Discernment Happens Before the Face of Christ
Reflections on the readings for the twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.
The essence of our vocation is a free response to the loving face of Christ. When Christ looks at us, he loves us, as the Gospel of Mark so poignantly notes. At the same time, his gaze penetrates “even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow…able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.” He knows us better than we know ourselves, but he also loves us and desires our salvation and happiness more than we do. No one has a deeper desire to spend all of eternity with you than Jesus Christ.
So many people analyze and struggle to find their vocation in some abstract, mental way. The best way to begin discerning is to sit in the presence of Jesus – preferably with the Eucharist, but at least with scripture – and allow him to look at you and love you. Then pay attention. Do you want to run toward him or away from him? Be honest. Where does your heart go? Do you say “Depart from me Lord,” or “Stay with me Lord”? What are your attachments? What are you afraid of giving up? Do you really believe in him? With trusting confidence, hand your attachments and your deficiencies in faith to Christ. He knows your desires deeper than you do, and he is prepared to give you everything, especially eternal life.
Our intellectual analysis can only lead us to a certain point. The same applies to our human efforts – even the efforts of those who are perfectionists. When the young man stands before Jesus, he stands before the One who is Infinite. He who is used to possessing must now allow himself to be possessed. Jesus does not force his will on us, but our freedom finds its truest expression when it is given over to him. As Venerable Fulton Sheen said, our free will is meant to be given away.
Sheen himself was an example of a young man who was rich in many ways – talent, intelligence, virtues, and opportunities. When he received a three year university scholarship, he excitedly presented the news to his spiritual mentor, Fr. William J. Bergan. Sheen recounts the event in his autobiography, Treasure in Clay: “’Fr. Bergan I won the scholarship.’ He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘Fulton, do you believe in God?’ I replied: ‘You know that I do.’ He said, ‘I mean practically, not from a theoretical point of view.’ This time I was not so sure, and I said, ‘Well I hope I do.’ ‘Then tear up the scholarship.’ ‘Fr. Bergan, this scholarship entitles me to three years of university training with all expenses paid. It is worth about nine or ten thousand dollars.’ He retorted: ‘You know you have a vocation; you should be going to the seminary.’ I countered with this proposal: ‘I can go to the seminary after I get my Ph.D., because there will be little chance of getting a Ph.D. after I am ordained, and I would like very much to have a good education.’ He repeated: “Tear up the scholarship; go to seminary. That is what the Lord wants you to do. And if you do it, trusting in Him, you will receive a far better university education after you are ordained than before.’ I tore up the scholarship and went to the seminary. I have never regretted that visit and that decision.” (Treasure in Clay 31-32).
Imagine the loss to the world if Sheen, who went on to be the greatest media evangelist of his time and one of the greatest instruments of conversion, had chosen the scholarship. Yet there are so many gifted young people who choose the goods of this world rather than seeking true wisdom, as our first reading describes it. I can’t help but also think of St. Francis Xavier, who wrote from his mission in India to St. Ignatius of Loyola: “Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: ‘What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!’ I wish they would work as hard at this as they do at their books, and so settle their account with God for their learning and the talents entrusted to them…They would forget their own desires, their human affairs, and give themselves over entirely to God’s will and his choice. They would cry out with all their heart: Lord, I am here! What do you want me to do? Send me anywhere you like – even to India” (from the Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings on December 3, Memorial of St. Francis Xavier).
Francis himself had been converted to his mission by Ignatius. Passing through the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, Francis came to know Christ in a deeply personal way. Within this intense personal encounter with Christ, deepened over thirty days of silence and imaginative meditation of the Gospels, Francis was freed from worldly attachments so that he could make an act of total self-abandonment to Christ. He went on to baptize about 30,000 people.
Neither Sheen, nor Francis Xavier, could ever regret the things they let go of, because they were so filled with God’s blessings in this life, and now they behold the beatific vision. I am much less than either of these two, but every day I get to hold the body of Christ in my hands. There is nothing that I wouldn’t give up for this incredible gift. I could ask a young parent, “If you could have anything you want in exchange for your child, what would you choose?” Of course they would day “nothing.” Nothing could fill their arms like that child, and everything is worth giving up for him or her. Our true vocations never leave us empty handed.
So if you’re discerning, don’t be afraid. Jesus does ask for a lot. In fact, he asks for everything. But he gives you more than you can imagine, and he even makes our self-gift easier as we trust in him. What we think might be painful instead becomes sweet and joyful, and before we know it, we have found our freedom. We have found the “hundredfold,” and we’re standing before God with our hands full — perhaps with the Eucharist, or a newborn child, — and offering those up to Him for his praise and glory as well. “I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me…all good things together came to me in her company, and countless riches at her hands.”