Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Discernment Stuff

I wrote a long email to someone having a discernment drama today. I hope it works out for her, and in this case I mean I hope she falls in love with a man who is crazy about her, gets married in church and has a lot of little babies. At least two. I sincerely believe that most women who read my blog want to fall in love with a man who is crazy about them, get married in church and have a lot of little babies.

(The big challenge is to marry a man of whom you will be extremely fond years and years after the wedding, when he has gained twenty pounds, lost his hair and watches three hours of TV every night. This depends both on his character, and on yours. As the lovely Irish poem says of the difference between courtship and marriage, "The lover abandons us; the husband remains.")

Of course there are women who say, "No. This whole falling in love with a human man and having little babies routine is great for my friends and my sisters, but I want Something Else. I see young nuns with shining faces, and I want to ask them, What is it? What do you have? How can I get that?"

And there are still other woman who say, "No. The husband, the babies, I can't see it. Religious life, living with many other women in relative comfort and tranquility... I can't see that either. I don't want comfort. I don't want tranquility. As long as the least of my brothers and sisters is suffering hunger and want and loneliness and fear of violence, I want to share it with them. I want to give my life to L' Medicins Sans the Royal Canadian Armed the Catholic Worker Opus Dei..."

And there are even women who say, "I cannot read my own heart. I cannot read my own history. I can't see God's handwriting on either, and so I do not know what or whom I love or what I should do with my life. All I can think to do is wait and pray."

These are all human, good, concrete, human, truthful Christian experiences.

Discernment. Discerners. I think there is something rotten in the state of the contemporary theology of vocation. I am not sure what it is. I just know that a lot of people are made very unhappy by the new culture of discernment. For example, there is a lot of wrinkled forehead argument about whether or not the Single life is a vocation, or whether it was simply tacked on as an "official vocation" when it was decided that marriage was a vocation, too. Theology students can talk about this for hours.

Once upon a time, Catholics believed that the normal way of life was to be single and then to be married and then to die or be widowed, and the only vocation, the only calling, beyond Christ's call to all to follow Him, was out of that ordinary human life into religious or priestly life.

Eventually, i.e. in the 20th century, some married Catholics and priests sympathetic to their point of view got extremely tired of married Catholics being treated like they were second-class citizens of the Church and having perpetually to say "Yes, Father" to the parish priest and "Yes, Sister" to the nuns who taught their kids and (apparently) being treated like wallets and baby-machines. And so there was a theological revolution which led a) to Catholic married people feeling just as confident as Protestant married people that marriage is The Greatest and that religious life a bit of a waste, and b) to a huge drop in the number of Catholic children growing up to be priests and nuns. But perhaps I digress.

At any rate, we now have a situation in which young Catholics, perhaps young Catholics (convert and cradle) whose parents never by word or deed suggested that religious or priestly life was a good and noble thing, try desperately to discern--in the vacuum of your twenties or in the mystery of your unmarried thirties--if it is your job to plug up the gap and save the priesthood/take refuge in religious life. This strikes me as a terribly painful situation. I keep thinking about how lucky it was that my favourite Jesuit classmate, who came from a devout and pro-priest family, signed on with the SJ when he was 18, and is a happy Jesuit to this day.

I believe that vocation is completely mingled up in love and the deepest desires of your heart. I also believe that God writes His will for you not only in the Scriptures but in your personal history. The hard part is learning to read His handwriting.

Other people I know, traditionalists who strive for orthodoxy with might and main, try to convince me that one should "just do it." This is usually around religious life and priesthood because traditionally, and in fact, religious life and priesthood are the superior form of Christian life. Marriage is for weak people, and religious life for the strong, and few of us will be saved, and most of those will be monks. Et cetera.

Call me a crazy, bleeding-heart liberal Lonerganian, but I don't believe that. I am absolutely sure that the change in the state of your life--whether from single to married or from single to religious or from lay to priest should follow upon a falling in love. Although aspects of it may be painful (and being engaged is one of the most stressful periods of a person's life), leaving single, unvowed life should be an embrace of joy.

I would love to encourage young men to join the priesthood, particularly within the community and discipline of religious vows, and I would love to affirm teenage girls and university students in their interest in religious life for women. But I would never encourage you to ignore your own hearts and histories in this matter. Some of you really would be happier married, and some of you already know that, and as hard as it sounds, you must hang onto your faith in God that He will make things right for you.

