The contemplative life is rewarding, but it isn’t easy. Only about one in four even makes it through the training. And this is by design. You can’t judge a man’s spiritual strength by looking at him, so you have to “test his spirit.” Saint Benedict’s first test is to slam the door in his face. If he’s still knocking after five days, we let him in.
Again, this might strike the reader as rather severe. It is. But it’s also charitable. In the long run, you don’t want a man in the monastery who is going to take vows and end up too weak to keep them. For his own sake, it’s better to challenge him early on, because ours is a very special, very rare, very difficult vocation.
It used to be that when Catholics spoke of “having a vocation,” what they meant was a calling to the consecrated life—that of a priest or nun, for example. But the Second Vatican Council made it clear that everyone has a vocation to holiness, and now the term has lost much of its meaning. So I’d like to coin a new word. When you’re called to this special kind of Christian life, you have an e-vocation —a calling apart, a calling away from the rest of humanity. And it’s not just that the calling is special. It is privileged—even, in a certain sense, superior, though admittedly that term demands clarification.
Here’s one way to think about it:
Imagine that you are on the beach at the lake of Gennesaret. You’re a fisherman. It’s right around the sixteenth year of the reign of Tiberius. Jesus of Nazareth is starting to stir things up in Israel. You’ve heard stories about him. You’ve heard him preach. You realize that this is one of the most extraordinary men in the history of the world.
|"Hey, you! Wait...no, never mind."|
Here he comes.
He’s walking toward you.
As he draws closer, you see that he is looking in your direction. He’s walking straight toward you. He draws closer. Closer. And just as he gets to your boat, he stops, turns around, and chooses the guy in the boat next to you. Then he walks away.
If the ending of this story disappoints you, then you may have an e-vocation. Because, you see, everyone on that beach at Gennesaret was called to be a disciple. But the apostles were evoked—called apart—from the others. They weren’t just disciples, they were the chosen twelve. And that is the kind of vocation that the monk has—a vocation to give up everything and follow Christ.
Now, not everyone has this special kind of calling, but on some level, everyone is called to contemplative prayer, so even if you don’t think you have what it takes to be a full-time monk, you can, at any rate, be a part-time monk—called apart, maybe just for five or ten minutes a day, to give yourself over to Christ in contemplation.
Consider this warning though, from the Book of Sirach: it won’t be easy. “My son, if you want to enter the Lord’s service, be prepared for trials. Set your heart on a straight course, stay focused, and do not lose your head in times of struggle. Hold fast to Him, never desert Him if you would end your days well. Endure every hardship that is sent you; be patient under humiliation, no matter what the cost. For gold is purified by fire, and the Lord purifies men in the furnace of humiliation.” (Sirach 2: 1-5)