Have you ever heard the expression that something was “meant to be”? Though there is no mention of God in this statement, it presupposes that there is, in fact, a Divine plan to be fulfilled. How can we be confident that God has a path marked out for each of us in life? It only makes sense that He wouldn’t leave us, the greatest work of His creation, to mere chance or circumstance. Yet there is another dimension that equally demonstrates our heavenly Father’s great love for us.
He gives us the gift of free will, never forcing us to accept His plan. When it comes to our vocation, we stand at the crossroads and must choose which way to go – a critical juncture that will impact everything else in life. If we want to experience the peace and fulfillment that God has in store, it is up to us to discover the right path. All vocational discernment involves spending time in prayer, speaking and listening to God to see where He is leading us. It is the action of the Holy Spirit, who searches the mind and knows the depths of the heart…He who will “instruct you and teach you the way you should go” (Ps 32:8).
Discerning a vocation to the married life consists of several steps. Interestingly enough, the first step is to consider whether God might be calling you to the religious life. There exists a logical “order of operations,” that simplifies the discernment process immensely if we follow it. It calls for giving God a chance, the first opportunity, to claim us totally for Himself. If we rush into the idea of marriage when it’s not really our vocation, we not only short-change God but ourselves as well. Once we’ve mostly ruled out the possibility of a religious vocation (recognizing that we still try to remain open to the idea…), we can move on to discovering first, whether God is calling us to the married life and then, more specifically, to a relationship with a particular person. The primary focus of this article is necessarily on the first part, answering the question, “Is God calling me to the married life?” Believe it or not, once you’ve determined that answer, the second part is infinitely easier!
It may come as a surprise to you, but discerning a vocation to marriage is best done when you’re not actually in a relationship. The reason is because our judgment can become clouded by infatuation, fleeting passions, and unpredictable emotions. Some people think that it is only through experiencing a romantic relationship that they are able to “test the waters” of marriage. The danger in this plan is “falling into” marriage at the end of a long-term relationship, with little or no thought given as to whether it’s truly right, or whether it’s actually God’s plan. If we are attentive, the Holy Spirit will point us in the right direction with various signs and signals. A big part of it is simply knowing ourselves and reflecting on how we are “built”. Just as someone may be born with long, nimble fingers and be well-suited to playing the piano, or be very tall and be considered a great candidate for a basketball team, God “builds” us for a particular vocation, though the specific qualities may be harder to pinpoint. Here are a few things to consider when discerning a vocation to married life:
Am I open to sharing everything with another person? This means everything, holding nothing back – thoughts, feelings, goals, strengths, weaknesses, material goods and resources, and so on. God’s plan for marriage calls for complete openness and ever-increasing, supernatural generosity.
Am I willing to give myself exclusively to one person? We must be ready to sacrifice all others and relinquish all other possibilities when we enter into marriage. It’s not: “I’ll be with you until someone better comes along.”
Am I committed to marriage for a lifetime? God’s plan involves a total and lifelong commitment to love and support one another. If He’s calling us to marriage, this is what He expects – but remember that He gives us the grace to live it!
Am I flexible? We must be willing to accommodate another person’s wants and needs. Flexibility is only the beginning of the kind of sacrificial love required in marriage.
Am I comfortable with almost constant human companionship? This doesn’t mean that you must be talking all the time or be together 24/7, but it does require a degree of charity that is perhaps more demanding than with any other vocation. We are all called to community, but to live in daily close contact with one person is not something that everyone is called to.
Am I humble enough to say, “I’m sorry”? For marriage to really work, we must be willing to admit our faults and ask for forgiveness.
Am I open to children/family life? Not that every marriage results in children, but it is God’s plan that this most important work of creation takes place within the context of a family. Perhaps we even feel called to be a parent and have kids.
Do I feel a sense of peace and contentment in imagining this life? Does it sound appealing? Does it “feel right,” or is there a sense of unease and restlessness at the thought of a lifetime commitment to one person.
Once we know the answers to these questions, then we can consider whether a specific person is right for us. It’s a very personal and particular kind of discernment, but there are a few generalizations that can be made. For one, we must consider how we are with this person. Do they bring out the best in us? Do we make each other better people? Another consideration is complementarity – is there a harmony between the two of us? Or, even a “synergy”? Do our basic temperaments complement one another? Are we heading in the same direction and want the same things out of life?
Finally, one of the most important questions to consider: Do we agree in matters of faith and morals? I’ve known couples from different backgrounds or faith perspectives who fell in love and decided to get married without ever really considering the impact of such fundamental differences. Not to suggest that such differences are insurmountable, but it will certainly make things easier if you’re on the same page right from the beginning. Marriage is challenging enough under the best of circumstances!
In addition to the questions and ideas included here, there are lots of great resources available online or through Catholic bookstores that will help you in this process of discernment. Some books that I would especially recommend are The ABCs of Choosing a Good Husband and its companion, The ABCs of Choosing a Good Wife by Stephen Wood (Family Life Center Publications), and Sex, God & Marriage by Johann Christoph Arnold (Plough Publishing). Whatever path God has in mind, rest in the knowledge that “love is perfected in fidelity.”1
– Kelley Holy
“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11
1 Quote from Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Youcat (Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church), p. 150.