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Monday, May 1, 2017

Answer to a young man who asks counsel on the choice of a state of life

(By St. Alphonsus de Ligouri)

I read in your letter that some time ago you felt inspired by God to become a religious,and that afterwards many doubts arose in your mind, and especially this one, that, withoutbecoming a religious, you might sanctify yourself also in the world.I will answer your letter briefly, for, should you wish to read something more complete,you can read a little work of mine, which has already been printed, under the title “Counselsconcerning Religious Vocation,” in which I have treated this matter more fully. Here I will onlysay, briefly, that this point of the choice of a state of life is of the greatest importance, as upon itdepends our eternal salvation. He who chooses the state to which God calls him will save himself with facility: and for him who does not obey the divine call it will be difficult yes, morallyimpossible to save himself. The greatest number of those who are damned, are damned for nothaving corresponded to the call of God.In order, therefore, that you may be able to choose that state which will be the surest forattaining eternal salvation, consider that your soul is immortal, and that the only end for whichGod has placed you in this world was, not certainly that you may acquire money and honors onthis earth, and thus live a comfortable and delightful life, but that by holy virtues you may meriteternal life. “and the end life everlasting” (Romans 5:22). In the day of judgment it will avail younothing to have advanced your family, and to have made a figure in the world; it will only availyou to have served and loved Jesus Christ, who is to be your judge.You have a thought which tells you that you will also be able to sanctify yourself byremaining in the world. Yes, my dear sir, you will be able; but it is difficult, and if you are trulycalled by God to the religious state, and yet remain in the world, it is, as I have said above,morally impossible, because those helps will be denied you which God has prepared for you inreligion, and without them you will not save yourself. To sanctify yourself it is necessary for youto employ the means, such as, to avoid evil occasions, to remain detached from earthly goods, tolive a life recollected in God; and to maintain this, it is necessary to receive the sacramentsfrequently, to make your meditation, your spiritual reading, and to perform other devoutexercises every day, otherwise it is impossible to preserve the spirit of fervor. Now, it is difficult, not to say impossible, to practice all this in the midst of the noise and the disturbances of theworld; for family affairs, the necessities of the house, the complaints of parents, the quarrels andpersecutions with which the world is so full, will keep your mind so occupied by cares and fearsthat you will barely be able in the evening to recommend yourself to God, and even this will bedone with many distractions. You would wish to make your meditation, to read spiritual books,to receive Holy Communion often, to visit every day the Sacrament of the altar; but from all thisyou will be prevented by the affairs of the world, and the little you do will be imperfect, because it is done in the midst of a thousand distractions, and with coldness of heart. Your life will thenbe always unquiet, and your death more unquiet still. On one side, worldly friends will not fail toinspire you with a fear of embracing the religious life, as being a hard life and full of troubles.On the other, the world offers you amusements, money, and a contented life. Reflect well, and donot allow yourself to be led into error. Be persuaded that the world is a traitor that makespromises and does not care about the fulfillment of them. It offers you indeed all these earthlythings, but suppose it should give them to you, could it also give you peace of soul? No, Godonly can give true peace. The soul is created only for God, to love Him in this life and to enjoyHim in the next, and therefore God only can content it. All the pleasures and riches of the earthcannot give true peace; nay, those who in this life abound the most with such goods are the mosttroubled and afflicted, as Solomon confesses, who had them in abundance. “All,” says he, “isvanity, and affliction of spirit” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). If the world, with its goods, could make ushappy, the rich, the great, the monarchs, who are in no want of wealth, honors, and amusements,would be fully contented. But experience shows how it is with these mighty ones of the earth: thegreater they are, the greater are the vexations, fears, and afflictions they have to suffer. A poorCapuchin lay brother, who goes about girded with a cord over a sackcloth, who lives on beans,and sleeps in a small cell on a little straw, is more contented than a prince with all his gildedtrappings and riches, who has every day a sumptuous table, and who goes half sick to bed undera rich canopy, unable to sleep on account of the anguish which drives sleep away. He is a foolwho loves the world and not God, said St. Philip Neri; and if these worldlings live such anunquiet life, much more unquiet still will be their death, when the priest, at their side, willintimate to them that they are about to be chased away from this world, saying: “Depart hence,Christian soul, from this world. Embrace the crucifix, for this world is at an end for you.” Themisery is, that in the world they think little of God, and just as little of the next life, where theymust remain forever. All, or almost all, their thoughts are given to the things of this earth, andthis is the cause that their life is so unhappy, and their death still more.Nevertheless, that you may ascertain what state you ought to embrace, imagine yourself at the point of death, and choose that one which you would then wish to have chosen. Should youhave erred, by neglecting the divine call, in order to follow your own inclinations, and to livewith more liberty, there will then he no longer time to remedy the error. Consider that everythinghere below will come to an end. “The fashion of this world passeth away” (1 Corinthians 7:31).The scenes of this world must finish for each one of us. Everything passes, and death draws near;and at every step we take, we approach nearer to it, and, through death, nearer to eternity. Forthis we are born. “Man shall go into the house of his eternity” (Ecclesiastes 12:5). Death will beupon us when we least think of it. Alas! When death draws near, what will then appear all thegoods of this world, but the unreal pageantry of a theater, vanities, lies, and foolishness? Andwhat profit will it then be, as Jesus Christ warns us, “if we should have gained the whole worldand lost our souls”? (Matthew 16:26) It will help us only to die an unhappy death.

