Is getting married selfish because you’re not giving your whole heart to God?

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A question from a reader:

“I am recently, as of a few days ago, feeling this strong pull to investigate the option of the religious life. But it really freaks me out. I never seriously considered it as an option, ever in my life; it honestly never felt like it fit me at all. And it still doesn’t, to be honest. I am having the hardest time, because I know that I would do it, if God asked me, because I love Him too much to say no. I would have to say yes. But I guess it boils down to this: I feel like if I get married, I won’t be giving myself completely to Him. I would feel like I didn’t give Him my all, which is what I should do, right? Is getting married selfish, because you’re reserving part of your heart for someone else other than God??

But on the other hand, I feel like if I become a nun I won’t be able to not feel sorry for myself all the time that I’m “missing out.” (I know I wouldn’t really be missing out, but I don’t know if I could stop myself from feeling that way). I feel like if I become a nun, a part of my heart will never come alive… The part of me that longs to love someone else and be loved and romanced by them, and the part of me that wants to have kids. I know that all of this could be fulfilled in a different way, like in a spiritual way, if I became a sister, but it wouldn’t be the same. And then I feel guilty and selfish for feeling that way.

I guess it’s just becoming very clear to me that I need to arrive spiritually at the point where I could become a sister joyfully, and not be afraid to let go of my dream of falling in love/marriage, but I don’t know how.

Any advice on how to deal with those obstacles? Because all He has been telling me in prayer is how much He loves me, and how good His plans are, but I am still scared of what that means.”  – M.

Feeling “freaked out” is an appropriate response when someone is first considering a vocation to religious life. A religious vocation is a beautiful, awesome call—and if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we are fragile, vulnerable “earthen vessels.” Feeling awed or overwhelmed by the thought of being called to religious life means that someone understands the vocation to religious life on a more-than-superficial level. So that’s a great first step in discerning our vocation.

But we need to have a good understanding of marriage, too. A couple of clarifications might be helpful at this point: in both marriage and religious life, we are called to offer our entire selves and our entire lives to God. The difference between these vocations is not in how much we give from our heart, because we are to give all in both. Rather, the distinction between the two vocations is in how we give our hearts.

In marriage, the spouses retain their individual identities, vocations, relationships, etc. But in their covenant of love with each other, they have a new way of living and loving. From now on, their journey through life is with, and often through, their spouse. Their love together—a gift from God to remain centered in God—bears fruit in their children and in nurturing in their family.

For a religious, God is the primary “Companion” or “Spouse” on their spiritual journey. The religious brother or sister’s love for God and God’s love for them bears fruit in their mission for their spiritual children, to be for them the face of God.

In both vocations, the overarching human vocation to love God and neighbor is a call to give all of one’s life to loving. There’s nothing selfish about either.

It’s really important to be open to God’s call. But if we are seeking to be open to God and, after praying about it, find that we are continuing to think about religious life simply because we think being married is selfish, then perhaps it would be helpful to shift the focus of our discernment from religious life to marriage. Perhaps what we are calling “selfishness” is simply an indication that we deeply desire marriage. (We are still discerning between the two vocations, but we are focusing on the discernment in another way.) Many times, a young woman is discerning a religious vocation because she thinks she “should” become a sister, due to expectations of others or even of herself that aren’t really discerning God’s will for her.

You may find it helpful to read (or re-read) these two posts: What is the Connection Between Desire and Discernment, and Discerning with Deep Desires. 

light-person-woman-fireIf, after serious thought and prayer, we truly, deeply feel that we will only come “fully alive” in one vocation, that is a positive indication towards that vocation! All vocations involve “missing out” on some things—that is the nature of making a choice! For example, I would have loved to be a wife and mother, but in not following my vocation to religious life, I would have “missed out” on something more important to me: the exclusivity of my relationship with God, and my availability to serve the people of God. (I want to note that these are more important to me precisely because I am called to religious life, whereas I am not called to be a wife and mother.)

Part of discernment is indeed becoming holily indifferent to both options. The reason for this indifference is so that we can hear God’s invitation and fully embrace it. If God is already giving someone a strong indication of their vocation, at that time it’s more important to pray with that than to put aside the possible inspiration from God aside to pray with the other choice. For example, someone discerning marriage could pray with some of the following questions.

