Vocational Course Change: Finding Abraham’s Gift

Roads don’t always go in the direction we think they will. This is true metaphorically and literally. But unexpected turns when driving a car are usually easier to deal with than unexpected turns in our lives. For one thing, they take a matter of minutes, rather than weeks, months, or years.

Unexpected twists in vocational discernment are certainly some of the most difficult times to navigate. For better or for worse, no spiritual GPS has been invented (or could be); mentors can be hard to find, and even when able to accompany, can sometimes do little more than tell us to be patient. Vocational uncertainty is probably one of the most excruciating mental and spiritual experiences a young man or woman has to go through: others come later on in different states of life. For the married woman, the excruciating pain of a miscarriage; for the father, anxiety over work; the ministerial exhaustion of the priest; the mid-life crisis of a religious. In each of these cases, it is a question of “how to keep on course, how to keep going.” But for the young single, these troubles are far off in the future: the question is not how to stay on course, but much more simply, “what course, Lord, and when?”

Specifically, what of the young man or woman who tries one path and then decides it is not for them? What of the novice or simply professed who leaves the religious community where he was once convinced he had found a vocation? Or the romantic relationship you thought “was it” and falls apart? Even more than those who wonder what course to take, the radical change of course sometimes “inflicted” by Providence on those still finding their vocation can lead a soul near despair.

Abraham’s Sacrifice

Dom Hubert van Zeller has perhaps one of the best treatments of this “course change” I’ve ever read. In Letters to a Soul, this English Benedictine writes to a young man who left a monastic novitiate and feels adrift. Van Zeller tells him that his sacrifice is like that of Abraham:

He tested you as he tested Abraham. It was not a mistake on Abraham’s part that he offered Isaac: it was a sacrifice all right—with one detail not insisted on. You made your sacrifice when you left the world, and the detail of fulfillment in that particular vocation was not insisted on. And now Isaac has been given back to you and you must make the best of him.

This is, I think, one of the most crucial points to understand when it comes to a major change in the direction you thought your life was taking. One makes a sacrifice of something and then finds it handed back, and a different one is asked for instead. It is a question of knowing how to profit by every circumstance. This is what St Paul—a man who had the course of his life radically changed if there ever was one—says to the Philippians:

I know both how to be brought low, and I know how to abound: (everywhere, and in all things I am instructed) both to be full, and to be hungry; both to abound, and to suffer need. (Phil. 4:12)

To be instructed in everything, everywhere: so easy to write, so difficult to live. “Life which looked at one time like being such a great success turns out to be a complete flat failure,” van Zeller writes in We Live With Our Eyes Open. “Now is the time to practise faith; now is the time to hold to the doctrine that there need never be any waste unless we choose to allow it. It is in the dark that we have more than ever to keep our eyes open, and there is no darkness like the silent gloom of the sepulchre of Christ.”

Don’t Over-predict

As someone who spent several years with a religious community before discerning out, one of my important discoveries is that we must not hold too tightly to a particular prediction of the way things will go. “We should realise that there are regions beyond which common sense and even psychology cannot take us,” van Zeller writes in another place in the same book. “It is in prayer that the undefined frontiers of attachment are learned. There are things in the spiritual life which we cannot follow on a map or learn out of a book: we come to get the feel of them indirectly, by the fact of responding to grace.”  The key is going to God, not attachment to one path or another in the course of getting there.

“Our path” is a curious phrase, though: it is the path God has in mind for us, not the one we have for ourselves. Ultimately, we have to realize that His understanding of things is much bigger than ours, and therefore His plan can envision twists which make no sense to us. “Those who have had their plans shattered, their enterprises stifled, their achievements crowned by muddle, and their proffered help rejected, should find much to console them in the fourteenth Station of the Cross,” van Zeller says: the hidden rest of Christ in the tomb must be accepted on the faith that we shall rise with Him. The difficulty for us impatient creatures is that, instead of three days, even three months is a short time when it comes to vocational readjustment.

