In and through the cross: My vocational discernment journey

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

--Matthew 16: 24-25

“What is your vocation?”

My friend and fellow women’s group leader posed this question to all of us one warm Tuesday evening earlier this summer. We were wrapping up an 8-week series on the “feminine genius” as conceptualized by Catholic thinkers like St. John Paul II and St. Edith Stein, and our final session was focused on our mission and vocation as women.

Her question caused our otherwise chatty group to fall silent, as everyone shifted uncomfortably and avoided eye contact. It’s no wonder — at the time, all but one of us were unmarried, and none of us were actively discerning religious life, which left only the vocational “gray areas” of either dating or being single and ready for a Pringle (I think this is how the Catechism puts it). Could we claim to know our vocations this early on, when so much was still up in the air?

For my non-Catholic readers, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about, or what I even mean by “vocation.” Vocation literally means “calling,” and the Catholic Church uses the term to refer to several different types of callings. In the broadest sense, we all have the universal vocation to love — the very purpose for which we were created. In a more narrow sense, we each have a calling to a specific way of using our time and talents — perhaps as a teacher, a nurse, or a marine biologist. But the most common way we talk about vocation is in reference to one’s calling to a particular state in life: either marriage, the priesthood/religious life, or consecrated singleness.

Vocation is SUCH a hot topic in Catholic young adult circles, and if you haven’t “figured it all out” by your early to mid-twenties, the pressure to do so seems to grow exponentially with each passing year. It’s not simply that we see our peers getting married or joining a convent and experience FOMO — it’s that as Catholics, we believe that our vocation is the primary means through which God will help us to grow in virtue and holiness so we can spend eternity with Him in heaven. Thus, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our life doesn’t truly “begin” until we’ve started living out our vocation.

And for those who feel called to marriage but simply haven’t found the right person yet, this waiting game can be particularly excruciating. We all know how hard it is to navigate dating and find a life partner in today’s world in general — imagine wanting that partner to be a faithful Catholic who attends mass regularly, has a strong prayer life, and embraces even the most difficult-to-grasp teachings of the Church. I can’t speak for the men out there, but as a Catholic woman, the dating pool often feels more like a puddle (amirite, ladies?). To help illustrate, I created this highly sophisticated infographic:

Image 1. The Catholic Dating Puddle. Source: Years of searching and many nights spent lamenting with female friends over the state of the Catholic dating world.

So as we all sat there, trying to figure out how to answer this most basic and yet exceedingly difficult question, I finally broke the silence.

“I’m going to go out on a limb and say that my vocation is marriage, even if I never actually end up married.”

The other girls looked intrigued. I went on to explain an experience from the year before, when, as any sensible Catholic woman who has recently experienced a painful breakup might do, I decided to look into this whole “vocational discernment” thing once and for all.

Ever since my conversion to Catholicism, I had mostly assumed that my vocation was marriage. I had dated pretty consistently and hadn’t experienced any real pulls toward consecrated or religious life, so I hadn’t given it too much additional thought. Moreover, I knew that for an introverted homebody like myself, it would be way too easy to “discern” that my vocation was to become a cloistered nun and never interact with the outside world again. (Catholic writer, comedian, and podcast host Jen Fulwiler has often joked about missing a calling to become a desert hermit, and boy is that the most relatable thing anyone’s ever said.)

But during the summer of 2020, after the end of a seemingly promising relationship, I decided it was time to double-check these assumptions. I started by signing up for a 3-day virtual retreat designed to help women discern a calling to the consecrated single life. My spiritual director is a consecrated woman, so this vocation was both familiar and intriguing to me. Each day consisted of talks on St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and the principles of discernment, a panel discussion featuring women in various stages of consecrated life, and time for personal prayer/adoration. I learned SO much from the experience, but my key takeaways were as follows:

  • Every vocation is a love story. I was amazed by how much each consecrated woman identified as a “romantic” at heart and viewed her discernment process less as a decision and more as a love story — of being completely captivated by Christ and wanting Him to be the sole focus of her life. As a fellow romantic, I found this very encouraging. No matter what, I get to live — and am already living — an epic love story. Cue Taylor Swift!
  • No vocation is inferior to the other. Both married and religious/consecrated women are called to great holiness, even to the “height of mysticism,” as one talk emphasized. As someone who desires a deep interior life, this was a huge relief.
  • The call to consecrated or religious life is marked by a desire to give oneself fully to Christ, not simply a desire for mission. This was a crucial distinction that helped me to realize that much of my interest in consecrated life stemmed from my affinity for the type of work that I saw the women doing in the Church. The retreat reminded me that I can (and should) be involved in mission, formation, and evangelization no matter my vocation.
  • Discernment always involves a choice between 2 or more good things, and it’s important to make this decision in a time of spiritual consolation and not desolation. Thanks to my love of Ignatian spirituality, I was already familiar with this basic principle of discernment — but one of the panel discussions really drove the point home for me. Most, if not all, of the consecrated women shared that they discerned this path while their lives were going well. They had good jobs, and some even had good boyfriends — so consecrated life was truly a calling and not an escape or “last resort.” I realized that whatever I believed my vocation to be, I needed to discern from a place of health and wholeness, not from a place of woundedness after a breakup.

Ironically, the retreat freed me from a lot of fears and misconceptions about both marriage and consecrated life, so I left feeling like I could envision myself in either vocation. But as I continued processing and praying with the information over subsequent weeks, one calling clearly emerged as the one that would fulfill the deepest desires of my heart.

I desired partnership.

When I looked back at my life, I could see how I’ve always longed to be one-half of a dynamic duo, a desire that has manifested in my friendships, my work, and my dating life. More so than being part of a team or group, I cherish the opportunity to work alongside one other person, to balance out each other’s strengths and weaknesses, to get to know each other deeply and become his or her biggest cheerleader and confidante. There have even been times when this yearning was so strong that it prevented me from realizing that I was smack in the middle of a one-sided or otherwise unhealthy partnership.

When I considered this desire in light of my vocation, I realized that perhaps most of all, partnership is not simply how I want to live, but how I want to die. Regardless of which path I take, my vocation is meant to propel me to my ultimate destination — heaven — and this journey can only be completed in and through the cross. Whether I get married or join a convent, I will have to die to myself every single day, in ways both big and small. This doesn’t mean that my vocation won’t also bring me immense peace and joy — it’s a both-and, not an either-or. I will find joy from self-gift and self-denial. I will find peace from surrendering every part of my life to God. And if I got married, I would be walking this path alongside someone who has vowed to do the same for me. This, my friends, is how I want to die.

So I explained this to my women’s group, and I concluded by acknowledging that feeling called to marriage didn’t guarantee that I would actually get married. (See my post, “The truth about singleness: Trading tired cliches for real talk (From a fellow single gal),” for a full-length rant/exposition on this topic.) However, in the weeks and months after the retreat, I still felt strongly that pursuing this path and being open to dating was exactly where the Lord was calling me. And even if never found someone, I knew that He would work through all those years of growing in trust and patience and surrender, and He would fulfill my desire for partnership in other beautiful ways.

So this is where my heart was at the end of summer 2020, when a horrific car accident produced unexpected healing and a hilarious mishap launched me into the world of online dating. This is where my heart was when my Coffee Meets Bagel experience led me to reluctantly set up a Catholic Match profile. This is where my heart was when — well, I’ll save that for my next post, when I share part 3 of my online dating story.