In March 2016, on top of a mountain, I said ‘yes’ to a marriage proposal from the love of my life. Ten months later, I vowed before my friends and family that I would love my husband, Joseph, ’til death do us part. My wedding day marked the end of my vocational discernment journey.
I love thinking about how good the plans of the Lord are – even during the times when I couldn’t fully comprehend them. While I am so glad to have joyfully discerned my vocation, there is a special place in my heart for those who are still on that journey. Family and community surrounded me during my vocational discernment, and every one of them offered pieces of heartfelt advice and wisdom. But, looking back, here are four things that I wish someone would have told me before I started discerning my vocation to marriage:
1. Love is a decision
When I was dating Joseph, and even on our wedding day, I felt in love. I walked up the aisle with the love of my life. I smiled so much that day, that the next morning when I woke up, my face hurt from smiling so much. But there have been moments in our relationship and our marriage when I didn’t feel in love. It was in those moments where the head knowledge of John Paul II, ‘love is a decision’, had to become a heart knowledge. The Lord invited me to live out the Theology of the Body, not just to read it.
“Love is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise,” Eric Fromm wrote in his book The Art of Loving. He goes on to say, “If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go. How can I judge that it will stay forever, when my act does not involve judgment and decision.”
There are some days when loving Joseph is a hard decision. There are some days where that choice is the easiest choice I’ve ever made. But I wish that, before I started dating, I would have known the weight of the words ‘love is a decision’. Love isn’t something that you get swept away in – it’s a decision. And when the decision is challenging and the action of loving stretches you – those are the moments when love is maturing and digging deep.
2. Suffering is unavoidable and transformative
When you’re discerning a vocation, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if the discernment process is hard, that must mean that you’re doing something wrong. Or to think that the discernment process hurts, so it must be bad. You began to wonder that, if you were on the path that God was calling you on in your vocation, wouldn’t this be smooth sailing? Wouldn’t peace be flowing out over you all the time? But it’s in the time of heart wrenching hurt or toughness that the Lord is stretching your heart the most. Where he weeds out the sins that stand between you and him. Where he was healing past hurts and wounds.
To understand this better, meditate on the crucifixion. What is the cross without suffering? Nothing. If it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t matter. What’s the cross without love? If Christ was nailed to the cross just because someone told him to and he didn’t care about us, where is the beauty in that? But love and suffering are so intertwined on the cross that you can’t separate them.
If we don’t accept suffering, we can’t accept love. The alternative to risking the chance of a broken heart is to have a heart that is unbreakable. C. S. Lewis once wrote: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. . .lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
3. Don’t forget the importance of community
Before I discerned my vocation as a woman, I wish I would have know the importance of a community of women. After I graduated from college and married Joseph, we moved to a new city. We met new people. We became involved in young adult ministry. Slowly, we started to put down roots in a parish. One thing that I realized when we moved into our new home after getting married was that, as much as I loved Joseph and considered him my best friend, he’s not a woman. Which I’m very grateful for! While he can affirm my femininity, he can’t give me an example of what it means to live out the feminine genius in my ordinary, daily life.
Similarly, I’m not a man. If you asked Joseph, I’m sure he’d tell you that he loves the fact that I’m a woman. I can affirm his masculinity, but I’m not an example of of how to live out authentic masculinity in today’s culture. Men teach men how to become men, while women teach women how to become women.
It can be easy, when you’re dating, to find your identity as a man or woman in your relationship. How many times have we introduced ourselves when we’re dating as “I’m Jack’s girlfriend,” or “I’m Sarah’s boyfriend.” But the reality of our masculinity and femininity is drawn out in our relationship with the opposite sex and in our friendships with people of the same sex. We’re not meant to walk this journey towards Heaven alone. We’re made for community – we’re not islands.
4. Christ has the stay at the center
During the first half of my college career, I studied art history as my minor. During my time as an art history minor, I fostered an appreciation for stained glass windows. While all stained glass windows are gorgeous, I especially love rose windows. When you look at the center of every rose window, you find the Lord. My favorite example of the rose window is the window you’ll find in Notre Dame. Christ is at the center, being held by His mother, Mary. The window is a giant wheel surrounded by hundreds of different medallions, colors, and designs. Each medallion depicts different things. Yet with Christ is at the center, the medallions are in sync and swirl harmoniously.
If you think of your life as a rose window, is Christ at the center? So often, as we discern our vocations, it can be tempting to put our vocational discernment in the center of our lives. We allow everything to swirl around the questions of whether we should date someone, apply for seminary, or talk to a religious community. We get wrapped up in the discernment process, that we forget to talk and more importantly to listen to, the Lord.
It can be tempting to put Christ in a little medallion and put ourselves in the center of the rose window of our lives. We may even be tempted to put Christ on the rim of the rose window. But the Lord has a place in the center. When we place Him as the center of our lives, we take refuge in his reliability. He doesn’t change, even when all the medallions of life swirl around us.