Sunday, January 16, 2022

Some Basic Advice for Discerners


One of the most common questions I’m asked as a relatively seasoned consecrated virgin is whether I have any advice for women discerning this vocation. This is also one of the trickiest questions to answer, because in real life my answer would depend a lot on the individual woman I’m talking to. For instance, my advice to a college student would be very different than my advice for a forty-something professional woman, which would also be different than my advice to someone who had recently left a religious community, etc.

Still, there are some very basic ideas that I find apply almost across the board. Some of these may go with out saying…but just in case they are helpful, I’m going ahead and saying them anyway!

1. Make sure you’re clear on what this vocation is actually all about

 If you feel called to discern a vocation to consecrated virginity, an important first step is understanding the fundamental nature of this form of consecrated life. Specifically, you should be clear on the concept that consecrated virginity is a public form of consecrated life for chaste and never-married women, centered around the charism of a spousal relationship with Christ, and which is lived out under the authority of the diocesan bishop primarily within the context of the local diocesan Church. And, as a public form of consecrated life, consecrated virginity involves some baseline obligations of evangelical witness, formal liturgical prayer, and service of the Church.

This point might seem overly obvious to many readers. But I find that sometimes people still have an impression of consecrated virginity as sort of a generic catch-all category, in which the main defining feature is simply being “not religious life in community”!  More commonly, well-meaning people can tend to confuse consecrated virginity with other vocations that are neither vowed religious life in community nor normal human marriage.

So just to clarify: consecrated virginity is not a private vow. A private vow is a wholly personal response to a sense of God’s call without any exteriorly-imposed parameters. Consecrated virginity, on the other hand, despite its flexibility in admitting a wide variety of practical lived expressions, is still a public commitment to a way of life that is exteriorly defined, governed, and formally approved by the Church.

Consecrated virginity is also very different from a secular Third Order. Third Orders (and oblate and community associate programs, etc.) are, essentially, modes for laypeople to share in the spirituality of a religious Order. But consecrated virginity has its own spirituality and charism that is district from any of the Church’s many religious families, and consecrated virgins are not “laypeople” in the usual sense of the term.

Consecrated virginity is also not the same as the so-called “lay consecrated life” of the newer lay ecclesial movements, since—among other points of contrast—the Ordo virginum is an ancient vocation dating back to Apostolic times and doesn’t involve an association with any group (unless of course you want to call the local diocese a “group”). Similarly, secular institute members and Opus Dei numeraries are not “consecrated virgins” in the technical sense of belonging to the Ordo virginum.

And finally, consecrated virginity is really not “the single life,” since consecrated virgins make a life commitment that is, theologically, truly nuptial.

All of these non-consecrated virginity vocations are still good vocations! But if you’re discerning consecrated virginity, you should have a good understanding of what it is you are discerning.

2. Do your homework

Or in other words, read and familiarize yourself with the relevant Church documents on consecrated virginity. In my opinion, the most important one to read is the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity itself. I would even recommend multiple readings of the Rite of Consecration, perhaps beginning with a more straightforward academic reading if the Rite, and then subsequently re-reading it in a slower, more contemplative and prayerful way. The Rite of Consecration sums up the core spirituality of a consecrated virgin, so your inner spiritual attraction (or lack thereof!) will be an important clue about whether or not you’re called to this life.

Following that, another important document to read is the 2008 Instruction on the Ordo virginum, Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago (ESI). With a title that translates literally as “the Image of the Church as Bride,” this Vatican document address questions related to the nature and purpose of consecrated virginity in greater depth. The official intended audience of ESI is actually bishops and the canon lawyers assisting them, so a lot of ESI is written in somewhat technical language. Nevertheless, it contains some beautiful and very accessible passages, especially paragraphs 1 – 40; and even the more “dry” parts of ESI still communicate significant details about what the Church expects from her consecrated virgins.

That past three Popes have all given addresses and homilies to the Ordo virginum specifically, which are each worth a read:

May Christ be your total and exclusive love – Pope St. John Paul II (1995)

“To the Order of Virgins: Personal journeys in holiness at service of all” – Pope Benedict XVI (2008)

“Be ‘women of mercy’” – Pope Francis (2020)

You might also consider reading some of the Church’s writings on consecrated life in general, such as St. John Paul II’s work Vita Consecrata.

