“Why am I still waiting for my vocation?” I’ve heard variations on this question many times from friends and other young people searching for long-term places in the world. Why the waiting indeed? Reflecting on this lament impelled me to consider more deeply these times of waiting and what place they hold in our lives.
Long waits must be among the most frustrating experiences of human life, even in trivial cases like a check-out line. The time spent in waiting feels like simply a negative quantity, of which one eagerly awaits the end so one can get on to whatever one wants to be doing.
That frustration and longing are all the greater when the goal is one’s vocation. So many wait for the right job, the right potential spouse, the right religious order, or even some hint of what to do with their lives at all. As many young people have found, that waiting can go on for years with little or no sign of change, even after the most fervent prayer, research, and advice-seeking. When this happens, it’s easy and natural to ask what one is “doing wrong,” especially as friends and peers enter their various states in life, prompting one to wonder why one’s own search has been less successful.
In the two years since I graduated college, I’ve come to know this sorrow well: a long-time aspirant to religious life, I have yet to find a place in an order. However, through the longing and searching, our Lord has been gradually teaching me, leading me toward a peace deeper than having every question answered. By sharing here what I’ve learned, I hope to help other “seekers” find, here and now, the peace that is our heritage from Him (cf. John 14:27).
A Matter of Trust
At its root, it seems, the discerner’s anguish comes from a conviction that one ought to be somewhere else or be doing something else. Someone in this state feels that, until the next phase of life is successfully secured, one is merely filling in time, perhaps even losing time.
Some such idea might be a wholesome one for young people looking only to amuse themselves, with no concern for pursuing worthy goals. On the other hand, for those already earnestly seeking their next step or long-term vocation, this kind of thinking tends to cause an unhelpful, scrupulous anxiety. When we worry, we forget all too easily that God does not simply “have a plan” and leave us to figure it out on our own; He guides us through life, directs events surrounding us, and provides all the grace we need to follow a good path.
Dr. Christopher Lane, in an article for Crisis, describes the rigorist thinking that sometimes creeps into discernment: “God has a plan, and young people are out of luck if they miss the memo. Discernment then becomes a drawn-out process of discovering the secret knowledge that God supposedly wants them to have but refuses to give them.” I’ve encountered young people who feel very much like that, though without putting their distress and frustration in these terms. In contrast, Lane then describes the simpler method recommended by St. Francis de Sales, explaining, “Following God’s call is not a code to be cracked, but a choice to be made . . . the gentle bishop [Francis] asks us to trust that God will provide all the means we need to choose well and all the graces we need to live out our choice.”
What does this imply for those who are “waiting”? St. Francis’ main point is that, as we find our way through life, we should trust God not to leave us to ourselves. If then, despite one’s praying and searching, one has not yet been able to find a niche that seems to fit, this does not mean that one has “missed the memo” or failed to crack a code; nor should one give in to discouragement. Rather, this delay is an occasion for trust in God. It means only that now, in His all-wise determination, is not the time for the milestone one seeks. Perhaps He means to bring one to it later on, or in a different way than anticipated, or to something else altogether.
In any case, His design for our lives will not disappoint us; but meanwhile, He wants such people, at least for the time being, to serve Him with love and confidence in their present state. This, in turn, means that they are by no means in the wrong place, despite what they may sometimes feel. How could anything be an obstacle for the Lord? What really matters is not so much being in a particular place but loving God and centering one’s life around that love, which one can do at any time.
The Present Moment
Not only can one live in that love at any time, but doing so, whatever specific forms it may take, is one’s vocation—not just someday, but right now. Too often we searchers think of our vocation only as something to be achieved in the future. Most of us seldom think of it as something present to us here and now. But God’s will for us is not merely something remote, to be worked toward; it’s present to us all the time, right around us, in this task to do, these prayers to offer, this person to love.
St. Teresa of Calcutta summed it up thus: “Wherever God has put you, that is your vocation. It is not what we do but how much love we put into it.” Even if one hopes to move on to a more permanent state in life later on, one can still give oneself generously to, and find reward in, the “temporary vocation” of one’s present condition. After all, in the end, everything in our lives on earth is only temporary. Even marriage, priesthood, and religious profession end with the person’s death.
On the other hand, if we spend all our time and energy longing for some hoped-for future, we’ll miss the opportunities of the present. If we don’t see today as containing graces to receive and a calling to answer, however modest it may appear, we are likely to deprive ourselves of considerable joy and richness in life.
All this is not to say that we should not try to discern and consider the future, but that we should not do so with anxious preoccupation. Flannery O’Connor wrote to a friend, “Resignation to the will of God does not mean that you stop resisting evil or obstacles, it means that you leave the outcome out of your personal considerations. It is the most concern coupled with the least concern.” This balance of seeking and striving while remaining detached and trustful is not easy, but the reward of peace is worth it.
The difficulty may be especially great for those whose “present moment” is painful in itself. Some circumstances can make it hard to believe that one isn’t simply losing time. However, though God may permit us to suffer, our lives are never pointless in His eyes, which are the eyes of perfect truth.
These people may find it helpful to remember that one’s vocation, at any point in life, is not primarily about what one accomplishes, in the sense of outward results. As St. Teresa said, “It is not what we do but how much love we put into it”; and whatever limits our circumstances may impose on our activity, we can always love. The sincere good will of the person who makes what small effort they can with genuine love may be worth more before God than someone else’s impressive achievements done with a less whole, devoted heart.
Besides, we may not be able to judge how fruitful our lives have been. For example, I’ve known people struggling with prolonged illness whose apparently unproductive lives have had a special beauty deep within. I’ve learned from them, as they continue to show love for family and friends and remind us by their perseverance that, even if one is incapacitated, life is still worth living. Furthermore, by offering their afflictions in union with those of Christ, they have helped others in ways that will be revealed only in Heaven. If we live out our present circumstances with trust, we can be confident that God will do beautiful things through us, even if we can’t always see how.
It’s worth noting here that waiting of some sort marks almost everyone’s life, not only that of vocational “seekers.” I’ve found this when I talked to friends whom I had thought more accomplished or “further ahead” than I, and learned what sorts of things they were concerned about. Married couples wait to have children, or to have more children, or to find better homes. Working people wait for opportunities to move on from one job to another. A friend in a convent told me that waiting is an important part of religious life as well, as the stages of formation go on for many years. If we could see into the thoughts of those who have reached the goals we seek, we might be surprised to find them looking wistfully at someone else who has reached a goal still further ahead, or wondering why they themselves haven’t yet reached that point. What really matters, it would seem, is not what point one is at, but how one approaches life.
“Hold Firm and Take Heart”
Whatever you may be waiting for, God knows all your needs (cf. Matthew 6:8, 32) and you can rely on Him to guide you through life with the most perfect timing. Meanwhile, your present vocation will provide you with ample opportunities to better know Him, love Him, and serve Him, which is the purpose of any vocation.
Psalm 27 concludes, “I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness / in the land of the living. / Hope in Him, hold firm and take heart, / hope in the Lord!” This is the assurance on which our peace rests. We do the small part that has been given us with all our confidence and love, knowing that, if we persevere, we will see how God’s unimaginable goodness has been working in our lives. We will see—perfectly in the “land of the living,” of eternal life, but also in glimpses before that—how every part of our lives is valuable, blessed and rich with grace. So hold firm and take heart, and hope in the Lord.