Thursday, August 21, 2008

Writing God a Blank Check: My Thoughts on Discernment

I haven’t really written much about discernment here because by the time I started this blog I was already “discerned”—i.e., I was subjectively convinced that God had called me to be a consecrated virgin in the world. And once the question of my state in life was settled, all the energy I had spent discerning was quickly re-directed to concern about living my vocation well.

Theoretically, it would seem that the process of discerning a priestly or consecrated vocation should be pleasant, since you’re really just striving to set your life more in conformity with the good and merciful God who already loves you. I do hope that discernment is accordingly bright and joyful for all my readers who are listening for their own vocations. But speaking for myself, on an experiential level discernment was agony! At times I would even find myself feeling somewhat annoyed with God for not communicating His will more plainly.

Yet all of the confusion and anxiety I experienced while discerning my vocation evaporated almost to the point of being erased from my memory once I made my decision and thus crossed over to the “other side” of the question. At one point I even found myself tempted to say to a young man considering the seminary: “So what’s your problem? Just become a priest.” (Fortunately, having at least some sense of tact, I was able to catch myself!)

But recently having had the chance to meet some people my age who in the midst of discernment reminded me of everything I experienced when I was in a similar place. So with the hope of expressing some empathy, I thought I would share something which I found helpful.

When I was on my long retreat, I came across an older book titled, We Live With Our Eyes Open, by Dom Hubert van Zeller, OSB. I had never heard of Fr. Van Zeller before, but apparently he was a Benedictine monk who was also a spiritual director to a wide variety of individuals, including a number of laypeople. He wrote a whole serious of books in which he wittily presents the basic elements of substantial Catholic spirituality.

I found this book both helpful and enjoyable on many levels, but I saw one passage in particular which struck me as a excellent cipher for the central puzzle of vocational discernment:

“Perhaps one reason for the confusion which exists in the minds of some, and
which prevents them from following their true vocation, is that if God showed
them exactly what He wanted of them they would refuse Him. God seems to prefer
that His creatures should muddle through in more or less good faith than that
they should live for any length of time in thoroughly bad faith.”

In other words, if God’s will is genuinely unclear to us (and I don’t intend to address here those cases where a person has an inkling of what God wants for them, but either do their best to ignore it or else hesitate in carrying it out), it may be because we are not predisposed in the first place to doing what He would like to ask of us in. So in a way, the sense of frustration which plagues some serious discerners could be a direct consequence of God’s paternal mercy.

So it would seem that the best way to discern is to say “yes” to God before you know what you are saying “yes” to. I call this “writing God a blank check.”

If you write out a literal blank check to someone, then you are giving that person full permission to take however much money they want out of your back account, to be used however they see fit. When you write God the metaphorical blank check of your life, you put every fiber of your being at His disposal, before you know how much it will cost you. (And obviously, you wouldn’t want to have this sort of relationship with anyone else except God!)

I suppose an example of this would be person sincerely prays along the lines of: “God, if you want to be a Carthusian, I will do it. If you want me to be like John the Baptist and wear only camel hair and subsist on insects, I will do it. And if you want me to become a wife and mother in suburban New Jersey, then I would do that too, as long as it pleases You.”

In a lot of the glossy, user-friendly literature being printed today on discernment, the focus is on choosing a path in which your gifts and talents would be best used, and which corresponds to your deepest desires. There is truth in this, as God can speak to us through attraction and He always seeks our best interest. He would not call us to something for which we were truly and manifestly unsuited (although as Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah found out, our idea of being suitable may be very different from God’s).

However, I would think that approaching discernment from this perspective would predispose a person to winding up in a spiritual quagmire. Trying to discern the Divine will by such human considerations is almost a contradiction. Without undermining the virtue of prudence, we have to remember that God has said, “My ways are not your ways.”

This idea is hardly new in the Catholic ascetical/mystical tradition. St. Ignatius Loyola’s ideal of indifference, St. John of the Cross’s teaching of radical detachment (the “nada”), and even Our Lady’s “Behold the handmaid of the Lord…” are all different expressions of the same concept of total trust of and submission to God.

The uncanny thing about this is that once you are willing to take this leap in the dark—and I admit that it took me a long time, and I am certainly not there completely—it’s only then that you KNOW.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for these thoughts! They are very beautiful and helpful. God bless you on your journey. Please say a prayer for my discernment.

an aspiring consecrated virgin said...

Anonymous,

I certainly will pray for you!

Another Seminarian said...

I have done alot of thinking about discernment, especially having met many people caught in the spiritual quagmire which you mentioned. This led me to a very good book on the topic written some 40 years ago by a dominican called, "Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery." A brother seminarian more adept in theology than I, distilled it even further for me saying, "if you have the desire to become a religious that itself is the call and you should act on it.

drewienko said...

and what if what you feel and what you desire differs from what Authorities say about you? Where's the border between my will and God's Will? Even if I have no doubt which of the two I want to follow...

I will let the Church decide. This Wednesday I have a very important meeting and I'll see.
not daring to hope, hoping too much to cry

Another Seminarian said...

