Should You Date While Discerning?

 by Bobby Angeljohn paul thinking

No, probably not.

 

It’s one of the toughest struggles, especially for a young person seeking to do the will of God in their lives, to adequately discern a religious vocation while desiring to date.  I tried to walk that line in college and failed more than a few times, hurting several friends in the process.

 

But how can I know for sure?  What if the right person comes along?  What if I miss the opportunity? How can I know if celibacy is right for me if I’ve never seriously dated?

 

Here’s my recommendation: No, you probably shouldn’t date while seriously discerning a celibate vocation. The keyword here is “seriously,” indicating that this is something you’ve been wrestling with for more than one evening. (If it is your first evening, stop hyperventilating. If it’s been five years of you putting this off, get your act together).

 

This is one bearded man’s opinion, not the Gospel truth.  But I can tell you from personal experience (and doing it poorly) that discerning a religious vocation while trying to date isn’t fair to either the person you’re trying to date or even yourself.  Love means to will the good of the other, especially when it hurts.

 

Made for Love

Perspective: no matter what vocation you are called to, every man and woman has been created by God and for God, the Author of all Love.  In God alone do we find our destination, the aim of our love, and we must run to Him for the fulfillment our hearts yearn for, not to any mortal man or woman.

 

Marriage itself becomes an idol when we put a man or woman on a pedestal and expect him or her to fulfill our deepest longings (spoiler alert: never gonna happen).  What marriage should be is a sign of the love between God and His people, a sign that points us onward to the banquet of heaven.  Heck, even the priesthood or religious life can become an idol when it stops being the means by which we will serve God and his people and becomes the destination. The joyful celibate is a witness to the union with God we’re all called to share, but it is indeed a total gift and total commitment meant to be a life of service for others. Life doesn’t end on your wedding day, ordination day, or professing your final vows. That day should be the beginning of the next, much less self-centered season of your life.

 

But let’s back up to the initial question.  If you’ve passed the initial “curiosity stage” of considering a religious vocation and entered into a more serious discernment phase, I don’t believe it’s wise or prudent to date.  Here’s why.

 

Lack of Intentionality

What’s the purpose of dating?  Dating ought to be the process by which we’re looking for our future spouse.  If you’re not ready to get married then you probably shouldn’t be dating.

 

Dating while discerning is, quite frankly, not intentional.  While the intentions of a person may be clearly defined (“Just so you know, I’m considering the priesthood”), the language of the body is not aligned with the intent of the heart.  I may be romancing a person by my words and actions, but my mind and heart are divided in considering an alternative destination.  I’m essentially already considering dating another person while trying to woo you.  This leads to inevitable confusion and hurt.  If you haven’t ruled out a religious vocation for your life and you seriously desire to explore that option, then you’re not ready to sincerely consider marriage (and thus shouldn’t be dating).

 

“’The biggest coward is a man who awakens the love of a woman without the intention of loving her.” –Bob Marley

 

Dating while in a period of discerning can be a selfish act to stem off loneliness or even be a purposeful act of self-sabotage because we fear the demands of our vocation.  We can lead people on by our actions, giving them false hope.  Especially when God is the alternative option, how can a person compete with that?  The person rejected feels like they were never had a chance anyway or they got their hopes up, thinking perhaps that they would be “the one.”

 

In college, I experienced a persistent call towards the priesthood.  I tried ignoring/burying it, yet I kept feeling the tug to follow Christ on the road of priestly discernment. Eventually I entered the seminary, but not before dating several female friends, thinking maybe I would prove to God (and myself) that I wasn’t called to be a priest.   My efforts were often conflated with a self-centered, overly romanticized outlook that covered up my fear of loneliness or lust for a warm body.  I hurt many friends because I didn’t have enough self-mastery to recognize my own selfishness and to curtail flirtatious actions or words.  These relationships were never fair to my friends from the get-go because my heart was already looking towards another horizon.

 

Fear of Choosing, Fear of Losing

I experienced a phenomena that I recognize in many other young adults that I like to call, “vocational paralysis.”  For a host of different reasons, we may feel overwhelmed by the decision before us and so we either postpone it or make no decision at all.  It’s easier to remain on the fence than actually move in a direction.

