So in the beginning of my last post, I mentioned that I would later discuss Mother Mary Clare's suggestions for how to discern well. Again, you must take every source of discernment with a grain of salt (unless it's a source that's been canonized/beatified). So even though so many of us want to know that burning question of my post headline, "How do I know if I'm discerning the right way?", the truth is that there is no right way, no certainty for whether we are doing it right. Because God speaks to every unique soul in a singular, a totally unique way. However, wisdom in any discerning soul will honor the counsel that older, wiser, and holier heads pass along, especially when such counsel is entirely in keeping with Church doctrine, teaching, and exhortation. Not to mention it rings true with "common sense". So, without further ado:
  • Start praying, not thinking. It is easy for all of us (myself notoriously included) to "think" about discerning during our prayer time rather than actually "praying", actually having a conversation and listening to what the Lord wants. SO OFTEN my interior voice sounds like this, "Lord, I just think that I'm called to the active religious life because of these things in my personality. And I just don't do well with so much silence in my life. And just help me discern all the pros and cons of this particular order." That's not praying, it's having an interior monologue addressed to God, but really just sorting through my thoughts about it. My prayer needs to be something more like this, "Lord, I know that I feel drawn to the active religious life. But is that because I'm afraid of silence? Where do you want me to serve? Can you enlighten my fears and hesitations so that I can work through them?"
  • Keep your eyes fixed on Heaven. Be aware, interiorly of our ultimate goal, of the "Heavenly realities" of our life. In this way you will more strongly fight against Satan's attempts to lure you by worldly desires, thoughts, or possessions. Remember that the world cannot understand the idea that you may love Someone so much that you would give up that same world and all its pleasures for love. The world does not understand, many whom you know will not understand, and they will all try to lead you away from the call because they fear your "yes" to love is the greatest rejection. The world does not like to be sacrificed.
  • Ponder these things in your heart. Take Mary, our Mother, as your model. She kept all her "yes's" in her heart, she pondered all the words of the Lord, all the prophecies, all the miracles of her Son in her heart. Do not expose too rashly or too widely that greatest treasure…the love of your heart. Let your intimate union with God be a thing that you guard as the wellspring of your life. It was meant to be sacred, set apart, devoted if you will, to Him alone and for Him alone. This has been one of my greatest challenges so far. Because I am so eager to say, "I'M ENGAGED!!! I'm going to be the spouse of the King of the Universe!! God is so good to me!! Praise Him Praise Him Praise Him!!" I want to tell everyone, I want to tell all my Catholic friends. I want to see how my non-Catholic friends will react. But I bite my tongue, I search my heart. I test out my zeal. Do I want to tell this particular person because she ought to know? If I want to share it with a whole room full of people, or if I want to share it on Facebook, that is not right. I know it. That sort of desire stems from my desire to be approved of, to be celebrated, to be the center of attention, to even be somewhat infamous. Surely in some of my social circles the desire to be a religious is a claim to notoriety. I can imagine that will be the case among my coworkers in my secular job. I can share my joy with my family, with my most intimate sisters who will be supportive, who will pray for my discernment, who will hold me accountable to my commitments. As for the rest, well, I ponder even the deepest parts of my vocation within me.
  • Abandon yourself in Christ. This is it. This is the simplest form of holiness, the surest way to true joy. When we trust Him, we will hear Him. We will begin to know Him. We will allow ourselves to be filled with His love and transformed by it. In your abandonment of self, of fear, of worry to be emptied of all that and filled instead by Christ's love, Christ's hope, Christ's peace—you cannot miss the call to whatever vocation He desires for you.

