“A mature Christian is always discerning.” -Fr. Brian Park, NET Ministries Chaplain
*Disclaimer: This blog post isn’t going to be that practical. If you want steps for discernment, you won’t find them here. There are already a lot of great resources when it comes to practical discernment, like this blog post or this Ignatian method, so I’m only going to give one real piece of advice. But first, I’m going to build some suspense.*
I wish I remembered more of the homilies I’ve heard over the course of my life. I remember when I was little and it came time for the homily at Sunday mass, I would put my head on my mom’s shoulder and settle in for a nap. If only I knew how the Lord desired to speak to me through His priests during that time! Since then, I’ve grown in at least trying to be more attentive during the homily, from bringing my journal and taking notes to asking the Lord to give me His grace so I can hear what He’s trying to say to me.
Regardless of my poor mass habits, sometimes events combine to make a homily truly unforgettable. During my senior year of college, just as I was discerning whether to come serve with NET Ministries, Fr. Edwin Leonard, a NET alum and the Vocations Director for the Diocese of Dallas, gave a homily on discernment. The basic gist was this: If we as Christians focus on falling in love with Jesus, following Him into the vocation He’s calling us to will be easy, because Jesus always goes ahead of us, and we’ll want to go where He is.
So often, I think we focus so much on discerning our future vocation that we forget that when it comes down to it, marriage or priesthood, religious life or celibate singlehood is only part of the picture. Ultimately, we are called to holiness, and that is and always will be our primary vocation. And to be holy, as Fr. Edwin suggested, we must first fall in love with Jesus. How much more will we desire to live in accordance with the commandments if we are in love with the One who gave them? How much more will we desire holiness if we are in love with the Thrice-Holy God?
In Catholic tradition, there is a saying: Lex orandi, lex credendi. As the Church prays, so she believes. In the Our Father, which is prayed constantly by the Church at every mass, during every hour of the Liturgy of the Hours, and in every decade of every rosary, we ask God the Father that His will be done here as in heaven. But do we really desire that His will be done? Do we truly believe that the places Jesus calls us to are those that will bring us a life filled with joy and freedom?
I for one know that I so easily fall into the mindset that if I want something, it can’t possibly be what Jesus wants for me. It’s like I look at all the options for how I could spend my time, find the one that seems least appealing to me, and think to myself: Well, if that’s the least attractive option, then that must be what the Lord wants for me. Which is RIDICULOUS! The part of me that’s been following the Lord for years and knows and loves Him deeply knows this is ridiculous. Time and again the Lord has proven to me that what He desires for me is a life filled with adventure, a life flowing with milk and honey and all the goodness that the world has to offer me. I don’t have to wait for His promises until I die; I can have sweetness and joy and freedom and adventure this side of Paradise. As Psalm 27:13 proclaims, “I believe I shall see the LORD’s goodness in the land of the living.”
My inner perfectionist doesn’t understand how the heck my heart hasn’t gotten with the program yet and realized that the Lord’s promises are true, that the desires of my heart are often FROM HIM, and that I can trust Him absolutely. How can I know something so clearly in my head and yet continue to doubt it in my heart?
The only thing that can be done is to fall more in love with Jesus.
The words Fr. Edwin spoke have stayed with me since that day, and they still ring true. Falling more deeply in love with Jesus has always been the answer, even though the question has changed many, many times. Most recently, I have found them true as I asked the Lord what He wanted me to do in the coming year: To stay in NET’s marketing department in St. Paul, or to take a leap and serve with NET in Scotland as a team supervisor. As I grappled with my own heart, I saw in myself a desire for adventure and a love for travelling abroad. I was able to identify that so many of the reasons I had for potentially staying here came from a fear of change.
My heart led me to choose Scotland, but as soon as I gave my wholehearted yes, the situation suddenly changed and the decision was essentially taken out of my hands. I couldn’t understand why, just as I felt like my desires and God’s will were aligning, He seemingly snatched Scotland away. It felt like God was playing games with me. But as I went back to Him in prayer every day, as I brought my confusion and my pain to Him, something incredible began to happen. Even though I saw no possible way that I could still serve in Scotland, I began to see God inviting me to believe that He could work miracles. I began to see that His will is unstoppable, and that if He wanted me to go to Scotland, He would make it happen. And, incredibly, in the midst of doubt, I found peace. Peace in His constancy and peace in knowing that no matter what my future held, He was already there. After weeks of praying, when the day of the decision came, there was no fear. Whether I went to Scotland or not, I knew I was the Lord’s.
In the face of my doubt and insecurities, His love was the only thing that could bring peace. When I wanted to run and hide from Him, only He could take me gently by the hand and bring me out of myself. When I couldn’t see a plan for my future, His gaze planted me firmly in the present and His voice told of a future full of hope. When I thought that what I desired couldn’t possibly happen, He reminded me of the miracles only He is capable of.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux writes in her autobiography, “God would never inspire me with desires which cannot be realized; so in spite of my littleness, I can hope to be a saint.” Often, our deepest desires are FROM God. He wants us to be happy, in fact, He wants eternal happiness for us. God wants us to be with Him forever in heaven. It’s not called the Beatific Vision for nothing, y’all. Beatific means “blissfully happy,” (shoutout to Google for that one). He desires sainthood for us even more than we desire it for ourselves. A saint is someone who is in heaven. That’s it. That’s all. Ultimately, holiness boils down to how much our earthly lives look like the eternal life we one day hope for. And that life is a coming home into the eternal communion of love for which we were created. So if we want to be saints, if we want to be holy, we can start by living heaven now. We can start by loving the One who we hope to love and be loved by forever.
But that love isn’t mere lip service. It’s not just verbally telling others that you love Jesus, or even just doing the Catholic checklist thing — Went to mass, check. Prayed a rosary, check. Said grace before eating, check. All those things are good. But falling in love with Jesus means a life-changing, world-altering relationship. The kind of relationship where you can’t imagine not talking to the other person every day. The kind of relationship that calls you out of yourself. The kind of relationship that makes others stop and say, “I want that.” That’s the kind of relationship we’re invited into.
We’re invited to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb every time we go to mass (for more on this, see Scott Hahn’s book The Lamb’s Supper), and we all know that weddings mark the beginning of some major life changes for the bride and groom. So why are we surprised when the God who’s madly in love with us wants to speak to us in prayer every day? Why are we surprised when the Lord invites us to grow out of sinful habits and into virtue? Why are we surprised when Jesus takes us by the hand and says, “I want to take you on the adventure of a lifetime”?
Falling in love with Jesus is earth-shattering, friends. It’s the kind of love books and movies and songs describe. It is real and tangible and authentic and so much better than the mushy feelings we can spend so much of our lives seeking. And yes, it’s hard. It’s a relationship, after all. It needs to be fed and fought for every day. But the joy of it is stunning and surprising and so, so GOOD.
So I will be going to Scotland this coming year. And that’s thrilling and exciting and every other word that could possibly be used to describe moving to another continent. But mostly, it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful because Beauty Himself is already there, waiting for me.
I don’t know what the Lord is calling you to. I don’t know if He’s calling you to make a huge life change, or if He’s calling you to just maybe pray for 5 minutes every day. Heck, maybe He’s calling you to do NET (www.netusa.org/apply, if that is what you think He’s calling you to). But I do know that wherever He’s calling you, He’s already there. And the more in love with Him you are, the more peace you’ll find in that fact.
I want to leave you with this quote by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ:
Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.