Eighteen months ago I quit my job at a major evangelical seminary, moved across the country and began living in my grandmother’s vacant house in Cleveland to look for work in ministry; I didn’t find work in ministry. A year ago I began seeing a spiritual director to try to recenter myself (or finally center myself) and discern an orientation toward vocation in my new city. More than half a year ago, just as I was about to conclude that my move had been a loss, the last sense of blessing I had that seemed to confirm my move was, by all appearances, negated; I lost friends, my church, my orientation to anything, and I was left a with redeeming, naked sense of Gød’s presence and love and challenge. And from that field, razed of attachments, the real work of discernment could begin.
Now, when I say discernment here what I particularly mean is a broad but methodical process outlined by St Ignatius of Loyola for getting at the truth of Gød as the rubber meets the road in our lives. Ignatius prescribes from experience and theologizing certain “rules” for discernment, which carry both the sense of rules that set the boundaries of (and thus allow for) play and the sense of rules that provide something against which you can measure a thing. So basically I’ve been playing a 500-year-old game for the past year to try to figure out my life following a major uprooting and in the midst of some significant loss from which I’m still reeling.
I give this much background in order to say that, today, I do not feel any more clarity, I do not feel any more ground gained since saying, “I think Gød is calling me to move to Cleveland. How about I do that?” I expressed this frustration to my spiritual director recently, lamenting, “I don’t see any fruit that I can point to that confirms anything I’ve been pressing into.” But I had chosen just the wrong word to try to justify myself.
“Really? You don’t see any fruit? Maybe something more subtle, more interior?”
Of course I didn’t mean “fruit” at all, so I can only assume I was subconsciously setting the trap for myself. “Fruit” is very different from what I meant. What I wasn’t seeing, what I wanted to see by now, and what I was angry for not seeing, was hard, external evidence that I had been looking in the right direction, praying about the right things, saying “no” where I was meant to say “no” and persevering where I was meant not to yield to failure. I wanted objective vindication that my self-perceived lack of success isn’t my own failure. I wanted assurance that I’m being faithful to what Gød has put before me. And I wanted that assurance optimally to be in the form of reward, by giving me exactly what my now-threadbare, rarified heart desires.
This is what I wanted to come of my commitment to contemplative prayer and discernment and rather the gift that has been my renewed intimacy with Gød over the last eight months, but this is, rightly, not the goal Ignatius intends.
One of the basic rules that Ignatius utilizes holds that Gød is continually, ultimately, moving us toward the increase of faith, hope and charity.* And if Gød has any hand in us being moved otherwise, it’s only so that we can more ultimately be moved toward faith, hope and charity. Add a little nuance, and this is basically how Ignatius proposes to discern one “spirit” (true, of Gød) from another (false, not of Gød). For Ignatius, the final aim in whatever we mean to discern is that we fulfill our created purpose in glorifying Gød, so of course the closer we get, the more faith, hope and charity we experience, and the means that Gød uses to equip us for the journey is faith, hope and charity.
So when I say I’ve been playing a 500-year-old game to figure out my life, these are the rules by which I’ve been trying to understand my life and griping that, for all of this increase of faith, hope and charity I experience time to time, I don’t see any “fruit” (again, dumb word choice on my part) as evidence that I’m even on the right track, that any of this holds water — so maybe it’s all false, a sham! Except of course that the fruit is faith, hope and charity. Not even that I have more faith today than a year ago (which is good because, while yesterday I probably did, today I certainly don’t, and that’s thankfully subject to change tomorrow) or that I am more loving than a year ago (which I really hope is true) but, more, that I gain orientation through these practices toward increases in faith, hope and charity. And to press into these, if not taking me closer to my desired ends, those vocations which are painfully etched into my heart but so far out of eyesight, take me into the virtues that St Paul placed above all other gifts.
Still I am frustrated. Still I want to quit now and again and retreat penitently back into my world of pure intellectual, rationalistic faith. But I have posed to me a challenge too crucial to evade, and far grander than my questions of vocation: whether I, am willing to subordinate everything simply to grow in faith, hope and charity, to let that be enough, to recognize that as my principal vocation, my created end, my life well-spent.