In my youth, I remember thinking how romantic it was that a boy in seminary or girl considering the consecrated life would "leave all that" and run off to be with the girl/boy of their dreams. I remember watching The Sound of Music and thinking, how wonderful it was that Maria escaped from the boring monastery and was able to find "true happiness" in the arms of the gallant Captain von Trapp and his wonderful children.
But now that I am older, that scenario has turned completely upside-down for me. Far from romantic, the conclusion of The Sound of Music now seems almost trivial. Why? It is simply for this reason: because I understand that there can't be true happiness in the world, only temporary contentment. And that what goes on in a monastery is not boring but is instead the most important human activity of all.
This was all brought to a head for me recently by a book I am working on entitled, Leave If You Can. Originally written in German by Luise Rinser, it is the story of two young Italian women during World War II. They boldly leave home to join a communist partisan group fighting the Nazi occupiers of Italy. Though idealistic and atheist, Angelina, the main character, finds herself in an internal struggle every bit as dangerous as her physical struggle against the Nazis. She is in love with the dashing partisan leader, Antonio, but she is mystically drawn to the war-shattered monastery of Santa Maria del Monte. When the war ends, Angelina must decide: will she remain in the monastery and become a nun, or leave and marry Antonio?
How this question is answered in Leave If you Can is so beautiful that it moved me to tears. It makes the conclusion of The Sound of Music seem shallow by comparison.
But it has forced me to wonder: Is this change a product of my age? Perhaps. At nearly 39, I am staring middle age in the face, if I'm not there already. My youth is spent, and now that I view it from the other side, it is easy for me to point out all the places where I went wrong, wasted my time and effort, chased ridiculous fantasies, postponed the crucial elements of life. So is this change the result of bitterness over my lost youth, or because I am wiser than I was?
Perhaps if I explain how this view developed, you can tell me...
If this world were all there is, a young person would be completely right, justified, and intelligent for escaping from the meaningless life of a religious, serving a God who doesn't exist. But God does exist, He does call people, and this world is not all there is. In fact, we are only transients here. Our lives flare and then fade. Before we know it, we are facing death and eternity. And where we end up depends completely on the choices we make--do we follow God's call? Or do we distort it, ignore it, run from it, lie to ourselves about it, pretend it doesn't exist or that we can't hear it?
I have spent most of my life in a spiritual fog. Though raised Catholic, I didn't even know enough to listen for God's call. No one ever taught me how. I didn't know how to pray, either. My only example was my grandmother, coincidentally named Angelina. She was a woman who faithfully said several Rosaries and chaplets every morning. I used to watch her and wonder why she did it. Though she never explained, she gave me many holy cards and other religious knick-knacks. I still have a St. Anthony Chaplet she gave me when I was a boy.
By the time I learned how to pray and really listen for God's voice, the die was already cast for me. I am now a husband and father and am most fortunate that God has blessed me with a magnificent woman and many beautiful children. At this point in my life, God's call for me is crystal clear--to serve them my whole life and do my best to raise them, provide for them, defend them, and help them get to Heaven.
But now, I have caught a glimpse of how utterly wonderful and urgently necessary the religious life is. That which was lacking in my past life--examples of saintly priests and nuns--is now before my eyes. And they have added such a new and extraordinary dimension to my life that at last, I get it. I understand. And I see why the Enemy expends so much effort trying to undermine their faith, destroy them, and abort their vocations before they can grow and thrive. It is because these chosen souls have the ability--and indeed, the mission in life--to lead myriad others, like myself, to Christ who is God. How amazing! That is a vocation beside which my own seems insignificant.
And for that reason, when I watch a clear religious calling vanish before my eyes, it now hits me like a punch in the gut. I think of all the poor souls that person could have reached as a religious, all the prayers they could have offered, all the children they could have taught, all the poor and sick they could have assisted, all the dying they could have consoled, all the souls in purgatory who could have benefited from their devotions, all the future vocations they could have fostered in other young people by their example, and I feel almost as if a great disaster has occurred. If only they understood the true worth of the tremendous gift that God has offered to them.
The world is an extremely enticing place--especially so for those who are young, brilliant, and beautiful. I have come to view it as a literal miracle when such as these, who are called by God, can actually run the gauntlet of temptations to arrive at their religious vocation. So very few of those truly called are able to make it.
So which is it? Have I tapped into something wise, deep, and true here? Or have I merely become a senile old curmudgeon?
Either way, we must all remember to pray for those young people whom God is calling. I still say my old St. Anthony chaplet several times per week. Henceforth, I shall add an intention for all those discerning a vocation to the consecrated life, that God will shower abundant graces on them and give them sufficient courage to live up to their vocation. We need them.
Saint Anthony, pray for them.