Lastly, if you have embarked on a mental and spiritual project you call discerning, I urge you to A) get a spiritual director ASAP if you do not already have one and B) stop dating. Don't ask new girls out. Don't introduce yourself to new boys. Try to consider the feelings of other people while you think so obsessively about yourself. It strikes me that, although it may be necessary for people to have a formal "discernment" period (I never honestly had one), it could be fraught with spiritual danger. Honestly, I wonder if it is not best done within the safety of a retreat or vocations discernment house.


Maria said...

Thank you for this! It's nice to hear someone say finding your way can be hard, and that's ok. Also, for affirming that being stuck in the intermediate stage is Not Your Fault (of course, you do that on a regular basis).
A while ago, I went to a vocation talk for young ladies given by a nun, a lovely person who fell in love with her order while in her mid-teens and took her vows as soon as humanly possible. That doesn't seem like the best choice of person to discuss protracted searching single life and long painful discernment processes. Sure enough, she talked to us about the three states in life (marriage, religious vocation, single life) and when she got to the last, she said: "I'm not going to talk about that". All of us there were single!
The whole presumption seems to be that if you're single, it's simply because you're indecisive. If someone tells you often enough that you ought to find someone and have babies, or that life with this or that order is the greatest ever, you would make up your mind already and get married or take vows.
You've really hit a niche market Seraphic!

Andrea said...

For Christians, there is peace in knowing God has a purpose and a plan for your life. However, for neurotic Christians, such as myself, who think and overthink and then think again, the concern is always whether I am partnering with God to fulfill His perfect plan or whether I'm lone rangering it, thinking I'm doing God's will but really doing what I want. I worry (too much, also contrary to Christian teaching) about screwing up God's will for my life, whether single or married. If I get married, I worry about marrying the wrong person, such that I have then screwed up two people's lives (mine and his) instead of one. If anyone has comforting thoughts on this stranglehold on my life, or Bible verses to meditate on and memorize, that would be great.

Seraphic said...

Honey, I hear you. And I think sometimes the reason why I was Single for so long was so I could tell y'all, "I know how awful it can be to be Single. And I know how great it can be to be Single."

And maybe my part of God's plan is to tell you all this, and the whole reason I went to theology school at all was to end up writing this blog. And may be my blog will inspire the right woman not to marry the wrong man and then she gets an amazing teaching job instead where she becomes the biggest inspiration on the pupil who becomes the next Fulton Sheen and saves thousands and thousands of souls.

Meanwhile, it's wonderful that a young woman fell in love with religious life as a teen and dove right in! She was really blessed, and she'd probably make a wonderful speaker for children and high school girls. But if she doesn't want to "go there" about single life, then she--and any other vocations director who slides right over the thorny issue of single life--needs to be challenged on it.

Either the new Nun-Married-Single model of vocation is wrong, in which case we need to scrap it, or it is right, in which case we need to better define what Single Life is or better define what we mean by vocation.

Meanwhile, I think many of us would profit from learning how to more quickly read God's handwriting on our hearts and histories.

Seraphic said...

@Andrea. Psalm 46 comes to mind, especially line 10! "Be still and know that I am God." I get a lot of comfort from that one. Another good one is Job's "Though He slay me, I still will I trust Him" (Job 13:15) although that one also makes me cry.

If you are acting in good faith and doing what you think is good in itself, then you probably aren't getting in God's way. If He "writes straight with crooked lines" then it must be "even easier" for Him to write with straight lines. And as for marriage, if you and your future spouse (if he exists out there) go into it with eyes wide open, good characters, faith in God and each other, and genuine joy in each other's quirks and qualities, and frequent roars of laughter you should be okay.

Jessica said...

Andrea: Micah 6:8 is good: "You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."
I also like Romens 12:9-18; it's just a simple list of St. Paul's exhortations to live a Christian life. (Actually, it would also make a really good examination of conscience!) Things like "exercise hospitality," "live at peace with all" and "do not be wise in your own estimation" can be practiced in any state of life.

This post was a lovely reminder of the need for joy and love in one's vocation! Thank you. :)

Andrea said...

Very helpful, seraphic, thanks!

