Dome ceiling of the Salzburg Cathedral in Austria
When I was 18 years old, I fell in love with the idea of studying philosophy and theology – especially theology. I had always been a bookworm, and when I was in university I started buying and reading as many books as I could afford on Church history, dogma, apologetics, salvation history etc. I was out of my depth on much of them and I have forgotten almost all of the little I managed to understand back then, but for years I had a hunger to find out more about God and the Church that I thought could be satisfied by studying. I double-majored in Philosophy and Psychology, but the two philosophy courses I most looked forward to were the ones on Augustine and Aquinas, and I used up most of my electives on Church History and Theology.
My youthful dream to study Theology was put on hold when I went to graduate school to study Philosophy of Education. But when my journey led me into full-time ministry, the dream of theological studies was revived. Throughout the five-odd years that I was in parish ministry, I wished I was better formed. I read and learned on my own as I have always done, but a part of me kind of assumed that at some point I would do formal studies of some sort in a relevant field so that I could be better equipped for ministry. I have been bringing this question up for prayer and discernment for the past 6-7 years, and now I have reached a point where I am ready to share what I have discerned.
When I first started asking God about further studies, I was still in parish ministry. Whenever I started thinking of studies, God’s answer to me was, “It is not yet time to discern this.” Eventually I told Him, “OK Lord, if your plan for me includes studies, tell me WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN and I will go where you ask me to.” This prayer was an important surrender for me as I was aware of the intellectual pride I had, and I could well end up choosing studies out of self-will instead of generosity. I came back to this prayer whenever I started asking again and heard, “Not yet.”
When I left my full-time position in the parish three years ago, I somehow assumed that my next step would be studies. After all, I was free from the responsibilities of parish ministry now, and surely going for studies would help equip me even better to serve the Church! Once again I started reading up on schools and programmes and contacting people who are studying to find out more about their experiences of schools and programmes. But when I was doing all this, there was no peace in me, but anxiety. When I noticed this, I stopped, and brought it into prayer. When I heard the still, small voice of God, the message was, “No, this is not your next step. What I want you to do now is REST and not worry about what lies ahead.” And so I stopped actively looking to enrol in any programme and waited. I did have many conversations still, including with trusted spiritual companions and my confessor/spiritual director about my on-going discernment of my personal vocation. Slowly, I realised that if I were to study, it would be in the area of spirituality or spiritual direction as that was consistently the area I was called into.
Then God said “No, this is not what I want for you.”
It didn’t happen just one time. It happened over several incidents spread across the past three years. During Holy Hour one day when I once again surrendered the question of studies was the first time I heard, “This is not what I have chosen for you.” When I protested that surely I needed to become better equipped in order to serve Him, I was asked if I have been unhappy with the way He has been forming me all these years. “Of course I’m happy! I have learned so much! But that’s all informal – I don’t feel qualified!” Right then, I suddenly realised that the reason I wanted formal academic studies in Theology was so that I would have a security blanket – a certificate or degree that would assure me and others that I was “qualified”. What if that is not what God wants for me? Do I trust Him that He will give me everything I need to fulfil the mission he has given me – even if it looks nothing like what I had imagined it would be?
Every few months since that first time, I would receive another unexpected confirmation of the same message – even when I was not actively asking about it. Each time the message came in a slightly different way, and with each time, I grew in confidence and joy that this was indeed God’s will for me. Why? Because even though He was saying, “I have not called you to this”, he was also saying, “I know what suits you best for my purposes and I promise that you will have it as long as you want it!”
It is true that I seek the Good within the limits of my human understanding, with the best of my imperfect will. And if I really wanted to seize what I perceive to be good, I believe God will let me have it, and still give me grace to face the challenges I meet on that path. What stops me from acting quickly upon what I believe is good is the deeper desire for the BEST – and I believe with all my heart that the best is whatever is God’s perfect will for me.
Even now I have begun to see some of the wisdom of God’s denying me academic studies. He created me and he knows me inside out and knows what I need to grow closer to Him and what I need to be shaped into the instrument He created me to be. Formal studies and a degree would not make me a more loving, humble or joyful apostle. That would be me playing it safe, colouring within the lines, and relying on my own ability and accomplishments. For someone else, going into academic studies might be their magis, but not for me. For me – it is not having a title or position or the rigour of formal studies to give me a sense of security (or superiority) that brings out my willingness to abandon everything to Him. It is being a “nobody” that helps me die to any need for self-importance. It is knowing that I have nothing except what the Holy Spirit chooses to give me in the moment, and that I will have no defender except Christ that keeps me sober. It is also this that makes me ever more convinced about my dependence on and need for the entire Body of Christ to proclaim God’s Kingdom.
When we desire God we must be prepared to lose those unnecessary things that take up the most room in our hearts, because unless we make room, our desire for God can never be fulfilled. One of the things we most need to lose is our self-willed dreams of how we want to serve Christ, for only when we surrender that can we find our true personal vocation.
It is strange is it not, that having now given up a dream that I have harboured for 20 years, I feel myself closer to realising THE DREAM of fulfilling the unique mission in God’s Kingdom for which I was created. More abandon, more faith, more trust, more humility, more love, and more joy – that’s the way I know I am on track to more fully carry the cross and bear witness to Christ’s death and resurrection. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam!