Picture this. You are at a friend's party and an attractive person of the opposite sex meets your eye. You can't help overhearing the laughter of that other one and the comments made about topics that interest you. You make a comment yourself and now you are part of the engaging conversation. As the sharing develops, you find yourself more interested in the tantelizing individual than in the riveting discussion. You think, "Should I ask that one to marry me?"
Whoa! Did this scenario suddenly become unbelieveable? I'd say so. No one in their right mind would think of asking someone to marry after an initial introduction and conversation. Instead of discerning, "Should I ask that one to marry me?" the proper discernment is, "Should I get to know that one better?" If the answer to THAT question is "Yes, I think so," then you begin to figure out how to form a deeper bond with the intriguing individual. Only after many interactions and much sharing of thought and life would a sensible person wonder, "Should I ask that one to marry me?"
Discerning a possible vocation to a Third Order is similar to discerning a marriage partner. Just as you would not think of marrying someone after an initial contact, so you should not be thinking of pledging to live the Third Order's Rule after one possible meeting with the group. The question is not, "Should I pledge to this group?" but "Should I get to know this group better?"
A Third Order is a general term encompassing lay people who embrace, in their own homes and workplaces (as opposed to in a convent, friary, or monastery) a deeper religious spirituality which is most often associated with a religious Order in the Catholic Church. Thus there are Benedictine Oblates, Secular Franciscans, and Third Order Carmelites, for example. Each of these, and many other groups like them, have a Rule of Life and Constitutions which members are required to follow. Additional groups like the Legion of Mary are not Third Orders but do require certain religious practices and disciplines. Third Orders were generally so named because they were the lay (third) expression of a male Religious Order (the First Order) which had associated with it a female Religious Order (the Second Order).
So, if you are looking for a deeper spirituality, how do you discern what to do?
Discern a Third Order like you would discern a spouse. Get to know the Order better. Read the Rule and Constitutions. This is key. Then attend meetings. If people in the Order do not live near you, can you be in touch with them by postal mail or email or other media communication? Picture yourself living the Rule and Constitutions. Do you feel comfortable with that? Do you feel joy with that? What are you seeking and how can the Order fulfill that? Talk to others in the Order. Ask questions. Read up about the Order. What is its reputation?
If all seems positive to you, inquire with the Order. Go to a few meetings. Or correspond electronically. Enter the first stage of formation. Doing so does NOT mean that you are professing to live the Rule. It means that you are seeing if you MIGHT want to live the Rule. Entering formation is like asking that potential spouse on a first date. Dating helps couples to know one another better. Formation will help you to know the Order better.
Just as couples may break up after a time, so you may discern that the Order is not for you. And that is OK. Better to find another Order that fits you better. It is uncomfortable to be a square peg in a round hole.
And, most importantly through this entire process, pray. Couples who make the best forever marriages are those who prayed about their relationship, even before it got started. They were praying for the right spouse before they met each other. They prayed with each other and for each other as the relationship developed. And they prayed alll the way to their wedding and every day thereafter. Marriages based on God survive. So, too, Third Order vocations that are centered on God's Will for the inquirer are solid vocations. Pray about where God wants you. Pray about inquiring. Pray about entering formation. Pray about continuing. Pray about pledging. Pray after pledging. Prayer is the key to a true Third Order vocation.
May God lead you to a Third Order vocation if He has that in your future. And may you be faithful enough and courageous enough to go where He leads because a Third Order vocation will lead you to eternal life, if you live the Rule and Constitutions as you profess.
(Madeline Pecora Nugent, CFP is Minister General of the Confraternity of Penitents, an international Franciscan Third Order whose members do formation in local groups or, if they are isolated, via email or postal mail.)