Monday, February 27, 2017

The role of signs in discernment.

I don't have a GPS, and in some places it won't work anyway, so I always print driving directions when I'm going to a new place. Unfortunately, sometimes the directions refer to a road that doesn't exist anymore or a road that is closed and I have to take a different route. Then I get lost and need to call someone for directions. When this happened in Montreal on my way to a science conference, Allison was gracious enough to search a map to figure out where I was and guide me to the hotel.

I don't know if everyone has had the experience of driving while someone tries to explain directions by cell phone, but it usually goes something like this: "Do you see a 7 Eleven up ahead? Drive to the 7 Eleven. If you pass the cow made out of hay bales then you're going in the right direction." Am I suppose to stop at the hay bales? No, they're just a sign that I'm going in the right direction. Am I suppose to stop at the 7 Eleven? No, it's just the farthest landmark that I am able to see from here.

This seems to be how God encourages me in the spiritual life, but I tend to over-interpret and think "He must want me to stop at the hay bales!" or "I made it to the 7 Eleven, I should apply for a job and work here for the rest of my life!" This is because I'm impatient to reach the destination, wanting to skip over that journeying part. Instead of asking "Are we there yet?", I impulsively assume that we must be there. This has been especially obvious during my discernment process.

For example, as soon as I started discerning with the Sisters of Life, they started showing up everywhere! When I went to the Defending the Faith conference in Steubenville, Scott Hahn mentioned that Cardinal O'Connor (their founder) had once visited their memorial to the unborn. Then, all of a sudden, one of the volunteers at our prison ministry brought in a newspaper article about this fantastic group of Sisters, which happened to be the Sisters of Life. And just a little while later, I was volunteering at the Missionaries of Charity with a friend who was asking about my discernment. A nice couple had shown up earlier wondering if the Sisters needed help with anything. They overheard our conversation and the wife said to me, "I saw you come in and thought, she looks like a Sister of Life." And she told me that her and her husband used to live in Stamford CT near the Sisters of Life retreat house before moving to Baltimore a couple of years ago. That's one heck of a coincidence! All of this made me think, "Wow God, you must be calling me to enter this community!" Then I finally visited the Sisters of Life and loved so many things about their community. But if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then something wasn't quite right. It didn't seem like the right flavor for me.

So then I was very confused. I've listened to so many vocation stories that sound just like this. God calls and then provides a bunch of confirmations and it ends happily ever after. If this wasn't the right community for me, then why did God provide all those confirmations? But as Ravi Zacharias points out in his book The Grand Weaver, a calling can only been seen clearly in retrospect. I was blessed in so many ways through my visits to the Sisters of Life and I'm sure that God wanted to encourage me to continue along that path until it was time to turn off, and not a moment sooner. Lots of times, the final destination is not clear until you've already gotten there.

Similarly, once I started discerning with the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth, it seemed certain that this community must be for me. It seemed like God had been preparing me for this all along. By some strange coincidence, most of the Daughters daily prayers matched my daily prayers for the LMCs, including the prayer of abandonment by Bl. Charles de Foucauld. Their charism is to mirror the Holy Family of Nazareth, which is essentially the same as the LMC charism. In fact, the LMC movement was originally called the Nazareth Family Movement. But I was especially amazed to find out that the foundress of the community had traveled to St. Joseph's Oratory to ask Sts. Joseph and Andre to intercede for the community just prior to its foundation. She had promised to bring the Sisters on pilgrimage to the Oratory at the time of their profession. Meanwhile, it just so happened that I had been at St. Joseph's Oratory, praying in front of the incorrupt heart of Brother Andre and asking for God's direction for my life, just three weeks before hearing God's call during my silent retreat. This would be the perfect vocation story! Surely I had found the right place. And yet after visiting, I wasn't quite sure anymore. It seemed like God wanted me to keep seeking.

Looking back, it was such a wonderful gift to discern with these communities, and I'm so grateful that the Lord allowed me to rest with them along the way. In the meantime, I have learned not to rely on signs and wonders in my discernment, as though I can just read the tea leaves and know the answer. I really do have to try to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit, abandon myself and see where I end up. In the short term, these signs can encourage me that I am following the right path without necessarily indicating where I will end up. When I do end up in the right place, I will be able to look back and see more clearly how each landmark guided me to the final destination.

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