WOULDN’T IT BE WONDERFUL if everyone seeking to know what to do in life could have an experience comparable to Bartimaeus, the blind beggar in the Gospel of Mark? A quick review of the story:
I believe the Bartimaeus story illustrates elements in the decision-making process that can help us understand where God is leading us.
Bartimaeus freely chose to follow Jesus, and he seemed to know what he desired. He was simply sitting by the roadside, available, open, and alert to an encounter with grace. Upon hearing that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by, the beggar shouts out Jesus’ name, hoping, desiring his attention. Bartimaeus then asks for mercy from Jesus. In so doing, the blind man demonstrates an astute self-knowledge and acknowledges his own humanness and vulnerability.
When told to be quiet, the beggar becomes bold and even more courageous, shouting all the louder. He has a tenacious and persevering spirit in the face of adversity. When Jesus calls to him, Bartimaeus “throws off his cloak" and swiftly goes to Jesus. Attentive, he listens to the question Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?" The beggar clearly states his desire, “Let me see again." Mark’s gospel account (10:46-52) ends by stating that he “immediately follows Jesus on the way." Upon regaining his sight, Bartimaeus is aroused to action. While the story ends there, we can only speculate what, if any, difference this fulfilled desire made in his life. I believe that Bartimaeus, touched by God’s goodness and love, was changed and responded accordingly. The qualities he brings to this encounter are the ones we need for discerning life choices.
In my years as vocation director I was blessed with women, ordinary people like Bartimaeus, in need of healing and touched by God’s goodness and love, who longed to have a deeper relationship with God. Having a burning desire to know God’s will, they initially made contact by phone or e-mail. I felt it important to ground an individual exploring religious life in the context of the community.
A confident 32-year-old youth minister sat in my office. She had looked at many religious communities and had promised her Benedictine uncle she would visit one monastic community. “I’ve narrowed my search to a couple of communities. What more shall I do?" Impressed by her enthusiasm and earnestness, I applauded her for the initial homework. I then replied: “Let me warn you, discernment isn’t easy. It is hard work. As you already know, it can be very taxing and time-consuming. When you begin the process of discerning, you enter into holy work." As Ben Campbell Johnson says in his book Beyond the Ordinary, “Discernment is not for the weak-hearted, since it requires wrestling with both angels and demons."
In discerning your vocation, you are given an opportunity to view your life more deeply, to articulate personal desires and goals in life. In this process, a look into your heart is essential. It is important to examine your likes and dislikes, your fears and dreams, your hopes and interests, acknowledging your abilities, gifts, and strengths, along with your limitations and shortcomings. It is a time for true and honest self-evaluation. This can be both exciting and frightening. While this self-examination may feel as though life has been turned upside down, my advice is to stay with it.
Another woman, age 43, demonstrating a deep, strong faith, said: “I know I am on a spiritual journey. I am feeling a special closeness to God, yet I am not sure where God is leading me. It feels like this is to be the biggest decision I ever made. I never dreamed it would be this tough." The spiritual journey continues to deepen as knowledge of God’s love grows more real and intimate, and you experience God’s love on a personal level and in the midst of family and friends. Experiencing God’s closeness and knowing how much God loves you is important. This personal love touches your inner being. God is forever drawing you, luring you, attracting you. God remains faithful in seeking you out.
Likewise, your fidelity to the search is important, even in the face of doubt and discouragement. A 23-year-old woman reported to me that she knew at age 19 of her desire not to marry. In graduate school she discovered an interest in monastic life. She began to browse websites, e-mail vocation directors, and visit monasteries around the country. Her goal: to be in a monastery by age 25. She told me at the end of her seventh monastery visit that she began to lose hope. She feared there might not be a monastery where she felt comfortable and “at home." After nearly a year of e-mail messages, she responded in trepidation to my invitation to come visit my community. Within hours of her first visit, to my amazement and her delight, she was sure she had found her new home. Remaining faithful to her own desires and trusting in her God, she persevered, and her search was not in vain.
While each of us hears God’s invitation in a unique way, I believe it must be tested and lived out in a communal setting. One person who did this was a 31-year-old woman with a circuitous spiritual awakening, who didn’t belong to a church until her early 20s. She came to me with a passion to grow and deepen her relationship with God. Her yearning was real, her desire strong, her love large, yet after two years of living in community with us, she left our community to continue her discernment elsewhere.
I strongly believe that God is personally involved and concerned about each person on earth. Because God cares “if the sparrow falls to the ground" (Matt. 10:29) and “if a single strand of our hair turns white" (Matt. 5:36), I believe God is interested in the decisions that you and I make. Scripture assures us we are “valued even more than sparrows" (Luke 12:7). God has preferences regarding the choices we make and wants to reveal those preferences to us. However, God will not force them on us. God wills that we freely choose them. Thus, making wise and loving choices requires discernment.
