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Column Sensible careers are all well and good – but I want the adventure of a religious life

Dominican novice Conor McDonough explains why he left behind his fledging teaching career in favour of the “radical” option of a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

OPENING AVAILABLE FOR challenging and unfashionable work. Salary – non-competitive, non-negotiable. Flexibility required. Availability for weekend and night duty essential. Location variable. Contract – until death…’

It doesn’t exactly leap off the page, does it? So why do people continue to enter religious life?

Late August is a time when many young Irish people are pondering career options. The Leaving Certificate class of 2013 are preparing to enter college. As they take their first steps on their chosen ‘career paths’ few will be immediately considering entering religious life (becoming a monk, friar, brother, nun or apostolic sister), but we can be sure that a small number of them will at some point in the future choose to leave behind jobs and romantic relationships and begin to lead lives of poverty, chastity and obedience.

What could motivate such a radical choice?

Finding my calling

Each vocation story is of course entirely personal, and difficult to articulate. A vocation is usually experienced as a ‘calling’ to serve Christ and his Church. For me, this experience commenced in earnest when I went to university.

At the age of 17, I went to Cambridge to study Natural Sciences and I found myself in an environment which was sometimes hostile to the faith I had happily inherited. My non-believing friends constantly forced me to rethink my position vis-à-vis the Catholic faith: Is it true? Is it liberating? Is it worth sharing with others? Ultimately, after much study, prayer, and conversation with patient friends, I found other major worldviews wanting in important respects, and I was able to give my heart entirely to the God of Jesus Christ.

The story of Abraham inspired me

Of course, this is perfectly normal for a maturing Christian, and being a committed Christian doesn’t rule out a normal professional and family life. And so, after graduation, I ploughed a straightforward furrow. I became a secondary school teacher in the north of England and loved every minute of my work. But throughout my time in teaching I was nagged by the dim sense that God was calling me to leave this comfort zone, and give my life to him in a more adventurous, radical way.

The story of Abraham in particular inspired me: he left his city to live in a foreign land, sheltering in tents like a nomad. And so, in 2009, having made contact with the Dominican vocations director, I left behind my nascent teaching career and pitched my tent with 12 other novices in Pope’s Quay, Cork.

Serving the Church seems all the more urgent now

Adventures usually involve difficult stretches, and the publication of reports about the abuse of children in the Church was immensely challenging. It was almost impossible to calmly discuss such evil – we were moved to silence and brought to our knees, praying in atonement for crimes committed, and especially for the healing of survivors.

I’m often asked if the abuse crisis ever caused me to question my vocation. In fact, the opposite is the case. These reports chronicle Christianity-gone-wrong, but I have experienced the Church differently. I was blessed with believing, praying parents, who taught me how to love and live and introduced me to Christ as their friend and mine.

Following Christ in his Church has brought me joy and freedom, so as far as I’m concerned, he is the solution, not the problem. Giving my life to preaching Christ and serving his Church seems all the more urgent then, in the light of scandals.

Religious life is once again counter-cultural

In our lifetimes, the good reputation of religious life has rapidly decayed, but this decline in respect for religious has had at least one positive outcome: religious life has become counter-cultural again. At its origins, religious life was not at all respectable, but involved a flight from respectability, in favour of ‘holy foolishness’. When religious life becomes a respectable career, it loses its counter-cultural dynamism.

I’m deeply grateful that in 21st century Ireland, religious brothers and sisters are at the margins, not in the mainstream. I don’t mean to paint religious as the original hipsters (‘I listen to Gregorian chant. You’ve probably never heard of it…’), but choosing poverty, chastity and obedience and a life in community is now, once again, a subversive option.

What is following a religious life like?

What’s it like living this subversive option? Well, for me, so far, a joy. I’m in the fourth year of eight years of formation, which involves studying philosophy and theology, as well as ancient and modern languages.

We are given pastoral work to do, through which I’ve had the opportunity to befriend and learn from all sorts of people: homeless men, addicts, the elderly, university students, inner-city teenagers.

Above all, we live a life of prayer: five times daily we get together to sing the psalms, and the daily Mass is the high point of our day. In the past four years, my value in the job market has undoubtedly decreased, but I’ve had to work hard on developing virtues which don’t usually appear on a CV: humility, readiness to forgive, gentleness, prayerfulness, zeal, self-control…

The right choice for some adventurous Christians

The Dominicans are an order of mobile preachers, and all our formation is aimed at producing confident communicators of the Gospel; we’re also known for producing Thomas Aquinas, having puffins named after us, and being the reason the Pope wears white.

After we’re ordained, we could end up ministering to Christians in Iran, hearing confessions in Tralee, editing YouTube videos in Dublin, researching in Rome, preaching novenas in Newry, or all of the above. Anything is possible, and the vow of obedience renders us free to set up camp wherever we are sent.

Sensible careers are all well and good, but for some adventurous Christians, the attraction of religious life endures.

Conor McDonough is a novice of the Dominican Order in Cork.

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