A GOOD FRIEND just turned 27. “That’s so old!” she said. “I knew that high school and college were times for trying things out—you date several people, you change majors and take different classes, you learn how to live on your own and get a sense of finances, and, well, basically you grow up. But I thought that certainly by the time I was 25 my identity would be set and my path would be clear. I feel like I should have my life figured out by now, like I should know who I am, what I want, and where I’m going, but I don’t!”
My friend’s lament is a familiar one. People don’t necessarily settle into their life paths in their 20s anymore. The average age of marriage, entrance to a religious order, or ordination is creeping higher all the time—while the average length of time in one’s first job grows shorter. In fact, fewer and fewer people end up with careers directly related to their college majors. Sometimes it seems that life itself is filled with experimentation, change, and uncertainty.
So in your 20s, as you try to figure yourself out as an adult person, what are you to do? I suggest you start by being patient with yourself. Remember that even Jesus did not start on his public mission until he was 30. During his 20s then, Jesus was learning, praying, growing, and becoming ever more who God was calling him to be. His life was not only put on hold until the day when God said, “OK, now go find John the Baptist.” His public mission was a continuation of all that had happened in his life until that point.
That is true of you as well. God is actively at work in your life and has been from the moment you were conceived. You are an absolutely unique creation, with gifts, talents, and desires that match no one else’s. You have the ability to do many different things and the potential to touch lives and hearts both by who you are and by what you do. As you mature into adulthood, all these things continue to be formed and honed, and if you pay deep attention, God will use them to lead you to your vocation.
Everyone has a vocation
I use the term vocation in its broad sense. Although it used to refer only to being a priest, sister, or brother, we now know that everyone, whether lay, vowed, or ordained, has a vocation. We also know that regardless of our specific role, as followers of Jesus Christ we are called to imitate him in the way we live, work, and act throughout our lives. We are all called to holiness, called to service, and called to love. Seek to live out this primary vocation above all else, and the rest will come.
As you consider your more specific vocation path, there are several steps you can take:
1. Be a learner. Anything you do can teach you important things, and often the lessons are essential for your next steps in life. As Jesus worked with wood as a carpenter, he likely learned vital lessons in patience, tolerance for imperfections, respect for the strengths and weaknesses of the material, and much else that was helpful in his later mission.
I also speak from personal experience. I am a liturgy and bereavement consultant. But my bachelor’s degree is in dairy science—yes, cows. I married a dairy farmer when I was 19, and I thought I would be on a farm the rest of my life. I was wrong, yet the lessons I learned in working closely with the land and animals were vital for my eventual path. For instance, this in-control woman learned utter dependence on God as we prepared the soil, fertilized, and planted and then waited for rain, sun, and growth. I lived the cycle of life, death, and resurrection in the animals and the fields. I learned gratitude for the bounty of God’s gifts. My experience taught me and shaped me in ways I cannot even name.
I have done many things in my life, yet every job I held, every relationship I had, everything I went through, prepared me for my role today. Consider nothing as wasted. If you learn and grow, you build a foundation for whatever comes next.
2. Be a follower. Mentoring is the process by which someone older, wiser, or more experienced takes you under his or her wing, gives you advice, and helps you grow. I have found mentors to be invaluable gifts in my life.
Mentoring can take many forms. Find a good spiritual director, or at least a spiritual companion—someone who helps you see how God is working in your life and who challenges you to grow in your faith. Meet with and pray with this person regularly. Talk about your faith journey and your search for God’s will. Find another mentor in whatever life path you are considering.
If you feel a possible calling to religious life, find a priest, sister, or brother who can be honest about his or her experience, both the joys and the difficulties, and who can guide you in your discernment process. If you are considering marriage, build a friendship with a married couple in the same way. Read everything you can. Get recommendations from book reviews, friends, your spiritual director, and other reliable sources. If you find something valuable on the internet, bookmark the page. When you read a quote that strikes you, write it down along with the page number so you can easily reference it again. Take advantage of the experience, wisdom, and advice of spiritual and professional guides.
3. Be a leader. Don’t passively wait for God to write on the wall, because that is not the way God works. You must act. Think, pray, experiment, and get advice. Discern where your heart truly lies. Then consider all the relevant information and make the best decision you can with what you’ve got. You may make mistakes along the way, but each decision can bring you closer to where God wants you to be.
4. Be a pray-er. Remember that prayer is not just asking for things. Prayer is communication with God in all its forms—contemplation and listening, asking, thanking, expressing doubts, telling about your day—basically building a relationship with the One who loves you more than you can ever imagine. A strong relationship with God will sustain you and guide you through anything that happens, both good and bad. You face many uncertainties in your 20s. You may make some wrong choices. Or you may make the best choice possible, yet something totally unexpected turns your world on its head. Life is unpredictable, and you need the solid foundation of a relationship with God to guide you through it.
God is with you always
My husband John (the dairy farmer) and I tried to live as faithful Catholic Christians in all we did. I did not, however, realize the deepest meaning of my relationship with God until our son was 7 months old and John was killed in a car accident. All my dreams shattered, and I was absolutely devastated. Many people at the wake and funeral said, “Call me any time.” Yet no matter how much they loved me or how good their intentions were, no human person could be there for me 24-7. But God could. God was my constant companion, taking all I dished out in anger, granting me patience and wisdom, and gently putting an arm around me and leading me on. God loved me back to life, as Jesus held my hand in the tomb and led me to resurrection.
I hope you do not have to endure such tragedy in your 20s. But I hope you can learn the lessons I did. God is our rock, our foundation and strength, our stronghold in any storm. Build your relationship with God and trust that God will lead you no matter what. Believe that God will show you the way and help you make decisions. Be assured that God is with you always, even if you totally mess up. God will help you find your way, and God will give you all that you need.
These four steps will serve you well—not only in your 20s but throughout your life. The truth is that your vocation is not a one-time decision. I haven’t been on a farm in years. I know a New York cop who has been ordained a Franciscan friar in his 30s. Another friend entered a religious order but left after novitiate to become the director of pastoral care at a parish. Even within a vocational path there are many choices and forks in the road. A priest friend served his order in various ways—as a retreat director for 10 years, then as a foreign missionary, and now as a parish pastor.
As your vocation evolves, then, as you go where God leads, and as you find ways to use your gifts in service to others, may you always learn valuable lessons, be mentored well, have the courage to act, and build an ever-deepening relationship with our loving and gracious Lord. If you can do those things, you will live out God’s will for your life.
Amy Florian is a liturgy and bereavement consultant living in Illinois. She has published numerous articles and two books and is nationally known as a speaker, retreat director, and teacher.