Before heading over to Jane's last night for a Mardi Gras party, I spent some time with a young friend who has been discerning a vocation to the Society of Jesus.
Our conversation last night stayed with me such that, upon awakening, I had to take it to prayer (and to breakfast). My heart's sense is that the issue that faces him in his discernment faces many people every day.
A little historical background: in the fifth century a British monk named Pelagius taught that humans could attain salvation through their own sustained efforts. The basic mindset was that if a person worked hard enough, she could overcome the bad example of Adam (sin) and follow the good example of Christ (grace). Pelagius was condemned not only by St. Augustine, but also by several councils.
Part of the heresy was the belief that my relationship with God depends entirely on *ME*. It's the heresy of the self-made individual, the belief that "It's all about me" and that everything I have and am comes down to my initiative. This image is most seductive for those of us in the Western World. We are told so often to "be all that you can be" and to pull yourself "up by the bootstraps." This attitude posits God as but one more option among others, another object to be chosen or passed over, sought or disregarded.
This is entirely non-Christian! The God of Christianity is the God who is attentive to the cry of the world, who sees the width and breadth of history and has decided to make our reality God's own reality. Our God is Immanuel, God with us, who has entered into our chaos to be our companion.
My point is that for so many of us, the the spiritual quest focuses too much on our attempts to find God. The true grace (and the curse!) of true spirituality is allowing oneself to be found.
Let me try to flesh this out. For a young person discerning a vocation, there I think that there are two sets of experiences. A young man may hunt around on the internet and feel an attraction to entering the Jesuits. He reads books, he knows that he has an open mind and a willing heart and feels a yearning to be a Companion of Jesus. He thinks that he has found God but he doubts: couldn't he be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a belly dancer without being a Jesuit? Does he really need to be a priest or a brother to serve? He has so many choices, so many decisions!
How close this person is! But in his fumbling and rustling as he frantically searches for "What God wants" he is tempted toward a dangerous path: against our prevailing wisdom, It's not all about you! The path of "all about me" makes God yet another object, another good, rather than the central good of life. Asking only "what am I going to give God" places us in a position higher than God -- what pride!
A vocation isn't weighing one good against another, as though it were deciding on whether to have the beef or salmon. Long before any person entertains a thought of religious life, of marriage, or of being single, that person has been called. Quietly and through the day-to-day events and goings on, God's invitation into deeper relationship has, for a long time, been extended to each of us.
So the second set of experiences occurs in prayer, when the young man stops "thinking" and starts exploring the inner recesses of his heart. It is in these caverns, spelunking new and as-yet unknown depths, that he stumbles upon a silent fullness, a glimpse of strange beauty, and he realizes that all his fumbling and searching have prevented him from seeing that what he so madly searched for had already found him.
A spiritual restlessness and dis-ease is endemic today. We are searching, turning to strange pursuits and faddish interests hoping to slacken our thirst for more. The prodigal son went so very far from his home in order to find fulfillment...only to find emptiness. Imagine, then, his joy upon returning to meet his father's eyes, eyes that have scanned the fields every day waiting for his return. The son didn't have to bargain for his identity, didn't have to negotiate a deal with his father: the abiding presence of the Father has waited patiently for his return, waited on the lonely and quiet porch of the heart, waited for his son to know himself to be found.
This experience is both grace and curse. The grace is knowing that one has been found, that God has been waiting for you for a very long time. The curse is that, once pierced by this love, the human heart will forever bear this wound upon it and be restless for completion. For some, this restlessness leads into marriage, for others into the single life, and for still others into religious life. The life of the Christian is a vocation, worked out in response to the God who finds us and welcomes us home.
This might not be helpful and may be somewhat unclear. But I cannot help but think of the awesome young guys I have met in the last few years who struggle to find God in their lives. They are good and genuine searchers and my prayer for them is that they allow themselves to be found by God. I understand so well the desire to "keep options open" and to have a desire "to be free to decide" whether to be a priest/sister/parent/single. Having been found by God, having discovered the heart's treasure, the "freedom to decide" is transformed into a "decision to be free" that sets us on a course to answer more fully God's invitation directed toward each of us that calling us into deeper relationship and abundant life.