The other day I walked into our bathroom to encounter a small stack of towels, folded on the floor—the same stack my wife had earlier asked our eighth grade son to put away. She hadn’t told him to put the towels on the shelf rather than the floor. Hence the stack on the floor. This is our son. He’s not malicious or defiant, but at times willfully lazy.
I asked him later if he recalled the incident and his thinking at the time. My son is honest: he remembered his mother’s request; his explanation, “I guess I wasn’t thinking,” held little water as he clearly did think to acknowledge the request, but didn’t take it beyond that most literal and minimal interpretation.
Now, I have taught high school for twenty-two years, worked with middle school students as well, and was an adolescent male myself. So I can assure you that when an adolescent answers, “I don’t know” or “I wasn’t thinking,” it’s pretty much the truth.
For most non-Catholics, this event would mean nothing more than another eye-rolling memory, one of our kids’ “endearing” quirks that once got us so lathered up. But not for Catholics, for we have mastered the habit of infusing our worries with guilt and weighty significance. So beyond just irritating us, these experiences fuel our deeper fears of our children’s inevitable “unthinking” actions and decisions, the neglect they will almost surely extend to their faith, and what may befall them as a result.
While adolescents may realistically claim, “I wasn’t thinking” or “I don’t know,” the rest of us surely can’t. And yet many of us Catholics pretend “not to know” in various ways, thereby limiting our faith commitment. At the root of this mindset rest our many nameless fears.
As children, we fear the unknown—the phantasms of our dreams—conjured by images we absorb from movies and TV—embellished by our own imaginations. We fear the “monsters” conjured by our parents as well: strangers, sex offenders, speeding cars, stray dogs, germs, which all carry the vague promise of horror and death, though what that means we don’t know. Even into adulthood we can’t claim to understand death completely.
How Early Fears Pervade Our Faith Journey
Along with these common fears, we develop a subtle fear of God—knowing that we are in His sights, vulnerable to being singled out and “Called.” Just when we’re starting to have fun, to consider the sowing of wild oats, this realization grows; we ignore it with gusto, for the last thing we want is a religious calling to interfere with our plans, however murky and self-interested they may be. We begin to know the fear that we all carry into adulthood—of being called to account and to live a more religious life. We don’t want to end up in the position of telling God no, and we certainly don’t want to accept any invitation he may proffer, unless it’s one without strings, and we sense that he doesn’t make too many of that sort.
Then we become parents and we begin to know real fear, as opposed to the relatively inconsequential fears we knew before; eventually our old fear of religious calling returns, only this time it’s for our children. But in our amazing pride we take comfort in the belief that we can influence not only whether our children will be Called, but also their response to a Calling. Many of us, I suspect, feel we have the power to interpret and if necessary thwart God’s will, though we would never admit it. In a feat of Orwellian “double-think,” we convince ourselves we are living according to God’s will while simultaneously knowing we’re not.
Our wishes are contradictory on every level: we want our kids to study the faith more in Catholic schools, to participate more regularly in the sacraments, to shine as lights of God against the darkness of materialism, greed, and corruption; we want them to live their faith in speech and action … but subconsciously we want a limit to all this devotion as well. We don’t want it to go “too far” or to inconvenience our lifestyle or our dreams for their future. When it comes down to it, if God offered to appear to our children and personally invite them to the religious life, most of us would quail in fear … while many of us would forgo the invitation, opting instead to spare our kids that fate. The problem is that God recognizes none of these limits we would like to impose. There is no “too far” or “too much” when it comes to loving and serving God.
The Wrong Fears
Indeed, we are a fearful people in fearful times; however, we fear the wrong things. We fear financial insecurity and we fear our children’s foolhardy decisions. We fear for our children’s failure, which will prevent them from rising above others. Meanwhile, we should instead pray that they learn to serve others. We live in fear of our world and its inhabitants when we should only fear God. We forsake God’s eternal kingdom nearly every day for fear of what that would demand of us today. We fear God’s calling that might strip us of our worldly goods and pleasures far more than we fear the consequences of ignoring the call—and thus we cling with every fiber of our being to the very life and things that put our soul in danger.
Picture those occasions when the homily addresses the religious vocations: see all those parents shifting about uncomfortably, or sitting unnaturally still and erect, willing the priest’s words to bounce off them and their family, hoping this cup may pass them by … that these words won’t nag them into some kind of action. They mentally cross their fingers that the priest’s impassioned pleas won’t work their prayerful magic upon their own children—all while sincerely agreeing that it should be someone’s children.