MaryJane said...

Ooohhh I love this! I have so much to say about this, but I am trying to (hopefully!) get it published, so I will remain silent for now... but thank you SO much for pointing out that something is just not right theologically speaking. Because that is exactly the case!

MaryJane said...

Also, I have been thinking a lot lately about how every vocation has its own set of troubles that go along with the joy, and although the "single" ones are obvious to us, because that is where we are, the troubles of religious and married life are very real, too.

This is a blog I read fairly regularly, and this post was just a great reminder to me of how I can be offering up the crosses of single life - the cross of "discernment"- for others, like this married woman who is really just having a rough time with her vocation right now.

In some ways, it is really nice to know that we are all in this together, no matter what our "vocation" or "state in life" is -
there are crosses and crowns to each. (At least, that is what I remind myself when I am tired of being where I am in life. :))

Seraphic said...

I read that post and I felt so terrible for that poor woman. Where is her mother, I wonder? She really needs help.

Urszula said...

"The whole presumption seems to be that if you're single, it's simply because you're indecisive. If someone tells you often enough that you ought to find someone and have babies, or that life with this or that order is the greatest ever, you would make up your mind already and get married or take vows."

That. I couldn't have said it better. It's that precise attitude which makes it very, very hard to be seraphically single in societies that don't see - or understand - the value of the single state of life (ie Poland with its positive but sometimes overwhelming for singles emphasis on family ties).

Whenever I've struggled with the intermediate phase, or indeed anything else in my life, I've turned to Psalm 139, which surely is one of the most beautiful. It reminds me that God made me and knew me long before I knew myself - and that He is in charge. It's sometimes a frightening, but more often a comforting thought, that it is all in His hands.

"For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth."

Alisha said...

A thousand Amens!!!!!! I think what is wrong in the current way we talk about discernment is precisely that our personal histories sometimes NEVER enter the discussion (at come and sees, retreats, etc.). I remember going on a come and see retreat once. It was an amazing community, the sisters were great...but at no point did anyone ask me what I loved, what made me happy or lead me to the questions of what my gifts were. That's something we need to discuss more comfortably not just with spiritual directors but among ourselves: our spiritual gifts, how to recognize them etc. And you are totally right - falling in love has to be part of it!
"...vocation is completely mingled up in love and the deepest desires of your heart. I also believe that God writes His will for you not only in the Scriptures but in your personal history."...
And I would add in the needs of the world where you are at this present time.
"As long as the least of my brothers and sisters is suffering hunger and want and loneliness and fear of violence, I want to share it with them. I want to give my life to...The THEATRE!" :)

MaryJane said...

Alisha, that is a really fantastic point - in my high school years I did experience some nuns who had little interest in my personal history because they LOVED their own vocations so much, I think it didn't occur to them that there could be anything "better" for a different person.

But then later, in grad school, I met some really awesome sisters. I loved their order, but wasn't really sure about religious life. The vocations director was great and after a long talk, said, "it sounds like you really like x but not y. Maybe you would be happier doing z, rather than being a sister... but you can still come discern with us if you want to, just to be sure." It was the most positive discernment experience I have ever had, because they were so interested in me as an individual, and helping me figure out where God was calling me. In other words, they were more interested in treating me as a person than in growing their order.
Seraphic, I know! I thought the same thing: she really needs help. (Her mother is in TX and she is in FL.) Some single aunties would be really good for her right now.

Jackie said...


Seraphic, you ask where her mother is. On her blog she mentions she is a former drug addict, so maybe her mother has either not been around much or is not able to help her. :(

Besides that, not everyone has a mom alive or aunts. I lost my mom when I was a teenager -- she was an only child, so no aunts there. My dad only has one sister and she's never been particularly interested in us.

My older sister is doing her work in South Africa and my former mentor, a nun, is in Guatemala. Lots of us really don't have that kind of support, unfortunately, and just have to shift the best we can, with God's help.

Miss Doyle said...

Just to be annoying - a vocation to Opus Dei isn't tied to your state in life. The vocation is the same - the daily commitment to living out your Christian vocation received in baptism through the sanctification of your work - whether you are married or single.
Your state in life just determines how available you are for the apostolates of Opus Dei - means of formation etc.... Single members don't take vows to remain single either - it's a verbal commitment.