Image: Interior of St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Roanoke, Virginia.
When I was a teenager, and when it came to considering the state of life to which God was calling me, I had strong, gripping hopes and dreams for what I wanted to do – but an even stronger, more gripping fear of letting my soul be silent. A fear of simply listening.
In my own imperfect way, I loved God and the Catholic Faith and was trying to grow in holiness…but I was, nevertheless, terrified of letting my soul be still, to the point where I could let go of my desires and wait to hear Our Lord’s voice telling me His designs for me. That might have required me giving up everything I wanted (that is, marriage and motherhood in the home). And that felt physically impossible for me at the time.
If I ever sensed a type of spiritual silence descending on me (whether it was in Adoration, at Mass, or in bed), I would panic and chase it away. I was so immersed in this fear of God’s will that, now, I can only imagine how worn and unhappy I must have been, without even realizing it.
I desire you to be a consecrated virgin. I ask you to be a nun for My sake. Fantasies of hearing those phrases ring out clearly in my soul were paralyzing. If I felt “a silence” coming, I would immediately begin convincing myself – “I’ve always wanted to be a good wife and mother. That means God gave me the desire from the beginning – that means it’s my vocation.” Essentially, I had my spiritual hands clapped over my spiritual ears.
After high school, I had chosen to be a young woman at home who didn’t attend college but instead remained with my family, waiting to see where God led me in my vocation. Still, while I’ve never regretted that decision and never will, it was to a large extent backed by my own ardent desires for traditional wifehood and a family, and not so much a calm resignation to the will of God.
And then, over a year ago, my father made the decision that our family was going to begin attending the traditional Latin Mass each Sunday morning, at a parish forty minutes from home. He cared for how we might feel about transitioning and initiated discussion after discussion about the impending change, but he also sensed strongly that we needed to be there. As the head of our family, he was determined to see it through.
Thank God he listened to that divine urge.
It’s impossible for me to write a complete narrative of what the traditional Latin Mass has done to my soul and to my spiritual life over the past year. It’s so much larger than me, and in many ways beyond my comprehension. But I am convinced, without any lurking doubt, that God knew I, personally and individually, was in sore need of the Latin Mass and the conversion it would help bring about in my soul, as a Catholic, a woman, a person.
Firstly, it took away my fear of interior silence. This is something, I think, I’ve overlooked until recently – but now I realize the importance of it and how tremendously it helped to transform my spiritual life.
Any newcomer to the Latin Mass is struck, and often disoriented, by the silence of things. Apart from the entire liturgy being celebrated ad orientem, with everything being directed away from oneself and toward God in adoration and sacrifice, the Canon – and most importantly, the Consecration – is offered inaudibly by the priest, as it was for over a thousand years.
Also, at a Low Mass, hymns are optional and (in the case of my parish) usually omitted except for special feasts. This frequent, tangible silence helps to create a profound spiritual quiet. This interior silence is concocted not just by a mere lack of hymns, because it also pervades High Mass, where much of the Mass is chanted, where plainchant and polyphony abound in an effort to lift the soul out of itself, out of the world, in adoration of God.
Reflecting on my initial experience of the Latin Mass, I recognize that, simply because its liturgy is so visibly directed toward God, and because it is suffused with such ancient reverence, quiet, order, and beauty, it immediately stilled my soul. There, I had to be silent and know that God is God. I had to look at Him. I had to fall still. There was nothing to hide behind.
My fear of interior silence wasn’t eroded all at once. Rather, it occurred drip by drip, grace by grace, Mass by Mass, before I even halfway knew it. Our Lord disassembled my stony wall, my terror of spiritual quiet where I might hear His voice telling me to do something I didn’t want, my fear of a steady gaze into His eyes, of my vulnerably opening my hands to Him. He dissolved my fears gently through the wondrous and ancient liturgy. He taught me how to be silent in His presence and how not to be afraid of the silence or of Him. This was the first and most crucial step towards my becoming far more open to the will of God than I had been previously.
The Latin Mass also increased my desire to learn more of the Truth. Maybe it was as basic as the ancient character of the liturgy captivating my heart, or, possibly, it was the fact that this liturgy was the one that the vast majority of canonized saints were enveloped in at every Mass during their lives – but I found myself wanting to read (devour might be a better word) works written by saints, priests, and holy thinkers who lived when the traditional Latin Mass was all there was. This was how I fell in love with my now frequently quoted “adopted” spiritual father, Fr. Francis Xavier Lasance, and many others.