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. I believe that's a Henry David Thoreau quote, but forgive me when I admit that though I have a lovely old hardbound copy of Walden, I have never read it. :X
This post is mostly taken from the notes I wrote during my fateful Come & See retreat. It's the same retreat that started this blog, the same that initiated my "betrothal" period, the moment that started my path firmly on the road to religious life. November 15-17, 2013.
The following insights were given in a talk about Discernment. Mother Mary Clare, mother superior of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is not only an awesome speaker, she is also a beautiful mother to so many, including myself. Without further ado:
  • Don't let the season of discernment drag out. If you are single, and you start doing some serious soul-searching to see if you are called to religious life, don't get the idea that you'll meander your way through this for two or three or five years or until God smacks you in the head or "the right man" cuts in on that lovely dance you've been dancing with God. Expect to spend about six months to a year earnestly discerning religious life. More about what it means to "earnestly discern" in the next post. And if Mr. Right comes around—and Mother warned us that you should expect Mr. Right to cut in AS SOON as you start this discernment season—you say "no" to that date. Because Mr. Right will be willing to wait on your heart a little longer while you spend this time with Jesus. Know that you can always take another "season" to reconsider religious life later, once your 6 mos./year-long discernment is finished and after you move on to other things.
  • Invest in good female friendships. There is so much beauty in growing in relationship with fellow sisters. Not only do these women help you to feel less lonely, or help you to not "need" a man in your life, such friendships also encourage you, give you examples in faith, and allow you to learn more about yourself. Women who are honest with you about how they receive you (and perceive you) can actually be profound instruments in the hand of God as you discern your vocation.
  • Visit a few convents. Mother encouraged us to see around 2-3 different places. And how do we decide what orders we're supposed to choose to visit? Pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, desires. This is like the number 2 rule of discernment, after praying. Pay attention before you go, like when you're visiting the order's website, or having email discussions with the vocations director for that order. Pay attention while on the retreat, especially to your feelings and desires. Do you feel at peace, at home, comfortable, happy? Are you anxious? Are you fearful? Are you freaking out because you think if you're there for another TWO WHOLE DAYS they're gonna fit you up in a habit before you can blink? And do you want  to be there? Do you hate it? Do you find yourself constantly fighting internally to follow the prayer and communal life they've invited you into for that brief period? And as far as the questions of "how many places do I visit? how will I find the order that's right for me?" are concerned, don't get caught up in the idea that you'll have to trot the globe to find the right home. Like with Mr. Right, God is not going to put the order you're meant to belong to out of reach, beyond the realm of possibility. He'll lead you where you're meant to go. And if the first two or three convents you visit all leave you with some "off" feeling, or some "missing" element, or just plain "I did NOT have a good time there" feeling, then do, keep looking. And if it was just a good experience, or an equally great retreat at more than one convent, go back. Go again and see what the Lord wants to say this time.
  • Read some good spiritual materials. There's A LOT out there. Here is the list of suggestions from Mother Mary Clare:

The Discernment of Spirits by Fr. Timothy Gallagher, OMV
The Examen Prayer by Fr. Timothy Gallagher, OMV
Union with God  by Bl. Columba Marmion
The Meaning of Vocation: In the Words of John Paul II (published by Scepter)
A Right to Be Merry by Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C.
"...And You Are Christ's" by Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
Vita Consecrata (Consecrated Life) by Bl. Pope John Paul II
Essential Elements in the Church's Teaching on Religious Life 
For myself, A Right to Be Merry and "…And You Are Christ's" are on my immediate "to read" list. Another book that is just a beautiful spiritual "game changer" if you will is Interior Freedom by Fr. Jacques Philippe. It really gets to the heart of the modern soul trying to break free of her fears.
  • Make a decision. At the end of it all, after six months, nine months, or a year, choose. God honors your decision. If you have given Him a season, and He has called you to religious life, you will know. See my post about the signs that you will know. And if you choose another vocation, be that marriage, consecrated virginity, or the community of a secular institute, live freely and fully in that decision, knowing that you have nothing to regret because you pursued the Lord's will without reserve.

When He rocks the boat, He doesn't let it sink. He doesn't even want it to capsize. The waves (of His mercy) are only meant to shake me out of complacency, and sometimes even out of despair. No wonder the Hebrews author described hope as an anchor of the soul (6:19).
So it was with me, when Christ knocked loudly enough on the door of my heart that I could no longer ignore Him. Then He mounted the cross, received the price of my sins, and asked me to fill the place in His heart that only I could and become His bride. It was way better than if He had just got down on one knee to honor my feminine heart. Still, it was rocking my boat. It didn't change much of what I do in my daily routine (except perhaps, renewing my desire for Him. As if my soul didn't already long for Him, now I feel as if I really am panting with the Psalmist. Oh, Lord, sooth my impatient heart!).
But the boat was rocked and my soul has changed in some profound way. I know it. It is like a binding covenant. He has set Himself as a seal upon my heart. And all my questions about purpose, all my self-dubbed "fruitless" work in the secular world, all my frustration with worrying whether my life really could be spent meaningfully—in an hour all was quelled by His Voice, by His Call. And hope rose anew in my heart.
So since He makes all things new, He is making my sight new. My "soulsight" as it were. I have entered into this Advent with some new joy. I have always loved Advent, I have always loved hopeful expectation. I have always loved the first snowfall and the return to Christ and the childhood of Christ unfolding in the readings. Mary features so prominently in the Liturgy this season. But this year seems different from so many other Advents. Maybe every year is different. Maybe I just forget as the seasons change. But somehow there is a new weight to it, a new quieter joy, as I wait not just for my Savior and my God and my Brother and my Shepherd (Psalm 23 was part of the Liturgy this week), no, this year I wait for the coming of my Beloved, my Betrothed. It is an incredible profound perspective shift.
I am looking now at my story, at my life, at my spiritual landscape, with eyes that see the possibility of new beginnings, of simple and humble style, of vast freedom. I will be celebrating the Christmas season very differently next year. I will be saying farewell to many people in my life. I will be purging out so many possessions in my life. And for everything I will leave behind I will gain the exquisite beauty of the Lord's own heart to call mine. I will gain a greater union with my God than I have ever known. Will it be worth it? Absolutely.
And so I wait with even more joyful anticipation than usual this Advent. I wait with even greater longings. I wait with the hopeful gaze of a child who know how deeply she is loved by her Father. I wait with the expectation that the best gift I will receive at Christmas is my Lord Himself. He has always been a gift to me, but this year, it's a new gift. And it's priceless. And it's worth waiting for.