Presuppositions are truly an enemy of inner peace and discernment. Fr Luigi Giussani, the founder of the Communion and Liberation movement, writes in his book The Religious Sense of the importance of not imposing a preconceived notion of reality on our experience such that a true perception of facts is inhibited by forcing them into a “scheme already in our minds.” This is abundantly true of discerning the vocation to religious or married life. It is a “pressing necessity not to accord a more important role to a scheme already in our minds, but rather to cultivate the entire, passionate, insistent ability to observe the real event, the fact,” Giussani says. Many of my married friends say that married life is much different than they expected. My time in religious life makes me say exactly the same thing.

This is not to say that preconceived structures of thought and belief are a bad thing or to be avoided (or even could be avoided); but simply that they ought not to be accorded so much importance that they prevent us from knowing a reality which might not fit into our current understanding or schema.

Low expectations are one good remedy for this. “Those who are ready to be dazzled by the everyday are not only happier and holier than those who are deadened by the drab, but they are also far easier to get on with,” quips van Zeller. Life is frequently different from what we expect. To have expectations is not wrong, but holding onto them too hard can cause problems (John Cuddeback discusses this balance in his video series “Must You Give Up Dreams to Get Married?”). The fundamental difficulty that high and detailed expectations create is a blindness to following the right path when it doesn’t match the “right” one in our minds. Alternatively, over-emphasized expectations can also keep us on the wrong course too long—pursuing a potential spouse or religious community longer than we should because it seemed to match expectations that were actually wrong, or incomplete, or should have been overridden by other factors.

Change Is Not Failure

Sometimes loss is the only way to possession. Meditating on the life of St Joseph, Devin Schadt comments that only when Saint Joseph was willing to give up his “need to be needed” by the Virgin Mary, did God re-entrust her to him. Saint Joseph thinks that God is working in such a powerful way in his betrothed’s life that his poor services are surely no longer needed. In that moment of sorrow—can you imagine, giving up the most perfect woman on earth?—Saint Joseph debases himself. And then he is given what he wanted, after being humble and truthful enough to think it no longer his. Job’s losses are similar; sevenfold is his restitution after destitution.

The same can happen in our lives. We think we are called to marry a certain person, eventually see that it is not the right fit, and give them up. Darkness ensues in which we are brought low enough that we remember our helplessness without God. Then He brings the right person into our lives. The same is true of trying religious life, whether the “failed attempt” in one house leads to another community or to the lay life.

Supremely important is recognizing that the dark night of loss that can come from a course change is not per se a “failure.” Did Abraham “fail” to offer Isaac? Neither does someone “fail” when he attempts one thing and discovers it is not right. There may be failures of prudence or judgment, and even sins involved in a dating couple’s breakup or in a departure from religious life: but a change in vocational path, provided it remains on the path of God’s commandments, is never in itself a failure, because it is going from one good to another, not from good to evil. Even in terms of the “lower vocation” of lay life, the subjective nature of what is best for each individual makes the layman’s path best for him, especially when consecrated through marriage vows.

Quick Answers

Many of us like having quick and complete answers. That is not the way life works. When it comes to vocational discernment, acceptance of uncertainty is a key for peace. If we pressure ourselves into producing answers, we will not be at peace. We must have sufficient material with which to judge and arrive at an answer, and this “sufficient material” is often many more months of experience and prayer away than we would like.

From misconceptions, false expectations, and simple doubt to the blindness and wounds that our own sins and those of others create in us, there is no denying that vocational discernment is hard. Recognizing this is one of the kindest things we can do for people who find themselves in such a place. Tolls and roadblocks are part of the journey. So are car-crashes. Expecting the unexpected is not so much a platitude but a beatitude when it comes to God’s will. Like Abraham, we have to be prepared to sacrifice one thing, climb a mountain to do it, and then discover that God has something very different in mind. Like Saint Paul, we have to be ready to be knocked off our pet projects and reverse our conception of “righteousness.” Quick answers are not the deepest ones we really want: what God imagines for us is much fuller, different, and better than what we sometimes think He wants, or what we think of in terms of “success” or “failure”: just ask Abraham, Saint Paul, or Saint Joseph.


Photo by Austin Anderson on Unsplash

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