*From the perspective of a Catholic man.
It's Saturday morning. It is your first day off in weeks. You were very productive last night to ensure an epic sleep in. The blinds are drawn, your phone is off, the sheets are fresh, and you even remembered to turn your alarm off... and you never do that! The stage had been set for a sleep-in to end all sleep-ins. You look forward to a tranquil sleep the likes of which you have never encountered. Years later you'll look back on this particular sleep thinking, "maybe that was the lucid thing all the kids are talking about". Nothing was going to separate you from your bed. Nothing.
Then the inevitable happens. Either your neighbor starts cutting his lawn, your other neighbor starts building a fence (saw and all), or that friendly missionary religious group rings the doorbell wanting to talk to you about where your life is headed. It could be a number of different things, but they are all trying to do the same thing - wake you up. You will not be defeated. Not today. You toss and turn and toss and turn. You try to employ every strategy you know (counting the sheep, blocking out the sounds around you, earplugs), but nothing works.
At this point, your mind has started to wander and bring up everything you should do today - the very same list the night before you were easily able to justify putting off until after your epic sleep. You are officially awake. Another great conflict rises within you. To get out of bed or not becomes the most difficult decision you've had to make in a long time. Your bed is at the perfect comfort / temperature level. It's an oasis of relaxation and contentment. It is a supportive cocoon that is eager to let you stay as long as you need. It is the only place at this moment that is allowing you to avoid facing the harsh realities of life.
Now you're probably wondering what this bed story has to do with discernment.
We can get so comfortable in discernment that we don't want to leave.
Before I got married, I discerned. Boy did I discern. My wife and I discerned everything. We discerned marriage (naturally) - which was great. I discerned when and how to get engaged. Prior to that I discerned the priesthood. We even discerned whether or not we should date! Most of our energy was spent on trying to get a straight answer from God - a 'lightbulb' moment, if you will. All we wanted was a simple yes or no. Don't get me wrong, this resulted in me making one of the greatest decisions in my life, and I wouldn't trade the result for the world. Looking back, knowing what I know now, I may have gone about it differently.
At the core of my 'discernment' was what I initially identified as fear of making the wrong decision. I was so scared that if I made the wrong decision, God wouldn't love me anymore. It was one of the biggest conflicts in my life. On one hand I had these very strong desires for marriage that led me to peace and excitement, and on the other hand I had this fear. At the time I equated fear and anxiety with God. I thought these feelings were God's way of saying "Don't screw this up!" or "Are you sure you're doing the right thing?" or "The only way to live a holy life is to be a priest even though you feel a strong call elsewhere". My image of God was not a healthy one. I was so scared he would be disappointed in me if I made the wrong decision.
*Sometimes we perceive our relationship with our heavenly father the same way we perceive our relationships with our earthly fathers. This is exactly what I was doing.*
I went to every one for advice. I asked so many people for their opinion in hopes of locating a direct messenger from God like some sort of Where's Waldo-esque scavenger hunt. If you're doing this, read Sirach 6: 6.
I was scared! I had to remember that God is love. And if I truly believe that, I should truly believe this too:
"There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment,
and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love."
(1 John 4:18)
You see, there was one big thing I was leaving out of the picture: FREE WILL. I thought, "I know I have free will, but I couldn't possibly have it in choosing a vocation." I was scared because I knew that my training wheels were off, but I didn't want God to let go of the bike seat. I was scared of making a decision. I was comfortable in discernment. I was feeling sorry for myself.
This is where those amazing words of God to Job come in: Gird up your loins like a man. I understand I am probably taking these words a bit out of context, but they really spoke to me. How often do we have other guys telling us to 'man up', 'be a man', or 'gird up your loins'? I wish I had people telling me that! This is exactly what I needed to hear back then.
Make a decision!
At the core of our discernment was the ever popular Novena to St. Therese of Lisieux. Throughout our Novena, my hopefully soon-to-be girlfriend and I kept seeing red and white roses. I asked for Red if we were supposed to pursue a relationship, and she asked for white (unbeknownst to me). We each got both. A similar thing happened to a friend of mine about a Novena he did. He sought some direction from a priest, and the priest told him that it sounded like he had a choice. As my (now) wife and I shared our Novena results (like we just got our exam marks back), that priests answer to my friend resonated in my heart. Perhaps we also have a choice. We did have a choice! We have free will and "we know that all things work for good for those who love God" (Romans 8: 28). So what's the problem!? When we realized this, we began our relationship and discernment of marriage. Again, with our marriage discernment, it was also choice. But let's be honest... by that point I knew I wanted to marry her.
Now, don't get me wrong. Novena's are beautiful and I wouldn't be where I am today without praying that novena. But, God revealed to me through this Novena that I had a choice. If only I had known/believed that beforehand.
You see, there is a beginning and an end to discernment. It is important to identify both. As much as it seems that we call upon her intercession, Our Lady of Perpetual Discernment is not a prayer card you can buy in any Catholic book store. And yet, it seems like many of us have a strong devotion to her. Weird.
So to all you guys out there who are discerning a vocation, good luck. Know, however, that there is an end to it too. I am not telling you to rush into anything. Make sure you discern. But, know when to stop.
Don't be afraid to make a decision.
In the words of my good friend and fellow Silversmith Collective contributor, Colm Leyne:
"Sometimes God's will is for us to make a choice".
As a previous spiritual director of mine once put it, "You'll never win the lottery if you don't buy a damn ticket!"
In closing, I will leave you with a great visual from The Art of Manliness detailing the process of girding up one's loins.
We're all in this together.