When I was a college chaplain, the weekend in late August when parents dropped off their children for the schoolyear always presented an interesting pastoral opportunity. While gathered on campus for Mass, these parents formed a select congregation: All were at the same stage in life, a point of transition from being parents of children to being parents of adults. They were on the precipice of a spiritual crisis—and a vocational crisis—that nobody talks about and which they did not see coming.
Why a vocational crisis? Since Vatican II, the Church has emphasized that marriage is a vocation, a calling from God—just as a call to the priesthood is a vocation. When the topic of vocation comes up in pastoral conversations, I’ve found that young adults, especially young women, will often say something like: “Father, my vocation is to get married and have kids.” But to “get married and have kids” isn’t a vocation, only part of one. God’s plan for their lives involves a lot more. I ask them: What happens when your kids are your age, when they’ve grown up and left home? What’s the vocation for the second half of your life?
The parents dropping their kids off at college don’t reflect deeply enough on this question. They often assume that the answer must be something like, “to be a grandparent.” But there is no coherent theology of vocation behind the idea that God’s will for them in the second half of life is held hostage to the free decisions of their adult children, who might not marry, or who might even be called to celibacy. It makes even less sense to say that one discerns such a vocation before getting married. The answer lies elsewhere.
Around the same time that the schoolyear begins, the Church celebrates the back-to-back feast days of St. Monica (August 27) and her son, St. Augustine (August 28). In the third book of the Confessions, Augustine explains how his mother resolved her version of this midlife vocational crisis. When Augustine was seventeen, he had the opportunity to move to Carthage to study to be a lawyer—basically, he was going away to college. Monica, worried that he was losing his faith, tried to find an authority figure in Carthage who would make Augustine come back to God. After she dropped him off at school, she approached the local bishop. She wanted him to compel her son to be a good Catholic. But the bishop didn’t think that a direct approach would work. “Leave him alone for a time,” recommended the bishop, “and pray to God for him.”
Monica did not initially accept this answer. She was a pious woman. But she was not yet a woman who trusted God, who trusted prayer. She only trusted direct action. She begged, she cried, she insisted that the bishop do more. Finally, at the end of his patience, the bishop dismissed her with the famous line: “Go; as you live, it cannot be that the son of those tears should perish.”
St. Monica then realized that the vocation of this new stage in her life was to be less active than contemplative. Monica prayed every day, fasted and offered sacrifices, and visited churches frequently—all for the intention that her son have a conversion. God granted her prayers and gave her the grace to see her son’s conversion before she died. That’s the vocation of all parents after their children have grown—to become more spiritual and contemplative, and less active, in how they care for their children.
The language of contemplative and active vocations is not usually applied to the laity. But I use these terms advisedly. In his Introduction to the Spiritual Life, Fr. Louis Bouyer observes that all of us, whether priests or religious or laity, must arrive at the same point in our spiritual lives. All of us are trying to get to heaven, which has one standard for admission—holiness. Since the religious and the laity both have the same goal, by the end of their lives they must embrace broadly similar spiritual means: They must renounce worldly things and turn more and more to prayer, so as to prepare themselves for their death and the life to come. “Everything that the monk has renounced, the layperson must one day renounce,” Bouyer writes, “and everything the layperson has possessed that the monk has not will be the object of a sacrifice to that extent the greater and more painful.” The religious do much of their renunciation in a compressed form upon entering their religious order; the married take a longer time to learn the same lessons. Sooner or later, we all have to become men and women of faith, hope, love, and prayer, and become detached from even the good things of the world.
This detachment means relinquishing direct control over one's children. Those called to the religious life take their vows of chastity in order to foster the virtue of holy detachment from their natural families. Chastity is not merely about giving up sexual pleasure, but also about preventing the bonds of family from tying one’s heart to this world, the better to prepare for eternal life in the world to come (as St. Paul explains in 1 Cor. 7:32–4). Those in religious orders acquire holy detachment from their families early in life; but married laypeople acquire the same virtue later. When children become adults, the days when their parents command them are over. Instead, their vocation as parents is to prepare for their own death, and to model for their families how to do the same—the contemplative life, rather than the active.
This is why I push back whenever a young woman tells me her vocation is to get married and have kids. Her vocation is not so limited. She may be called to marriage, but she’s also called to prepare for the life to come by prayer and sacrifice, by renouncing the things of this world, by thinking of what is above (Col. 3:2)—just as she would were she to enter a religious order.
Since death comes for us all, the wise and prudent will be prepared. They will seek holiness. They will strive to become better friends with God. Even when they can’t directly intervene in the lives of others—either because that’s not their role, or because they would be ineffective if they tried, or because they’re ninety and at the margins of the family’s day-to-day activities—they can still pray for others. The lessons St. Monica learned apply to all parents of adult children: They must become more contemplative, learn to rely more on prayer, and trust that God in his providence will take care of everyone we love, now and at the hour of their death. Such is the vocation of the second half of their lives.
Fr. Daniel Patrick Moloney is assistant professor of philosophy at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.
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