"...hold fast to the hope that lies before us. This we have as an anchor of the soul, sure and firm, which reaches into the interior behind the veil." –Heb. 6:18b-19
"Vocations are born in prayer and from prayer; and only through prayer can they persevere and bear fruit." –Pope Francis
I am just a little bit reminded of the song in the movie Enchanted, "How does she know that you love her? How do you show her you love her?"
But the real question I am asking myself is, "How do I know that I'm called to religious life?"
In my previous post, I mentioned the VISION vocation network. They also had a link on their website for a vocations guide. In this insightful guide is an article about "The 5 Signs that You Might Have a Religious Vocation."
I'm the type of blogger/person to approach everything I read with a grain of salt. Or perhaps more than one grain. I have discovered that this is a symptom of my jaded cynicism, which is a character trait I do not want to cultivate, but, well, it does help me to stay real. And be less gullible, or less easily swayed by the first thing I enjoy reading. So even though I am sharing these "5 Signs" with you, please go read the original article and form your own opinions based on this and other sources of information available to you about The Call. And please, follow Pope Francis' message as quoted at the top of this article.

Ok, so five signs. The article makes them a bit poetic. They are as follows:
1. A peace like no other
2. Your deepest desire
3. With God all things are possible (i.e. the possibility of religious life is open to you)
4. Others can see it
5. Joy: the irrefutable sign

Praise God He has already given me these "signs" in the few short weeks I have been 'betrothed' to Him! I do not pretend that my life changed drastically when I received the call and said, "Yes!", even though my perspective on life changed. I still struggle to spend enough time in prayer. I still get caught up in little details that may end up being meaningless. I still go to work every day and come home feeling as if my accomplishments are negligent. But we press on, because He is faithful.
1. I actually experienced more peace than joy when Christ proposed to me. There was a stillness in me, a calm certainty once I said Fiat, that this was indeed what God wanted me to do. This was what all my life before had led me to. Then came joyful awe  that He could love me that much, could love me so particularly as to desire me to become His bride.
2. In that same hour, that "fulness of time" one might say of my own history, I saw clearly my desires. I saw how much I longed to be set apart from the world, set apart to belong entirely to Him, spend my days in prayer, in greater knowledge of Him, and in serving in just exactly the way He wants. I even saw how my capacity for such a life was cultivated in my own education and spiritual upbringing.
3. God is making it possible in my life. I have just a few school loans to pay off, I have a job I will be willing to relinquish in even just a year from now, I have no long-term commitments keeping me tied to the world, and I have a heart that belongs entirely to Him. I am furthermore blessed to have very supportive family and friends to bless this season of my discernment and encourage my vocation.
4. I just experienced this last weekend: I was talking to a childhood friend of mine, sharing my little testimony about how the Lord "popped the question" as it were, and she told me that she wasn't really surprised to hear me share it. That she had mentally been adding me to a list of women she knew who were sisters or nuns for a while now. It was not a certain thing to her, but she already thought of me as someone she could see joining a convent. It was a beautiful testimony, and a gift to my discerning heart. I was touched to hear it.
5. Ah, yes. This is something I generally have an abundance of. Several people have commented about my joy, about my zeal for life. How many chances I have had lately to experience joy. Every time I tell someone or talk about it with someone I already have told, I feel like my insides are glowing. Not lovey-dovey, stomach-feels-all-twisty kind of romanticism but something brighter, bubblier, and, if possible, steadier, more resilient. Granted, everyone I have told has reacted positively, if not outright ecstatically. (I told a group of college woman I was a mentor to and they freaked out just as if I were getting engaged to Prince Charming…which in a way, I am!) And somehow I just trust that the Lord will keep the flame of my joy constant even when I tell someone who reacts in a negative or critical way.

