I recently had a conversation with a relative about vocations, specifically about losing vocations. She had definite opinions concerning the lifestyle of a man or a woman discerning a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life.
According to her theory, anyone who may have been dating or otherwise romantically interested in the person undergoing discernment should immediately cut off all contact with the one doing the discernment. Discernment requires solitude, prayer, spiritual direction. The things of the world distract from spiritual pursuits and interfere with the process of discernment.
Allowing these things in is precisely how vocations are lost, she said.
Someone who is undergoing discernment about their proper state in life should certainly undertake experiences of solitude, constantly pray, and follow spiritual direction, sure.
But isn't marriage a vocation? Isn't that worthy of discernment as well?
In fact, isn't it possible that the insistence on shutting out conversations with the romantically interested is also a way of shutting down, a way of losing, a real vocation?
After all, what if the person undertaking discernment really is supposed to marry? Isn't continuing conversation with the future spouse likely to help bring out that vocation?
In centuries past, when nearly everyone either married or entered some kind of religious orders, there may have been some valid concerns about the need to avoid the call of marriage so as to better hear the call of orders.
But today, as marriage rates drop across the board pretty much everywhere in the world, is this still the right way to look at it?
Today, the marriage vocation is in as much danger as holy orders or religious orders. It is often pointed out that upwards of one in every four people living in medieval Europe were in some religious order. Read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to see how well the orders fared during that period. One may argue the veracity of the popular perception, but the perception was precisely that religious orders were rife with drunken and fornicating monks and nuns.
Has it ever occurred to anyone that it is possible far too many vocations to marriage were lost during that period? After all, living the consecrated life of a religious order is laudable but it is not, by itself, a means of sanctifying grace. It is not a sacrament. Only the sacraments bring sanctifying grace, and living out marriage is a sacrament. Living in a monastery is not.
While Holy Orders is likewise a sacrament, it is not the first sacrament. Marriage is. The Eucharist is the heart of the sacramental life, but marriage is the form and foundation of that life.
In the order of sacraments, marriage came first. Through its fecundity holy orders are filled, through its example, monastic life takes its measure. It is the only sacrament called a sacrament in all of Scripture (Ephesians 5: "I speak of a great mystery..." - the word mysterion translates into Latin as sacramentum).
So should seminarians have conversations with women not their mothers or sisters while they are discerning their vocation, before they or ordained to transitional deacon?**
I don't see why not.
A seminarian who is talking with an old girlfriend, and through those conversations decides to become a husband and a father instead of a priest and a father is not "a lost vocation." The woman who woos him is not to be attacked for doing so.
It isn't a question of "losing a vocation", rather, it's a question of discerning the right vocation. For we must remember, both Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony are vocations.
He didn't lose his vocation.
He found it.
**After ordination, of course, the situation changes radically.