But What is God’s Will?

Though I’ve been trained by the Jesuits in discernment and have made a few major decisions in my life so far, I still find decision-making very hard, primarily because there’s rarely full clarity. At a retreat I led for high school seniors, I gave a talk about my own discernment into and out of religious life and then into marriage. Afterwards, a student approached me and asked me how she’s supposed to approach the decision about which university to attend and what to study. I repeated some of what I had shared in my talk but then she lamented, “But how am I supposed to know God’s will?!”

In my new book, God Moments: Unexpected Encounters in the Ordinary, I spend a good amount of time on the spirit of my student’s question. We’re often waiting to “find out” God’s will for our lives and don’t quite know how to do it. So we sit and wait. That waiting turns into idleness and inaction. I always point to a better question: What are God’s desires for me? This question allows us to explore the deeper dimensions of vocation and purpose and call. It also helps us engage in our own desires and dreams, giving us a role in the discernment process. My student, like many, expects discernment to be a one-way street where God expresses a “will” and we do it. Full stop. Except true discernment in the Ignatian sense (which I am trained in) does not work that way.

If God always gave us an absolute clear path then discernment wouldn’t be so hard. The reality is, we’re often faced with several good choices. For me, religious life and marriage were both good choices. My discernment was choosing the alternative that was better for me and fully living my life. Choosing between universities or jobs is also a choice between goods. Philosopher Ruth Chang, in her TED talk, points out that easy choices present alternatives where one is clearly better than the other. Hard choices are when the alternatives are neither better than the other overall. Religious life might have certain “better” qualities for me than married life but married life has its own qualities that are “better” than religious life. But overall, each alternative is equally good. So we hem and haw and pine for an answer from God because we just can’t decide.

I suggest four elements in an approach to a difficult discernment:

Attentiveness

A hallmark of Ignatian spirituality is being aware of God’s presence in all things and at all moments. If we pay attention to our heart or gut we can gain some insight into which choice before us is pulling at our heart. Ignatius tells us that emotions and feelings are important indicators for us. While our gut feelings about a certain choice before us may not give us sureness in our decision, they are important information to consider.

Prayer

If prayer is our relationship with God then we can bring all our feelings and choices before God in prayer. In my book, I mention a few ways you can bring your discernment to prayer, including making a list of pros and cons and using your imagination.

Experimentation

I use the metaphor of a discernment “fitting room” where you can try on a choice to see how it feels or looks. Now if you’re choosing between career choices or doctoral programs you can’t actually test out a choice for a time, but you can convince yourself you’ve made a particular decision. You’d be surprised how much that psychological act alone can tell you about whether that might be a good choice for you. During Christmas break from my studies as a Jesuit, I spent a few days where I told myself that I had decided to leave religious life and then a few days where I convinced myself that I had decided to stay. The choice I had to make was clear after this experiment. Choosing to stay created a lot of disquiet in me, while choosing to leave and pursue marriage gave me much peace and joy.

Community

Sometimes we don’t realize how much our choices affect those around us—our friends, our family, and the communities in which we find ourselves. While discerning to leave religious life and later while discerning to move across country with my wife there were many voices from family, co-workers, and friends telling us what we should do. While others can’t make your decision for you, these voices are an important consideration, especially from those who know you well. It can also be comforting knowing you’re not completely alone in the process. You might also consider how others will be affected by your decision, whether it be career change, marriage, studies, or moving to a completely new place.

With all the information we have, we then make the best decision we can, even without perfect clarity. It’s not easy, and some choices can later be modified if we discover the decision was not ideal. I see our choices—when made in genuine prayer and in partnership with God—as ways we make God incarnate in the world. We can find joy in that. My student’s paralysis before her decision did not give her joy. If instead she saw her discernment not as waiting for an absolute “answer” from God but as an invitation from God to examine the good choices before her and that she is empowered to make the decision, she might find that discernment and discovering her true self can be quite, quite joyful.

Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.