  • What are my dreams for marriage?
  • Are my dreams of marriage idealized (for example, based on a romantic movie I watched), or are they real, similar to faithful, beautiful marriages that I have witnessed in real life?
  • Am I discerning the vocation to marriage with a full realization that both vocations I am discerning between (marriage and religious life) are good and holy; but that God is giving me the gift of one of them?
  • What attachments do I have that are preventing me from freely discerning marriage? (For example, am I afraid to give up my independent lifestyle?)
  • How do I feel living the vocation to marriage will help me to live life fully, that is, live the fullness of my vocation to love?

(Reflecting on questions about who our future spouse will be is also an important part of our discernment to marriage, but that’s another post.)

Finally, I want to affirm the importance of prayer and trust in God in all of this—especially the way of praying and listening expressed in the question. God does love us, and God’s plans for us are always good. God wants what is best for us. We may still feel scared because we don’t know what the future holds, and because our vocation is not something we can control. It is important to remember that, as much as we try to actively discern, God is going to guide us in the concrete circumstances in our lives. For many of us, our vocational discernment gradually unfolds over time. We can trust in God’s loving guidance.

The wonderful thing about discernment is that, growing in our relationship with Jesus, we come to realize that our vocation is a gift: a gift to embrace, a gift uniquely suited to us individually, and a gift that will lead us to the greatest love, and thus to great joy and fulfillment.

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Vocation #Discernment: the Real Deal @ Chastity

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Lovely view from convent rooftop where I sometimes go to gain perspective

Some months ago, I received a question from a young woman that, after telling me her story, could be boiled down to her question at the end: How have you dealt with feelings of attraction after you decided consecrated life was best for you?  

This is a great question, and depending on where we are in our discernment (or if someone is still discerning), we can approach it from several perspectives. I’d like to note that this question can come up both when we’re initially discerning a celibate life, and again at some point when we’re living celibacy or consecrated life.

If we are discerning our vocation between priesthood/consecrated life and marriage… 

then these feelings are an opportunity to further discern our vocation. (Just a note here: feelings of attraction are a part of life, no matter our vocation or state in life. Being attracted to someone is no indication of a vocational calling.) For someone discerning marriage, a key question is how strong the attraction is, and what about this person attracts us? If it is simply a physical attraction, then we acknowledge it and let it go. We don’t need to give it additional thought or energy. If, however, it is a deeper attraction—for example, we are drawn to the person’s goodness, the way that they relate to us or to others, their vulnerability and strength—then we might want to think more about it and bring it to prayer. 

Discerning between marriage and a life consecrated to God means discerning how God is calling us to express our love. Especially if we are in the early stages of our vocational discernment, if we find someone with whom we want to explore spending the rest of our life, then it makes sense to choose to get to know that person and see how the relationship develops. On the other hand, if we have been discerning our vocation for a while and have been moving towards the possibility that God is calling us to consecrated or priestly life, then this could be a good opportunity to “test” out our call to celibate chastity. Can we simply put the attraction aside, choosing not to spend time or energy on it, and see how we are several weeks (or months) later? If we find our minds constantly returning to this person we are attracted to, regretting that we didn’t engage with that person, then it may be an indication that living celibate chastity might not be our call, or we may not be ready yet to embrace it.

If we have already made a commitment to priestly or consecrated life… 

then when feelings of attraction arise, we simply don’t give them attention or energy. (We guard our thoughts, hearts, and imaginations so that we are not dwelling on merely physical feelings.) If we have an obligation to the person—for example, we work together—we also may need to practice prudence in how we spend time together. Limiting the time we spend together, inviting others to join us, or not working at night together are some examples. Eventually, the feelings dwindle through lack of encouragement. 

Personally, I have worked with wonderful Catholic men in my media apostolate. Especially when I first started working in cable television, there were very few women in the field. I cannot say that I was not attracted to any of the men I worked with. Occasionally, the thought would even pop into my head, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to be married to someone like him?” But because my heart already belonged to Someone Else—with whom I was in a vital relationship—I didn’t encourage or engage in thoughts or feelings that contradicted my vocation. 

As a woman religious, I identify closely with the description of my vocation as a spouse of Christ. So I delight in “keeping the romance going” in my relationship with Jesus. I sometimes write him poems; I love “candlelight praying” at night where my attention is focused on the spotlighted crucifix or tabernacle; I wear a ring to remind me every day that I belong entirely to him. Most importantly, however, I try to pay attention to him, and to his tender ways of showing me his love. (And there are so many, even in just this past week when I was on retreat!) I try to balance my life which, despite the intensity of our mission and lifestyle, also has moments of great joy and relaxation. Healthy friendships (both within and outside of community) provide tangible affection, companionship, and support for consecrated men and women, which offsets the occasional loneliness that we might feel in living consecrated chastity. 