So I discovered last month or so the VISION vocation network. Though the site itself is a bit unwieldy, the offerings they have are very helpful. They have a questionnaire to match your desires, history, and personality to compatible religious orders. They have a directory of many, many religious orders out there for you to search. They have links to a vocations magazine, which I will talk about in my next blog post. But today, I want to talk about their Spirituality quiz. Or more specifically, the Spirituality Types they categorize you in based on the quiz.
Just a mere 14 questions, the quiz is a ranking one: you get four character traits to each question and you have to rank them based on how similar they are to you. For example the first question asks you to rank how much you are independent, compassionate, spontaneous, or factual.
The types are split into four categories, and I think they are probably thorough enough. Contrary to popular thought, they do not categorize you into things like contemplative, charismatic, devotional, liturgical. That is to say, their goal is not to identify the style of your prayer, but merely to categorize the four primary ways people pray and connect to God. The four are:
1) Path of Intellect (Thomistic) 
2) Path of Devotion (Augustinian)
3) Path of Service (Franciscan)
4) Path of Asceticism (Ignatian)

You can click on the link to view all the descriptions. 

I feel, perhaps, a bit like Lucy in I Love Lucy when Ricky marches into the room and says, "Lucy, you've got some esplainin to do," in his adorable 50's Hollywood accent. Yes, there are times for poetic allegory, and there are times for straight talk. This is a straight talk entry.
Most women with vocations stories of any kind (whether for marriage or for religious life) have a sort of polarized interpretation of their story otherwise known as "What Led Me To Answer This Particular Call". Many times over I have heard both the, "I imagined what it would be like to be a sister even when I was a very little girl" or "I was NEVER EVER going to be a sister, I was convincing myself and everyone it was not for me, I was in a steady, beautiful relationship with a guy, etc."
It is not the same for marriage, not quite. But I guess that is partly because it is the "natural" vocation, the one our very existence, our very bodies, call us to. Still, I have heard the stories of "I TOTALLY didn't like him/her at first" or "We NEVER got along" or even "I NEVER thought God would send me my spouse". More resounding is the effort to make very clear that while in the vocation of one's choice, one has been obviously NOT called to the other. "I went on a vocations retreat and was DEFINITELY not at peace" "I just felt SO UNCOMFORTABLE when I was around sisters" etc.
I should make a disclaimer. We humans all tend to overgeneralize, and as women, we often over exaggerate. In storytelling, it is very easy. And as much as I have heard such phrases from women, I have often found that at some point, in nearly every vocation story, they all mellow out. They discover the beauty of their own vocation. They discover the beauty of the vocation they are not called to as well. It is only in acknowledging the goodness and beauty of every call that we can understand fully what sacrifice and gift are in the call we receive.
So. My vocation story. Rather mellow all through.
I was a cradle Catholic, a girl born, baptized, and raised Catholic. My parents did everything right by me, went to Mass on Sundays, attended CCD classes, even put me in Catholic school for a while. But things changed for our whole family when they decided to homeschool us kids.
I will not attempt to beat out of your heads whatever misconceptions or stereotypes are conjured up by that last revelation of my story. I will only allow myself this defense: that my homeschool education was the best I received, and while it lasted I learned more of my Faith and loved my Faith more, than I could suppose any other method of education to have given me with the same effects. And furthermore, every dear reader should make a little more open space in his or her mind for this very small fact: no two homeschooled families are alike. There, defense is done.
So, off I totted to college, age 18, ready to graduate in three years with a degree in English. And I did it as I planned. I dated a boy my first year, but discovered the long-distance relationship was not for us. That was the only time I think I really contemplated being married…or at least the only time I took the idea of me getting married very seriously. Girls at age eighteen who are in love are very serious about getting married. Nevertheless, I have been single ever since, but it is only the last three years that I have been "intentionally" single, that I have been deepening my relationship with the Lord more purposefully while I am not dating. And it is really only the last 11 months that I have been so intentional about my singleness, my discernment, that I would not even say "yes" to a man if he had asked me on a date. My mother will not like to read that last sentence.
I'm sorry this is very long. This must be my concluding paragraph. I must make myself be brief. I procured a spiritual director in January of this year. It has been going swell ever since, and I have been looking at my future as if I might be religious sister. It is the first time in my life that I ever contemplated the idea so seriously. Oh, I smiled like everyone did when watching Anne of Green Gables as a girl, watching her swoon over being a Bride of Christ when she had a sleepover with Diana. But I just never really thought one way or another about it. Until now. Until this year. And just a fortnight ago, when I went on my first Come and See retreat, when I went to a convent, and I saw how much I loved their life and their joy and I heard the voice of the Lord in the silence of the Blessed Sacrament say to my heart, "Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come."