discernment

Go For It!

by Adam Burns

“Go for it!” Those three words form perhaps the most cliché euphemism in the Australian vocabulary, but there is so much truth hidden beneath the surface of this simple, often used phrase. Firstly, it implies there is something to “go for”. And often, that “something” is of great value, something that has long been the object of thoughts, dreams or desires. Secondly, those words hint that some feeling or fear (or even perhaps, laziness) is holding one back from “going for it”.

I’m approaching the six-year mark since my year in the seminary, which prompted me to reflect on the phrase “Go for it!”. It was those words that spurred me in the first place to apply to enter the program for priestly formation. Priestly discernment was that “thing” which occupied my thoughts and dreams of the future; and I was held back by the fear of “what if”: what if I’m not called to be a priest? The only way to answer that question was to go to the seminary and honestly ask the question: am I called to be a priest. After a year I knew the answer, and I left the formation program and began dreaming again about what my future and my life could look like.

Fast forward to August last year and I was confronted with a set of different doubts in the face of a new dream. After searching through my life and my heart, I had discovered the deep desire for marriage, to give my life totally to another. Yet, even after years of wrestling with where God was calling me, I still found my mind swirling with doubts: are we ready, is the timing right? I went for it, I proposed, and she said “yes!”

There are two things that profoundly shaped my journey. The first was having mentors and a community around me who were honest and encouraging. These were people who knew me and knew the journey I was on, who were able to say to me, “Seriously dude, just do it! Just go for it!” At both times, when I was deciding to apply for seminary and when I was preparing to propose, I had people around me who said, “yep, you’re ready” or “you just need to do it”. That support took me discernment outside of my own head and feelings and pushed my discernment to be more grounded and real.

The other learning from it all was to be merciful to myself. This year in the Church we’re highlighting mercy in the Extraordinary Jubilee. The focus can often be receiving God’s mercy and extending it to others. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of mercy is extending it to ourselves. I punished myself for years after I left the seminary by dwelling on my exit. I blamed others for not supporting me, I blamed myself for being naïve, I questioned the whole experience and discounted what it actually meant for my life. Eventually I was able to show myself mercy, not in some flimsy, self-deprecating sense; but by allowing myself to move on. The moment I finally was able to believe for myself that I went to the seminary, discerned I wasn’t called to priesthood and left was the moment whole new horizons opened in my life. This isn’t to say that leaving the seminary (or leaving anything uncompleted) is a shameful experience, just that in my own personal journey there was so much emotional baggage I was hanging on to that I needed to be ok with.

So, as cliché or cheesy as the phrase may be, “Go for it!” actually encapsulates much of what is at the heart of discernment. As a New Year begins it may be your mantra, echoed by your mentors and the community around you, to give yourself the permission to try something and maybe get it wrong – but still be ok with that. In 2016, the journey goes on!

Dreams

by Adam Burns

I was filled with excitement for this past Christmas. The source of this excitement was my fiancée, since this will the first Christmas we shared together. Christmas is in itself already a time for great joy and thanks, but this Christmas I had my future wife and marriage to be extra thankful for.

It’s a stunning contrast to my Christmas celebrations over the last few years. Christmas has often found me wandering and wondering about where I fit in the world, perhaps not unlike Mary and Joseph seeking refuge in Bethlehem. My discernment journey seemed to drop me in temporary homes for the Christmas season, and I often felt like a party-crasher at other people’s Christmas celebrations. This time I felt at home. While becoming engaged has been a significant life choice for me, one that has grounded me and calmed many of my fleeting impulses, it's only part of the equation of why this Christmas was so different for me.

I think we often exaggerate the weight of those “major” decisions, moments or commitments that happen through life. They tend to overshadow the rest of life (or Ordinary Time as our Liturgical calendar calls it). We can overlook that there is a whole realm of on-going, everyday “stuff” happening in our life that leads into and follows from any momentous “major” life decision. It’s a societal problem. The more immersed I become in wedding planning, the more I realise how much emphasis can be placed on one day. The intensity and commercialism of the wedding industry is mind-numbing! What is it really about?

This past Christmas season has sparked for me all sorts of ideas and thoughts on how I will celebrate Christmas in the future with my wife and family - thoughts and ideas that previously were just dreams or distant illusions. While discernment takes direction from the decisions we make, a vocation needs also to still be inspired by dreams, thoughts, passions and idealism. Remember, St Joseph is inspired by dreams and idealism to protect Mary and her unborn child, despite the cultural ramifications of such a choice.

Celebrating my first Christmas with my fiancée has reminded me why we use the word discernment rather than decision making to pursue God’s call in our lives – we are not just making a decision or a series of decisions throughout our life. We have to fill the space in between those decisions. And what do we fill that space with? Thoughts, dreams, passions, feelings. These form the lifeline that keeps us going from one decision to the next. As the initial excitement fades from a major change in life, it's idealism and belief that keeps us going on that path. If not, we would be bored or disillusioned, prepared to throw it all away. 

Whenever we talk about vocation and major life decisions or commitments we have this tendency to put aside passion or dreaming, it seems to airy-fairy when our survival is in the balance. While there is a seriousness to vocational choices that requires grounded-ness and level thinking; it's our dreams and passions, our idealism, which fleshes out those choices and keeps them afloat in the face of challenges and obstacles. Choices are important, but if we are just decision makers then how different are we from computers running algorithms? Vocation is more than decision making, it is the invitation to keep dreaming about how God’s love becomes reality in the world, in my world, in your world.