Detachment, Indifference, and Accepting One’s Calling

A recent episode of The Jim Gaffigan Show on TV Land focused on the idea of divine calling. Jim struggled with what his calling might be. All he does is makes jokes about donuts, he laments. The question about our calling and purpose is a universal one. We find deep within ourselves a hunger to make a difference and contribute something of benefit to the world. Yet, we also find within ourselves resistance to what might indeed be our genuine calling.

In one scene Jim just finishes playing soccer with his parish priest, Fr. Nicholas. He discovers that Fr. Nicholas used to be a star footballer. He also went to the London School of Economics and was a fashion model. Jim seemed aghast that he would “throw away” a life of fame and success to be a Catholic priest.

Fr. Nicholas said that when he realized he had a calling to serve he answered the call. This is by no means easy. Many priests and religious I’ve known were initially resistant to their own call, putting it off sometimes for years. And when one does make a Fr. Nicholas move, giving up a career or potential family, it’s little-understood by some.

Many Respond
In the history of world religions, we see countless examples of religious figures giving up their lives for a radical calling. Jesus’ apostles left their careers and families to follow Christ. Saint Ignatius deserted his life of nobility and status for a life devoted to God. Siddhartha Gautama of Buddhism left the comfort of his palace to live a more ascetical life. The same was true for a major figure in Jainism. Guru Nanak of Sikhism rejected his past life for a journey of discovery. Over and over again these figures have answered some call that to others appeared absurd. Yet, they’ve inspired the faith of people around the world.

Fr. Nicholas’ departure from a potential life of “worldly success” is not an uncommon story for many priests or religious – and even lay people. Ignatian spirituality spends a great deal of time on the topic of discernment because it’s our way of contributing to God’s project for the world. I imagine that when Ignatius was in bed recovering from his battle wound he realized he had only one life to live. He was in a privileged place to decide how he wanted to live that life: for superficial fame and status or to be a saint. We’re all called to be saints, that is, followers of Christ, using our gifts for the betterment of the world. We can only get there with the gift of detachment and indifference.

Indifference
Ignatian indifference is what Fr. Nicolas and Ignatius and Gautama had: “Not wanting health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor.” It’s this kind of detachment that can lead some away from a life of “worldliness” into what Henri Nouwen called “downward mobility.” It’s worth choosing, Nouwen says, because “it is the way to the Kingdom.” And I would argue it’s the way to best contribute to God’s project. We don’t all have to give up money or family in order to have a part in God’s project, but we should be indifferent to it, detached enough from it, free enough.

When Jim Gaffigan shows surprise at Fr. Nicholas’ radical choice, he’s imagining that a life as a Manchester United footballer and model with a prestigious degree is a “better life” than one as a celibate parish priest. Still, time and time again we see these countless examples of people who have supposedly given up that “better life” yet find great joy. Fr. Nicholas’ character exudes that great joy. He’s always got a smile, a kind word, and a love of doing things for others. Giving up his past dreams for a deeper calling might not have been easy, but for him, his detachment from it has given him great joy in his current vocation.

It’s a blessing to be truly free, in the Ignatian sense. I will always be imperfect in freedom. I’ll always cling, at one point or another, to the security of money or a job or accolades from someone. It seems human nature to clutch to riches, honor, and health because to our eyes it appears “better” than the alternative, better than the risk of giving it up for something deeper. Yet when we take that radical risk, we might find ourselves helping more people, using our gifts more, and developing a more intimate relationship with Christ.

Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.


The Joy of Love

Marriage seems to be losing popularity. According to the Pew Research Center, only 51% of adults in the United States are married, versus 72% in 1960. Still, a majority of women and men do want to be married (61%). As a couple who’s been married nearly two years, and as people who love telling others how awesome marriage is, my wife and I have wondered why the many in media or comedy are so negative about marriage. Even though the divorce rate has decreased, it seems so engrained in our psyches that marriage is seen as a burden rather than a grace that is freely embraced. Images of good marriages are hard to find on TV, yet each time Sarah and I do find marriage being shown in a positive light we fall in love with the show (Madam Secretary and Parenthood are two examples).