All of us, no matter our vocation, are called to live chastely,

whatever feelings of attraction we may experience. If we are committed to living a chaste life, we stay attuned to our feelings and take them for what they are—no more and no less. In #2340, The Catechism of the Catholic Church encourages us to use these means to grow in the virtue of chastity: self-knowledge, self-discipline in daily life, obedience to God’s commandments, living the moral virtues (the four cardinal moral virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance), and fidelity to prayer. 

(For more insights on living chastity as a young woman who is discerning her vocation, check out this book: He Speaks To You by Sister Helena Burns, FSP)

Considerations on Discerning Marriage

“Every Christian vocation becomes a revelation of Christ
and his love for humanity.”

Discernment: Acquiring the Heart of God by Father Marko Ivan Rupnik

“In the unity of the Christian life, the various vocations are like so many rays of the one light of Christ, whose radiance brightens the countenance of the Church. ‘The laity, by virtue of the secular character of their vocation, reflect the mystery of the Incarnate Word particularly insofar as he is the Alpha and the Omega of the world, the foundation and measure of the value of all created things.’ ” (Consecrated Life by Pope St. John Paul II, #16)

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The Vocation of Marriage

Marriage is a beautiful vocation which is “written into” our human nature. Most human beings are called to marriage, because as humans we find our fullest human completion in that covenant of love, that special union between a man and a woman. This mutual love of a man and a woman is an image of God’s love for humanity and of Christ’s love for the Church. The purpose of marriage is twofold: the mutual support of the spouses and the procreation and raising of children.

The Sacrament of Matrimony has a special dignity as a sacrament. Husbands and wives are called to live out their baptismal call to holiness through their self-giving love to each other and to their children. Their “way” to holiness is with and through each other. By virtue of their Baptism, married couples are lay members of the Church. They are called to: “seek the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will…. The laity consecrate the world itself to God, everywhere offering worship by the holiness of their lives” (Lumen gentium, #31).

Here is the full paragraph from Vatican II’s Lumen gentium, comparing the “mission” of priests, those in consecrated life, and the laity:

What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature. It is true that those in holy orders can at times be engaged in secular activities, and even have a secular profession. But they are by reason of their particular vocation especially and professedly ordained to the sacred ministry. Similarly, by their state in life, religious give splendid and striking testimony that the world cannot be transformed and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes. But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.                 -Lumen gentium, #31

To sum up, married spouses are called to find salvation and help each other to grow in holiness, to give life their children and then to raise their children with love, educating them in their faith. An essential part of their vocation is to sanctify the secular—to bring Christ into every aspect of human life and work in which they are engaged.

Particular Graces & Strengths of Marriage

The framework for married life is, of course, the family. At the beginning of his apostolic exhortation on the family, St. John Paul encourages us to discover “the beauty and grandeur of the vocation to love and the service of life.”

The love of spouses and parents requires great generosity, patience, and self-sacrifice. A mother and father’s love is exclusive and particular: centered on God, that love is to be primarily expressed through love of one’s spouse and children. In his general audience addresses, Pope Francis lists the virtues that spring from a family spirit—virtues which are especially nurtured in the family and which our world desperately needs—loyalty, sincerity, trust, cooperation, and respect.

Pope Francis has a particularly direct and grounded way of speaking about the vocation of the family. He reminds us frequently that the family is called to forgiveness and to share its love beyond itself, to be inclusive: to extend the mercy of God to all of those who are abandoned, who do not have a home, who do not “belong.” He encourages families to live their vocations because in so doing, these family values “spill over” into the world.

Resources for Prayer and Reflection About the Vocation of Marriage

From Scripture:

Genesis 1:26-31 “God created humankind in his image”

Genesis 2:18-25  “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

John 2:1-11 “Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.”

Ephesians 5:21-33 “ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.”

* * *

Pope Francis speaks simply and eloquently about the gift of and vocation of the family. Perhaps these gems from his recent talks–especially at the 2015 World Festival of Families–can help us reflect further on the beauty of the vocation of marriage and family:

God’s Special Love for the Family
“All the love God has in himself, all the beauty God has in himself, all the truth God has in himself, he entrusts to the family. A family is truly a family when it is capable of opening its arms to receive all that love.”

