The orange couch behind the door, or: When good enough is enough
"How will I know if this is what I’m really called to?” That is one of the most frequent questions vocations directors hear when talking with men and women in discernment to religious life. The answer is quite simple: You won’t! True as it may be, however, that answer is too short and not very helpful. A little explanation, on the other hand, can put someone in discernment at ease and take some of the anxiety and pressure out of struggling with the question, “How will I know?”
Many women and men discerning a vocation imagine that they need to have a fairly certain sense that religious life is right for them before they even take the first few steps toward actually finding out. Perhaps they fear getting pressured into something by an overzealous or desperate vocation director! Some feel that a visit to a community or even a phone call is too close to a commitment.
While those are understandable fears, most people would be surprised to know how slowly and carefully we vocation directors also want to proceed. In fact, vocation directors are often especially cautious about individuals who feel they are ready to move in after only one visit or phone call.
The forecast: Partial visibility
Often men and women discerning a religious vocation get stuck in the early stages of their discernment by a premature need for certainty and a desire to have more information than they can possibly have from where they stand. Many, and I would include myself in this group, stand at step one of a journey and try to visualize what will happen at step 47. We try to anticipate every potential problem and prefer to have every glitch worked out before we feel safe taking that very first step. “What happens if I get to the novitiate and find out I don’t like it? What if I take vows and they ask me to do a job I don’t like? What if I join the community and ten years later fall in love?”
Those are all good questions and real enough possibilities, but they are questions that can only be answered somewhere down the road when more information will be available. What can you gain by agonizing over how you are going to describe joining a convent to your friends and relatives, for example, if you’re just beginning to go through the Vocation Match process or scanning the ads on the VocationNetwork.org website or in VISION magazine? What benefit will there be in worrying about whether or not your education will be put to good use until you have actually met the community and had the chance to explore the kinds of work they do and their openness to the gifts you bring? Although falling in love is certainly a possibility somewhere down the road, it is simply impossible to know what you would do before you have also had the experience of first falling in love with the community. In other words: One step at a time!
The orange couch
There is an image I like to use when talking to people who are discerning. Think of yourself as walking down a corridor, maybe looking for a place to stay or a room to move into for a year or maybe more. As you walk down the corridor, your eye catches an attractive room at the end of a long hallway. Of course what you can see of the room is limited by your position; but still you can see the color of the walls, beautiful wooden floors, and part of a fantastic painting. You like what you see and you feel compelled to get a closer look.
Now it goes without saying that anyone who would commit their lives to this room at this point is foolish! But then again it would be foolish to pass it up out of fear that there might be something in the room you don’t like. It at least deserves a closer look. As you walk down the hallway, the view through the doorway widens, revealing more of the room: the rest of the painting, half of a large, bright window, and a comfortable leather chair. I suppose you might find things that disappoint you, too: maybe a tattered rug or paint peeling from the walls. Either way, the move a little closer was worth it. If you still like what you see, it makes sense to move even closer, getting a broader view with every step.
Eventually you find yourself standing in the doorway and you have a good sense of the room now. There are several large windows, a wonderful collection of books and pottery on some shelves in the corner, and the perfect reading chair next to one of the windows. It’s everything you would hope to find. The excitement grows and you want to jump into the room, slam the door behind you, and claim it as yours. But you freeze: What if there’s a big stain on the floor behind the chair? Or worse: What if there is a big, ugly orange couch against the wall—behind the door?
What to do?
The truth is that one can never be entirely sure what will be in a room until you walk all the way in and shut the door behind you. Even then time may reveal subtle imperfections or later additions to the room that don’t suit you. There are things you simply won’t and can’t know, both about the room—the life you are discerning, to break down the metaphor—and, more important, about yourself until you have made a commitment to that place. You cannot know for sure there won’t be an ugly orange couch. On the other hand, you also won’t know that there isn’t a wonderful grand piano or an exquisite Chinese vase that you hadn’t seen before.
If the orange couch does happen to appear, there may be some things you can learn from it. You might discover with time that you actually like orange, or that this particular couch has some historical value or sentimental significance that causes you to appreciate it, or at least not hate it, with time. The couch may make more sense in the context of the rest of the room. Even if the couch is the ugliest, out-of-place eyesore you’ve ever seen, perhaps time and the rest of the room will teach you how to live with something you would never have chosen for yourself. This lesson may be the most important experience any room could offer.
The “good-enough” place
Everybody knows that there is no such thing as a perfect person or a perfect religious community. Still, hardly any of us begin the process of dating or discernment by looking for a “good-enough” person or a “good-enough” community to join our lives to. Yet that is really what each of us needs God’s grace to find. The “good-enough” place is that community that, though not perfect, has most of what you are seeking. It is the community and the lifestyle with which, after seeing it honestly, you find yourself still in love. And it is the community with which you are even willing to endure some minor disappointments—and the occasional major disappointment—because beyond offering most of what you hoped for, you find in the good-enough relationship the gradual unfolding of additional experiences, challenges, and opportunities that you know are good for you, even if you had not been looking for them when you began discerning.
Though it may initially sound like a compromise, the good-enough community—the good-enough relationship—is far richer and lovelier than the perfect one you started out searching for. It is built on honesty and knowledge of the other—in other words, intimacy. Good enough reaches beyond initial, oftentimes healthy infatuation and ripens into a love that embraces limitations, both the community’s and one’s own, as well as the gifts, promises, and good works each party brings to the relationship.
“As is” is OK
Described this way, the good-enough community takes time to discover and may very well require walking down a few hallways, moving closer, taking risks, and working to know what a religious community and religious life are really like. And when you think you have found it, one final, decisive question remains: Is this a community that I could love as is?
Any wise person will tell you not to marry someone with the expectation that they will change once you marry them. The same holds true for religious communities. Before you join a group of men or women, it is important that you love them and their way of life as they are today. True, a community will change with time, and hopefully for the better, but an individual who joins a religious community with a plan of changing or “fixing” the community is in for heartache and disillusionment. If you can love the community and its life as it exists today—ugly orange couch and all—then that good-enough community will more than likely return the favor of loving a good-enough you. In the end you are likely to find that the community will bend a bit to your hopes and expectations as you bend to theirs.
As Saint Paul writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “We see dimly now as in a mirror” (13:12). Our knowledge of the future, of another person or community, of God, even of ourselves is now and will always be incomplete. But in the end absolute knowledge is not what is needed for discernment. Faith is what is needed. Faith is the most important ingredient in discernment because faith takes over where knowledge falls short.
How will you know if something is right for you? You won’t entirely. So learn what you can, one step at a time, and then have faith for that final leap into the room!
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