By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Sep 11, 2009)
The following is the final part in a 14-part series to help inspire parish cenacle and study groups who are looking for ways to make a difference in this troubled world. We invite you to view the entire series.
Perhaps you have followed all of the counsel given so far in this series: You have made a general confession and sorted out your priorities, centered your life in prayer and the Eucharist, and given your heart to the merciful Heart of Jesus. You have even prayerfully considered all of the ways you might live as His true disciple at home, at work, and in the wider world. But now the question is haunting you: How can I make a decision as to how best to serve Him? How can I be sure I am following the right path in all these areas of life? How do I know for sure what Jesus is calling me to do?
First of all, why not ask Him?
Just ask Him to make the path you should follow clear to you. Discerning God's call to you is not a game of hide-and-seek, as if God has a secret that He is keeping from you (namely, His plan for you), and we have to play "detective" in order to figure it out. He is more than willing to guide us, but we put obstacles in the way. The great Protestant Evangelist Billy Graham put it this way in his book The Journey:
Make it a matter of regular prayer, asking God to guide you and make His will known to you. Ask him for the wisdom you need, and ask Him also to show you if you are resisting His will. If so, repent of it, and submit your will afresh to the Lordship of Christ. Let the psalmist's prayer become yours: "Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart" (Psalm 86:11).
Unfortunately, it's easy to omit this first step. We claim we want God's will — but then we rush off in all directions, frantically trying to decide what to do without ever pausing to ask God to guide us. Or sometimes we assume we already know which way is best — although God may have other plans for us. Don't let this happen to you, but commit every decision to Him — not just when it first arises, but throughout the whole process.
Second, bear in mind that there are three kinds of "callings" that our Lord makes to us.
(1.) The first is a calling to His general will that all people may come to know and receive His merciful love, and live as His true disciples. That is the common calling He gives to everyone, and it was the focus of the first half of this series. It is the calling that was given to each one of us in our baptism — what the Church calls "the baptismal call to holiness." If you have done all the things mentioned in the first paragraph (above) then with the help of His grace you are well on your way!
(2.) The second is God's particular will for each one of us, His calling to take up some particular kind of work or service, whether at home or out in the wider world, for the time being, according to His plan. This second kind of calling has been the focus of the second half of this series. Discerning this kind of call from God is what perplexes young people when they first seek to decide what to do with their lives, in the sense of what kind of "job" to do — at least to start with. It is a question that perplexes middle aged people who wonder, for example, "Should we volunteer for this charitable cause, or some other one?" It is a question that we need to ask and keep asking every year: "Lord, do You want me to carry on doing what I am doing at home, at work, and in the wider world, or do You want me to change course now?" Hopefully, this series has given you some ideas of the kind of things you might do to "make a difference" in this world, and the Lord may already be tugging on your heart about which direction to go in this regard. He promised: "Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, 'This is the way, walk in it'" (Is 30:21).
(3.) The third is a calling to a permanent state in life: for example, to marriage, or the consecrated life (such as priesthood or religious life). It is what we commonly call one's "vocation." Perhaps most of the people reading this series already made this choice long ago. We will have more to say about that in a minute.
Be assured that our Lord really wants what is best for us in calling us in each of these three ways. Holy Scripture promises us that as well: "For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope" (Jer 29:11).
Third, Jesus, like any Good Shepherd, does not leave His sheep to figure out the best path on their own: He leads the way.
This is always true. He created us to be intelligent beings who can both think and pray. He gives us "signs" to tell us the way that we should go.
Imagine that you are in a boat on a lake and you are trying to dock that boat after dark. You might have a lantern at the front end of the boat and one at the back end, and there may be a light at each end of the dock, too. To make a safe landing, you need to line up the two lights on the boat with the two lights on the dock. Now, the two lights on the boat are two things about you, about the vessel you are sailing, so to speak. And the two lights on the dock are two things about whomever and whatever is around you. There is "light" coming to you from the Lord from all four, but you need to make sure you don't ignore any one of these lights, or you may end up crashing the boat on the dock instead of making a safe docking.
The two lights on your boat are:
(1) Your own desires. Believe it or not, Jesus really wants you to find your heart's desire. Your deepest heart's desire, of course, is simply Him, just because He made you that way. As St. Augustine once wrote, "You made us for Yourself, Lord, and our hearts will never find rest until they rest in You." But He also gave you deep desires to love and serve Him, and His will is for those desires to come to fruition.