It’s time to calm down for a moment and put this fear aside. After all, granting that we want our children to live a Christ-centered life, whether a religious calling or not, we owe it to ourselves, our God, and our Faith Community to examine the logic of our fears. To find clarity, we must compare the religious life we would “save” our children from, to the one we would otherwise choose for them: Does the religious life entail more tumult and torment than the lay person’s life? You be the judge after considering the following points.
Exposing the Fallacies in Our Fears
Let’s look at some assumptions or implied arguments fueling our fears of the religious calling:
Argument one: the biggie for parents—that the religious vocation insures a life of loneliness.
No parent wants his or her child to be lonely. Arguably, clerics once enjoyed much more fraternity and companionship when their numbers were greater, and there is no replacement for the intimacy of family. However, while the religious life may be lonely, there are ways to minimize the loneliness; besides, few of us interact with as many people as priests do on a regular basis. Or consider this: who has not witnessed lonely mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, teachers and doctors? The truth is that loneliness is a product of much more than simply one’s calling and lifestyle.
Argument two: the religious vocation calls one to celibacy—and thus demands too much.
This may seem to reiterate argument one, but the two are not necessarily intertwined: one may be lonely whether celibate or not; and one may be celibate, lonely or not.
The commitment to celibacy is difficult for most people and virtually impossible for many. Moreover, we want our children to experience this amazing gift from God as we have. On the other hand, relationships freed from the undercurrent of sexual tension engender sincere friendships. We all know the chaos and destruction wrought by unhealthy sexual relationships—fraught with confusion, emotional torment, and psychological wear and tear—not to mention spiritual corruption. Then consider the odds against long-term relationships and marriages, with Catholics divorcing 20-25% of the time, and those not practicing a religion significantly higher.
Further, it may come as a surprise to some that we are ALL called to a life of celibacy and chastity rivaling that of the clerical vocations: if single, we are called to refrain from extra-marital relations; if married, we are called to chastity in thought, word, and deed that preserves us inviolate for our sacramental spouse. In fact, to limit our conception of celibacy and chastity to the Holy Orders is to ignore the teachings of the Church. (See Vat. II doc Lumen Gentium, especially chapter 4, sections 31 and 33 for elaboration)
Argument three: we don’t want our children to miss out on “life” and “success.”
This concern points back to the loneliness issue, but also highlights our desire for our children to experience their “true potential” and pursue “success.” What we choose not to acknowledge, however, is that we often view our children’s outward success as a measure and reflection of us, and our success as parents. But more dangerous still, any quantifying or qualifying of success inevitably involves society’s notions of what that means, and quickly we see the inherent ambiguities and contradictions in that pursuit.
Argument four: the religious life involves too much hardship.
We fear how hard life might be for our children if they become “too religious”—though this, too, we are ashamed to admit. We imagine the rigorously austere religious life, and we want to spare our children this “extreme” sacrifice and service. But strangely, we don’t stop to wonder: why aren’t we equally alarmed if they pursue a life of rigorous scholarship, a demanding and consuming medical or legal career? Surely, these pursuits take a toll emotionally, socially, physically, and even spiritually. And why aren’t we equally anxious about their almost inevitable suffering through the trials of love? So it would seem ignorant at best, hypocritical at worst, to discourage the religious life in order to protect our kids from hardship.
What this Means for Lay People
I’ll admit it: on some very basic level, I want my son to be one who drops the towels in the middle of the floor. I fear what could happen if he were to pay attention to God’s gentle (or not-so-gentle) nudgings. Do I want him to be that responsive? It’s an uncomfortable question that calls for an even less comfortable answer.
A woman I am honored to call a friend has five children, one of whom seems passionately drawn to the priestly calling. I truly envy her and pray that her son finds great joy in his journey, whether it ultimately leads to religious orders or not. At the same time, I harbor this patently shameful thought: if I had more than one son, as she does, wouldn’t I be delighted as well? Wouldn’t that change the “equation” for me significantly?
Am I really that egocentric and shallow? More uncomfortable questions arise.
Like many, I am drawn to that lazy interpretation of openness to God’s call that allows for “plausible deniability.” It’s that willingness to live the Catholic faith while stopping short of entrapping one’s self in commitment; after all, once you cross that Rubicon of openness, you relinquish deniability (if you ever had it in the first place), exposing that greatest fear of all—being called to a life of service and sacrifice, a life we didn’t plan, a life our ego simply doesn’t want.
It’s an issue we must all confront, especially we parents, and we can’t avoid it by merely serving as lectors, Eucharistic ministers, catechists, or by involving ourselves in any number of ministries. We are instead called to be open—a simple though certainly not easy concept, for this openness means embracing God’s call rather than merely resigning ourselves to it. And what’s more, we must share this openness with our children—those very ones we fear for most.
A longer version of this essay originally appeared March 10. 2013 on The Devout Life blog and is reprinted with permission of the author.