As a convert, the word “vocation” never meant much to me growing up. Thanks to the vocational school across the street from my high school, I thought it had something to do with welding or air conditioning maintenance, and nothing to do with priesthood, convents, or marriage. That’s why, when I was wrapping up my junior year in college, I had my quarter-life crisis three years early because I had literally no. Idea. What to do. With my life. I vaguely knew that I should probably either get married or join a monastery, but I was never really encouraged to pray about it, explore monastic life, or hang with singles of my denomination. Essentially, I was flying blind. Luckily I eventually sorted things out by meeting my now-husband, figuring out within about two weeks of dating that God wanted me to marry this guy, and converting to Catholicism. But until that point it was a roller coaster of anxiety, frustration, tearful phone calls home to my bestie, and no small amount of cheap white zin. The stages of sorting it all out went something like this…
1. The “Ah-ha! But pizza…” Stage
One day, in your early 20s, you will be sitting in your lowly college student hovel, beating the living daylights out of draugr deathlords in Skyrim, your immediate surroundings lightly dusted with Cheeto powder, and it will occur to you, in some deep recess of your brain not currently being used in order to power-level your enchanted axe-wielding Orc mage, that you should probably do something with your life. Not just a money-making something like a career or trade, but a more spiritual something. Something that will consume your entire life, something wonderful and glorious and sacramental that will inspire you to struggle against sin and will lead you to the shining gates of heaven itself. In fact, maybe you should go think more deeply abou—
And then your Orc mage will level up in the middle of a boss fight right as your bacon-sriracha pizza arrives and somewhere your guardian angel will mutter something about being ridiculously underpaid.
2. The “A former classmate is discerning religious life while living in a Franciscan Indonesian ashram; meanwhile you’re working retail” Stage
A few weeks or months later, you’ll be simultaneously trying to research your final paper and shoveling scalding hot ramen down your gullet, holed up in the cramped stockroom of a major retail chain for which you work, but whose clothes you paradoxically can’t afford. You will take a five-second sanity break to check Facebook, and lo and behold, there’s all your former classmates who graduated ahead of you, posting pictures of themselves in interesting places doing amazing things, casually figuring out life, changing the world, doing what they know God put them on Earth to do. “But who knows”, you say to yourself, “maybe your unique function in the Body of Christ is to try to convince tourists to buy cheaply-made, Coachella-ready apparel. Forever.”
Your guardian angel tries to kick over your Cup of Something to let you know that’s a terrible idea and to stop crying on company time.
3. The “Thomas Merton, take the wheel” Stage
Eventually in the course of events, you will stumble across Thomas Merton’s vocation prayer, and you will cling to it like a life raft. You will say it in the morning when you wake up, and at night before you go to sleep, because “My Lord, I have no idea where I am going,” feels like the most honest thing you’ve ever said to God in your life, and pretty much the only honest thing you can say at this point. You will print it out and tape it to your bathroom mirror. And your binder. And inside your Bible. And maybe wish a little bit that you could tattoo it onto your eyeballs.
Your guardian angel is grateful for the breakthrough, but gets distracted by pondering eyeball tattoos, human sight, and the mystery of bodily incarnation in general.
4. The “you can go your own way” Stage
After a few months to a year or two of this constant existential pressure, it’ll get to you. Something will happen that will just make you snap. In this example, your long-time boyfriend who you thought you were going to marry will break up with you two months before you complete your bachelor’s degree, and you’re right back at square one. Less than square one, really. The entire board just got blown up into tiny bits, and you’re standing in the rubble weeks before the rest of your life starts, with no plan and nowhere to go. It’s at this point that it sounds like a great idea to drop everything, move to the other side of the country, and couch surf with internet friends until God decides to tell you what the blue blazes to do with your existence. That’s kind of like what Abraham did, right? You figure, St. Francis just kind of frolicked among the hillsides until he figured stuff out, and he turned out okay. After listening to “Go Your Own Way” for the millionth time, you’re ready to pack your bags, hop a plane, and take whatever adventure the good Lord brings you.
Your guardian angel decides he really, REALLY hates Fleetwood Mac and that this is a TERRIBLE IDEA PLEASE HUMAN DON’T DO THIS DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH PLANE TICKETS COST JUST STOP.
5. The “I’m pretty sure this is how Leo DiCaprio will feel when he finally gets his Oscar” Stage
So, you didn’t follow through on your crazy plan to couch surf your way into spiritual enlightenment. Mostly because, unlike in all those feel-good, independent-woman songs you filled your iPod with, real life has things like rent agreements and out-of-state insurance costs that need to be dealt with. Also, planes are scary. In the end, you’ve decided to just throw up your hands and wait for God to show up whenever He wants to. Maybe you’ll run away to a monastery somewhere. Maybe you’ll just stay in your college town and be single for the rest of your life. Just when you get ready to admit defeat, God will remind you why He’s, you know, the ruler of the universe. You will meet a guy that you’ve seen around campus for almost three years without saying two words to each other. He will ask you out, he will take you to Mass with him, and he will let you know up front that his vocation is to married life and he’s looking for a future wife, not a girlfriend. On your first date you will argue about which Star Trek captain is superior, and will finish each other’s Star Wars quotes. You will stay up late comparing Eastern and Western theology, and you can almost sense God whispering “I told you to trust Me, silly.” A little more than a year later you will enter into the Sacrament of Marriage with him in front of all your friends and family and wonder why you ever freaked about God guiding you where you needed to go.
Your guardian angel will breathe a huge sigh of relief as you make your vows—and do his best to keep you from falling off of your heels.
The details might be different for everyone—some are called to marriage, others to priesthood, others to religious life—but I don’t think I’m alone in my experience of having been anxiety-ridden over my vocation. The existential angst I experienced was compounded by the fact that I didn’t really have anyone to turn to—as an adult convert to the Greek Orthodox Church at the time, I don’t think anyone gave it a second thought that I should be concerned about it, so I never opened up. I urge you, if you’re going through the same thing, wherever you are in life, talk to your priest, or see if your diocese has ministries related to vocations. If you’ve already discerned your vocation, great! Congratulations! Don’t forget to pray for and support those still trying to discern their calling. Pray for all the seminarians you know. Pray for engaged people, for novices, and for young people who don’t have a thing figured out.