The Family Gives Us Hope
“In families, there are difficulties. In families, we argue; in families, sometimes the plates fly; in families, the children give us headaches. And I’m not even going to mention the mother-in-law. But in families, there is always, always, the cross. Always. Because the love of God, of the Son of God, also opened for us this path. But, in families as well, after the cross, there is the resurrection. Because the Son of God opened for us this path. Because of this, the family is — forgive the term I’ll use — it is a factory of hope, of hope of life and of resurrection. God was the one who opened this path.”

The Family: God Does Not Want Us To Feel Alone
“The family is the great blessing, the great gift of this ‘God with us,’ who did not want to abandon us to the solitude of a life without others, without challenges, without a home. God does not dream by himself, he tries to do everything “with us”. His dream constantly comes true in the dreams of many couples who work to make their life that of a family.”

The Family is God’s Dream for Humanity
“That is why the family is the living symbol of the loving plan of which the Father once dreamed. To want to form a family is to resolve to be a part of God’s dream, to choose to dream with him, to want to build with him, to join him in this saga of building a world where no one will feel alone, unwanted or homeless. As Christians, we appreciate the beauty of the family and of family life as the place where we come to learn the meaning and value of human relationships… We learn to stake everything on another person, and we learn that it is worth it.” – Pope Francis, remarks at Prayer Vigil for the Festival of Families

The “Little Way of Love” in the Family
Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to grow in faith.

Jesus tells us not to hold back these little miracles. Instead, he wants us to encourage them, to spread them. He asks us to go through life, our everyday life, encouraging all these little signs of love as signs of his own living and active presence in our world…. At home do we shout at one another or do we speak with love and tenderness? This is a good way of measuring our love. – Pope Francis, Homily at Mass for the Festival of Families

The expressions…“may I?”, “thank you”, and “pardon me”…open up the way to living well in your family, to living in peace. – Pope Francis, General Audience, May 13, 2015

A marriage is not successful just because it endures; quality is important. To stay together and to know how to love one another forever is the challenge for Christian couples. What comes to mind is the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves: for you too, the Lord can multiply your love and give it to you fresh and good each day. He has an infinite reserve! He gives you the love that stands at the foundation of your union and each day he renews and strengthens it. And he makes it ever greater when the family grows with children. On this journey prayer is important, it is necessary, always: he for her, she for him and both together. Ask Jesus to multiply your love. In the prayer of the Our Father we say: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Spouses can also learn to pray like this: “Lord, give us this day our daily love,” for the daily love of spouses is bread, the true bread of the soul, what sustains them in going forward. And the prayer: can we practice to see if we know how to say it? “Lord give us this day our daily love” – Pope Francis, Address to Engaged Couples Preparing for Marriage, February 14, 2014

Reflection questions:

  • God creates each person in his image, but it is in the union between one man and one woman that God’s image is most clearly made visible. How do I understand the beauty, strengths, and challenges that are inherent in married life? Do I feel invited to reflect the love of God through marriage with…?
  • “It is not good that the man should be alone.” I am not called to live my vocation to love alone. How is Jesus inviting me to bring forth new life and to build communion in the world?

Partners in Our Discernment

By Photographes du National Geographic (http://natgeofound.tumblr.com/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Photographes du National Geographic http://natgeofound.tumblr.com/ Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We may begin our vocational discernments on our own. But at some point, hopefully early on in our discernment, we start discerning with our partners in our discernment.

Discerning with others who share our call is important because we do not have a right to any vocation: a vocation is a gift, a call from God, a gift. Those who share our calling discern with us if God is calling us to this particular vocation.

If we are discerning marriage, we can only discern on our own up to a certain point. Even if we are pretty sure that we are called to marriage, we cannot truly discern our vocation to marriage until we meet a possible future spouse, with whom we discern our marriage together. Marriage is a vocation undertaken together with our spouse, and that spouse has an equal voice in the discernment. The other person, too, needs to discern if God is calling him or her to marriage with this particular person. The Sacrament of Matrimony is a covenant made with a spouse before God and the Church. The spouse, therefore, has the duty and privilege to discern their call from God as well. And the Church has a responsibility to bless, confirm, and witness to that covenant, ensuring that both spouses are freely entering into this covenant with full understanding of what it means.