The difficulty, of course, is that we easily confuse our shallower wants with our heart's deepest desires. Wants and desires are not the same thing. We may want to serve Him in ways that are actually not best for us or for others. For example, I may want to live a life of devout retirement, but the Lord may ask me to serve Him actively, even exhaustingly. Maybe that kind of life is the very thing that will bring me the deepest fulfillment. Maybe that kind of labor is precisely what God prepared me for. Maybe it will sanctify me and make me ready for eternal life with Him in heaven. Maybe it will bear the most fruit for others in this present life. It may not always feel good at the time — I may long for a less arduous path, for lighter crosses to carry — and the Lord is compassionate, and will provide times for refreshment. But if I search my heart, I will know that this is the way. There is a deep desire in each one of us to do what He would have us do. It is the deepest desire within us, for in His will is our peace.
(2) Your natural talents and supernatural gifts. It is not likely that God's will for you is to "hide your light under a bushel," so to speak. He gave you natural abilities and talents that are meant to be put to use in His service, whether those are physical, intellectual, artistic, practical, or care-giving talents, and whether those talents are to be used continuously or intermittently, at home for your family and/or out in the workplace, in public service and/or in private, inter-personal relationships. If your gifts and talents are not at all being utilized in the Lord's service in some way, or not being used to the extent that (realistically) they could be, it's very likely that you need to change course.
Some people will also have supernatural gifts from the Holy Spirit, such as the gifts of tongues, healing, and prophecy. Others are gifted in teaching the faith or in intercessory prayer or in spiritual direction and discernment. As St. Paul wrote: "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord. ... To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (I Cor 12:4,7).
The two lights on the dock are:
(1) Your life circumstances. The Lord speaks to us through the circumstances that affect us, circumstances that He willed, or at least permitted, as part of His plan, and that generally cannot be changed. For example, I may have a well-intentioned desire to hold a leadership position in a corporation someday, to "make a difference" in the world as a good Christian entrepreneur and employer, and I may have all the talents that would seem to make me a natural for that kind of life and service. But perhaps there is a health obstacle in the way that makes it impossible, or a financial obstacle that prevents me from ever getting the MBA that might make it possible for me to rise to such a position. So I end up as a retail assistant instead, and later as a travel agent or an office clerk — or perhaps confined to a wheelchair or a hospital bed. In other words, my life seems restricted in such a way that I can never fulfill my dreams. Have I therefore missed the "path" that I was meant to tread?
Not if the circumstances are really beyond my control and insurmountable. If they are, then they were permitted by God to occur because they could play a part in His plan for my life, and while they may seem to restrict me, they actually focus me on something far more important than my "dreams," more important to my own sanctification and to what I can do for others. Perhaps I was meant by our Lord to be a shining example of Christian faith and virtue in the travel agencies and retail shops where I was to work. Perhaps I was meant by our Lord to be a shining example at home, to sanctify my soul by devoting myself to providing for my children as best I could in the circumstances. Perhaps that is where He needs me most and can use me best. Great saints have been made of far humbler circumstances than these.
Or if I am severely restricted by health problems, perhaps I am meant to offer up those sufferings every day for the good of souls, in union with the cross of Jesus Christ, in an apostolate of intercessory prayer for the needs of everyone I know, for the Church, and for the world. Perhaps only in heaven will I know all the souls I aided and rescued by offering up my sufferings and prayers for them each day.
In short, circumstances beyond our control that the Lord permits offer opportunities for us to "make a difference" in this world. Such circumstances are signposts from Him. Remember, He really does have "the whole world in His hands."
(2) The counsel of those in the Holy Spirit who know you well. Our Lord puts such people along your pathway from time to time for a reason. Ask these people how they see you and what they think God might be calling you to do or to be. You may be surprised at their answer.
If you have a spiritual director, this is a special blessing, because he or she can certainly help you discern how God is calling you to serve Him. But even if you do not have a person whom you can see several times a year for spiritual direction, there may be someone in your life — a friend or relative, a priest or religious brother or sister — who can help. It cannot be someone who just knows you well; unless that person also is centered in Christ, and His good servant first, it is not likely that their counsel will be coming from His Holy Spirit. Moreover, it is not likely to be someone who is wise in the Spirit, but who does not know you well: No wise spiritual friend will try to help discern God's plan for you without knowing a lot about you in the first place (such as your deepest desires, your talents and gifts, and your life circumstances).
Thus, the people who can help you the most are those followers of Christ who know you well. Their feedback can be like a mirror in which you can see yourself more clearly. They will see both the limitations and shortcomings in yourself that you are afraid to acknowledge, and the virtues and hidden talents in yourself that you may never have fully appreciated.