This past week Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). Many were expecting much to be said about divorced and remarried Catholics being able to receive communion or about same-sex marriages. Yet the document focused little on those issues. While important issues, the pope chose to focus on the heartbreaking state of broken heterosexual marriages, something we don’t often address in our current marriage debates. Amoris Laetitia is a beautiful and poetic writing on the gift of love and marriage. It’s comprehensive. It addresses families and marriages at practically every stage and situation. It’s a long overdue exhortation on marriage rooted in the real situations families have to deal with and as I read through its 264 pages, I could relate it well to my own marriage. As Thomas D. Williams says in his Crux article, “I suddenly found a letter that was written to me and for me, and I cannot help but think that many others will have a similar experience.”

The Challenges of Marriage
The pope has a clear view of the reality of marriages that are superficial or based on a lack of freedom. Marriage, he says, “can come to be seen as a way station, helpful when convenient, or a setting in which rights can be asserted while relationships are left to the changing winds of personal desire and circumstances.” Yet at the same time he acknowledges the challenges of marriage, especially in their early years. Sarah and I found our first months especially challenging. The fantasy weddings from the movies and even the Church’s “almost artificial theological ideal of marriage”, Pope Francis says, can become an “excessive idealization … [that] has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.” So the pope instead founds his discussion in practical realities. He calls marriage a process and a path to personal development, together. The couple journeys with and through their imperfections. “We have to realize that all of us are a complex mixture of light and shadows.” Read More


Building Spiritual Strength by Doing the Little Things

In the past I have offered some creative ways of approaching the Lenten “fast.” In addition to giving up something, we often hear the alternative of taking something on, kind of like a Lenten new year’s resolution. These are all fine, but I want to offer another twist to Lenten penance.

What images come to mind when you hear the word penance? Penance usually gives us negative images in our mind. We think of Jesus fasting in the hot dry desert for 40 days (which is what Lent commemorates). We may also think of ascetical practices like putting pebbles in our shoes or self-flagellation. But the word penance comes from the Latin word for repentance and when the Bible uses the word repentance it usually carries a meaning of changing our attitude toward sin.

A change of attitude means a change of orientation. Lent is a time to develop ourselves so we come out on the other side (Easter) more prepared to avoid sinful tendencies and habits that are not life-giving and that do not bring us closer to God. Ascetical Lenten practices actually help us in this. But no one’s suggesting self-flagellation or walking a mile on your knees. In fact, asceticism actually means to train or exercise, as in training like an athlete; it’s not about self-denial.

Here’s my suggestion: Take a look at the ascetical practices that already happen every day, those little things that offer the opportunity to build spiritual strength. Parenting may be one – how does parenting help you “train”? Maybe you have a long commute like me – does it give you time to grow closer to God at all? Tough relationships are also opportunities to exercise charity and love of neighbor. Even cooking for another can be considered an ascetical practice if it helps you develop your love for others.

Asceticism happens every day. Part of finding God in all things is noticing the little daily opportunities to change our attitude toward sin and bring us closer to God. It’s the penance of noticing.

Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.


Infinite Mercy, Even After Death?

Our popular Catholic imagination tends to obsess with what happens after we die. The mystery of transcending our earthly human limitations fascinates us. Heaven—or as Jesus calls it, God’s kingdom—is the perfect world God intended for us. We lost that world when our first parents sinned. Since then, and even despite Jesus’ merciful act of gaining back that kingdom for us, we remain obsessed with the possibility of going to hell. Saint Ignatius was driven not just by a tremendous love for God but also by a fear of eternal damnation. I think many of us operate this way as well. I desire not to soften the reality of sin and evil, but to raise some questions that don’t tend to enter the Catholic imagination enough.

