Saint Hilda's House

through the gates and into the city

Beyond Theory: Discernment in Times of Mild Existential Crisis

Two masters of modern-day Anglican theology, both of whom have now written key texts on discernment.

Two masters of modern-day Anglican theology, both of whom have now written key texts on discernment.

Read more of Will's writing in the St. Hilda's House Winter Quarterly.

I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’ve lived in a religious intentional community for the past two years, or that millennials in general are searching for something deeper, but two words that seem to pop up on a weekly, if not daily, basis are discernment and vocation.  Well, what do these words really mean?  Rowan Williams says vocation is the “residue” that is left after we stop playing games with ourselves.  Some see it as a calling to our true place in life, but before you can get to this great achievement, you have to discern it.  Some describe discernment as the process of listening to God and ourselves, truly listening, and making a decision.  It is incredibly easy to simply define words like these and believe that you have them figured out; but it requires a more mindful approach to learn not just the definition of discernment, but how to live it out in our own lives. 

We all want to be like the prophet Isaiah.  We all want to hear God call out for us in the night, and without a second thought respond, “Here I am Lord. Send me!”  For me at least, I’ve never had such a clear cut call and response decision-making process, at least for things that matter most.  It is important to me to take time, and listen to what God is saying, to listen to what I myself am thinking, and also to all the really important people in my life who know me just as much as I know myself.  I had an opportunity recently for some honest discernment, and the result was something I did not expect.  

The downside of one year programs like Saint Hilda’s House is the fact that you have to start making plans for the next year so early.  Last weekend I had the chance to look into one such opportunity.  I was invited to take part in the Young Adult Service Corps (YASC) discernment weekend at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York.   YASC is similar to the ESC in the sense that it sends young Episcopalians to places to live out our mission to serve with those in need.  It is different from ESC because it sends young adults to places abroad, while ESC focuses on service in the US.  After applying and being invited to the discernment weekend, I was unbelievably excited to see what a year abroad would offer me.   I met some great people, had a lot of relaxation time, and was able to do some honest-to-God discerning.  After three days at the monastery, I had my decision.   

While we were there one of the Brothers talked to us about discernment, and emphasized the fact that it was mostly about listening; that it was about listening to God, to ourselves, and to others who care about us.   And while I cannot really put into words what I heard from God, I felt that God was guiding my thoughts to a future that didn’t include a year abroad.  I listened to myself and found that I've given more of myself over the past two years than I imagined possible; that I might need a bit of time to process everything I've done.  Being on the frontlines of education reform in one of the nation’s worst public school systems, as well as being in the trenches of food justice issues in one of the hungriest cities in America, might be all the mission work I can handle for the time being, recognizing that the work of service is never limited to these kinds of opportunities.  Despite never having left the country, I do in fact count what I’ve done over the past two years as mission work, and I would be willing to have a conversation to anyone who thinks otherwise.  I then realized that I could not put my heart and soul into another service year 100%, and it wouldn’t be fair to anyone involved if I proceeded with the program without that confidence.  I think I had been focusing on how great of an opportunity a year abroad would be, and not whether God was truly calling me to do so.  I had been thinking about how many “Likes” on Facebook a status about me going abroad would get, and not on what I would be devoting myself to for a year.  Minimal family contact, a long distance relationship with my girlfriend, and not to mention the actual work I would be doing abroad.  It was not a pretty realization, but no one ever said discernment is a pretty process.  After the weekend was over I spent the next week talking to those I care about most, and those who care about me.  Generally speaking, popular opinion is not always the best route to take, but in a case like this where I was getting almost unanimous affirmation in my decision, I am feeling pretty good about the discernment I went through.

All that being said, I still haven’t really stated what discernment or vocation is.   I don’t have any concrete answers for myself, so I wouldn’t try to pawn off any of my own experiences onto someone else’s life.  I think the best advice that I can give about these topics is that you won’t know whether you’ve made the right discerned decision until it’s been made, and you won’t know your vocation until you’re living into it.  Until then, these words by Thomas Merton continue to be a gigantic help to me in times of existential crisis.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
― Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude


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