Prayer is at the heart of discernment. Cultivating a life of prayer—not just in times of crisis, but on a regular basis—takes time. It takes time to learn to listen, really listen, to God in prayer and not merely ask God to listen to you. This spending time together requires both honesty and patience as you wait to hear what God might be saying to you. Make a daily appointment with God. God may not always speak in the quiet of your solitude. Oftentimes, God will answer through a friend, a coworker, a family member, the events of daily life, or even your vocation director. Without daily prayerful recollection, you might not be aware or open to the presence of God in your everyday life.
Becoming sensitive to God’s presence in your midst demands an interior attentiveness, an element of stillness, which is nurtured in the silence of your heart. Prayer and reflection can help in exploring motivations and recognizing interiorly felt movements. Meeting with a spiritual director on a regular basis can be helpful. It is crucial to pay attention to your feelings and articulate them to a trusted friend or confidante. Likewise, it’s important to know the desires of your heart as you contemplate what God wants of you.
In exploring a call to religious life, certain attitudes in you are crucial for success. Your embrace of these attitudes can help in the discernment process itself, as well as in fostering a more discerning way of life. The first is an attitude of openness—open to examining a variety of possibilities. Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in his model of discernment, recommends that you begin in a place where you are open to viewing each choice as much as another. He calls this openness “holy indifference." Openness is not a matter of not caring, but rather of welcoming your choices. Remember that discernment is usually a choice between different goods; it may be two equally good communities or it may be choosing among religious life, marriage, and single life. The question becomes, What is best for you? Where can you best receive and respond to the love that God abundantly showers on you?
Trust is another attitude necessary for discernment. Trust yourself and your own personal wisdom; trust others who assist you in the process: a vocation director, a spiritual director, or others; trust the Spirit at work in your life; trust that God loves you more than you can ever imagine; and, equally important, trust that God wants the absolute best for you. Given this final premise, remember God is the one in charge. Be open to this mystery and surrender to it.
Another woman, age 34, told me that soon after college she had volunteered with a community in hopes of making it her permanent home. However, things didn’t work out as she had planned. While finding the separation painful, she lived and grew through it. Nearly 10 years later she found herself looking at monastic life, grateful for the wisdom and experience gleaned from her journey of self-knowledge and maturation. Bold and courageous to trust again, she placed her life in God’s hands and surrendered her own will to the will of God. Like this seeker of truth, be open and you will discover that God has work for you to do: “You will find God if you search after God with all your heart and soul" (Deut. 4.29).
Questions to ask yourselfCurrently hundreds of religious communities are available to you. Many have websites you can browse. Some questions to help you consider your options are:
—Sister Marcia Ziska, O.S.B
I’ve told many directees to work for an expectant attitude, which enhances the discernment process. Who better to exemplify this attitude than Mary, the Mother of God, and countless women and men who have made a commitment to follow in the footsteps of Jesus? Mary waited and was hopeful with the promise of new birth. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" (Isa. 43:19). The gospels report that Mary was fearful and asked a number of questions. The challenges she faced are not unlike those questions and concerns you encounter as you explore where God might be leading you.
In discernment, one needs the spirituality of Mary, that is, a total, radical dependence on God and an independence or detachment from any human being. As Mary opened herself to the power of God, new possibilities emerged for her. In discerning one’s future, new doorways can open. Like Mary, you are called to wait, to nurture new life and hope within you. Put your fears and uncertainties aside and focus instead on God’s favor and wonderful delight in you.
The final attitude is that of inner freedom. An awareness of God’s love in your life may bring you freedom. Can you give God a blank check? Can you freely and with no strings attached say, “Speak, Lord, I come to do your will," or as in the abandonment prayer (see box), “I am ready for all, I accept all"? Either phrase is a bit scary and hard to pray. Freedom can be frightening. Saying yes to one direction automatically closes the door to other options. Yet, in letting go of your agenda, your securities, and, yes, even of control, and placing your trust in the One who calls, so much more can be gained. Gerald May, in his book Addiction and Grace, says: “True inner freedom is characterized by great unbounded love, endless creative energy, and a deep pervasive joy." How better to live in community and minister to God’s people?
I am grateful to the women and men who have entrusted their life story to me. Ministering to them has helped me deepen my love for God who helps me to know what I desire, acknowledge my own vulnerability, be courageous in times of adversity, and beg the Lord regularly to help me “see" more clearly where God is leading me. I wish the same for you.
When a college friend and I entered our Benedictine monastery, she gave me this prayer by the 20th-century hermit Charles de Foucauld.
Prayer of AbandonmentFather
I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you; I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures. I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul; I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.
—Charles de Foucauld
Sister Marcia Ziska, O.S.B. was a vocation director for 14 years. Currently she serves her monastic community of Mount St. Scholastica as director of pastoral care at Dooley Center in Atchison, Kansas.