MTS Student, History of Christianity, University of Notre Dame
Many young Catholics today seem to exhibit a strong tendency toward what one might term “perpetual discernment syndrome.” I am certainly not an exception to this category, and it was in noticing such a tendency in some of my own decision-making processes that led me to recognition of it in others. There have been times, for example, when ‘let me pray on it’ or ‘I need to discern God’s will’ were simply an excuse to put off committing to a decision.
This tendency to over-discern every decision and every situation ad nauseam could be traced to any number of causes, and at times can even simply be a mask for a deeper fear of commitment (alluded to above). But it seems to me that it can also derive from an underlying assumption that God has a very specific and meticulous plan and purpose for one’s life, and that every step, every moment, every decision is assigned a very specific place within that plan. With this assumption firmly in place, each decision in our lives becomes an occasion for renewed anxiety and fear of “messing up.” When presented with two doors, we cannot bring ourselves to enter Door A out of a fear that God has planned for us to choose Door B. Unsure of which is the correct path, which one is truly a part of the plan, we find ourselves ‘paralyzed by the possible’ (to borrow a phrase from Samuel Bellafiore’s September blog post); we stare blankly at both doors, telling ourselves and those around us that we cannot choose either because we need to “discern.” “Discernment,” in cases such as these, seems to be more aptly labeled “indecision.”Let me be clear: I am in no way opposed to engaging in healthy prayer and discernment, especially when it comes to big decisions in one’s life (one might even call this being “responsible”). I am not an advocate (my girlfriend can attest) of rushing headlong through life’s many doors, without taking an appropriate amount of time to prayerfully consider the options in order to hear God’s voice. I do believe that God has a plan and a purpose for our lives, and I do believe that each one of us has a vocation that the Lord is calling us to.
Nevertheless, there can also be a danger in the mentality that assumes every step and every moment of our lives to have been plotted, and the only thing left for us to do is keep our eyes on the road beneath us, taking care to step in the footprints that have already been perfectly laid out. Or, to use a more seasonally appropriate analogy, it can even be tempting to think of vocation as a kind of giant Easter Egg Hunt, with God’s will being contained in very small and limited objects hidden in the various brush and shrubbery that are the decisions we face throughout our lives. We have only to uncover the egg, and inside will be God’s specific and precise directive for that moment. It is this mentality that I want to challenge.
Perhaps this reflection from Hans Urs Von Balthasar (written in 1927 during a retreat before his entry into the Jesuit novitiate) can offer a way forward for us, then:
Even today, thirty years later, I could trace my steps back to that remote path in the Black Forest, not too far from Basel, and rediscover the tree under which I was struck, as if by lightning … and what suddenly entered my mind then was neither theology, nor the priesthood. It was simply this: you do not have to choose anything, you have been called! You will not serve, you will be taken into service. You do not have to make plans of any sort, you are only a pebble in a mosaic prepared long before. All that I had to do was simply leave everything behind and follow, without making plans, without desires or particular intuitions. I had only to remain there to see how I could be useful.
Sometimes I wonder if Christ knew the specifics of His mission. Did He ever concern Himself by worrying about Gethsemane, Jerusalem, the cross, the crown of thorns, Judas, or Pontius Pilate? Did he know that He was to be betrayed by Judas, crucified on a cross, between two criminals, on a Friday afternoon? Did he pause at every juncture, afraid to move forward from fear that his action will fail to realize the Father’s specific plan for His life? It is possible that He did. It is also possible, however, that His forty days in the desert, the forty days that we commemorated and participated in with our own practices this past Lent, were spent in preparation for a mission the specifics of which He knew not.
Perhaps Von Balthasar is in some ways urging us to cultivate a life that is grounded in the Incarnation, oriented toward Heaven, and attuned to His will. Within this framework, discerning God’s will becomes first and foremost a state, rather than an action. If we realize, as Von Balthasar did, that we have simply to “leave everything behind and follow, without making plans,” then perhaps we will shed the timidity and insecurity that tends to characterize a perpetually discerning mentality, and instead blaze a trail with confidence, zeal and hope into the true heart of God’s will.