There are people who feel entirely settled in their lives. They feel confident about their location, occupation and calling in life.
Then there are the rest of us. We’re not so sure. We’re not sure where to live, what to study, who to marry, where to work, when to retire, which church to attend, whether to apply to Mennonite Central Committee or what our calling is. We spend an inordinate amount of time pondering these decisions, possibly wishing for audible directions from on high.
I count myself seated among the unsettled. Finding myself at a career crossroads, to put it euphemistically, I am considering several completely different options. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that my wife and I want to move from Winnipeg. Last weekend we toured southern Manitoba, looking for a town that might suit our fancy, our skimpy budget and our blurry sense of calling. We’ve also researched possibilities in Central America.
I feel both excitement and pressure as I consider the options ahead. Part of the excitement is that I feel like I have been given much in life—health, education, work experience—and I’m eager to use this privilege for good. This is the Mennonite way. As for the pressure, with infinite options, seemingly infinite factors to consider, no shortage of ethical tangles, and much at stake, the decisions seem daunting.
In my own process of discernment I’m trying to focus on two things. The first is an oft-quoted line from Fredrick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor and writer. “The place God calls you to,” he writes, “is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
My second point of focus comes from a book written by Elizabeth O’Connor in the 1970s. She encourages those who seek God’s calling to find that piece of the world’s pain that is ours to carry. This frees me to focus on a specific calling without feeling overwhelmed by the endless needs of the world.
But how, practically, does one discern one’s piece of the world’s pain or one’s point of deepest gladness? What I have found helpful is a simple practice from the Jesuit Ignatian tradition. It’s called the “examen of conscience.” In simplest form, it requires a quiet moment at the end of the day. In that moment, you prayerfully go over the events of the day in your mind. Then you consider which two or three moments were most life-giving. These are briefly recalled and, ideally, noted in a journal. Then you consider which moments were most life-taking. Again, these are noted, without going into detail.
Alternatively, you can ask when you felt most alive and least alive, or when you experienced God and when you didn’t. The idea is to offer gratitude for the positive things and to let go of the negative.
During periods in my life when I have mustered the discipline to do the examen, I have found it a valuable way to both identify patterns and then be drawn towards life-giving choices. Unlike my younger years, when I would just hope for a vaguely spiritual inclination that I would deem “God’s will,” the examen offers a specific way in which to be attentive to that which God says to us through our daily experience. It is still not as good as the ever-illusive audible voice from above, but it’s as close as I hope to come.
Will Braun lives (for now) in Winnipeg and can be reached (for now) at firstname.lastname@example.org.