The traditional Latin Mass also filled me with a hunger to absorb and contemplate as many of the truths of the Catholic Faith as I possibly could. This hunger led me to read old instructional and devotional books about the Faith, and more modern books written in a traditional tenor. Several of these spoke of authentic vocational discernment and of simply desiring God’s will, of desiring sainthood. I began to learn, clearly, the traditional Church teaching on the different states of life.
In fact, here I can pin down the precise moment where I first realized I had been fundamentally changed by God’s grace from the person I used to be…when I realized my old fears of hearing Our Lord’s voice were gone.
I was sitting at the kitchen table, reading Chapter 11 of Fr. Pietro Leone’s The Family Under Attack. I had my highlighter in hand (almost every passage in my copy is highlighted now). I was bent over the words, intently absorbing.
My attention was arrested when Fr. Leone embarked on a description of perfect chastity in the religious life.
The love of one who is perfectly chaste is directed towards Christ. The Fathers of the Church considered perfect chastity as a form of spiritual marriage to Christ and as an exclusive love of Christ. As the consecration of virgins puts it: ‘The Kingdom of this earth and all worldly trappings I have valued as worthless for love of Our Lord Jesus Christ, whom I have seen, loved, believed, and preferred above all else.’ Yet there is more to perfect chastity than the bonds of affection, as Piux XII goes on to declare, for this ‘burning love for Christ’ impels the virgin to the imitation of Christ’s virtues, way of life, and self-sacrifice. In this way virgins ‘follow the Lamb wherever he goes.’ (Apoc. 14:4)
Upon finishing this passage, I paused, sank back into my chair, and thought – without even realizing what I was doing – “The consecrated life is utterly, sublimely beautiful. It is true, and it is the most perfect representation of our lives to come in Heaven. If I were called to it, I would go without hesitation.”
And then I realized what I had thought…and I marveled at how completely unafraid my soul was. At how still it was.
It was still at the knowledge that, if God were to show me that He’d given me the vocation of perfect consecrated chastity, I would surrender my hopes and natural inclinations to the married state and go joyfully – because His will is good and is all I should ever desire.
I had never experienced such a moment until then. It was all God’s grace – nothing whatsoever to do with me. But if it hadn’t been for the traditional Latin Mass working steadily on my soul, I doubt I would ever have become open to that kind of grace.
So now I can say that as an almost twenty-one-year-old young woman at home, I’m finally in a place of true vocational discernment. A place of listening. Of being able to tell Our Lord each day, “Thy will be done. Do what Thou wantest with me,” and to mean it. For the first time in my life, I feel as though I see my many faults and vices more clearly than ever and yet truly desire to be a saint, for God’s sake, in a way I’ve never done before. My dreams and hopes for the future are no longer my property – I still have them, and yet I don’t “have” them. I realize that this is a tremendous, undeserved grace, and I pray I will never take it for granted.
The humorous thing is, if I were writing my own story, now would be the time when I reveal that I’ve discovered that God has been calling me to the religious life all along, that He has guided me out of my lifelong dreams for marriage and motherhood and made me realize that surrendering my will to His means I’m to become a consecrated religious.
I consider nothing certain apart from my desire to do His will, and I am completely open to, and listening for, the call to the religious life. Still, I daily find myself – through prayer and study – becoming more sure, in that quiet and calm way that speaks of God’s presence, that it’s quite possible He does desire me to be a wife and mother. My long held desires for that vocation remain, but in a way, they’ve been transformed. Through God’s grace, and again through no merits of my own, I want to be married only if God sees that it will best help me (and my future husband) to become a saint. I want to be a mother only if God has ordained that I am capable, with His and my husband’s help, of raising saints.
At this point, I feel as though He is equipping me for the vocation of wifehood and motherhood and that He is asking me to be patient, trusting, and entirely open to His voice. If He ever shows me that He desires me elsewhere, I’m ready. But I am convinced that I can say this only because of His great mercy in guiding my family and me to the traditional Latin Mass. This liturgy opened, stilled, and illuminated my soul in a way that nothing previously ever had. Deo gratias!
In closing, I especially want to encourage the traditional Catholic young men and women who might be reading this, who are in a place of similar vocational discernment. In the mystical Body of Christ, we are united to one another in a special way, because we all are waiting – we all desire to do God’s will in our lives. Though we live in a time of “brazen impiety” (to quote Pope Leo XIII), confusion, and often sorrow, we desire to serve Christ’s Church, His Kingdom, with sublime joy and complete self-abandonment. We want our lives to cry out Viva Cristo Rey with the courage and fortitude of the martyrs.
Now is the time to be radically open. Now is the time to be wholly silent, awaiting His voice. Now is the time to whisper, along with Samuel: “Speak, Lord: Thy servant is listening.”
