I never tire of hearing a person’s testimony. When I listen to people speak about how they encountered God–in a near death experience, a drug addiction, or even time in prison–I am reminded of how passionate God is in pursing us without any restrictions. Even if the testimony is relatively calm and seemingly uneventful, I am reminded of how softly God is whispering to us through the events of our life. Despite the differences in details, every testimony bears witness to a fundamental truth: we are in need of God’s revelation.
In my ministry of spiritual direction, the first question I always ask a new directee is, “What happened to you?” What I am essentially asking them is, “What has God done in your life that has created in you this desire for spiritual direction?” The reason I ask this question is simple: we could not have taken this step if God was not first inspiring us to move in a particular direction. In other words, our desire for spiritual direction, a vocation, or simply the desire for holiness is not ours. We are merely responding to God’s work in us.
When I was in college, I was fortunate to have an academic advisor who appeared more interested in my future than I was. At the beginning of every semester, we would meet in his office for what felt more like a pep rally than an academic discussion. “Ok,” he would say to me, as his eyes widened. “This semester you need to take more journalism classes than creative writing… Here is a list of possible internships you should apply for…Have you considered accepting the job of editor-in-chief of the college newspaper like I recommended?” The more excited he got and the more suggestions he made, the more overwhelmed I began to feel. Noticing the sudden change in my disposition he attempted to encourage me by reinforcing his motives. “I wouldn’t be pushing you if I didn’t think your writing had potential,” he said, as he smiled and patted me on the shoulder.
Five years prior, I would have done anything to have someone excited and enthused about my writing like my academic advisor was. It was writing, I believe, that helped me navigate through those difficult and turbulent years of adolescence. Through writing I was discovering, not only who I was, but also where my place was in the world. When the time arrived to consider a career path, writing seemed like a natural fit. However, in my early years of college, something was beginning to change, or rather, I was beginning to change.
During my junior year, I scheduled an appointment with my academic advisor to inform him about a different path that God was revealing to me. As I entered his office, Dr. Baker was his usual excited and enthusiastic self.
“I was thinking,” he said with a huge smile, “You need to start trying to get some of your essays published. Graduation is less than two years away and it would be great to have some published writing to put on your resume.”
“Dr. Baker,” I interrupted. “I think I’m going to be a Franciscan…and a priest.”
He sat down, removed his glasses and stared at me with a confused look on this face.
After a few moments of silence, he finally responded, “A what?”
“I feel like God is calling me to work with the poor and live as a Franciscan priest,” I said, afraid to look him in the eye. “Maybe one day I will be a writer, but right now I believe I have to respond to God’s call first.”
He put his glasses on and sat back in his chair.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said, “I’m shocked,” followed by another long pause. “I think you are making a great mistake. You are wasting your mind and your talent as a writer.” And then he said it, “I’m really disappointed in you.”
His words stung me. The one person who believed in me was telling me I was wasting my life and was disappointed in me. I left his office feeling depressed and confused and spent the next few hours walking around town wondering if he was right. As I returned to my apartment that night, I spent an hour in prayer kneeling before a crucifix, desperately begging God for light. Even though I didn’t hear any voices or have any visions, I finished that time of prayer confident that this “career change” must be from God, because I could not have chosen this myself.
I spent my senior year of college living more like a monk than a college student. Despite a full academic schedule, I attended daily Mass, spent an hour in prayer each day, and began fasting once a week. My free time was devoted entirely to pursuing my vocation as a Franciscan. Occasionally, a tint of sadness would envelop me as I thought about the writing career I was leaving behind. However, with each passing day, the wonder and surprise that ensued from following Jesus left me confident that I was doing God’s will.
A few months ago, I was having lunch with my best friend from college. David, though not overly religious, was a loyal and faithful friend who watched these changes occur in me firsthand. David was telling me about a conversation he had with a few of our old friends and how when my name came up one of them kept saying, “I still don’t understand what happened to him. We all thought he was going to be a writer!” Laughing, David said to them, “God is what happened to him.” Confused by David’s response, my friends asked him what he meant. “Look,” David replied, “We all know how much he loved writing. The only logical explanation is that something more powerful came into his life.”
A big smile covered my face. “You’re right,” I said to David, “Thank you for understanding.”
It has been almost twenty years since I told Dr. Baker that I was placing my writing career on hold and pursing my vocation to religious life and priesthood. During my last year of college, Dr. Baker and I maintained a very formal relationship and since graduation I haven’t seen or heard from him.
Looking back, I can understand his disappointment with my decision. He had a vision, a hope and a plan for my life that, from a natural perspective, was one I believed would make me happy and leave me feeling fulfilled. However, when God intervened and revealed a different path to me, despite the initial confusion and shock it left, I knew this inspiration was not from me.
Fortunately, God does not always follow the plans and ideas we make for our lives. The real question each one of us needs to ask is, “How open am I to the will of God, not only when it conforms to my desires and dreams, but especially when God’s will appears different from what I first expected?” By opening ourselves to God’s will, we allow God to take us beyond ourselves into something much deeper than we could have imagined. In my experience, saying yes to God, even when I didn’t know where it would lead at first, has been the most beautiful and liberating experience of my life.
Photo courtesy of the Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and @jeffreybruno.