“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites by keeping them both and keeping them both furious.” — G.K. Chesterton
I remember back in the 1980s when I was struggling to discern my vocational path. It was only months after coming to faith and I was consumed with a desire to serve God, but had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was immensely fortunate to have been offered an opportunity to present my conundrums to a wise and exceedingly kind Trappist monk. I can only imagine how this 20 year old college student, brimming with idealistic zeal, must have appeared to him!
I remember distinctly saying to him at the end of my personal history, “Okay, so my real question is, should I become a priest, a deacon, a monk, or should I marry?”
I wanted a simple, direct, and unambiguous answer from this holy guru that would not implicate me in any sort of misty ambiguity, nuanced thinking, or protracted discerning struggle. I guess I was really hoping for him to have a mystical locution.
And I’ll never ever forget his bizarre and deadly serious answer to my very clear question: “Yes.”
After a long, monastic-style pause that my kids would call “awkward,” he said this (cobbled together from my journal notes):
“Tom, you should be any one of those if you find in it the best way for you to love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself. That’s the whole point of you’re decision. Your discernment of God’s calling isn’t like an Easter egg hunt, where you’re searching for some secretly hidden answer located outside you, but rather it’s the discovery of what God has already planted within you, into your unique history of pain and joy, into your personality.
And don’t look for the ‘easy way’ since the love God demands will always be sacrificial. It will always be more about others than about you, since vocation isn’t first of all about your personal fulfillment but about serving God and serving neighbor.
First, you have to live your faith out now and get some history to it—it’s so new for you! And as you continue on, look around at the needs out there that present themselves, look within your soul and come to know what gifts you have to offer; listen to your heart’s movements as you pray and share these all with a trusted guide.
Once you do come clear where you are being led, then, as best you can, freely say yes. Then you will start pushing the plow without looking back. But remember, you have a long way to go; you must work hard on getting your life in order now, a life put together in the light of faith; and you need to practice this in the real world for a few years before you can think of discerning a life’s vocation. Build the foundations first before you try to build the castle.”
Of course, at the time I found this all very opaque and unhelpful toward fulfilling my aspiration to be like St. Matthew: “Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” I thought, “I have all this fire in me, I am good to go and you don’t think I’m ready to choose now?”
Twenty-six years after this conversation, I am absolutely certain I was not. Life after that day proved beyond a shadow of doubt that his words were absolutely true.
In fact, as I prayerfully reflected on this story, I found myself recalling all of the mini bonfires I used to build in our yard when I was young. I always enjoyed burning the small twigs and the straw for quick effect, a big fire, fast and furious, but soon to expire. I knew that the the fire would really only last if I inserted into the roaring blaze some larger logs that would take some time to catch. But if I was patient, attentive, and careful, eventually those thick logs would themselves be consumed by the fire and even come to glow red-hot in their deepest core.
During those years of discernment and personal growth, I hated, using Chesterton’s phrase, living between furious opposites; especially between “already” and “not-yet.” I preferred, and still prefer more often than not, to have all of life’s inner and outer tensions eased, and my life’s path made clear, tension-less and simple. But God always leads otherwise, the God whose covenant sign is to be found in those “arms outstretched between heaven and earth,” as our Eucharistic Prayer so beautifully says it.
At the time I wanted from this holy monk a divine “medium” to manifest my destiny and command obedience, not a counsel to practice and perfect the art of sacrificial love through careful, patient, arduous, and freely chosen discernment of God’s gentle lead per crucem ad lucem, “through the cross to the light.”
Soon after the wise monk and I finished our discussion, he asked me to read a selection from St. Thérèse’s Story of a Soul. Though I found it very moving, I still didn’t totally grasp the implications for me. Now, its light is blinding. To this very day I annually thank this monk with a Christmas card for his wisdom and love.
I’ll close by sharing that selection from Thérèse here:
To be your Spouse, O Jesus, to be a Carmelite, by my union with you to be the mother of souls, should content me… yet it does not… Without doubt, these three priviliges are indeed my vocation: Carmelite, spouse, and mother. And yet I feel in myself other vocations—I feel myself called to be a soldier, priest, apostle, doctor of the church, martyr. Finally, I feel the need, the desire to perform all the most heroic deeds for you, Jesus… I feel in my soul the courage of a crusader, of a soldier for the Church, and I wish to die on the field of battle in defense of the Church…
I feel in me the vocation of a priest! With what love, O Jesus, would I bear you in my hands, when at the sound of my words you came down from heaven! With what love would I give you to souls! But alas, just as much as I desire to be a priest, I admire and envy the humility of St. Francis of Assisi, and feel the call to imitate him in refusing the sublime dignity of the Priesthood.
Dreaming of the tortures in which Christians are to share at the time of the Antichrist, I feel my heart thrill, and I would like these tortures to be kept for me… Jesus, Jesus, if I wanted to write all my desires, I would have to take your Book of Life, where the deeds of your saints are recorded: all these deeds I would like to accomplish for you.
At prayer these desires made me suffer a true martyrdom. I opened the Epistles of St. Paul to seek some relief. The 12th and 13th chapters of the First Epistle to the Corinthians fell before my eyes. I read, in the first, that not all can be apostles, prophets, and doctors, etc., that the Church is composed of different members, and that the eye cannot also be at the same time the hand.
The answer was clear, but it did not satisfy my desires, it did not give me peace. . .Without being discouraged I continued my reading, and this phrase comforted me: “Earnestly desire the more perfect gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31). And the Apostle explains how all gifts, even the most perfect, are nothing without Love… that charity is the excellent way that leads surely to God. At last I had found rest… Considering the mystical Body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by St. Paul, or rather, I wanted to recognize myself in all… Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that if the Church has a body composed of different members, the noblest and most necessary of all the members would not be lacking to her. I understood that the Church has a heart, and that this heart burns with Love. I understood that Love alone makes its members act, that if this Love were to be extinguished, the Apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood… I understood that Love embraces all vocations, that Love is all things, that it embraces all times and all places… in a word, that it is eternal!
Then in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation, my vocation is Love!. . .Yes, I have found my place in the Church, and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place… in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love!. . . Thus I shall be all things: thus my dream shall be realized!!!”
I am a child… It is not riches or glory (not even the glory of Heaven) that this child asks for… No, she asks for Love. She knows but one desire: to love you, Jesus. Glorious deeds are forbidden her; she cannot preach the Gospel or shed her blood… But what does that matter, her brothers work in her place, and she, a little child, stays close to the throne of the King and Queen, and loves for her brothers who are in the combat… But how shall she show her love, since love proves itself by deeds? Well! the little child will strew flowers, she will embalm the royal throne with their fragrance, she will sing with a silver voice the canticle of Love.
Yes, my Beloved, I wish to spend my life thus… I have no other means of proving my love except by strewing flowers, that is to say, letting no little sacrifice pass, no look, no word–profiting by the littlest actions, and doing them out of love. I wish to suffer out of love and to rejoice out of love; thus I shall strew flowers before your throne. I shall not find one without scattering its petals before you… and in strewing my flowers I will sing (can one weep in doing so joyous an action?) I will sing, even if my roses must be gathered from among thorns; and the longer and sharper the thorns, the sweeter shall be my song.”