One commonly used term buzzword in the Calvin College vocabulary is “discernment.” This may even have been a Chimes-office banned word while I was there; I don’t remember (the only one I do remember is “community,” especially when preceded by “intentional”).
I was especially familiar with talk about discernment since I worked with Ken Heffner and the SAO as a “cultural discerner.” I mean, we Knights are all well-equipped to be cultural discerners, but I had a name tag, a Festival of Faith and Music shirt, and a copy of Colossians Remixed to prove it.
Being a cultural discerner was an amazing part of my college experience (and probably did a lot to shape my currently stellar taste in music), but it’s not actually what I want to talk about. See, after moving to Indiana for grad school, I entered, much to my surprise, another period of discernment. You see, I’m on the path toward becoming an Episcopal priest.
How did that happen to a good Dutch, Christian Reformed Midwesterner like me? Well, it’s a long story, and a story that includes a lot of talk about, well, discernment. When I began this journey, I actually began what is officially termed the “discernment process.” And what a process it is!
I won’t go into all the details. Suffice it to say I officially entered the process almost a year and a half ago, and was given a checklist detailing various tasks I would be responsible for completing, from meeting with two different “discernment groups” to shadowing a priest to completing a physical, psych evaluation, and full background check. I checked the boxes one by one, and as you read this, I will be wrapping up a series of group interviews. I’ve come a long way.
As far as I’ve come, though, this journey is far from finished. I could still be told at any time that my community—my diocese or bishop or the Commission on Ministry—does not discern this call to ordination for me. And like that I would be “out” of the process, to discern my place in lay ministry or reenter the process at another time.
It may sound harsh, but discernment within community is a vital part of the process. Sometimes other people—people who know me well and people who are more or less strangers to me—can see things I can’t. Sometimes I like what they see and, well, sometimes I don’t, but the knowledge is an important part of growth.
And my own discernment journey isn’t all peace and easy answers and forward momentum, either. I’m heading into a vocation I never anticipated, that carries with it an expensive degree and uncertain job prospects. I’m so used to changing my mind about “what I want to be when I grow up,” so what if that happens again? What if my ministry doesn’t look anything like I expect it to? (And you know what? It probably won’t. Thank God.) What if, somewhere along the way, I learn that this is not, in fact, my path to tread?
On one hand, these questions keep me awake at night and move me to eat my feelings in the form of Ben & Jerry’s. But on the other hand—it’s okay. The questions are okay. The uncertainty is okay. I’m okay. All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
Discernment is hard work. I wish it were as easy as marking off a checklist—that was the easy part. The hard part is the careful self-examination, the perseverance, the curiosity, the strain to hear that still, small voice. And that hard part isn’t just tied to my vocational discernment, or to this season in my life. It spreads out through every part of my living, and I expect I’ll be wrestling with it for years to come.
At several of points in my discernment process, I’ve read a prayer written by Thomas Merton, and it’s with this prayer that I will leave you. I think it captures the heart of how discernment feels and, more than that, what it really means.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
(Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude)
Alissa Goudswaard Anderson (’10) lives with her husband Josh in New York City, where she is earning her Master of Divinity at General Theological Seminary. Alissa enjoys private kitchen dance parties, big Midwestern thunderstorms, and perusing other peoples’ bookshelves. For more, find her online at www.episcotheque.wordpress.com or tweet her @episcotheque.