This article is the first of a trilogy on the theme of vocation. Click here for the second article, discussing whether an objectively superior vocation exists.
A chapel bell tolls before dawn, sending a summons to the sleeper to arise. Jesus is calling. “All for you my beloved,” the sleeper whispers, “this day, each step, every breath, through You, with You, in You.” As morning breaks over the world, the chalice is lifted high from the altar in the cloister. And God’s presence is felt anew.
A tiny voice calls before dawn, sending a summons to the sleeper to arise. Jesus is calling. “All for you my beloved,” the sleeper whispers, “this day, each step, every breath, through you, with you, in you.” As morning breaks over the world, the child is lifted high from the crib in the house. And God’s presence is felt anew.
Celibacy for the Kingdom. Married life. Which path is “more perfect”?
I suspect that if this question were asked even just a generation or two ago, the answer might have quickly come on the side of the celibate; he or she who has left all to find that pearl of great price. He or she who has made such superhuman sacrifices. And yet, with the canonization of Louis and Zélie Martin at the beginning of this week, the question of which vocation is “holier” has suddenly become a kind of… trick question.
Pictured above are the twin vocations of marriage and consecrated virginity. Pictured above are two sets of saints. Sts. Louis and Zélie and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Which life was more perfect? That’s akin to asking which saint is saintlier?
St. John Paul II, whose great feast we celebrate today, has set a spotlight on the vocation of married love more than any other pope in history. He taught in his catechesis on human love, the theology of the body, that marriage and celibacy “are neither opposed to each other, nor do they divide the human (and Christian) community into two camps (let us say, of those who are ‘perfect’ because of continence, and those who are ‘imperfect’ or less perfect because of the reality of conjugal life)… The perfection of the Christian life is measured, rather, by… love.” (St. John Paul II, TOB 78:2-3)
This means that “perfection is possible and accessible to every human being, whether in a ‘religious institute’ or in the ‘world.’” In fact, St. John Paul II continues, a person who does not live in “the state of perfection” can nonetheless “reach a higher degree of perfection… than a person who lives in the ‘state of perfection’ with a lesser degree of love.” (St. John Paul II, TOB 78:3)
Wow. That line is worth a second read. Our personal “state of perfection” is the place where our love for God is perfected. Each vocation calls for heroic sacrifice, and each has their fair share of opportunities to make such a sacrifice (this word, by the way, literally means to “make holy”). Both vocations are calls out of self and into others. Both ways of living love – consecrated life and conjugal life – take us into the beautiful mess of relationships that is the human family; into the faces and names that surround us on any given day. And the vocation that is “holier” is whichever path that serves to make you, in all of your uniqueness, more whole, more holy. Which path will make possible a more selfless YOU; more open, more serving to the Jesus before you. A more clarifying question for discernment then might be “Which marriage am I called to?”
The gift of St. John Paul II’s meditations on human love in the divine plan continue to bear fruit in the hearts of men and women discerning their path of holiness. So many of the students who have come through our Institute have shared how a vocation was either found, rekindled, or redirected. And the watermark behind every vocation testimony is the imprint of spousal love. The spousal meaning of the body, a key concept in the thought of St. John Paul II, is essentially this: we are a gift, and made to be a gift, and to receive a gift in and through the offering of our whole self. This self-giving and receiving is manifested, albeit differently, in both celibacy and sacramental marriage.
This clarity of the spousal meaning of the body in each vocation did not, in fact, come as easily for Louie and Zélia Martin. They had both discerned religious life before finding themselves in the earthly spousal embrace that ushered nine children into the world. They each had their own personal and cultural struggles, living in 19th century France, darkly covered as it was in a Jansenist film. This thought was marked by a fierce moral rigor and self-discipline that caused some to cast the natural affections into shadow, and even doubt the inherent goodness of the body and sexuality as God created them. Celibacy therefore appeared as the “holier” path, and married life more of an allowance for the ongoing spread of the Kingdom. It was through the advice of a wise confessor that the gradual awakening of this holy couple to the true fruitfulness of married love as a sign of God’s intimate love for humanity actually came. He saw their struggles and their living chastely as brother and sister in a kind of Josephite marriage as not in keeping with what earthly marriage was meant to be.
Over a century later, the writings of the Second Vatican Council as well as St. John Paul II in his theology of the body would reiterate that holiness is the universal call for each vocation. John Paul would emphasize that “the nature of the one as well as the other love is ‘spousal,’ that is, expressed through the complete gift of self. The one as well as the other love tends to express that spousal meaning of the body, which has been inscribed ‘from the beginning’ in the personal structure of man and woman.” (TOB 78:4)
Here are achingly beautiful words of St. John Paul II on that spousal dance that brings married love to fruition, and I might add through Louis and Zélia, brought the Little Flower. St. Thérèse, into the world: “As ministers of a sacrament… man and woman are called to express the mysterious ‘language’ of their bodies in all the truth properly belonging to it. Through gestures and reactions, through the whole reciprocally conditioned dynamism of tension and enjoyment… through all this man, the person, ‘speaks’… man and woman reciprocally express themselves in the fullest and most profound way made possible for them.” (TOB 123:4)
The Great Dance goes on and the Song of Songs continues to play for men and women of our day. Which steps will we take? To which melody will we move? God knows. And the saints want us to know that both movements are marital in their core. Marriage is an authentic path to holiness, just as much as celibacy for the kingdom, which also “has acquired the significance of an act of spousal love.” (TOB, 282)
So all this being said, one vocation is not “better” than another in the sense that it will make you “more perfect” than another. However, if the question is ever asked, “Which vocation is ‘fuller’?” ….well, that’s another blog post entirely.