Justice
Let’s first start with God’s understanding of justice. Justice, in our human understanding, is a balancing of the scales. Some may picture God as a bookkeeper, keeping mark of your sins, and the eternal consequence is proportional to your sin. Others might imagine heaven guarded by pearly gates where St. Peter interrogates you before admission is granted. “What do you have to say for yourself?” he might ask. Answer wrong or have too many black marks on your dossier and you fall through the trapped door to the eternal fires below.

Justice in God’s understanding is founded in love and mercy. Jesus’ only talk of the final judgment was in Matthew 25 when he introduces the corporal works of mercy. “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me” (25:45). Perhaps Saint Peter’s question would be more along the lines of, How did you care for the most vulnerable in your life? Not about how often you missed Mass or whether you perfectly followed the commandments.

The Christian life certainly includes worship and following God’s law, but those choices are a love-response to God, motivated by our relationship with God – not motivated by a fear of hell. Read More


The Curse of Looking Young

I look young. I’ve always looked young and it’s always been a major insecurity for me. I remember being 13 and getting so frustrated if the host at a restaurant instinctively grabbed the kids’ menu and a box of crayons. “I don’t need crayons,” I’d say snootily. But as someone who is 30, this is not always a helpful physical trait. A couple weeks ago someone asked if I moved to Chico, CA for school. “No, my wife and I moved here for work,” I respond. There was an awkward silence. In the last two days, I can count five people who have commented on my “youthful appearance.” They have a hard time believing I’m married, that I’m a high school teacher, that I myself graduated high school 13 years ago. Some will even be bold enough to tell me what age they think I look: 19, 18, 16? The kind ones say early 20s. Read More


Going Through the Motions

Recently, I spent a week on Cape Cod with my family, and after my wife and I returned home we went to Sunday Mass. As I sat in the church waiting for Mass to begin I realized that I hadn’t really thought much about God while on vacation. I hadn’t prayed or read scripture. I hadn’t been as attentive to God’s presence as I usually am. Needless to say, I felt bad about that and was glad I was now in church, ready to engage in my weekly ritual of worshiping the God who I encounter every day.

There’s something to be said about ritual, even when it appears to be a case of “going through the motions”. For me, the ritual of Mass, of standing, sitting, kneeling, singing, listening, praying, and receiving Communion, hit a reset button for me. After several days of unawareness of God, the Mass reminded me that God was still there, still present. And going through the motions of the liturgy helped nudge me back to that sacred state. Ritual is a powerful thing that guides and draws us into something important. Going through the motions of preparing your morning coffee draws you into the day laid before you. Taking a daily run reminds you of the gift of your body. Even daily prayer, though it can sometimes feel like you’re just going through the motions, opens yourself up to an awareness of God.

I remember years ago when I was involved with a regular faith sharing group, there were several times I did not want to go to the weekly meeting. I was feeling “out of the groove” with God, my prayer was dry, my week was dry; what would be the point of going through the motions and attending this weekly meeting? But when I went, I was reminded that God was always there, and a reset button was hit, drawing me back into a state of closeness with God.

Ritual action can be performed mindlessly. Sometimes that’s okay. Sometimes you’re not in a place to be fully engaged. That’s why ritual is so helpful, because what can begin mindlessly, frequently concludes in a state of richer awareness.

Saint Ignatius encourages those making the Spiritual Exercises to engage in the rituals of the church like Mass and confession. He suggests regular prayer times, and even for staying a full hour in each period of prayer. When I made the Exercises I remember that those hours could feel so long. I had prayed with the assigned scripture passage for ten minutes and got plenty out of it. What more could there be? Sitting that remaining 50 minutes felt as if I was just “going through the motions” of Ignatius’ prescription. Sometimes my mind would wander or I’d struggle to stay awake, but amazingly, I’d end the hour with much more fruit than I got out of the first ten minutes!

Don’t get me wrong. Going through the motions of life and faith mindlessly all the time is not a sign of a committed spiritual life. But once in a while, especially during a period of dryness or distance from God, going through the motions of a ritual can draw us back into the active and attentive motion of a personal relationship with God.

Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.