Friday, January 31, 2014

Seven Quick Takes - Vocation Fever

If you've spent time in certain Catholic spheres, you'll be familiar with vocation fever.  It tends to spread quickly through any group of faithful and enthusiastic Catholic young people who haven't yet taken one of the big vocational steps towards marriage, the priesthood or religious life.  Symptoms include intense all-night conversations about discernment, love triangles, crushes on seminarians, and regularly scheduled meltdowns involving some variation on the following: "I THINK I'm called to married life but Joe said he didn't like me and Tom is discerning a call to the priesthood but he asked me out for coffee and what does that MEAN and maybe I'm just called to be a Dominican but I REALLY WANT TO HAVE BABIES!"

I lived it myself, and am now seeing it among my younger siblings and their friends in the late high school and early college years.  On one hand, it's beautiful and moving to see Christ working in their lives and hearts, and to see how deeply they want to discern and follow his will for them.  On the other hand, the environments of some of the Catholic greenhouses where all this discerning tends to take place can lead to some angst, heartache, and unhelpful thinking.

Having recently celebrated my second wedding anniversary, I'm only just getting started along my vocational path myself.  However, maybe the fact that I'm only a few years out from all of this vocation freakout means I'm in a good position to share some thoughts.  So here are seven things to remember to survive vocation fever: 

1) There’s not one single right path and lots of wrong paths.  
This was a big one for me. I was convinced that if I jumped through enough discernment hoops I would discover that one correct road to follow, with brightly lit guideposts directing me towards my one true calling.  This idea ended up making me me feel paralyzed, because if I accidentally headed off down the wrong path I would have ignored God’s will and be condemned to a life of misery.  When, at various points, I did think I understood what God wanted of me and then found roadblocks in the way, this felt like a betrayal.  Really, our lives are a lot more complex than that, and God works through our many, many daily choices to mold us into the people he created us to be. 

2) God speaks to us through our emotions and desires. 
God’s call is not just an intellectual one.  Of course our minds have to be engaged, but it’s equally important that our hearts be, because God speaks through both.  There can be a tendency to fall into patterns of thought that go something like this:
"This guy is in my life.  He’s a good Catholic guy and is available and seems to like me.  Not much of a spark there, but I have the duty to explore this option and see if this is God's will."
"I have the right temperament for a religious vocation and the Church desperately needs more priests and consecrated men and women.  Guess I have a duty to go that way."
Your vocation, no matter what it is, is falling in love.  That involves your entire person - mind, soul, body, emotions.  If your arrival at a vocational decision could just as easily been accomplished by plugging numbers into a spreadsheet, you're closing yourself to some of God's best communication channels. 

3) God wants us to be happy. 
Suffering, as we know, can be meaningful and redemptive when united with Christ's suffering on the Cross.  But suffering is not a good in and of itself, and just because we're suffering doesn't mean we're doing what God wants.  If dating someone seems like a burden, if your first year in seminary was hell on earth, that doesn't necessarily mean you should just grit your teeth, offer it up, and wait for heaven.  Our vocations, though they will involve challenges and sometimes suffering, should primarily be sources of joy for us and those around us.  And this principle doesn't just apply in the big vocational choices you make - it applies in daily life.  We as Catholics understand that there's a hierarchy of goods, but that doesn't make the good things that are less important any less good or necessary for a full and flourishing life.  Eating a great meal, having fun at work, being with people who make us laugh - God wants all of this for us, now, in this life.  Read Psalm 27 - "I believe I shall see the Lord's goodness in the land of the living."  Life shouldn't permanently feel like a bleak and endless slog.  If it does, you can and should make a change. 

4) It's about the person. 
That person might be your future spouse, or it might be Christ himself drawing you into a relationship with him as a priest or religious.  Regardless, though you are called more generally to a "state in life," you can only experience that call through a particular person.  You won't know that you're called to marriage until you and that particular person decide that you want to get married.  Starting by deciding that you're called to marriage and then figuring you better get started with whoever is available is backwards.  If you're not looking at your beloved and thinking "I cannot imagine my life without you because of who you are," start over.  You are selling yourself, and especially that other person, short. 

5) Getting your heart broken is okay. 
We should be reponsible with our bodies, minds, and gifts.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t be gung-ho about something, really give it a try, then discover it isn’t working and stop.  That includes the major or dream job you always thought was your destiny.  It also includes dating relationships.  Yes, we should live chastely and not act as though we’re married before we are.  But figuring out if someone is the right person for you to marry requires getting to know that person in a way that entails some intimacy and vulnerability.  Reaching that level of vulnerability with someone and then realizing marrying them would not be the right choice can be extraordinarily difficult, but can also be necessary.  Absent actual toxic elements within the relationship or legitimate mental health issues, this does not mean that your future ability to be intimate and vulnerable is weakened or destroyed. 

6) Needing and accepting forgiveness is okay. 
Because of who our God is, it is not possible for you to put yourself out of reach of his mercy.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t act with prudence, avoid occasions of sin and temptation, and hold ourselves accountable for our actions.  But we also need to be ready when we make a wrong choice to accept God’s healing.  This is especially important in dating relationships.  Marriage is the only non-negotiable, and even if you do make some wrong choices in your dating relationships that does not mean that you have to make a bad relationship work because you need to atone or have ruined yourself for future marital happiness.  Our God is endlessly and extravagantly merciful, and refusing to accept his offered forgiveness and see ourselves as forgiven and purified is not humility.  It's pride and presumption. 

7) You don’t have to be thinking about your primary vocation all. the. freaking. time. 
In fact, doing so can be counter-productive.  God doesn’t need us to do the heaving lifting.  Spend your time pursuing people and activities that you love and that form you as a whole and holy person. Everything else follows from that.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

1 comment:

  1. Great thoughts on discernment. In my work with young adults, I find the "perpetual discernment" problem too - consistently praying about vocation, but never taking leap to give one a try. Sometimes discernment takes failure, which requires a leap of faith and action.