Nothing will shake a man—or at any rate a man like me—out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only great hardship will bring out the truth. Only under hardship does he discover it himself. ― C.S. Lewis
After I gave a talk on discerning one’s personal vocation the other day at a local high school, I was speaking to a young man I’ll call “John” about his personal journey of faith. He shared with me a really stirring story and so I asked him, of course, if I could share it with others for teaching purposes. He kindly agreed.
He loves to act in plays, is a sax player in a jazz band, and wants to be a playwright one day. He was telling me he had tried out for a particular play last year that he was very excited about, but did not get the part he had really wanted. He said,
When I found out who got it, I was totally depressed and felt that the guy who got it just was not the best pick for that part. I knew I could do it SO much better. Yeah, it may have been true, but I knew it was pride talking. I was mad and took it personally.
I had prayed to God to help me get this part before the final selections were announced, but after’s a different story. I was so upset I just quit praying for a while. I was like, God if you’re gonna dis me I’m gonna dis you. One day, a girl friend of mine sent a text to me saying she was really sorry I didn’t get the part, that I deserved it more than so-and-so, and then totally trash-talked him. That made me feel bad for this dude and I just lost it. Ashamed of myself. I saw that my attitude was shallow. It wasn’t fair to him. He worked hard, he got it. Fair and square.
And then I prayed. I said something like, “God, whatever, ok, so look, I want what you want. If he’s the best man for this, so be it.” God and I were cool. It was a total God-thing. I was feeling 100% at peace. I’d just let go of it all and felt so much better. And then you know what happened? Freaking craziest thing ever. It almost spooked me. Like 20 minutes after I let go of it all, and God and I were good, I got a text from the play director saying: “John, because [the other guy] can’t make all the practices now, you get the part. Congratulations.” I was like FREAKING losing it! Are you kidding? I was so happy, major endorphin rush. But I knew right away: God, man, you made me wait till I could accept what-was-what before you’d give me what I wanted.
That’s how I saw it, at least. God is so cool. Yeah, it’s really a small thing in the scheme of things, but it was big to me.
Unheard of maturity for a 17 year old. He held in his hand one of the golden keys for discovering God’s will, the sine qua non of discernment. As I noted in my journal at the end of this story:
If you can’t see God’s will in the present moment, right where you’re standing, and embrace it then and there, you’ll never discover it for the future. You can’t receive it.
This is why in the Our Father, which is the model for all prayer, the first three petitions, all in the present tense, require an unconditional embrace of God’s will: “Thy Name be hallowed, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” Only after saying “we accept” are we ready to ask-seek-knock for more in the last four petitions: “Give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us.” Before I can receive tomorrow’s sacrament of divine Providence, I must first worthily receive the sacrament of the (real) Present Moment.
Many years ago when I was struggling to manage the grave responsibilities of my full-time graduate studies, full-time employment and full-time family, I fell into a rut and became obsessed with looking for an escape-hatch. I started quietly searching for other job opportunities and began to think about what kinds of jobs I could get if I quit school. In this fantasy, everything seemed so much better! I went to my spiritual advisor and shared with him my alternative plans, certain he’d see my impeccable logic. He listened patiently, and when I was done explaining my plans he said:
Tom, you already discerned this path you are on. Carefully. Your wife discerned it with you. There’s no more discernment. This is a temptation. We can discuss how to make the specifics more livable, get more support, trim out fat in your schedule, but bolting is not the answer. You’ve set your hands to the plow. No turning back. Once you know the path, your prayer is not: God, grant what I ask! Your prayer is: God, grant what you ask. Give me all I need to be faithful.
I wrote in my journal that night:
Damn! I hate when people pop my fantasy bubble. When he said that to me, it was like shingles fell off my eyes and I saw the temptation. Fear of the cross. Fear of commitment. Fear of success. Fear of failure. Fear of reality. Funny, counter-intuitive, but after he popped the bubble, instead of deflation I felt a rush of grace fill my soul to strengthen my commitment. Like Quikrete was poured in my soul and immediatly created a solid core. The grace I received did not say: “I freed your shoulders from the burden,” but “I strengthened your shoulders for the burden.” Whoa.
When it’s tough in the “now,” when Today offers me a bitter sacramental Host, my character’s mettle is really tested and laid bare. And it ain’t pretty! Thank you, Lord, for loving my mess and building my temple out of scraps and rubble.
Three years later, when I faced a final temptation to abandon the journey, God would re-infuse that same grace when my wife seized hold of my tie, looked me in the eyes and said: “You were made for this. Be a man.”
Grace in my face.
My grandfather wrote to me in a letter back in late 1987 after he’d heard I’d broken up with the girl I thought I would marry. Here’s a few snippets:
You have to be able to find peace within you and not rely on circumstances. Even in a war zone, your soul should be a sanctuary. If you can’t find peace here, now, inside, you’ll never find it anywhere. If you ain’t happy now, you ain’t never gonna be happy then …“Overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now.” … But you must choose this. God has made you Captain of your own destiny … “If only” is a declaration of defeat. If you don’t see opportunity where you are, in every moment, no matter what’s going on, you won’t ever see it … You only get to keep what you’re ready to give up. You can’t give what you don’t have and you can’t have what you aren’t ready to let go of. The tighter you squeeze water in your hands, the faster it drains away. You see, it’s all free, Tommy, and it’s all meant to stay free. You got to take it like it is … This is a secret to living from this old poetaster, gained from his almost 80 years of life. It’s up to you to take it or leave it.