“I Called and you Answered Me”

(Psalm 120)

...but do we answer when He calls...

By Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C.

        Jesus was walking along the shore and saw two fishermen in a boat (Matthew 4:13-20). He looked at them. They looked back at Him. He said: “Follow Me.” They did. This is, in sheerest Greek classicist form, the outline of every religious vocation. There is an invitation from God to follow Him in this particular and all-demanding way. But the call itself is not demanding. One is quite free to respond or not respond. There is no pressuring from God to respond. Oddly enough, perhaps, there is frequently a great deal of pressuring from others against responding.

Charism: Our Contemplative Vocation

Mother Abbess chanting the Gospel at the Holy Thursday Mandatum ceremony

        Looking carefully at this biblical exposition of vocation in three short lines, studying it even, we discover a number of basic elements present for the simple reason that they need always to be present. There is totality. There is immediacy. There is faith. Particularly, there is love. They were fishermen, Peter and Andrew, as were James and John, the equally brief account of whose vocations follows shortly upon the other in Matthew 4:21-22. The sea, the boat, the fishing nets, their families: these were the familiarities with which they were comfortable. These were the things they knew how to do and very likely planned always to do. So, the sudden unequivocal summons: “Follow Me!” was a disruption of their whole little world.

        Peter and Andrew were throwing their net out into the sea. They knew how to toss it and where to cast it. “For they were fishermen,” the Gospel tells us, thus briskly assuring us that they were settled in their business, adroit at their business, apparently content in their business. “Come after Me,” invites Jesus. Now the practical folk who advocate a very lengthy discernment process could hardly approve of this. And in any account, was this a propitious moment for putting forth a lifetime vocational proposal? It would seem to qualify as the least propitious, with the net in its very process of being tossed, the predictable catch so shortly to be hauled in. But that is often enough just the way that Jesus calls.

        One of our present young nuns described her call to me. She had been en route to the college coffee-bar between classes in drama, her major. Life was going famously and happily along. She was about to toss her net and haul in a degree in dramatic art. But then her own heart suddenly transmitted Jesus' call with all the force as of a spoken word: “But it isn't enough.” She found this understandably unsettling. For, of course, this was enough. College and a bright future-on-stage, friends and dates and fun and even fame perhaps. When she first came to see me, she was wearing the brightly colored attire which constituted the favored college fashions that year. Her long black hair bounced on her shoulders as she animatedly told me of this “impossible thing,” of something being uttered to and in her heart: “But it isn't enough.”

        “I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus said to Peter and Andrew. Now that was surely the limit and beyond. These were practical fishermen, sailors hardly much given to mystical flights of poetic fancy. A fisherman catches fish. You don't catch folks. Only, they were to learn how that very thing was exactly what was happening to them in order that they might later be the means of its happening to others. Peter and Andrew could have agreed that the young Rabbi was talking nonsense. They could have been annoyed, too; they had fish to catch and haul in. They might just have tolerantly shaken their heads at this strangest of summons. Or, at the patiently discerning best of it, they could have demanded a full explanation which they would spend the next year pondering. Actually, however, it was an astonishingly brief discernment process. “Immediately leaving their nets, they followed Him.” Surely a rash response. At best a high tide moment of emotion which would quickly hit low tide and with hardly a splash. Certainly it would disconcert many a “vocation director.” Follow You where? Will this really fulfill me? Will it develop my personality? Have I had sufficient opportunity to investigate all other possibilities in life? What will my friends say? How will my relatives react?

        Peter and Andrew's discernment was as deep as truth: the truth of acknowledging a call, however strange-seeming, no matter how apparently preposterous. It was strong as love, their instant discernment. There sounded a call in their hearts that their ears could not understand (fishers of men?), nor their minds grasp and transliterate into a reasoned analysis. But the heart, if allowed to exercise it, has a mind of its own. And so, immediately, they got up and followed Him, leaving present occupations and future possibilities, the one unfinished, the other unexplored, and followed Him to where they presently knew not and to a fulfillment of which they could not have dreamed: to be martyrs, like Jesus, of and on the cross. They left their “nets” of all that was familiar and doubtless dear to them, just for a strange call they knew to be authentic, however unreasonable and even preposterous by worldly gauging. Thus, too, did Bonnie of the long black hair drop the nets of all her glossy plans for the sake of the same unreasonable, preposterous but undeniably authentic call: “But it isn't enough.” Not a good steady income, not a fishing boat that might one day be exchanged for a yacht, nor fame nor fun nor worldly success.., no, these were no longer enough when there sounded what a poet has described as that “strange, imperious call which each one hears, once, with authentic summons in his soul.” Peter and Andrew answered the summons. So did Bonnie. And all the apostles and disciples after them. And all the Bonnies before and after her.

        Oh, yes, we shall say. But Jesus was standing right there on the shore. They saw Him, heard His voice. Certainly no one could not follow a humanly visible Christ, respond to the human voice of Jesus. “If only I knew for sure.” (How many times I have heard that.) “Then, of course, I would give up everything and follow Him.” But, then, we remember the rich young man... (Mk. 10:17-23).

        One needs to discern, of course. Yet we may have beleaguered that sturdy straight-from-the-Latin word near past recognition. “Discernere” – “to know one thing from another.” Yes, but prior to investigating the varied elements and diverse properties of the multiple modalities of that call to a religious vocation is the basic acknowledgement of the call in the heart which there is just no denying, however loudly we may turn up the stereos of distraction. When Peter and Andrew heard the call, they could have chosen to go on fishing instead of following. They could not, however, have pretended that Jesus had not spoken, that He had not looked at them. Nor could Bonnie have denied that voice within her heart. It is the properties of a religious vocation which we explore, about which we seek advice, concerning which we ask questions. The call itself is non-negotiable. It is, so to speak, a meeting of eyes – Christ's and one's own.

        Yet, a clear decision to reply to a call to religious life does by no means indicate an end of struggle, and this not only from without but often enough from within. The difference lies in that radical primary response supplying its own rock-bottom and spirit-high strength against the gathering debates, often enough high-pitched and of amazing volume, from without and the aching fears within. Reading well along past chapter four of Matthew's Gospel, one observes how Peter's initial and unequivocal response to his vocation did not bring him full and immediate understanding of what it was to demand nor how it was to unfold or, really, what it actually entailed. All these were to be discerned, as for the others in Jesus' first community, by living out the initial response. So much there is to be learned, lived, suffered. But to learn, live and suffer the unfolding of religious vocation after one has indeed dropped one's nets and said: “Yes!” to Jesus' “Come!” is a wonderful lifetime process.

        Our times militate against stability. We have trial “marriages.” There are pressures for “short term” priesthood. Thinking in terms of job commitment rather than lifetime consecration is the popular mode. How can I know how I will feel five years from now? Maybe I will change my mind. My parents are divorced. The Sisters who taught me in school have left religious life. Priests are defecting all around me. Nothing is permanent. And yet, when all is said and done (or moaned) about the instability of our times, the mutableness of human nature, the shifting sands of the present, the splendid fact remains that love of its very nature seeks to say: “Forever!”

        The nets once dropped at the sound in the heart of Jesus' “Come!”, we become equipped to say: “Forever!” Perhaps it is because we are sometimes very slow and extremely cautious about dropping our nets, that we deny ourselves the fullness of joy which is to say to Jesus in season and out of season in religious life: “Forever!”

“Amen, Amen, without ever turning back!”

(Testament of St. Colette)