Grieving What My Vocation Is Not

A reflection by Sarah

When I was in college, I listened to vocations speakers frequently. Every talk I heard emphasized how God calls people to their vocations because he cares about our happiness and our ability to use our gifts to serve the world around us. The speakers stressed how vocational discernment shouldn’t be terrifying since God is speaking to our hearts, and all we need to do is listen and obey. Since vocations are gifts given by God, they emphasized, there is no need to be frightened by the prospect of discerning vocation.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on that time in my life. I remember how terrified I was of discerning vocation despite all of those reassurances. What would happen if I made the wrong decision? Surely there were people who were supposed to have been married but who entered monasteries. Likewise, I thought, there must be married people who have experienced a call to monasticism, but chose marriage instead. What would happen if I turned out to be one of those people who would make the wrong choice? Would I be miserable because I hadn’t properly discerned God’s will for my life? The vocations speakers that I heard sounded so incredibly peaceful and full of joy when talking about what God had called them to. I thought, “If they are so happy, then they must have properly and perfectly discerned God’s call. They are so lucky to have discerned their vocations correctly.” As I recall these thoughts now, I see that I had an underdeveloped view of vocation and discernment at the time. I’d assumed that if a person was happy in his/her vocation and had discerned what God’s will truly was, then he/she would never experience any grief over what might have been if things had turned out differently. I was naive enough to think that once I figured out what God was calling me to, he would remove any inkling of desires for a different way of life. While I’m absolutely confident that doing your best to follow where God leads will ultimately lead you to joy and union with God, I believe now that grief along the way is frequently part of the process.

I’ve heard people suggest that because there is a significant part of me that desires to be a mother and to have children, that it would be better for me to leave the committed celibate relationship I have with Lindsey and seek out a heterosexual marriage. Sometimes it’s even been suggested that Lindsey is selfish for preventing me from finding a husband and marrying. I find these notions ludicrous for several reasons, but two in particular. For one, the people who make such comments are not considering the likelihood that, as a lesbian, I would be miserable in a heterosexual marriage even if that marriage did provide me a way to become a biological mother. However, there’s a deeper reason that I find these comments troubling. They imply that vocations should be able to meet all of our desires for every good and holy thing. If you desire something and it is a holy desire, this line of thinking asserts an automatic belief that God is calling you to it. I think this idea is hugely problematic.

No matter what vocational pathways we take, following Christ costs us something. We all make choices that prevent us from making other choices. [Economists are able to talk about “opportunity cost” with good reason.] When a person decides to pursue a vocation to marriage, that person is giving up the possibility of entering any kind of celibate vocation (unless his/her spouse reposes and their children have become adults). When a person decides to enter a monastery, he or she is giving up the possibility of being married and raising a family. We make choices and do our best to allow God to lead us rightly. That’s the nature of discernment. Both celibacy and marriage are good ways of life, but neither enables a person to do everything. At this point, the question is, “Is it okay for a person to grieve what his or her vocation is not?” Is it acceptable for a married person to grieve aspects of the celibate life that he/she will never know fully in this lifetime? Is there something wrong with a celibate person who is experiencing sadness over not being married or having children? I would argue that not only is this sort of grief okay, but that it’s entirely normal.

I think one of the reasons I didn’t settle into a celibate vocation earlier than my late twenties is that I spent years pondering how God could be calling me to a way of life that would bring me grief as well as joy. In having to choose just one way of life, I’d certainly miss out on something great found in a different vocation. If any one of those vocational pathways would involve sadness over aspects that were not a part of that particular pathway, how was I supposed to experience the deep and profound joy all of the different vocations speakers referenced in their talks? I came to see that taking the plunge into any vocation has its risks. Once you give a vocation a try, you risk finding out that it fits…or that it doesn’t. It was a huge risk for me to say that I was committing to celibacy, especially after having been in non-celibate relationships. It was an even greater risk when I decided that I was going to commit the rest of my life to a celibate partnership with Lindsey. I can’t get over how much we experience joy, both as individuals and together.

Nonetheless, I have to be real about the fact my vocation is not just joyous moment after joyous moment after joyous moment. There are times when I feel the emotional pangs associated with sensing that God is not calling me to certain things I’ve felt somewhat drawn to in the past. For me, the one that is especially trying is knowing that I will never be a biological mother. There is a part of me that absolutely aches with desire to carry a child in my womb. Some days it’s very hard to cope with that reality. But I’ve realized that not all of my desires — even for good things– are what God is actually calling me to. I don’t think it’s bad that I have a strong desire for motherhood. It’s not a problem to be remedied. The fact that intuition tells me I would make a good mother does not mean that my call to celibacy is less real. It also does not mean that my relationship with Lindsey is going to end because I’m not getting everything I could possibly want out of life, or that Lindsey and I should try to brainstorm solutions for me to become a mother.

I believe that if you experience this kind of sadness, it’s healthy to sit with the feeling and allow it to be. Another lesson I learned in my 20s is that life isn’t about being happy. It’s about seeking union with God, and that search involves the entire spectrum of emotions.  Sorrow, frustration, anger, and grief are not maladies to be cured. When I find myself feeling a bit overwhelmed because of what my vocation is not, it’s beneficial to pray about what it is and can be as Lindsey and I continue discerning throughout our lives together. It’s also helpful to be thinking about other ways I can direct my desire for motherhood. My greatest comfort is in knowing that Christ and His Holy Mother are here waiting to embrace me anytime I’m grieving over anything at all…and knowing it’s okay to let them do just that.

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