I don’t remember the context of the first time I was told that God speaks in different ways and that we need to keep our eyes, ears, and heart open to all those ways. I like to think it was at or shortly after a youth retreat I attended four and a half years ago that kickstarted my love affair with Catholicism. Jesus was my latest obsession and I was excited by the idea of communicating with this person that, until that point, had only existed in books and religion classes.
Excited as I was, though, I was a bit troubled by the idea, too. All this talk of finding the voice of God in nature, in other people, and in very wishes of my own heart seemed kind of absurd to me. Surely the God that appeared to Moses as a burning bush and that granted saints visions of heaven wouldn’t make me try so hard to distinguish his voice from all the other noise in my life. He’s GOD. Shouldn’t he make a spectacle of himself to make sure I don’t confuse anything for his call?
I moved through the next three years of my life with this very mindset. I had been taught to believe that I couldn’t trust myself and my ability to choose; my will and God’s will were antagonistic and I had to wait for God’s okay when making decisions. I was hesitant to commit to anything without first finding big signs with “HEY, ERIN! GO THIS WAY!” written on them in bold red letters.
So during my first few years of college, whenever I was faced with a big decision, including whether or not to transfer during my first year and determining if I wanted to change my major, I always begged God to please, please give me a sign. Something unmistakeably divine to ensure that the correct path was clear.
As you can probably guess, I never got my signs. But that didn’t stop me from continuing to ask for them. I always figured that not receiving them meant that I wasn’t trusting enough and that God would reward me if I was persistent in my asking for them. So I kept asking, and I kept waiting.
All this while I was still hearing that God doesn’t always talk to us in the ways that we might expect him to, that he usually comes to us in a gentle breeze rather than a great gust of wind, according to the famous biblical story of Elijah. I guess I wanted to think that I was an exception to that rule and that God was just waiting for the right moment to do something spectacular for me.
And he did do something spectacular eventually, but it wasn’t at all what I expected: God (seemingly) vanished from my life.
I’m still not entirely sure what happened. All I know is that one day, during the summer before my junior year of college, any excitement that I had for God had disappeared, and I didn’t know how to react other than to panic and to think that God was testing me. In the aftermath of this collapse, I lost interest in my perceived calling to ministry, which was one of the worst things I could imagine because I was so. dang. sure. that ministry was God’s will for me.
For the next several months I struggled to understand what it all meant and how something I used to be so passionate about could suddenly mean nothing to me. Nothing made sense. My image of God’s call as something stable and unchanging had been shattered. I was being forced to reconsider my purpose in life, and I didn’t like it one bit. But at the same time, I couldn’t bring myself to return to the way things were: worshipping religious perfection, cursing my shortcomings, and waiting for God to drop big obvious signs in my path. I was caught between the way things were and the need to move on, and some days the tension broke me and turned me into an anxious wreck.
But after a year and a half of wondering, I think I’m finally ready to accept that things change and to make peace with my past. I’m finding that making peace doesn’t mean trying to put the shattered pieces of past dreams back together; it’s accepting that something unexpected happened, learning from it, and moving on.
More importantly, though, I’m finding that the wisdom that’s been repeated to me over the years has more truth to it than I thought: Sometimes being in tune with God means being in tune with not just ourselves, but with others. There’s a fine line between introspection and getting lost in one’s own head, and I’ve managed to cross that line too many times. We need the wisdom of peers, friends, and mentors to keep us grounded and to help us find the right path. They can often see light in us even when we feel like we’re fumbling around in the dark.
Shortly after my faith life began to shift, I attended a conference for young people discerning a life of service to the Catholic Church. One of my fellow conference attendees said something that I still remember to this day:
“If people keep telling you that you’ve got a gift, don’t ignore them.”
As easy as it can be to shrug off compliments and encouragement from others, I’m finding that these outside voices aren’t subsiding, and they probably won’t anytime soon. But I know that I’m not pursuing the calling of writing just to please others; I do it because I really do feel like it’s what I’m meant to do. People who haven’t been granted visions of Jesus and of heaven often describe a call from God in this way: subtle and gentle, but persistent, coming from either within or without, causing some kind of hesitation, but yielding peace and joy once followed. I can’t say I ever felt that way about the idea of being a minister. But I always have with writing, even when I thought I had excluded that possibility from my life.
So, world (and God, I suppose), consider this my declaration that I have indeed heard you. I might not know how to respond to you just yet, but your persistence has paid off. I hope that I can use the talents that you’ve found in me to return some of the love that you’ve shown me.