with restless hearts

reflections, critiques, comments, and questions of a 20-something catholic in pursuit of truth and justice in a dualistic world


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vocation and the call to discernment

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.


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come now, let us set things right

A significant factor in beginning this blog was that it would be a creative means of holding myself accountable for engaging in regular spiritual reflection and critical thinking. For the past few weeks, however, I’ve shied away from this personal commitment in favor of savoring the present moment.

This past week, after a nearly a month of gradual goodbyes and “lasts,” I transitioned out of a year long post-graduate service program in which I lived in an intentional, faith-based community. This time last summer, we were strangers, but somehow, through the joys and pains, laughter and tears, arguments and embraces, we were transformed into a family.

Even more difficult than the transition out of community, however, is the transition away from the work. For the past year, I have been so unbelievably privileged to have spent myself in the service of disadvantaged and marginalized youth. Day in and day out, I was blessed to spend my hours with kids that did not look like me, talk like me, or think like me, and whose personal narratives I could barely being to comprehend let alone find any detail about which I could claim to relate.

The sad irony in this is that a few years ago, I would have walked past so many of them on the street as quickly as I could without so much as a second glance, except perhaps to fear for my safety or belongings; I would seat myself away from them in movies or restaurants; I would hope that I never found myself alone with them. I’m still not quite “there” yet. I still struggle with making assumptions, expecting the stereotypical norm in interactions, buying into the heavily prejudiced and racialized narrative of humanity that is force-fed to us by the media and even some history books. But thank God, I’m also not who I once was.

It’s not easy to do personal battle with these subtle cultural and institutional injustices, but it is what Christ demands of us. The Gospels are an oft-quoted source of motivation and mandate along these lines, but the Hebrew Scriptures are full of similar summons. A personal favorite comes from the beginning of Isaiah:

Put away your misdeeds before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphans plea, defend the widow! Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD.
Is 1:17-18 (NABRE)

I love the Hebrew Scriptures for the incredible depth, beauty, and context they bring to the New Testament, but at the same time, there is a danger in reading passages like the one cited above, and unfortunately, I think that it’s one that far too many Christians fall into when extracting moral and social instruction from the Old Testament. Namely, there is a tendency to over-historicize it, to disregard the Truth while over-obsessing over the details of context.

Yes, the writer of Isaiah was speaking to a specific people in a specific time and place, but we cannot claim that our work is done simply because orphans and widows occupy a different space in contemporary society. This challenge from Our Lord never expires, the actions and populations named are simply redefined as some injustices are corrected only to be replaced by others. Yes, in some ways it’s a never-ending battle, and we know that we’ll never quite get there this side of heaven (Mark 14), but there are two ways to take that message. We can either allow it to discourage us or desensitize us to Jesus’ radical call or, and I’d highly recommend this choice, we can allow ourselves to take comfort in the knowledge that we can’t do it all on our own, turn our eyes eastward with earnest longing, and in the meantime, keep soldiering on simply because He told us to.

All of this, at least today, brings me back to the youth that were loaned to me this past year – those beautiful, wounded, strong, heartbreaking, inspiring, hilarious, tragic, and joyful kids who have endured every evil imaginable. As I reflect on this summons from Isaiah, my mind is flooded with the faces of these teenagers who taught me where to find the orphan and the widow today, in my own time and neighborhood. These kids may never know the profound depth of the impact they had on my life or that I saw the face of Christ in them every single day. When possible and appropriate, I try to find ways to show and tell them of the inherit goodness I see in them, but I also respect that they aren’t always at a place where they are ready to receive that message of acceptance and love.

Thankfully, I have had the time to prepare them for my transition, and even more thankfully, I will be able to continue working with them in the future, albeit in a very different capacity and with less regularity. And then there’s that additional detail that with the end of the year of service, so too ends the sense of self-sacrifice that I carried with me every day of uncompensated work with them.

Although I find it difficult to let go of the gifts of this past year, I do recognize that this – as the cliché goes – is not a true ending, but rather a new beginning, and I am excited to journey forward in my relationships, work, and schooling. More than anything though, I want to publicly thank my kids for allowing me to journey with them and for changing my life.

Thanks to them, I have gotten a little closer to understanding one of the greatest mysteries in life, how love, true love, is redemptive suffering. I will be the first to admit that at times, all the forces working against them simply seem too big, too powerful and it makes me question if what we’re doing it’s making a difference, if it’s worth the fight, but then, I remember that this is what love is, what love demands. And I will continue loving them, if for no other reason that because it’s what He told me to me do.

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chance or dance

About a year ago, I was first throwing around the idea of beginning a blog as a means to hold myself more accountable for producing intentional, reflective writing. Today, I happened to stumble upon the draft of my would-be first post and though it’s short and sweet and a bit unfinished, I thought it would be worth reformatting here…

This past week I heard something that really stuck with me. The funny thing about it is that I cannot for the life of me tell you who said it, where or when I heard it, or even quote it exactly. It was just one of those unexpected things that you’re only half paying attention to in the moment but leaves an impression after the fact so deep that you find yourself struggling to recall any details.

It was something along the lines of “You can think of life in two ways; it’s either all chance or it’s a dance.” In the original context, I think that it had more of a philosophiocal or humanist feel to it, but as someone learning to fall head-over-heels in love with my faith tradition, it struck me as deeply religious and true to the human experience.

It’s all chance. Or each and every one of us is caught up in a dance with the Creator of the Universe. I choose to believe the latter. And I think that this stance really is fundamental to how I understand myself, others, and everything else that is.

I hope to tease this out further in later posts. For now, though, I’ll end with a beautiful quote that I came across from an unlikely source – Friedrich Nietzsche. Yes, that’s “God-is-dead” Friedrich Nietzsche, but you cannot deny that the man got beauty.  He has written,

“I would only believe in a God that knows how to dance.”

Happily, for all of us, I believe that we do.

And if we choose to go through life with that mindset, we can rightfully cry out with the Psalmist:

You have turned
my wailing into
dancing; You removed
my sackcloth and
clothed me with joy
– Psalm 31