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'Arche...to Medicins Sans Frontieres...to the Royal Canadian Armed Forces...to the Catholic Worker movement...to 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.