If we are discerning priesthood or religious life, the Church is our co-discerner, with equal say in our discernment. At first, this may surprise us. Aren’t we supposed to follow God’s call no matter what? Yes, but priesthood and consecrated life are calls from God to a specific ministry or mission within the Church. The Church helps us to discern if God is indeed truly calling us to this vocation, and entrusts this task to certain people: the bishop and director of the seminary in the case of diocesan priesthood, the superior and vocation director of the community in the case of consecrated life.

Priesthood and consecrated life are gifts, just as marriage is a gift. Having the Church as our partner or co-discerner is a great source of strength and support in our vocation. When the Church, through the vocation director, confirms our understanding of God’s call, this confirmation can help anchor us in God’s will during times of darkness, doubt, and struggle.

When we are concerned about “making a mistake” in our vocational discernment, our partners in discernment offer necessary reassurance. Our vocational discernment is something we are responsible for, and we need to take it seriously, but it’s not all up to us. Our vocation is a call from God, and God will give us every help in discovering and following our vocation, including the support of the Church—through our potential spouse, the bishop or superior, our vocation director, and our spiritual director.

Living Our Vocation “to the Full”

"The Good Shepherd" by Joseph Ritter von Führich, c. 1840

“The Good Shepherd” by Joseph Ritter von Führich, c. 1840

Yesterday, “Good Shepherd” Sunday, was the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. If you are discerning your vocation, I hope that you could feel the support of the Church’s prayers for you, lifting you up from all over the world!

Pope Francis offered a really beautiful reflection for the day in his Message for the 52nd World Day of Prayer for Vocations.  One of the coolest things about it is that he describes “vocation” in such a dynamic way, comparing the living of our vocation with the exodus experience. Thus, Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations isn’t just for those discerning their vocations, but an invitation for all of us to live the gift of our vocations fully. I’d like to share three points that particularly struck me and that I’ve been praying with:

 

Following One’s Vocation (whether for the first time, or as a renewal of our commitment): 

Belief means transcending ourselves, leaving behind our comfort and the inflexibility of our ego in order to centre our life in Jesus Christ. It means leaving, like Abraham, our native place and going forward with trust, knowing that God will show us the way to a new land.

Living One’s Vocation “To the Full”:

The exodus experience is paradigmatic of the Christian life, particularly in the case of those who have embraced a vocation of special dedication to the Gospel. This calls for a constantly renewed attitude of conversion and transformation, an incessant moving forward, a passage from death to life like that celebrated in every liturgy, an experience of passover…. Vocation is always a work of God. He leads us beyond our initial situation, frees us from every enslavement, breaks down our habits and our indifference, and brings us to the joy of communion with him and with our brothers and sisters. Responding to God’s call, then, means allowing him to help us leave ourselves and our false security behind, and to strike out on the path which leads to Jesus Christ, the origin and destiny of our life and our happiness.

The Model for Every Vocation:

The Virgin Mary, model of every vocation, did not fear to utter her “fiat” in response to the Lord’s call. She is at our side and she guides us. With the generous courage born of faith, Mary sang of the joy of leaving herself behind and entrusting to God the plans she had for her life. Let us turn to her, so that we may be completely open to what God has planned for each one of us, so that we can grow in the desire to go out with tender concern towards others (cf. Lk1:39).  

If you can, go and read the entire message here. It’s not just beautiful, but challenging and encouraging, reminding us that the Christian vocation is to love, and that living the fullness of the Gospel message does not limit us but leads us to the fullest possible freedom. I also was struck by his comparing each Christian’s vocation to the Exodus experience, because in doing so, Pope Francis is indirectly validating the “storytelling” lens that I’m using on this blog to talk about discernment!

Free & Wonderful App for Those Discerning Their Vocation

 

For any readers discerning their vocation, check this out: Discern It App Header w words2Deepen your vocational discernment with  Discern It!,  a new, free app from the Daughters of Saint Paul to help those discerning their vocations.

This wonderful little app is a novena that provides the perfect atmosphere for deepening your vocational discernment, to understand how God is calling you to love. With  Discern It!  you will have the opportunity to:

◊ Do something daily to help you discover God’s plan for your life.

◊ Learn how to be more open to the gifts God wants to give you.

◊ Find out ways to move past the hurdles in discernment.

◊ Grow in your intimacy with God.

You can find out more about the app here, which also includes the links to download it for both iPhone and Android. The App is available free for the Year of Consecrated Life.