The time God spoke to me most clearly, he said: “Duncan, you’re called to religious life.” I was 36, single, and in the final stages of candidacy for the Episcopal priesthood. I was also studying Spanish with Catholic missionaries in Bolivia as preparation for work at a bilingual parish near my home in Vermont. My appreciation for the ministry of the missionaries had weighed me down with uncertainty. “Am I actually supposed to be Catholic?” I had wondered. After hearing the voice, my heart felt lighter but my mind was more confused. “What the hell is religious life?” I asked myself, “and what must I do to be faithful to the One who spoke?”
Now, four years later—married and expecting a child, and with my first few years of parish priesthood behind me—I’m still wondering about God’s words. Have I been faithful enough to God and his call in the decisions I have made? When I one day meet God face-to-face, will I be able to look him in the eye, smile, and say, “I heard your call. I heeded you”? Or is the real challenge not about choosing the right way of life but rather about trusting that I won’t be unforgivable if I make the wrong choice?
When I first heard God’s call, I had only two definitions for religious life. My first understanding originated in the Middle Ages when the word religion in Anglo-French began to connote a life of monastic vows—poverty, obedience, and chastity. “Religious life” meant monastic life. My second definition was related to the early 21st century New Monastic Movement, a network of Christians who sought to live the rhythms and disciplines of monastic life—prayer, hospitality to the poor, communal living— without the solemn vows of monks and nuns. New Monastics could be lay or clergy; single, married, or celibate; with or without children. I had lived in and visited various New Monastic communities in my 20’s and had come to understand their lives as equally “religious.”
When I one day meet God face-to-face, will I be able to look him in the eye, smile, and say, “I heard your call. I heeded you”?
I arrived at a third definition after returning from Bolivia. I think of it as the Shema Definition (Deut 6:5): “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Upon returning to Vermont, I felt confused about whether I needed to give up dating or plans for working in a parish in order to live a “religious life.” I called a beloved teacher from college, a former Jesuit, to ask for guidance. He reflected on the fifteen years he had known me and responded: “Duncan, your call is about devotion, care for the land, and working with the poor.” He encouraged me to let go of worrying about choosing a certain way of life, and instead to follow my soul’s direction. If religare, the Latin word from which “religion” comes, means “to bind,” then perhaps a religious life binds together heart, soul, and strength. And if you’re neglecting any of the component parts, they can’t cohere. If I ignored the life my soul pointed to—stewarding the land and serving the poor and all God’s beloveds—my life might become unbound, like pages of a book without a binding.
A fourth definition emerged for me a year later through a conversation with an Episcopal priest friend. I think of it as the Baptismal Vows definition. I told my friend about God’s call to a religious life. He in turn shared that he had lived as a young man at a monastery with Trappist monks. After years at the monastery, he felt their prayer and ascetic life was not rigorous enough. One day he asked one of the monks if there were a more rigorous set of vows. The brother answered: “There is. It’s called baptism.” My friend eventually left the Trappists to become a husband, father, and parish priest. His story opened up another understanding of religious life: it’s as simple and as difficult as keeping the promises one makes at baptism: to resist evil, to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to proclaim the Good News, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to respect the dignity of every human being.
Religious life is as simple and as difficult as keeping the promises one makes at baptism.
By the most traditional interpretation of religious life, now that I’m a married man I’ve missed the mark. Living like a New Monastic in an intentional community also doesn’t seem like it’s my call; as a parish priest my life already feels full of Christian community and my introverted self loves returning to the privacy of my own home. But I don’t feel ready yet to accept the Shema and Baptismal Vows versions of religious life, as lived out by White American middle-class Christians, as sufficient. In light of the climate crisis, does religious life not necessarily require those of us who are middle-class Americans to make far more radical choices about consumption than most churches expect or demand? In light of racism and inequality, does religious life for me as a White person not necessarily require more of my hours and dollars going toward political organizing, advocacy, and reparations? Alternatively, maybe I just need to “up my game” and focus on my soul and baptismal vows more intently, and then the doubts will dissipate? Or maybe after all this reflection I just need to pray more fervently for God to remove the fear that I will disappoint him?
I know the lines from Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke that I (with sheepishness for quoting authors referenced so often by Mainliners, close behind Jesus and Wendell Berry) would offer someone who came to me with these questions. “Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Love the questions themselves.” I’d also caution the person not to underestimate the boldness of the baptismal vows. But maybe the most important thing I’d mention is how many of the exemplars of religious life didn’t come to it through reflection and planning; they came to it through relationships. Saint Francis met a leper. Dorothy Day met Peter Maurin. Martin Luther King, Jr., met a handful of professors and friends who mentored him in non-violent strategy.
Have I been faithful enough to the One who spoke to me about religious life? Is there something I must add or subtract from my way of life, or a fear which I must let go of? Sometimes you can write your way into an answer. This time it feels like the most writing can do is help me to remember the question and name the limits of my knowledge. My hunch is that answers will come beyond the page. If there are fears which God needs to remove, they won’t just disappear in verbal prayer; they will gradually drain out my feet and fingertips as I dig and plant in my garden, one of my soul’s gateways according to my Jesuit friend. And if there are changes to make, I won’t make them alone but in relationship with others. If I’ve learned anything as I’ve considered understandings of religious life, it’s that no version of it is a solo endeavor.
Have I been faithful enough to the One who spoke to me about religious life?