On the whole I am inclined to prefer the flagrant commercialism of St Valentine’s Day to that of Halloween. There’s space for such celebration if to recall that there is magic in discovering you can be loved not just as someone’s friend, confidant or brother, but as the object of their desire because, as the advert says, you are worth it; because of someone’s choice. “Romance” didn’t originally mean eros, but magic, a feeling that something which burst the categories of normal human experience could intervene to transform everyday life. In that sense at least, there is romance in vocation.
I think all priests will know the particular joy which comes when someone confides in you for the first time the belief they have a vocation to priesthood or religious life. It’s like hearing echoes of your own first love. From the lofty, self-referential heights of one’s vast experience one recognises that this putative vocation is still in some ways a fragile, perhaps even naïve thing. But nevertheless all that experience is punctured by the recollection of the warmth and energy of that original spark which ignites something which experience can corrode or overlay with peripheral cares.
If all the world loves a lover, all the Church ought to treasure and rejoice with anyone expressing that first shy declaration of a call to priesthood or consecrated life, particularly in a culture which places huge obstacles before it. Nor should we be surprised if some air of romance still clings to it. Such a disclosure should sound the depths of our own vocational status: does that original joy still ring true?
The disclosure is often accompanied by a question: “But how do I know God is calling?” Good people are fearful of presuming this dignity is theirs just for wanting it. And because grace reveals sin, such a call must awaken a sense of shortcoming, as in the words of George Herbert: “Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back, guilty of dust and sin.” Even in love there may be an initial reluctance to admit or declare for reason of making oneself vulnerable to rejection. But real vocation, like real love, is acted on by another who reveals a chance of release from the isolation of living with the sum of my own feelings about myself, so I search in the other’s eyes to know if I should go on.
My response to “How do I know?” is to ask: “How do you know when you’re in love?” While the romantic heart says “you just do”, that’s not strictly true. A religious or priestly vocation, like love, doesn’t just make me feel differently; it makes me behave differently. It makes me want to spend time getting to know more and more about the other, sharing things that give them joy. It makes me want to do impossibly good and noble things because the other reveals the beauty of goodness and the happiness which comes from virtue. Love and vocation are dynamic, always inviting me to change.
“How do I know?” The answer is: “Not all at once, and only by putting your heart out there. You will only know when you are sufficiently master of your desire to enter a definitive commitment through vows, or ordination. Until then you keep trying to read the signs.”
“Tell me the truth about love,” says the poet (and by analogy the seeker after vocation), “will it alter my life forever?” Yes, but you will be happy when you know that it has.