I had the distinct pleasure of spending an evening with the Adrian Dominicans last week, and, as always happens when I spend time with Catholic sisters, I found myself feeling a bit jealous on the drive home.
On the surface, I think I'm jealous of the infectious joy on their faces. But I know it's deeper than that — it's not just that they're happy, it's why they're happy.
But again, that's not digging far enough below the surface.
The only way to explain is to start 16 years ago, in the pre-marriage counseling my wife and I took with the incredible Fr. Dean Smith. He explained that marriage was much more than a commitment, much more than a legal contract, much more than forming a family. It was even much more than a sacrament.
Marriage, he said, is a vocation.
That made me feel better about myself because I had always wondered if I was doing enough for God. Not that I felt a calling to religious life or even the mission fields, but I wondered if maybe I should be doing that in return for all I've been given. There were times when I wondered if getting married was saying "no" to God.
But here was our priest saying that we had been called to marriage, that we had been called to live as an example of Christ's love for his church. Well, heck — being married to the love of my life sounded way easier than becoming a Jesuit or something.
Of course, marriage isn't just a Happy Ever After. There are money troubles, screaming children, job troubles, biting children, expensive home repairs, crying children, and grass that always needs mowing. And never — ever — try to hang wallpaper together. Just don't.
Not that there aren't moments of bliss. There are many, and they far outweigh the troubles. But there's also no question that this vocation can be difficult. And, more to the point, it often does not feel like a vocation, whether times are good or bad. It's hard to feel like you're serving an important role in the kingdom when you're dragging your kid to the church parking lot because she was too loud even for the cry room. It's also hard to feel like you're the living example of Christ's love for his church when a few years later you're watching that same spirited girl wearing a black belt and leading a taekwondo class, and you find she's not just respected, but loved by the students she's working with.
Proud? Absolutely. Amazed she is turning out far more than OK? Oh, yes. But do I feel like raising her is doing God's work? If anything, I feel like I'm doing it for her, that she deserves my very best efforts. If it happens to be good for God, too, well, that's a great bonus.
But as I walked past the Mary In Haste statue in front of the Dominican campus, I realized that there must have been many times when Mary's life didn't feel like much of a vocation, either. It certainly couldn't have felt like a vocation when she faced the real possibility of being stoned to death for being pregnant out of wedlock. And how much of a vocation could it have felt like when she had to tell Joseph about her pregnancy?
Vocations — as would-be sisters learn during the discernment process — are not about feelings, even if they're happy feelings.
What I was jealous of was that sisters always seem so sure of their role. It wasn't their smiles I envied. It was that they were smiling because they know they are exactly where God wants them to be.
Of course, I'm assuming they understand. And that is a big — and often erroneous — assumption because there is a world of difference between knowing you are exactly where God wants to you to be and understanding how it all fits in. Mary, faced with having to tell her fiancé that she was pregnant, certainly could not have understood God's plan at that point. And sisters over and over and over have told me that there were critical times when they did not understand, either. They just knew someone needed help and that God wanted them to be there.
I don't always understand, but I do know that my wife needs me, that my children need a mother and a father, and that I am exactly where God wants me to be. Perhaps a vocation doesn't require my feeble mind to grasp it for it to be a vocation nonetheless.
Maybe those sisters are smiling because they don't understand, but they know God has a plan anyway. It may even be possible that some of them are smiling because they know that I am where God wants me to be, and they see that all of this really is a vocation.
I have a bad habit of finding pleasure in pointing out when others do not practice what they preach, especially in politics. But as I sit here now, I can't help but think of how many times my children have asked me to explain something and I replied, "You don't need to understand it, you just need to do it."
God, of course, is rarely so blunt. But the reality is, I don't need to understand.
Maybe understanding that is enough.