Finally, you may wonder: What if I get it wrong? What if I was really meant to be in the religious life and got married instead, or meant to be a carpenter and became an insurance broker instead, or meant to get involved as a pro-life activist and got involved as a Girl Scout leader instead. In other words, what if I blew it in pretty big ways?
Don't ever think that your mistakes could ever be bigger and wider than God's mercy. Throughout much of her life, St. Faustina struggled to discern the best way forward with the special calling that God had given to her, but our Lord constantly reassured her that His mercy was greater than any stumbles she might make along the way:
You see what you are of yourself, but do not be frightened at this ... Because you are such great misery, I have revealed to you the whole ocean of My mercy. ... My daughter, do you think you have written enough about My mercy? What you have written is but a drop compared to the ocean. I am Love and Mercy itself. There is no misery that could be a match for My mercy, neither will misery exhaust it. ... The soul that trusts in My mercy is most fortunate, because I myself take care of it. (Diary of St. Faustina, 718 and 1273)
Just as on any journey, taking a wrong path now and then does not necessarily mean you will never reach your destination. The Lord of infinite wisdom and mercy always has a "plan B," so to speak, an alternate route for you to take if you missed the original plan He had for you. Read the fifth book in the famous fantasy series by C.S. Lewis, "The Chronicles of Narnia," entitled The Silver Chair. The whole story is about a quest in Narnia that Aslan the Great Lion gave to two children, and how he gave them four signs to follow on that quest, and how they missed three of the first four signs, yet still ended up finding a way to fulfill their task in the end. The Lord is like that: He has perfect "contingency plans." He knows very well how to "write straight with crooked lines," and bring unexpected good out of permitted evils.
So now you are standing at the cross-roads, wondering the best path to take, or wondering if you are on the right path already. Then what happens?
Let's allow Billy Graham tell us:
But then suppose another hiker approached. What would you do? The logical thing would be to ask him if he knew which path you ought to take to reach your destination. Without hesitation he urges you to take the ... narrower and less traveled [path]. Only it, he says, will take you to your destination. Are you sure, you ask him somewhat doubtfully? Certainly, he replies — because I made the path. In fact, I'm headed that way myself, and I'll walk with you so you won't get lost.
What, then should we do? How should we respond to this mysterious "hiker" who meets us along our way and invites us to walk along with Him?
The Bible tells us the answer: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths (Proverbs 3:5-6).
1. Jesus once said to St. Faustina: "The graces of My mercy are drawn by means of one vessel only, and that is — trust. The more a soul trusts, the more it will receive. ... Sooner would heaven and earth turn into nothingness than would My mercy not embrace a trusting soul" (Diary, 1578 and 1777). Why does our Lord need our trust if He is to lead us along the best paths for us to take in this life — and finally to heaven at our journey's end?
2. Talk about a time in your life when you felt greatly constricted by circumstances beyond anyone's control. How did it make you feel at the time? Does it help to know that God is the Lord even of such constricting circumstances? Does it help to know that He can find a way through them both for your own sanctification and for your good intention to "make a difference" in this world?
3. Spend extra time praying for one another and for all those seeking a fresh start and a new path in their walk with Christ.
An Old Frontier Hymn
He leadeth me, O blessed thought,
O words with heavenly comfort wrought;
Whate'er I do, whate'er I see
Still 'tis God's hand that leadeth me.
He leadeth me He leadeth me,
By His own hand He leadeth me,
His faithful follower I would be,
For by his hand He leadeth me.
Sometimes mid scenes of deepest gloom,
Sometimes where Eden's bowers bloom,
By waters tossed o'er troubled sea
Still 'tis God's hand that leadeth me.
And when my task on earth is done,
And when by grace the victory's won,
Even death's cold wave I will not flee,
Since God through Jordan leadeth me. (Final Chorus)
Have Thine own way, Lord, Have Thine own way,
Thou art the Potter, I am the clay,
Mold me and make me after Thy will,
While I am waiting, yielded and still.
Have thine own way, Lord, HaveThine own way,
Wounded and weary, help me I pray,
Power all power surely is Thine,
Touch me and heal me, Savior Divine,
Have Thine own way, Lord, Have Thine own way,
Hold o'er my being absolute sway
Live in me always, 'till all shall see
Christ only, always living in me.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. He wishes to extend special thanks to Kathleen Ervin and the Divine Mercy Eucharistic Society of Oakland, Calif., for help in producing this series. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).