it comes from God, instead of starting one thing today and something else tomorrow; you need not worry that you are missing anything. For with God one can miss nothing. With God one can no more miss anything than God can miss anything. So, take one way from God, and embody in it all good things" (no. 22).
In that passage Eckhart is advising us not to jump around from one way of life to another, as if our salvation depended on getting the 'right' one. Everything that God can give you God gives you in your present way of life. You are wondering whether your departure from religious life was a betrayal of your vocation. I would be inclined to say: this very wondering is itself a sort of betrayal of your marriage. "God is a God of the present," Eckhart added. "As He finds you, so He takes and receives you, not as what you were but as what you are now."
I'm quite certain that if you were in religious life you would experience bleakness too. This is part of any life. What matters is what we do with it. Don’t waste your energy on guilt: guilt that doesn’t lead to some practical measure is futile. If there is some kind of emotional 'scarcity' in your marriage, do what you can to remedy it, but also remember that scarcity is of great spiritual significance - often greater than plenty.
I'm aware that this is simpler to say than to do. I beg your pardon if I have seemed presumptuous.
God bless you now and always,