Drewienko,

You have a very good observation. This is clearly seen for example in a vocation to the priesthood because there are two levels of discernment. First and individual discerns God's will for them and then the church confirms or denies it. There is also a distinction between ones own will and God's will. That is why we pray for the spirit of discernment like St. Ignatius tells us of, and we submit ourselves to spiritual directors for a fool has himself for his own guide. Between the Holy Spirit, prayer and our directors we sift out what is God's will and what is our own selfish desire. Still there is a further distinction missing.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote on this issue. He said that for you to desire a super natural vocation, namely consecrated virginity or religious life then God must have given you that desire for it is super natural. If he did not intend you to enter religious life then he would not give you that desire.

For arguments sake, lets suppose that a particular religious order denied you entrance. Does not mean you do not have a vocation and you have incorrectly discerned? Perhaps. This was the case of Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St. Therese. However, it could also be the case that you are being tested as was the case for St. Therese. She knew that God was calling her to religious vocation and God confirmed her desire, only he did it in his time. Still, the true desire given by God was itself the call. There are many examples of this in the lives of the saints, and seems for me to be also confirmed by theology.

Know however, that I will pray for your discernment and your meeting this Wednesday.

an aspiring consecrated virgin said...

Another Seminarian, thank you for your thoughts—and Drewienko, you will be in my prayers. Just so everyone knows, I wrote this post primarily for people in the earlier stages of discernment. However, I do believe that all people in every situation are called to this sort radical trust in God.

Being in the position where you are ready to make a commitment to the consecrated life—but for whatever reason the Church is not willing to accept your commitment—is probably more painful than most people would realize. But as the seminarian mentioned, there HAVE been numbers of canonized saints who lived through similar trials.

And it is important to remember that we are all called to sanctity, regardless of whether or not we are also called to a public state of consecrated life within the Church.

drewienko said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
drewienko said...

I was allowed to continue with my formation. :)The psychological tests were never mentioned so I don't know, maybe I'll have to repeat them, only they've given me a time to rest? Or is it more or less all right as it was?

Anyway, I'll go on. :)Thank you for your prayers.

I could not edit spelling mistakes I made so I removed the first version of this entry :) and corrected them here. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Hello,

Your blog is quite interesting.I'm already consecrated and have experienced much of all that you've described.God's ways are mysterious and I'm still struggling to 'identify my call' in the present scenario in my country / city.

It's very common to hear women [even Catholics] say that being a virgin is a disgrace. Some who have preserved their integrity seem to pretend they have not , just to be accepted by their peers. They understand the value of abstinence until marriage but choose to live like the crowds.

When I as a consecrated virgin need to interact with such people in any group discussion ,they usually forewarn me about 'non-vegetarian' jokes so that I can choose to move out. Out of curiosity to know my colleagues better, I sometimes try to listen without judgement --but it makes me feel sick.

In a Christian society , a band on the ring finger is understood as a sign of marriage if seen on the hand of a woman dressed like anyone else in the world or as a sign of commitment to Christ if seen on the hand of a woman clothed with a habit. In a multi-religious society this symbolism leads to confusion and misunderstanding. Unlike religious women, a consecrated virgin has no restrictions regarding work , lifestyle, companions etc. This is a blessing because it allows us to reach out to the periphery of the Catholic community and also people of other or no faith.But the questions-"Are you married?" and " Why do you have a wedding band on your finger if you are not ?" are very difficult to answer.

This is a vocation that's not understood in the catholic community even when one tries to explain it .Much of the good one does or the values one tries to witness are shadowed by the questions/doubts/suspicions that people around have about the vocation . Gospel values in today's world are considered neither good nor bad. Being a consecrated virgin in today's world is indeed a vocation that involves signing a blank check everyday for Jesus. My bank account however seems quite empty . What is different about my purpose in this world as a woman and my purpose as a consecrated virgin ?

While this vocation / relationship with Jesus is 'the pearl of great price' for me , it is a difficult struggle trying to find its practical value or meaning in the Church and in this world. This involves a journey in faith and love because I cannot see the road ahead.

Deep within I know that Jesus loves me and has called me to lead exactly THIS vocation. Perhaps life would be easier if I lived the same life without the ring of my consecration and without disclosing my identity [ like those in secular institutes]-- but I love Jesus so much that I want to continue wearing it and facing the crucifixion every day for doing so.My happiness lies in this.

Consecrated virginity is a blank check encashed by Jesus , but I still don't know what He found in the account for today's world !

Would love to receive feedback from others on a similar journey.
Thanks!

Adoro said...

NCV ~ Thanks for commenting at my blog. I think what you're describing here is the process I'm going through, although I think what's hard is that I've written the check but I'm still holding onto it. God has the other end and is waiting patiently for me to let go.

At the same time, He's putting things in place.

I actually met with a potential SD today who reminded me of God's timing, and not to worry about age, etc. It was comforting to hear.

I hope he'll be able to help me let go of things as I need to, but hold on to what God wants me to hold..until it's time.

God bless!