by Pierre de Calan
translated by Peter Hebblethwaite
This novel explores the vocation of a potential novice at a monastery. Through multiple crises, he and his spiritual advisors wonder, "Is the consecrated life at this monastery his vocation?" Through the conversations and challenges, the reader is led to explore the meaning of vocation and how it might be discovered.
James Martin, SJ, writes in the introduction of the thoughts that rise in his mind as he reads this book:
The questions upon which the novel turns are: What is a vocation? Is a vocation something that you feel God is calling you to do? And, if you feel drawn to a particular vocation but discover that you cannot do it, does it follow that God is now asking you not to do it?
Whole lives--single, married, vowed, ordained--have been spent pondering those difficult questions. Does unhappiness in a religious community mean that one should leave? Or is fidelity and perseverance the answer? Likewise, does unhappiness in a job, in a friendship, or in a marriage mean that one should switch careers, sever a relationship, or even end a marriage?The narrator of the novel was the novice master when Cosmas approached the monastery. He writes with compassion and ambivalence about Cosmas's vocation. The book is in the form of letters to a non-Catholic who had visited the monastery.
A vocation is not open to empirical investigation. The Lord is relentless when he wants to enlist someone in his service; but his is also incredibly self-effacing. One cannot possibly understand the signs of a vocation unless one remembers that God, because he is love, woos souls with all the delicacy and shyness of a lover. Even those who, like myself, can say that they have never had the slightest doubt about their vocation, still feel overwhelmed and at a loss to explain exactly what this means. For here contradictory truths, inaccessible to ordinary human logic, come together: there is a sense of being led by someone stronger than oneself, and yet of remaining free; the feeling that the voice that calls us will never fall silent, that it will pursue us in season and out of season, and yet that it is within our power at any given moment not to heed it; the understanding that God has need of our cooperation to lead us wherever he desires.One of the problems Cosmas encountered was realizing the imperfections of the other men in the monastery. This startling revelation is just as common for newly married couples and priests. A vocation is still lived by a man or a woman, sinfully but hopefully.
They have to learn that they will not find in monastic life and its Rule a ready-made peace and perfection, but that monastic life and the Rule are rather a road toward peace and perfection that each one has to take at his own pace. They have to learn to accept and to love their neighbor as he is, knowing that the help and example of other people will inevitably and to some extent be flawed and disappointing; and that everyone has to find his own original way forward, which will depend on his personal relationship with God rather than the imitation of someone else.It's common within a vocation to experience times of stress and struggle, but sometimes people are just as disturbed by times of quiet dullness. Yet the narrator affirms the value in small ordinary sacrifices.
The life of the community reflected the weather: nothing very outstanding happened; there was no particular mood to record. I was sometimes reminded of the sense of grayness and routine that Cosmas had found so dispiriting. And yet every day prayer and praise, acts of renunciation, humble tasks accomplished in obedience, repugnances mastered, clashes of mood or superficial irritations overcome by charity--all these rose up to the Lord. And God, who had called us to this life, no doubt found them good.In the end, and this is revealed within the first few pages of the novel, Cosmas dies before he can complete his novitiate. Near the end of the novel, the Father Abbot is talking with the novice master about Cosmas and the continued uncertainty about his vocation.
"The vocation of a Bach or a Mozart seems to be beyond all question because of the wonderful music they produced. But in the sight of God, have they any more value than that of any other musician, without their talent and grace, who has heard an inner call and tried to answer it until death? Those who suffer from this gap between their aspirations and their attainments--and whom we cruelly call failures--are perhaps less deceived about their talent than we imagine. But in their eyes the sense of inadequacy, of getting nowhere, and their failures, do not relieve them of the responsibility to keep on trying, unweariedly through in vain..."In this novel, the reader can find real men struggling to live a difficult vocation within a monastery, but the examples within the pages can be applied to those of us attempting to live our vocation, wherever we are. It was a pleasure to read.