On the contrary, a young man who has left the world to give himself entirely to JesusChrist, how contented will he feel, as he passes his days in the solitude of his cell far from thetumult of the world and the dangers of losing God, which are in the world! In the monastery hewill not have the entertainments of music, theaters, and balls, but he will have God to consolehim and to make him enjoy peace. I mean all that peace, which is possible in this valley of tears,into which every one is sent to suffer, and to merit by his patience that full peace which isprepared for him in heaven. But in this life even, far from the pastimes of the world, one lovinglook cast from time to time on the crucifix, one “Deus meus, et omnia,” pronounced withaffection, one “my God” said with a sigh of love, will console him more than all the pastimesand feasts of the world, which leave only bitterness behind them.And if he lives content in such a life, more content will he be still at his death at havingchosen the religious state. How much will it then console him to have spent his life in prayer, inspiritual reading, in mortification, and in other exercises of devotion, especially if he has been inan Order employed in saving souls by preaching and hearing confessions, things which at hisdeath will all increase his confidence in Jesus Christ, who is truly grateful and liberal inrewarding those who have labored for His glory!But let us come to a conclusion with regard to your vocation. Since the Lord has calledyou to leave the world, and to be entirely His in religion, I tell you: Rejoice and tremble at thesame time. Rejoice, on the one hand, and always thank the Lord, because to be called by God toa perfect life is a grace which he does not give to all: “He hath not done in like manner to everynation” (Psalms 147:20). On the other hand, tremble, because if you do not follow the divinecall, you will put your eternal salvation in great danger. It is not my intention here to relate toyou the many examples of young men who, because they made no account of their vocation,have lived a miserable life and died a horrible death. Hold for certain that, as God has called you,you will never have peace, if you remain in the world, and at your death you will be veryunquiet, on account of the remorse that then will torment you, for having neglected to obey God,who had called you to the religious state.At the end of your letter you express a wish to learn from me whether, in case you shouldnot have the courage to enter religion, it would be better to marry, as your parents wish, or tobecome a secular priest.I answer: The married state I cannot recommend to you, because St. Paul does notcounsel it to any one, except there be a necessity for it, arising out of habitual incontinence,which necessity, I hold for certain, does not exist in your case.With regard, then, to the state of a secular priest, take notice that a secular priest has onhim all the obligations of a priest, and all the distractions and dangers of a layman; for, living inthe midst of the world, he cannot avoid the troubles which arise from his own household andfrom his parents, and cannot he free from the dangers to which his soul is exposed. He will havetemptations in his own house, being unable to exclude women from it, whether relatives orservants, nor prevent other strangers from coming to see them. You should then stay therealtogether retired in a separate room, and attend only to divine things. Now, this it is verydifficult to practice; and therefore small, and very small, is the number of those priests whoattend to their perfection in their own houses.On the contrary, entering a monastery of strict observance, you will be freed from thedisagreeable duty of thinking about your food and clothing, because there the Order provides youwith all, there you will not have your parents to come and continually trouble you with all thedisturbances that happen in their house; there no women enter to disturb your mind; and thus, far from the tumult of the world, you will have no one to hinder you in your prayers and yourrecollection.I have said a monastery of strict observance; because if you want to enter another, wherethey live more freely, it is better for you to stay at home and attend there to the salvation of yoursoul as well as you can; for entering an Order where the spirit is relaxed, you expose yourself tothe danger of being lost. Though you should enter with the resolution to attend to prayer and tothe things of God only, yet, carried along by the bad example of your companions, and seeingyourself derided and even persecuted, if you do not live as they do, you will leave off all yourdevotions, and do as the others do, as experience shows it to be commonly the case. But shouldGod give you the grace of vocation, be careful to preserve it, by recommending yourself often toJesus and Mary in holy prayer. I know that if you resolve to give yourself entirely to God, thedevil from that moment will increase his efforts to tempt you to fall into sin, and especially tomake you entirely His, and to remain His.I conclude by offering you the assurance of my respectful consideration; I pray the Lordto make you belong entirely to Himself, and remain, etc.