“You’re getting to be an old maid,” my dad likes to say now, “by St. Jo standards” (speaking of St. Joseph, MO). Up until a year ago he was giving me three options: he offered that I could marry a rich man, become a nun, or (due to my shin scars from falling kneelers and hard-edged theater boxes) marry a man who can’t see well. These were the futures he envisioned for me.
Apparently, in my 20’s, I’ve now reached the age of no return.
Waiting for God’s call is like waiting for Easter. We know He will call; we have faith He will speak to us and to our hearts. Yet at times we despair or question God’s timing. “I just want God to tell me what to do,” one of my friends said last week as we sipped tea in my living room. “I really want to know.”
This, on the heels of a conversation I’d had earlier that day with another young woman while she waited at an airport. She was feeling called more and more to marriage, though she recognized this wasn’t the time. God had yet to put a man in her path to discern marriage with. Until He did, she told me, she is praying for her future spouse—and working with God to heal from her wounds and mistakes.
She is treating this period in her life as Lent, though we just passed into the Easter season. She is letting God have this time to prepare her for whatever is to come. This period of preparation may be sorrowful or carry feelings of desolation, yet there is the hope of fulfillment one day. In other words Easter will come, though my friend doesn’t have the foresight of knowing what day God will invite her to love through a specific vocation.
Our specific vocations—be it single life, married life, consecrated life, or ordained ministry—are only pieces of a greater call. These vocations are the ways in which we live out the universal call. “The Lord called me from birth,” Isaiah 49 reads, “from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. He made me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me. You are my servant, he said to me, Israel, through whom I show my glory.” God has a purpose for each person and destines each one for a great purpose. He calls each person from birth; He gives each man and woman a name by which they will be known, and lives by which He will be known. To glorify God and imitate Christ on earth is to live out the universal vocation: to live in holiness.
This universal vocation (which means ‘call’) begins at baptism. In baptism, Christians begin to know, love, and serve God—to live this is the reason for our existence, giving meaning to our lives. It is an ongoing call; it forever invites us to turn to God and align our will with His. While careers or professions allow us to support ourselves and contribute in some way to the good of society in a ‘horizontal dimension,’ our vocation involves the ‘vertical’ aspect of our lives. Living our universal call strengthens the spiritual relationship between each of us and God.
The meaning of a holy life differs for each person, though. Two women may both help children through social work, yet one may be a consecrated virgin living in a community of women while the other serves as wife and mother to three boys. They both are committed to loving God and people, yet this commitment manifests itself in two distinct ways. While God remains the object of their vocations, neither woman is living in a more holy way than the other.
Each woman is called in a special way, which is equal in importance for building God’s kingdom yet different from the other woman’s call. God speaks of a specific mission for each of us, one He imagines for us even before we are on earth. This is our vocational mission—out of our love for Him and His for us—to be husbands or wives, single laypersons or consecrated virgins, or ordained ministers. These vocations are unchanging. They are ones we can live out with hope, knowing that, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you’ (Jeremiah 1:5).
Before we can love God through these specific vocations, though, we need a time of discernment. If our wedding day or day for profession of vows is our Easter, and our lives thereafter the vibrant Easter season, then our lives leading to Easter are the 40 days of Lent. The weeks of Lent are, at times, weeks of desolation or sorrow as the Church contemplates Christ’s Passion. During Lent the Church recalls baptism and encourages penance. It is by these ‘the Church prepares the faithful for the celebration of Easter, while they hear God’s word more frequently and devote more time to prayer’ (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 109).
Lent, then, is a time of preparation. It is at time during which we give our sins to God and open ourselves to healing. It is a special time for prayer, sacrifice, and good works; Lent is a time of hope.
The period of singlehood before each person is given their vocation is the same. This time is a gift from God, through which He invites men and women to pray, fast, and let Him heal wounds. He offers forgiveness for past, wrong actions. He helps to forgive family members or friends. He takes twisted perceptions or expectations from former relationships and transforms them to trust and love of man. He helps in the practice of chastity (for, as St. John Paul II writes, ‘only the chaste man and chaste woman are capable of love).
This Lent, the Lent of the vocation journey, is one during which a person can learn to better love so that when God calls, at last, he or she can say yes. In this time of waiting he or she can practice sacrificing time and personal wants for the good of others. Each person, in this period, has the beautiful opportunity to grow in obedience, increase in fellowship with men and women, and better their ability to work in a team. Each person has the chance to ask questions and search inside themselves, as Christians do in classes and scrutinies to prepare for the sacraments. These are the ‘spiritual exercises’ of singlehood—these are the routine Stations of the Cross, penance services, fasts, and almsgivings before their Easter day.
In embracing this time and drawing close to God, each person seeking their specific vocation will open more to God’s will. Prayer is key. Pope Benedict XVI said, “To the extent that we teach young people to pray, and to pray well, we will be cooperating with God’s call. Programs, plans and projects have their place; but the discernment of a vocation is above all the fruit of an intimate dialogue between the Lord and his disciples. Young people, if they know how to pray, can be trusted to know what to do with God’s call.”
Here lies the answer to my friend’s desire: prayer. She asks that God tells her, soon, what she is to do on earth.
God will answer her, in His own time.
And to her anxiety—as well as countless others’—God uses people like ordained priests and one Holy Woman to communicate to us: ‘Be not afraid.’
In an echo of these three words, Fr. Mike Schmitz declared in one homily that ‘God won’t ask you to answer a question that He hasn’t asked yet.’ Cardinal Sean O’Malley reminded us that our vocations are particular and singular to each of us; he emphasized that the joy, happiness, and fulfillment of others depends on ‘getting your vocation right!’ Yet, the Cardinal added, this is a choice we do not make alone.
Though each vocation is singular to each person, a man or woman is not singular in his or her journey to discovering God’s will. Parents may aid on the journey, holy couples may set an example of the beauty of married life, religious orders may offer direction, a parish may become a second home, roommates may become siblings as each of them asks the same question of God—‘What am I to do for you?’ Above all of these helpmates is the Holy Spirit, burning and speaking in each soul.
God will fulfill His purpose for us in time—if only we say yes. If we are swords and arrows, as Isaiah 49 infers, then God will use us only when He is ready; the soldier uses these weapons only when they are needed, in battle, and keeps them otherwise in their sheaths. Like the soldier, God will draw us forth for our life mission when we are sharp and He deems it right.
Easter will only come when the time of preparation has reached its fullness.
Christ only rises when God calls him onward.
To all those seeking their vocation, or yearning for one vocation in particular, I say: imitate Mary. Keep in prayer. Say ‘yes’ to God with every day of your life.
Know, like Mary, that there is sweetness in the waiting.
Make this time of preparation. Practice patience. Pray for your vocation. Gather information, and experience each vocational life as best you can. Pray with these things. Listen.
In the silence of your heart, when your hands are palms up and you are completely open, God will reveal to you your soul. Your destiny.