I would like to share a passage of spiritual wisdom from the holy Fr. Lasance, in the hopes that it will encourage and enlighten you in your discernment. May God bless you, and let us all pray for one another, most especially at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass!
In the first place, direct your heart constantly toward heaven. Have but one desire, namely, to know and to do the will of God; God will then bestow His grace upon you, and you will be certain to make a wise choice. No one must count upon an extraordinary call, such as the apostles and many great saints received. Those were very special gifts of grace, which you cannot expect. But if you keep your eye and heart constantly directed toward God, He will enlighten you with His grace, will give you prudent counselors, and so ordain external circumstances that you may, if I can thus express it, be led by the hand of your guardian angel to enter the state of life God intends for you.
Truly the ways of God are wonderful and manifold. Sometimes He impresses on the heart of a young child a desire for a particular state. Consequently, later on in life there can arise no question as to making a choice, the question having already been decided. To others He signifies His will only when a choice has to be made; and these often enter with joy of spirit into a state for which they had long experienced a rooted aversion.
In the second place, keep your soul pure. A very great deal – everything, indeed – depends upon this. The brighter and more transparent is the glass of a window, the more readily do the rays of the sun penetrate into the room; but the dimmer the glass, the darker will the apartment be. The soul may be compared to glass, to a mirror, in which they are reflected. If you desire to be enlightened from on high in your choice of a state of life, keep your heart clean, preserve therein the bright light of innocence. If this light is obscured or extinguished by sin, delay not to rekindle it by means of contrition and confession.
In the third place, be diligent in prayer. From what has already been said you must plainly perceive that prayer is of the utmost importance in choosing a state of life. For, on the one hand, you seek to choose the state of life which will best promote your eternal salvation; on the other, the world, the flesh, and the devil strive to decoy you into taking the wrong road.
There are two epochs in the life of every individual when the devil lays snares for him with particular cunning. The first is when he ceases to be a child; then comes the crisis, the critical period when the result of previous training will show in the innocence and purity of the youth or maiden, or the reverse to be unhappily the case. I believe this critical period has already passed with you; I confidently hope you have successfully withstood the test and preserved your innocence.
But with yet greater cunning and force will the devil attack you either now or a few years hence when you come to choose a state of life. Should he succeed in inducing you to take the wrong road, he will expect to emerge victorious from your final, death-bed struggle. Therefore, my dear child, pray, pray! Pray for light, that the mists may disperse and the road of life stretch clearly before you; pray for strength to resist your passions whatever sacrifices it may cost you; pray simply that you may know and do the will of God.
In the fourth place, receive frequently and worthily the Sacraments of Penance and of the Altar. These Sacraments will maintain the purity of your soul, and the Giver of grace will descend into your heart with His light and strength. After each communion entreat Our Lord, with earnestness and confidence, to teach you what are the designs of His Sacred Heart in regard to you, and to strengthen you to make any sacrifice that may be necessary. And on your communion days give some time to serious reflection. Imagine that you are stretched upon your death-bed. Ask yourself if you were in that awful hour what state of life you would wish you had chosen. Would it not be a cause of bitter regret if you had acted in accordance with your own self-will . . .?
I cannot refrain from mentioning one more means for arriving at a right decision, namely, a true, filial, confiding love and devotion to Mary. On the present occasion I will only make two brief remarks in regard to this devotion. If you desire wisdom and enlightenment concerning the choice of a state of life, the surest way to obtain it is through Mary, for she is “Sedes sapientiae,” the “Seat of wisdom.” And if you wish to attain eternal salvation, the surest way to realize this is through Mary, for, as a great saint tells us, “a true servant of Mary can never be lost.”
Do not imagine that thoughts like these are suited only for a young woman who is about to enter the cloister. These reflections are not intended for this one or that one, but for all who desire to choose aright so as to ensure their eternal salvation.
As you ought to beware of rashness in choosing a state of life, so ought you to guard against over-anxiety. Do not lose heart in presence of the momentous decision. Make use of the means I have pointed out to you; look constantly toward Heaven. Keep your soul pure; be diligent in prayer; frequently approach the sacraments; practise devotion to Mary; regard her as your Mother; and look with cheerful confidence into the future. Eternal peace and joy follow the earthly struggle. The way of the cross leads to the crown of immortal joy.
– Fr. Francis Xavier Lasance (d. 1946). Requiescat in pace.
Mary Donellan is a freelance writer from the Deep South, and is deeply passionate for traditional Catholic living and for sanctifying the domestic Church. She blogs at marydonellan.wordpress.com