Stop worrying about God’s will
Nowhere in scripture is the term “vocation” used apart from the universal call to holiness.
Many good-hearted, God-fearing Catholics wrestle with the idea of God’s will. “What is God’s will for my life?” “How do I know if I’m doing what God wants me to do?” “What happens if I want to do X, but God wants me to do Y?” While these are important questions, ruminating on them often cripples the spirit of the sincere Catholic seeking to love God and neighbor. And yet, the questions remain.
For the person discerning a religious vocation, these questions can be even more anxiety-inducing. I’ve been discerning a religious life vocation for several years, and here are some new ways of thinking about God’s will that have dramatically reduced my fears.
Everyone is called
For the first 1,400 years of Christianity, the topic of “religious vocation” was seen much more broadly than it often is today. For the early and medieval Christians, the word “vocation,” coming from the Latin word vocare (meaning “to call”), was seen as a universal thing, something all Christians were called to—namely, a life in service to God and neighbor. As early as the Acts of the Apostles we hear of the early Christians: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Nowhere in scripture is the term “vocation” used apart from the universal call to holiness, rooted in each Christian’s baptismal call (Rom. 8:30). “God’s will” is thus seen in light of God’s merciful kindness revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.
If you transported back in time and asked Saints Paul, Mary Magdalene, or even Stephen what their vocation is, they might simply smile and say, “Jesus Christ.” Thus, all Christians “have a vocation,” and it’s this: to become saints (Rom. 1:7).
Listen to God—and your heart
Still, you’re wondering, “How do I know if I am called to religious life?” One of my professors at Boston College, Father Barton Geger, S.J. describes two different models of speaking about God’s call. The first is that of a unique, personal call; he regards this as the “cell phone model.” In this model, God calls us individually and gives us the play-by-play for our life. Geger has written that the cell phone model “adds pressure to the discernment process. If there is one specific thing that God has in mind for a particular person and for her alone, then the onus falls on her to get it right.”
Geger contrasts this with the “megaphone model.” Here God speaks to everyone, loud and clear, and honors our freedom to choose a particular path, given our gifts and talents, limitations and weaknesses. It should be noted that this is how Saint Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians understood “religious vocation.” It is not something we find in our mysterious heart of hearts, but rather an invitation the Lord gives to all. At the same time, our heart’s desire matters. Saint Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuit tradition also emphasize the role of desire in vocation. For example, two people meet, start dating, and marry. Did they scrupulously ask, “Is this God’s will?” No, they simply followed their deepest desires and longings, which is where God can speak to us. I once wailed to my spiritual director, “What if God wants me to become a monk!?” He responded, “Well, do you want to become a monk?” to which I said “No.” He then said, “So why are we even discussing this then?” My spiritual director exchanged my cell phone for a megaphone.
Knowing who God is—and isn’t
Think about it: You can’t take the anxiety out of God’s will—because there is no anxiety there! As we hear in scripture, God’s very essence is love (1 John 4:8). Rather we must take the anxiety out of our understanding of God’s will—meaning that we need to know who God is, and who God is not.
God is not some bearded man in the sky, anxiously wringing his hands, obsessively checking our actions and consulting his divine blueprint. God is perfectly simple, meaning that there is nothing lacking. God is a mystery beyond human comprehension, for if we could comprehend and know God fully, God would not be God. Saint Paul emphasizes God’s transcendence when he writes, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33).
If we desire to know God and God’s will, we need to look no further than Jesus Christ, who as Pope Francis writes, “is the face of the Father’s mercy.” In the gospels, Jesus invited people to follow him—he never coerced anyone into discipleship! Remember—the Resurrected Jesus’ first word to his frightened disciples was “peace” (John 14:27).
Whether we are married, single, a priest, sister, or brother, we all share in the same universal vocation to holiness. It does no good to fret and worry about God’s will, because God’s will is manifested in the commandment to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:30-33). God does not desire anxiety for us. Rather, God—in gentleness—invites us to grow closer to him. God invites—and never forces. Should we desire to follow God in a particular way, God will give us the grace to do so.
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