I first decided that I wanted to be a priest when I was five years old. At that stage, priests just seemed cool. My reasons for wanting the vocation and the things that attracted me to it changed and grew over time, but the desire was always there.
At the end of high school, I had a profound experience in prayer which convinced me that God wanted me to pursue religious life rather than enter a diocesan seminary. There was a particular community I wanted to join, but I was told that they did not have a full undergraduate formation program. I decided to go to college instead.
I studied at Christendom College. This challenged me in more ways than I can count. It was truly where God wanted me to be.
During my time at Christendom, I made many wonderful friends. At the same time, however, I always felt that I must be very careful about how I interacted with people at school. After all, the last thing I wanted to do as someone who was discerning religious life was to cause a girl confusion. I tried hard to establish careful limits in my friendships with women, sometimes as a result of some hard experiences.
Striving for intentional friendship
In my junior year, I met and made friends with one of the freshman girls. We became good friends quite quickly, partly because we had similar temperaments and backgrounds. She was discerning religious life as well. That meant we both knew what was intended—and not intended—by our friendship.
One break during my senior year, my sister and I invited this particular friend (whom I am going to call Anne) and another student to come and spend the break with our family. They both accepted, and we had an enjoyable time.
After the break, however, I noticed that Anne seemed quite out of sorts and disturbed about something. I did not know what was going on, but it bothered me.
Around the same time, an image popped into my head repeatedly, quite without warning and quite without my consent.
It was a picture of married life with Anne. It bothered me a lot, not because I didn’t like it, but rather the reverse. I liked the picture quite a bit.
“What’s wrong with me?” I thought. “I’m discerning religious life!”
But the picture would not go away.
After a few weeks, I found out that Anne was upset because she was realizing the same thing I was realizing. We had feelings for each other. It was just what we had worked so hard to avoid!
We tried to give each other more space, and hoped that time would settle things down.
After Christmas break, it became pretty obvious that our feelings for each other were not going away.
Aligning my will with God’s will
I became upset with God, because what I wanted and what God wanted appeared to conflict. The prospect of laying down the most beautiful future I had ever envisioned in preference to God’s will was torture to me.
Nevertheless, my spiritual director’s advice was to stay the course. After all, Saint Ignatius of Loyola (a master of the spiritual life and discernment) advises against making any major spiritual change in a time of spiritual desolation.
So, in obedience, I went on.
By the end of my last semester, I was feeling more peaceful about the situation and fairly resigned to the idea of pursuing priesthood. In fact, I felt reasonably sure that such a vocation was indeed where God was calling me.
But then I had one more conversation with Anne, just to make sure we each knew where the other stood. I told Anne that I felt God wanted me to become a priest, and she told me pointedly that she thought I was wrong!
Something in her convinced her that we were meant to discern marriage together. She seriously thought that I was misunderstanding my vocation. Predictably enough, this troubled me. However, I told her that unless and until God made it very clear to me that he wanted me to change paths, I would have to remain as I was.
She understood and accepted this.
After graduation, I returned home for a short while. With every day that passed, I found myself thinking more and more about Anne. I grew more and more confused about my vocation. Finally, I met with my spiritual director and laid my struggles before him. He gave me some timely advice, which I was able to use just afterwards on a week-long retreat.
I visited a Trappist monastery in Iowa and spent the week in quiet and prayer about my vocation. The retreat was a beautiful gift from God, and exactly what I needed.
Discernment isn’t wasted time
While I was on retreat, I had two crucial realizations.
First, I realized that if God did call me to priesthood and religious life, my response would be something like: Well, since God is calling me to do it, I guess I’d better do it. In other words, my response would be out of a sense of duty, or ultimately out of fear, lest I displease God and incur punishment. On the other hand, if God called me to pursue married life with Anne, I realized that, perhaps for the first time, my response would truly be out of love.
Secondly, I realized that throughout my life, every major step in my discernment has been preceded by a moment of greater self-awareness. Each time, I have come to understand myself and the desires of my heart more clearly than before, and as a result have been able to respond with a greater “yes” to God’s will.
When I was five, I realized that priesthood seemed cool. Because of that, I said I wanted to be a priest.
When I was eighteen, I realized that I desired to live in community, so I chose to pursue religious life.
Finally, at the retreat, I realized that I wanted to be a husband and father, and to dedicate myself to the family. It seemed that God wanted me to pursue married life.
I saw that all my previous years of discernment would not go to waste. Instead, this last step would be the fruit of everything else I had discerned up to that point.
After the retreat ended, I consulted my spiritual director, who told me that he felt I should fully commit myself to pursuing the married vocation. It was both terrifying and exhilarating to hear.
Shortly afterwards, I asked Anne if she would be willing to discern the possibility of the married vocation with me. She asked me (quite reasonably) to explain why I had changed my mind, but after that she happily accepted, and we have been discerning ever since.
Are you discerning your vocation?
If you’re discerning a vocation, I have three pieces of advice for you.
1. Find a good spiritual director
It is crucial in discerning whether something is truly God’s will and not just your own.
2. Seek to understand the desires of your heart
Those desires are gifts from God, and they are meant to lead you to him.
3. Be prepared for anything
God has an amazing adventure in store for each of us, if we would only have the patience and humility to see it.
I still do not know where God will call me in the end. It is possible that Anne and I will discern that we are not meant to marry each other after all.
But whatever the case, I have more confidence than ever that God’s ways are truly ineffable, completely unpredictable, and absolutely wonderful. I trust that he will lead Anne, myself, and all of his children to lasting joy.