How to stay open to God’s call

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Image: FATHER ANDREW Carl Wisdom, O.P. embraces his father at his ordination in Rome.

Is there such a thing
as “spiritual genetics,” a spiritual gene that can be passed on? I wondered that as I made my way through the stream of students in the high school my father had attended. Here I was a priest and vocation director walking with young men discerning a religious vocation through the same labyrinth of hallways that my father had passed through 55 years earlier, dreaming about being a priest.

He had been firmly resolved to be a priest ever since early childhood, even leaving his senior year behind to enter seminary so as not to waste another minute delaying his vocation. But after a year and several months, an increasingly unpredictable asthmatic condition persuaded the seminary faculty that he could not pursue a vocation to the priesthood. He was devastated and confused to say the least. Did God not want what he wanted? After all, wasn’t it God’s will that he was following?

As determined as my father was to become a priest, I was determined not to be. While he had run toward his potential vocation, I had run away from mine. Yet I was the one who ended up the priest and he the one with 12 children, a 59-year marriage, and a career as a salesman.

What does God want for you?
When I came along talking about experiencing a vocation to religious life, my father realized it was not him but his son who had a calling to priesthood and he who had a calling to marriage. He realized that God chooses whom God chooses and it is a mystery why God chooses some for one vocation and some for another. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).

That’s a good thing! Otherwise my father and I might have missed our true vocations. The mystery is only explained by appreciating that God knows you better than you know yourself. That is something both my father and I have come to understand. He eventually realized, with his personality and gifts, marriage really is the best way he can flourish in serving God’s plan for him. And I came to realize that my vocation as a Dominican priest and preacher is the best way I can serve God (of course that would not have been possible if my father had not followed through on his vocation!).

Staying open to God’s call is not easy. Human beings like things settled. But when you leave God in charge, you find the best path for yourselves because you discover what God has already chosen for you. If my father and I had not remained open and trusting in God, we might have missed our vocations, one by stewing in regret, the other consumed with fear. Both emotions close—rather than open—you to God’s inspiration and direction.

Holy ambiguity
What helps, then, to stay open to God’s call? I believe there is a holiness to ambiguity when God calls you to hold things in your heart until they are clear. The Virgin Mary is the model of this disposition of holy ambiguity, a holding of things in one’s heart until more direction is given.

From the beginning of her story you can see Mary demonstrating this openness to God’s will when, not understanding everything the angel Gabriel was telling her, she nonetheless said, in so many words: “I am the Lord’s. Let it be done to me as God thinks best.” That was her ongoing attitude. She pondered each hint and nudge of God’s will for her life in the particular circumstances in which they revealed themselves. What she did not yet fully understand she held in her heart, awaiting God’s further guidance.

This disposition of holy ambiguity keeps you open to all the revelatory glimpses of God’s presence and action in your life, without forcing God’s hand or insisting God give you the whole picture. It trusts and respects that God knows best when you are ready for more clarity. It makes peace with the reality that “my” timetable is not necessarily God’s timetable.

Three ways to hear what God is saying to you
As you travel the road of discernment, three spiritual practices are basic to adopt this disposition of holy ambiguity. If you don’t want your doubts, fears, confusion, or impatience to detour you along the way, it would be wise to incorporate these methods into your daily life: contemplative prayer, meditative scripture reading, and ongoing spiritual direction and exploration through a spiritual director and visits to religious communities.

Father Andrew Carl with his father after receiving his doctorate degree.
FATHER ANDREW Carl with his father after receiving his doctorate degree.
The best definition of contemplation I have ever heard is: “a long, lingering look at God.” You can’t make that happen. It is a pure gift of God. But you can prepare for that gift by opening yourself to sit silently in God’s presence for certain periods of time each day. This exercise is often referred to as “centering prayer.”

Begin by sitting daily for a predetermined amount of time, say 10 minutes (eventually working up to 20 minutes twice a day) and thinking of a prayer word (abba—Jesus’ name for God the Father—Mary, love, peace, be, and so on) so that when thoughts or images come, you say this word to yourself and use it to let yourself sink into a restful silence without latching onto thoughts and images, letting them float by like clouds in the mind’s vast sky. This resting in God in complete openness to God’s Spirit within is the ideal setting for hearing the life-feeding Word God has for you that day. This exercise of the soul is a form of imageless prayer.

Meditative scriptural reading, on the other hand, is prayer open to whatever words or images a scripture passage offers you. Just as its name suggests, it encourages an unhurried thoughtfulness to the text scripture provides, dwelling prayerfully in its midst, and allowing the Holy Spirit to bring to the surface whatever God wants you to take from the word that day.

This exercise introduces you to what is known as lectio divina—“sacred” or “holy reading.” You call on the Holy Spirit as you reverently approach a scripture passage and read it several times slowly. After about 10 minutes (or more if the Spirit moves you) of letting your Divine Friend speak to your heart, thank God for God’s presence and notice the word or phrase that keeps coming up in your reading as a sign of what God wants you to take with you. A meditative attitude moves patiently, listens deeply, and, like a sponge, spontaneously soaks up the substance provided within all its pores. This spiritual exercise requires you to listen with the ears of your heart and to see with the eyes of your soul.

Integrating these forms of prayer into your life helps you to fulfill naturally Saint Paul’s impassioned exhortation to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). It also helps you, as Saint Dominic encourages, to always talk with or about God.

Spiritual direction is about someone accompanying you in discerning the pattern of God’s movements in your heart and mind. Good spiritual direction will keep you honest and accountable. Your spiritual director will help you to know if you need more internal work in your discernment efforts, like personal prayer, or external efforts, such as visiting potential communities and talking to people lay, vowed, and ordained about how they live out their God-given vocations.

While God directs you through the inclinations of your heart, God won’t make the decision for you. Saint Angela of Merici, who founded the Ursuline religious community of women in the 16th century, said why: “God has given free will to everyone, and therefore he forces no one but only indicates, calls, persuades.”

What will make you happy?
When Father Jim Motl, O.P., a legendary Dominican teacher of preaching for some 30 years, was growing up, every Christmas season would find him waiting at the mailbox for the big arrival: the Sears department store catalogue, in black and white except for the toys and women’s clothing sections. He wasted no time pouncing on the color pages and making a list of the toys he wanted from Santa.

His mother, while patient with his enthusiasm, gave him her own gentle but clear opinion about his all-consuming focus in words he would never forget: “Jimmy, Christmas is not about getting what you want. Christmas is about trusting that someone loves you enough to give you what will make you happy.”

In discernment, that Someone loves you enough to give you what will ultimately make you happy. That someone is God, who gives you the visible reality of God’s deep love for you in Christ Jesus. That is the gift you truly want deep down and that will ultimately make you happy. The overarching issue in discernment is: “Who is Jesus for me?” The overarching question is: “Can I trust Jesus to know what will make me happy?” Amid the urgent questions pressing upon your discernment, that is the truly essential one for the discovery and full flourishing of your vocation, lay, consecrated, or ordained. 

Father Andrew Carl Wisdom, O.P.Father Andrew Carl Wisdom, O.P. is promoter of vocations and vicar for Mission Advancement for the Dominicans, Province of St. Albert the Great. His book, Tuning into God’s Call, was published last July by Liguori Publications.




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