In the first years of Christianity, being Christian was a dangerous "occupation". You could be held accountable and even martyred!! As time went on and Christianity became more acceptable in the Roman Empire, the threat of death eased. Thank God! But what happened to Christ's followers? With time, being Christian became more commonplace and more acceptable. It started to become part of the culture. When this happened there were those people who longed to live Christianity more radically ... as close as possible to what Jesus asked. They decided to get away from the comforts and temptations of ordinary life and go into the desert to seek God in prayer. These were the Desert Fathers and Mothers. It was not long before others joined them and some formed small communities under the guidance of a wise man or woman. This was the seed bed of religious life.
However, the title of founder of western Monasticism was given to Saint Benedict of Nursia (born in Nursia, Italy c. 480 - died c. 547). As a young men he went off to study at the university in Rome. Here he decided that such a life was not going to satisfy his inner longing for God. He went into the 'desert' and lived in a cave for several years, searching for God's will. Benedict was asked by others to be their leader. He reluctantly took on this role and eventually wrote a rule for monks living in community. His purpose may be gleaned from his Rule, namely that "Christ ... may bring us all together to life eternal" (RB 72.12). This rule formed the basis of religious life as we know it today.
Religious life has gone through many changes over the years. New styles of living have evolved and will continue to evolve. What remains constant, however, is the desire of the desert fathers and mothers to live a radical following of Jesus in a exclusive love relationship. Is this YOUR call?
You may want to follow Jesus in a community, where prayer is still central, both individual and communal, and where it flows into apostolic works. In your reflections you may discover that you want more of an apostolic approach in living your commitment to God. There are many different charisms which you need to explore. Just look at the number of different congregations. Some of these are better termed monastic, they are not enclosed but still place emphasis on living and praying together.
There are some groups that look like religious but because of their Constitutions are actually more atuned to lay Christian life. Some of these takes vows each year, some do not take vows. Go to the Vocations Directory to explore some of the different orders. As you can see there is a wide variety of ways of living the Gospel life.
As you do this notice what spirit or 'charism' speaks to you. What excites you? Where you feel at home? Where you feel you belong? Where you feel challenged? What seems to fit with where you are? Record these in your journal. Go over again the Congregations that speak to you in some way. And try to short list. That is, from your list which ones speak to you most. Why? Allow yourself time to do this. If you feel drawn to one specific group it is good to look at the others so that you can make a discerned choice. You will end up with maybe three or four different Congregations.
You can see that discernment and choice go together. God will not send you an email about which Congregations is right for you, (though, it would be easier is this were the case!). You need to do a lot of your own work. All the time you are doing this don't forget to pray, to ask for guidance, to let God know that you trust in how he leads you, and to express your faith and love. It is important that you take plenty of time.
Now that you have short listed, the time to speak to someone has come. Choose one or two that you have short-listed and make contact with the vocations personnel or Congregational Leader. (Such information is usually at the bottom of their webpage in our directory).
If you feel you are called to religious life but are not sure if you have chosen the right congregation, don't be overly concerned. Remember that Faith is part of religious life and part of choosing religious life. You will never be absolutely certain. But believe in yourself, trust in your discernment. Then just do it! It is an act of faith in God's call for you. Your discernment is not over. There is still a way to go but the next step will be done hand-in-hand with the Congregation that you believe is the place where you can best be the person God has created you to be.
If none of the congregations seem to be a fit, you might like to ask yourself: Is God calling me elsewhere?