Is it OK to date while discerning a vocation to religious life? In fact, is it even advisable, as other discerners, friends, and family may advocate?
In my years of working with those discerning a possible call to religious life, this issue often comes up. I think a lot depends on timing. Where are you in the process of discernment? Have you considered other options for a life commitment? What has your life experience been?
If you are going to make a thorough, honest discernment of a life vocation, you need to carefully consider the options before you. In exploring each lifestyle (form of life)—married, single, or religious—you need to do your homework. Talk to committed and fulfilled people in each vocation, and listen to what happens to your heart as you look through the lens of their commitment at that lifestyle. “Try on” each lifestyle—can you see yourself living that life? Can you see yourself happy and fulfilled, living with meaning and purpose in that vocation?
You may have lived closely within a marriage (your family), and probably have observed many marriages in your life. And chances are you have been living the single life for at least some of your adult life. Religious life may be more of an unknown, but most communities offer “come and see” opportunities, as well as live-in experiences and service opportunities that may lift some of the mystery of what life in a community of vowed religious might be like.
Experiences of dating, of really liking or loving someone, are important benefits to bring to discernment, and are part of healthy relational maturity. The choice for a celibate lifestyle cannot be made in a relational vacuum. You need to understand your heart’s desires in order to freely choose God, in a single hearted way, as your primary love. So dating really helps you sort out the movements of your heart. The tricky part is that loving God does not rule out a healthy attraction to a human partner. It takes honesty, with yourself and God, and some good guidance from a director, to come to freely sort out the Spirit’s call.
Having said that, dating when you have reached a point of serious discernment, I feel, can cloud the issue and makes things even harder. Whether with marriage or religious life, when a person has been dating someone seriously and sees the possibility of commitment to them as a likely outcome, dating new people—just to test it out—could really cloud and confuse the heart’s steady growing movement. That’s why I say timing is important.
There comes a time when it would serve you better to follow the growing movement of your discernment, and make the choice that is emerging. Let the movement of grace continue its course, even if it involves some aspect of a “leap of faith.” Trust God. Trust your heart.