Update: You can pre-order Seraphic Singles now by way of novalis.ca! Tip: this may be easier over Firefox than over Internet Explorer. The book comes out on March 1!
Okay, so you've met this great Catholic guy. Your friends like him. You like him. You hang out a bit. Then you go for coffee. You both have fun. You hang out some more. Then you end up having dinner. It's fun, too. He calls you every second day. You get together once or twice a week. You're even thinking of taking swing dance class together. Your friends ask, "Has he kissed you yet?" and "Do you think he's the One?"
Meanwhile, you're discerning, and good for you. You're praying about it. You're saying, "God, is this the guy for me? Can I keep seeing this guy? I really like him, so I hope so. Should we be in a relationship? I feel a kind of spark..." And you think God is saying "Yes." Of course, you really WANT God to say "Yes", so... Hmm...
Then the great Catholic guy kisses you at the door, and you tell your housemate, and she high-fives you, and now you have to watch out because your hormones are going wild, and you're really looking forward to your next date, and then he tells you that he's really excited because he's going to Rome that summer as part of his discernment for the priesthood.
Welcome to Catholic life in the 21st century, my little chick-a-dees!
I think I've told you about the girl who believed the Holy Spirit was calling her to marry this friend of hers, "Tom". Tom did not agree. "Cate" was very upset that Tom was so deaf to the call of the Spirit that he did not hear Him calling Tom to marry Cate. Cate was very frustrated that Tom was ruining her vocation to marry him. But then Tom married someone else and had five children, and somewhere in there Cate got married to someone else and had three children.
Discerning your vocation is both A) a process and B) an inside-outside activity. God calls you inside your head, and He also calls you from the community. I suddenly had a big suspicion that I had a vocation to marriage after all when I fell in love with B.A., and then I was confirmed in this vocation when B.A. asked me to marry him, and then I accepted this vocation fully the minute I married B.A. in church, surrounded by approving friends and family. The role you play in the community is not up to just you.
So when you are discerning your vocation, you're never 100% absolutely sure until you are at an altar taking vows. You have to proceed from a position of 50%-80% sure. If you think you might be called to become a Benedictine nun and you've been praying about it, and talking about it, and going through spiritual direction, and you're only 80% sure, 80% is good enough for you to join the Benedictine novitiate. Or so would say Fr Stephen Wang, author of How to Discover your Vocation, which is published by CTS. (I got it from the back of my UK church for ₤1.95. It is excellent, except for ending before getting around to vocations to the Single life.) The novitiate is where you will progress to 90% or where you will discern that you'd feel happier out of the novitiate.
Now when you are 80% sure that the vocation that will bring you the most happiness and fulfillment is marriage, you continue your discernment by praying about it, talking about it, going to spiritual direction and keeping an eye out for someone to marry. And just as people interested in religious life visit religious orders, people interested in married life visit (or date) other people interested in married life.
Dating is, therefore, part of the process of discernment of a vocation to marriage. But it does lead to temptations, just as (I suppose) a visit to an order with a well-stocked liquor cabinet and snob appeal can lead to temptations of another kind. You need a certain amount of inner freedom in order to truly discern God's call, and getting attached too quickly through sexual stuff is the fastest way to wreck your inner freedom. God calls you to be open to other people, but He does not call you to occasions for sin. Nor does He call you to be a scandal for others by being all kissy-kissy in Catholic dorms.
Anyway, if you think you should date a guy, and somewhere along the line it just doesn't feel right, then it should be just like visiting a religious order that doesn't feel right. You might really enjoy your time, and you should leave as friends, but it is not that big a deal. It only becomes a big deal if you fall into sin or make promises you can't keep or just keep hanging out because you don't want to move on. But if you don't move on, you can't hear God's call and you can't find out where (or with whom) you're meant to be. My cardinal rule is, "If he doesn't give you a ring after a year of dating, you're through."
Yes, of course there will be disappointment. Nuns and monks put up with disappointment all the time: they're getting older, the postulants are getting fewer, and lovely young thing after lovely young thing comes, eats, stays a while, and then leaves. Too many who want to stay are bonkers or just a bad fit, and have to be asked to leave.
Meanwhile now-married me was disappointed when I dated some nice guy, and he broke up with me, and many nice guys have been disappointed when I dated them and then broke up with them. It would have been better if I had been a better Catholic and thought of dating not as a social accomplishment proving my worth as a woman but as a way of discerning my vocation and helping male friends discern theirs. There would have been less kissy-kissy and fewer broken hearts.
It could be that I was Single for so long because God wanted me to shape up my ideas. (And it could be that my husband was Single for so long because God wanted him to shape up his ideas, too.) Blogging "Seraphic Singles" and "Still Seraphic" was part of my own process of discernment. It also--and this is crucial--made me stop thinking about my own life and more about the lives of others. I admired famous Single people and acknowledged that many of them were nicer and braver people than I was and that I should be more like them. I read email from Single people who were sadder and lonelier than I was, and I learned to appreciate even more what I already had. I even got to the point where I could honestly stop praying "St. Anne, St. Anne, send me a man" and pray "Lord, Thy will be done." And, to my great surprise, God's will was for me to marry a certain Scotsman we call B.A.
God can do whatever God wills. And your discernment of God's will for you may take many winding paths. Don't get frustrated. Don't blame yourself for chastely dating X, Y and Z any more than a now-Jesuit blames himself for having hung out with the Franciscans, Benedictines and Spiritans first. Your vocation is not absolute until you take vows. Even an 80% devotion to the Single Life is not absolute, unless you take vows of perpetual celibacy. And even as Seraphic Single, I never got to 80% myself.
Update: It's February 1st. Have you decided to which Single friends you're sending Valentine's treats yet? Operation Valentinus is underway!