By Fr. Alexander Ezechukwu, OCD
Childhood Signs of a Vocation
Is it possible to know whether you have a vocation to religious life by reflecting upon your childhood?
Sometimes, but not always. In fact, many persons who become priests, sisters, and brothers cannot point to any prominent or unusual experience in their childhood that pointed to an obvious religious vocation.
But some saints have had a remarkable childhood filled with many graces from heaven. One of them is one of our most popular modern saints, Thérèse of Lisieux.
Here are five signs of a religious vocation selected from St. Thérèse’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul. Also known as St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, and the Little Flower, Thérèse Martin was born in 1873 in Alencon, France, and grew up in a very religious family.
Religious Parents and Culture
Her parents, Louis and Zélie, both went to daily Mass. Both of them pursued a religious vocation before they discovered theirs was a vocation to the married state. (Louis and Zélie were canonized together in 2015.)
Thérèse was the youngest of nine children. Four of them died, and the other five, who were girls, entered religious life. As a child, Thérèse received a very thorough education and formation in the Catholic faith.
The Catholic faith played a prominent and respected role in Alencon, the northwestern area of France in which the Martin family lived. Catholic teaching was for the most part, clearly carried out and followed.
Most of the experiences described here occurred between Thérèse’s ages of ten and fifteen, when she entered Carmel.
Most of us, whether religious or not, have not been blessed with having been brought up in such a religious and stable family, and in a culture conducive to the Catholic worldview. And yet, Thérèse’s upbringing provides signposts of religious life.
Single persons to whom God is calling to religious life might find at least a few such signs in their own life. Here are five signposts taken from her autobiography.
1. A Desire for Friendship with Jesus
Thérèse experienced loneliness as a young person. At one point, as a young teen, she received instruction from church women as a part of her joining a group called the Children of Mary.
She wrote that she could “never be friendly enough with any particular one” of the mistresses, so she went into the chapel until her father came to pick her up. “I found my one consolation: Jesus, my only friend.”
And her comment afterwards shows a sign of a contemplative vocation: “I could not open my heart to anyone else; conversation with other people – even about heavenly things – seemed tedious.”
2. Recognition of the Vanity of the World
Imagine a father with loving concern for a daughter who experienced severe emotional trauma after her older sister, Pauline, left to join the convent. Not only that, but Thérèse’s mother had died when the girl was only four years old. Pauline acted as her mother and teacher after that.
Three months after Thérèse’s healing from the mental breakdown, Louis took her on what she called a “delightful holiday,” no doubt her father’s effort to bring some cheer into her saddened life.
“All around me was joy and happiness. I was entertained, pampered and admired; in fact, for a whole fortnight my path was strewn with flowers.” She was taken to chateaux and estates, and she said she found this kind of life “charming.”
And yet as she reflected on this, she shared a quote from the Imitation of Christ, “All is vanity save loving God and serving him alone.” (Imitation of Christ 1:1,3)
3. Firm Grasp of the Faith
The Martin family’s strong religious background has already been mentioned. We know of the depth of her faith since she was shunned by her classmates, apparently because they despised her knowledge of the catechism.
In her autobiography, Thérèse recounts a conversation related by her mother before she died that reveals the depth of the girl’s knowledge of the faith. When her sister Céline asked, “How can God be in such a tiny Host?” Thérèse, who was at most four years old, answered: “That is not strange, because God is Almighty! And what does Almighty mean? It means that He can do whatever He likes.”
4. Desire for Redemptive Suffering
It seems that the life of a saint always entails an appreciation of joining one’s sufferings to those of Jesus’ passion and death. This can be seen in the words of St. Paul, “…in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Col. 1:24)
Thérèse was no different: “I did not realize in those days that one had to go through much suffering to become a Saint….”
Upon one of her receptions of Holy Communion, Thérèse recalls the way her sister Marie prepared her for these events,
“These words came back to me after Communion the next day, inflaming my soul with a desire for suffering, and I was convinced that there was many a cross in store for me. Then my soul was filled with such a flood of consolation as I have never had in all my life. Suffering began to attract me; I found charms in it which captivated me without yet fully understanding it.”
5. Knowing Her Purpose
If you ask most religious and consecrated persons what purpose they thought they wanted to fulfill as consecrated persons, they typically come up with, “I felt attracted to prayer,” “I wanted to serve God more fully,” and so on.
St. Thérèse, on the other hand, gave a simple and precise answer to that question: “I have come to save souls and above all to pray for priests.”
Can you imagine such a young woman being so clear about why she wanted to enter Carmel? How she was oriented toward the service of others, through the means of prayer, rather than herself?
In the quote above she was answering the request of why she came to Carmel as part of a solemn examination before her profession. (Profession is the step after the postulancy and the novitiate, and typically involves a temporary profession, culminating in the final profession.)
She notes in her biography that, “Even Fr. Pichon was surprised at what God had worked in my soul within two months of entering Carmel; in his view, I was following a tranquil path, while my fervor was truly that of a child.
Signs Can Help
While it may not always be possible to know whether one has a vocation to religious life by reflecting upon your childhood, the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux provides us with some signs of a religious vocation. These signposts include having religious parents and culture, a desire for friendship with Jesus, recognition of the vanity of the world, a firm grasp of the faith, a desire for redemptive suffering, and knowing one's purpose.
St. Thérèse's life shows us that even in difficult circumstances, such as the loss of loved ones, one can still be open to God's call and trust in His plan. Ultimately, discernment of one's vocation requires prayer, guidance from others, and openness to the Holy Spirit.
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