Recently, I attended a Theology on Tap entitled “God’s Call and Our Response,” a fairly standard title on a fairly standard topic. Since one of the ways that I tend to make important decisions in life is to gather as much information as possible, I’ve sought out these discernment/vocation talks and workshops for a number of years. So when I decided to attend this particular Theology on Tap, I wasn’t expecting to hear anything that I hadn’t already heard before or knew, at least in theory if not in practice. In fact, to be perfectly blunt, I only went because of the free food, it was perfectly timed with when I left work, and the lure of meeting other young Catholics in a giant city.
Another important thing to know about me – I really do love learning and lectures, but I can also be a grade A intellectual snob. If I’ve decided that I already know something inside and out, or if the presenter approaches something from an angle that I think less profound than my own, I have a tendency to disengage and only spot the flaws in whatever was being said. So, unfortunately, that was more or less the attitude with which I walked into the talk. However, despite my less than sincere motives and acute case of theological pride, God used the occasion both to humble me (trust me, this is almost always needed) and to introduce to me a new concept in vocational discernment.
Towards the end of the evening, the presenter challenged us to apply what she had been talking about up to that point (and this is where the standard discernment enters in) to thinking about the “big” life vocations. She used the image of a tree – God the Father as the roots, Christ, the Word of God, as the trunk, and the Holy Spirit as the lifeblood pumping within it and surging out to its branches, which were: Ordained Priesthood, Committed Single, Vowed Religious, Vowed Marriage, and Transitional Discernment Period*.
It’s that last one that stopped me right in my up-until-that-point wandering intellectual tracks. Transitional Discernment Period. As soon as that was on the table, something within me stirred and I could feel the truth that the label expressed speak to something deep within my heart, and I thought, yup, that’s me.
To flesh out the meaning a little, the Transitional Discernment Period speaks to that stage in many young adults’ lives, sometimes lasting up to ten or twelve years, in which we find ourselves in a state of near perpetual transition coupled with dynamic discernment. For most of us, in out twenties, nearly ever major life move we make is an impermanent one. College provides semi-stability for four years, but then what? We can do service programs that last for a year, but then what? We finally move out of living with our parents, but then what? We can go onto graduate school for one, two years, but then what? We can go for that entry-level job right out of school, but we know that in a few short years we’ll be ready to move on, and then what?
And for many practicing Catholics, these life transitions are accompanied with deeper, nagging questions – shall we marry? Am I called to the priesthood? How do I align my sexual orientation with the concept of vocation? Am I ready to be a parent? Do I have a vocation to religious life? Am I just waiting for my vocation to come along or am I called to committed single life?
The beauty of the Transitional Discernment Period is that it says to all of these competing worries, desires, and life changes – it’s ok. This is where you should be. These questions are ok.
Personally, I sometimes struggle with allowing the big vocational calls of tomorrow to cause me to neglect the calls and gifts of today. As someone who thrives off of arriving at the “correct answer,” it’s a real dying to self just to get to that point where I can throw my hands in the air and say with conviction, God, I trust in you. It’s not easy for me to admit that I have no idea where I’m going in life, that after years of trying to engage in text-book, picture-perfect discernment, I still feel drawn toward both marriage and religious life. And then there’s that doubting voice that always seems to whisper, what if it never happens? What if it’s single life?
I’m sure that not everyone will think the concept of a Transitional Discernment Period as profound and novel and true as I do, but I know that for me, at that presentation, it was God’s way of speaking to me and answering some of the doubts and questions of my heart. I could almost hear him say to me, stop worrying. This is where I want you, this is where you are called to be. Think of this time of living in transition with competing desires as your vocation right now. Trust me and wait. It’s not time yet. Embrace the gifts and the confusion of the present, and use them to give me glory.
I don’t think that I can fully express how much of a vocational break through the Transitional Discernment Period was and continues to be for me. And I thank and praise God for revealing this to me on a night that I had decided that I already knew everything.
*I did a Google search for the phrase Transitional Discernment Period and was not able to come up with anything, so I want to be sure to give credit to the presenter of the night, Sr. Barbara Ann Smelko SC. You can learn more about Sr. Barbara and the Sisters of Charity here.