A refreshing guide to an ‘objectively superior’ way of life

A Living Sacrifice
By Fr Benedict Croell OP and Fr Andrew Hofer OP
Vianney Vocations, 277pp, £20/$22

The evening before Basil Hume’s funeral, Bishop Vincent Nichols offered a profound reflection on the life of this beloved cardinal. Movingly, he described the attentive nature that lay at the heart of Hume’s vocation as a monk. His was a life of dialogue – listening to the Lord, responding with a willingness to do his will. But, as Bishop Nichols suggested, “doing the will of the Father, seeking his kingdom, is not easy”.

One of the motifs in this homily, preached on June 24, 1999, was the reaction of the Good Thief to the crucified Jesus. Facing imminent death alongside the Lord, he discerned that now was not the time to remain far from God. So he turned towards Jesus, whose reply to this act of faith was to utter those amazing words: “Indeed, I promise you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus did not say, “You will be in paradise.” Rather, “You will be with me in paradise.” Listening to and speaking with Jesus, knowing him as a friend, leads to everlasting happiness. In other words, discerning and accepting our vocation – which is the best way to know and love Christ and to be with him – is fundamental to the Christian. Unearthing that pearl of great price is like discovering paradise, even if it might not always seem so.

Today, discernment can be particularly difficult. We inhabit a selfish culture that is scared of commitment and sacrifice. Ours is also a tremendously distracted society. For example, the authors often refer to the distractions of “the screen” (social media and the internet more broadly). There also remain the more traditional problems of discernment, such as how to decide between marriage and the religious life. St Thomas More, for example, spent time with the Carthusians before realising that God willed for him to be married and in the world.

Any true vocation should lead to a growth in maturity and charity. This entails sacrifice – a reduction of the ego, a selflessness, a commitment to the other, through thick and thin. For couples, marriage solidifies the sacrificial nature of their love. Likewise, by living vows in community, religious are called to forsake themselves for the Church; to sacrifice personal wealth, family and self-will for the sake of the Gospel. As the title of this new book emphasises, it is a life of sacrificial charity.

As a guide for men who are thinking about religious life, A Living Sacrifice makes discernment that little bit easier. (Note, it is written specifically for men.) Just as marriage preparation should give couples a better insight into what is expected of them in the married state, this systematic book presents a refreshingly warts-and-all view of religious life. As such, if you want to know what that life is like, or, more importantly, already think you know, this book is for you.

One of the best tips given by the authors is the need for docility in the discernment process. It is easy to arrive at “the school of the Lord’s service”, to borrow
St Benedict’s description of monastic life, as a know-it-all. But as this book puts it, “you go to school to learn, not because you are knowledgeable”. Not listening to a novice master from the outset does not bode well for any future religious. This is but one important piece of advice among many.

Despite some Americanisms and anecdotes that may not always appeal to the British reader, A Living Sacrifice is an excellent, and orthodox, guide to the religious life. It is accessible and informative, and it offers solid advice for men who feel called to a life that is “objectively superior”, as St John Paul II, quoted in the book, put it. A higher calling? How wonderfully refreshing to find a book on the religious life that unashamedly champions its subject. After all, it is a vocation that has been grievously downplayed in recent times.

The book contains several examples of extraordinary graces attached to the religious life, as well as the not so glamorous aspects of the cloister. It also provides extremely useful information on the application process (including psychological assessments and personal issues that worry many men), the varieties of religious life (orders are different, but so are individual houses or provinces), and the steps in religious formation.

Among the contributors is one of my fellow Premonstratensians, Fr Ambrose Criste. His advice places discernment in perspective. “Don’t make the decision to enter religious life a bigger deal than it is,” he writes. “Deciding to give religious life a try is nothing more (and nothing less) than the decision to step out of your life in the world so that you can really discern how Jesus wants you to follow Him. Entering religious life is really the beginning of your discernment, not the end of it.”

So, for any discerners out there, do not be afraid. Duc in altum! Put out in the deep (Luke 5:4).

Brother Gildas Parry O. Praem. is based at St Philip’s Priory in Chelmsford, Essex