In terms of more devotional reading, Christ in His Consecrated Virgins by Ludwig Munster was originally written for pre-Vatican II Benedictine nuns preparing to receive the consecration of virgins after their solemn religious profession, but it’s still relevant for today’s consecrated virgins “living in the world.” It’s currently out of print, but you can read the whole thing online here.

Finally, Fr. Thomas Dubay’s book “And You Are Christ’s…” is kind of the go-to English language classic for introducing the basic theology and spirituality behind a commitment to dedicated Christian virginity of any sort. (Although, as a more mature consecrated virgin, I don’t find it as personally helpful as I did when I was younger, but I would still heartily recommend it to anyone discerning this vocation.) A similar book is Virginity by Fr. Rainero Cantalamessa, which has been translated from the original Italian into multiple languages. 

3. Find a good spiritual director

Yes, I know it’s hard to find a good spiritual director, etc. etc.

But seriously, really try your best here. Spiritual direction is something any woman seriously discerning consecrated virginity needs to make a priority. You absolutely need a good spiritual direction to help you in your discernment of this vocation—and if consecrated virginity does wind up being your call, then you’ll need a spiritual director post-consecration to help you with all the on-going discernment that this life requires.

If you don’t have a spiritual director or are struggling to find one, a great first step is to ask God in prayer to send you one. It’s amazing how often God will answer prayers like this through surprise providential encounters.

On your part, the active legwork involved in finding a spiritual director doesn’t have to be too mysterious or complicated. If you already know a priest that you find to be holy and sensible (and for whatever it’s worth, St. Teresa of Avila thought it was more important that spiritual directors be “learned” than that they be particularly holy!), you can start by just asking him if he would be open to doing spiritual direction with you. Even if he can’t take this on, he might be able to refer you to someone else who can. If you don’t know any priests whom you would feel comfortable going to for direction, you can try just asking your parish priest or maybe your diocesan vocations office for a referral.

Incidentally, a spiritual director doesn’t have to be a priest—although in my own personal anecdotal experience, it seems that holy diocesan priests in general tend to be the best at intuitively “getting” the vocation of consecrated virginity. And I do think there is some real benefit in an aspiring consecrated virgin having a spiritual director who is also committed to a life of celibate chastity in some way. But there are good spiritual directors among non-ordained religious, men and women in other forms of consecrated life, and lay people.

4. Try to meet consecrated virgins

If you are discerning this vocation, it can be very helpful to meet actual consecrated virgins in real life. If you don’t have any already-consecrated virgins nearby—and even if you do—you might consider attending the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins’ annual discerners’ conference.

Additionally, if there is a consecration being celebrated close to you, see if you can attend. The vast majority of consecration ceremonies are open to the public. Not only will you be able to experience one of the most beautiful ceremonies of the Roman liturgy, but you may even have the chance to meet consecrated virgins or other discerners who are also in attendance.

One caveat, however: consecrated virgins are a very “individual” bunch. Or to put a spin on the old saying: if you’ve met one consecrated virgin…you’ve met one consecrated virgin! Consecrated virgins share important things in common, but our consecrated lives are lived out in a variety of concrete ways. If you don’t “click” with the first consecrated virgin you meet, or even the first several, this isn’t necessarily a sign that you’re not called to this life.

5. Work to resolve any “crisis” or on-going issues in your life

For example, if you have a serious physical or mental health problem, do whatever you can to speed your recovery, if possible. Or for more chronic conditions, do what you can to manage them to the point where they’re not radically impinging upon the rest of your life. If you are burdened by major debts, make a real effort to pay them down. If you have a family crisis that is demanding most of your time and attention, either wait until your family circumstances get to a more stable place or find some way where your degree of personal responsibility within the situation can be adjusted to a more manageable level.

Sometimes discerners have the impression that, because consecrated virginity doesn’t entail the same kind of hard restrictions that religious communities generally have for new members, it’s no problem to discern consecrated virginity when you have an uncontrolled chronic illness, are deeply in debt, or have overwhelming family obligations. And there is a kernel of truth to this—consecrated virgins can own property and control their own finances, so it’s entirely possible for a consecrated virgin to responsibly pay off a student loan or mortgage on a house; and this life allows for a decent amount of flexibility and freedom, so it is possible for one consecrated virgin to live at a more “gentle” pace than others, or for consecrated virgins to assist aging parents in various ways.

But with that being said, before you start discerning consecrated virginity in earnest, it’s important to have your life in serene, stable, and healthy place. (Or at least as serene and stable as you can reasonably get it. Obviously, none of us are perfect and nobody is going to have a completely stress-free life!)

This is for a few reasons. First, a basic principle of any type of Christian discernment is that it’s easiest to listen for God’s voice amidst calm and peace.

Following that, it’s crucial to have a real sense of freedom when you’re discerning this vocation. If you are discerning consecrated life in general, it might be tempting to see consecrated virginity as an easier or less demanding vocational option than religious life since, as noted above, strictly speaking an aspiring consecrated virgin doesn’t need to be completely debt-free or in perfect physical health to be accepted as a candidate. But if you’re discerning consecrated virginity with a thought of: “Well, at least this is an option for me…”, that’s not a good sign. In order to discern consecrated virginity fruitfully and appropriately, it must be approached as a “first choice” vocation.

Additionally, the very same things that could make joining a religious community difficult can also present special challenges for living out a fervent consecrated life as a member of the Ordo virginum. Despite the high levels of personal freedom inherent in this vocation, we consecrated virgins still have real obligations and commitments by virtue of our state in life. While there can be exceptions in exceptional cases, if you’re thinking of becoming a consecrated virgin, you need to be able to take on a commitment to regular liturgical and private prayer, as well being realistically capable of undertaking some kind of apostolate or service of the Church. If you don’t see yourself as being able to do this, then it’s most likely not the right time in your life to be discerning this call.

6. Cultivate a spirit of openness

Hopefully it goes without saying that consecrated virgins are called to be mature adult women who can take pro-active responsibility for their own lives, think critically about nuanced questions, and who can make sensible decisions with confidence. Yet at the same time, it’s good to remember that a consecrated virgin is also called to a spirit of docility and openness, in the sense of truly wanting to know God’s will and do it, even if God’s will is something surprising, unexpected, or something which goes against her personal preferences or is outside of her comfort zone.

This call to a spirit of openness applies doubly (if not triply, or four times as much) to women still just discerning this vocation. It’s important to be open to the idea that the Ordo virginum may be where God is calling you…but conversely, in your initial discernment it’s also important to be open to the idea that God just as well might not be calling you to consecrated virginity after all.

And if you and your bishop do discern that you’re called to consecrated virginity, then you’ll also need to have a spirit of openness towards formation. Even if you’ve been doing your best to “live the life of a consecrated virgin,” at the end of the day you really can’t life the live of a consecrated virgin fully unless and until you actually are consecrated. Knowing your need for formation is a strong sign of a genuine vocation, whereas feeling convinced you have it all completely figured out is a red flag in my mind.

And don’t forget, even after consecration on-going formation is a life-long project! The consecrated virgins in my own life whom I most respect and admire also happen to be the ones most interested in continuing to study and delve deeper into the Church’s teachings on what it means to be a consecrated bride of Christ.

7. Pray, pray, pray…and then pray some more

Praying to know God’s will for your life is such standard advice I almost forgot to list it here! But it’s standard advice for a reason. You can’t learn to listen for God’s voice if you don’t have a real listening relationship with Him, which is what prayer essentially is. And since the heart of a consecrated virgin’s vocation is a spousal relationship with Christ, the “relational” aspect of prayer is absolutely essential. You can’t have a relationship with a theory or idea, but only with a person, and a vibrant prayer life is the only way to establish this kind of person-to-person relationship with Christ.

Beyond this, I think it would be helpful for a discerner to try adopting some of the specific elements of the prayer life of a consecrated virgin, especially daily Mass whenever possible, dedicated time for silent prayer, and the Liturgy of the Hours.

But once again, keep in mind that at the end of the day, you can only truly have “the prayer life of a consecrated virgin” once you are a consecrated virgin. Actually being consecrated really does entail a significant shift in your interior spiritual life. And also, if this is your call, ideally you should have years to ease yourself into the amount of daily prayer time expected of a consecrated virgin. So, be sure to set realistic goals for your prayer life as a discerner and don’t let yourself get discouraged if it seems like a lot at first. Just take the first step.