 

“Discernment” has become a modern buzzword that means, “I will never make a decision.”  You may know a friend who is perennially “discerning” his or her state in life (you may be that friend).  The problem is that you can’t adequately discern without concretely venturing forth into the unknown.  Eventually you must get out of your head.  You have to act.

 

But of course, especially with dating, our fears bubble up:

 

  • What if I miss the right moment to act?   Some of us wait too long to act, others act too rashly. Either way, if you are following the will of God and listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit you will never “miss” the moment that He wants you in.  Trust that He has plans for your welfare and not your woe. The moment will come, you only need eyes to see it and the courage to act.

 

  • What if the right person comes along while I’m in the seminary or convent?   Whether it‘s our own fear, our tendency to self-sabotage, or a legitimate temptation to deviate from God’s plan, alternate options will always present themselves.  Our dream girl or guy inevitably shows up as soon as we’re about to commit to such a journey with God.  The question is whether we trust God enough to not grasp and wait on His plan for the allotted time.

 

I met Jackie while I was a seminarian.  Simply happy that a pretty blonde girl was talking with me, I had no idea I was meeting my future wife at the time.  A friendship grew organically over the next year and a half, but it was very much detached and without ulterior motives.  God seemed to be “protecting us” from jumping to the romance stage, and He forced us to cultivate a real friendship first that genuinely wanted the best for the other person.  Meanwhile, I continued to give myself to the priestly discernment process and, with the help of my spiritual director and friends, concluded that I would be more generous and “most me” in the married state.  Lo and behold, God brought Jackie and I back together at the right moment.  But it was only after I stepped out and trusted Him.

 

  • So should I not date at all for my time in college if I am feeling called?   If you’ve seriously arrived at a place in your heart where you persistently hear Christ knocking on the door of you heart and you know you need to explore religious life, dating is only going to muddy the waters and create confusion.  This is where heroic self-mastery comes in…to not use another for selfish reasons or rationalize dating “for the moment.”  Good Christian men and women can do a lot of harm by dating with selfish motives.  Because if Christ has been knocking, He’s not going away.

 

Concerning dating while discerning, there are other variables to examine. What stage of life are you in? High school?  There will be a lot of growth and transition coming soon.  College?   You’re starting to make some concrete decisions for your future, while still on fertile ground to explore.  Post-college? Flexible, but it’s time to make serious life choices. We’re not guaranteed seventy years on this earth. How will you serve God today?

 

  • How can I know if celibacy is right for me if I’ve never seriously dated?   This is a good question. We’ve had many saints who entered religious life who never dated (St. Therése) who led lives of great holiness and others who demonstrated heroic self-mastery when it came to refraining from dating for the good of others (Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati).  Some individuals, however, need a “peace of mind” when it comes to the dating question.  Be careful not to rationalize out of lust, though.  This is where a good spiritual director or vocation director could provide valuable, personalized insight and give an external perspective.

 

On the flip side, if you feel God calling you to follow Him wholeheartedly in this radical way but never actually commit to journeying down that road (whether religious life, the seminary, missionary work), how will you know that’s not the life He has called for you? You don’t take a blood oath when you enter a seminary or convent; you’re only entering into formation to see if this is what God has called you to, and you will be better for stepping out in faith regardless of the outcome.

 

If a vocation is truly a heavenly call within an earthly vessel, we need to treat it carefully.  What a gift to be called into union with and service to Christ!  We should run to Christ, entrusting our journey and our youth to Him as soon as possible.  I have no doubt that a lot of religious vocations are muted, lost, or killed in the hedonistic culture of college life.

 

Ironically, it was my surrender to God in what I believed was a call to the priesthood that led me to my wife.  I am a better husband and father today than I ever could have been without my journey in priestly formation.  The priests, formation directors, and brother seminarians all helped me to become a more selfless and Christ-centered man.  Your particular journey will be your own and no one else’s.  Entrust it to Jesus Christ and hang on for the ride.

 

Seek wisdom, talk to vocation directors.  Form virtuous friendships and know yourself well enough to be honest with yourself.  Exercise self-mastery especially when it hurts.  Run to Christ in your loneliness.

 

Remember that God is your destination.  Let Him fill your ache.  The rest will be sorted out.

 

“The greater the feeling of responsibility for the person, the more true love there is.”

-St. John Paul II

  One thought on “Should You Date While Discerning?

  1. December 17, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    This is a fantastic post, it clarified a lot for me! Thank you so much!

  2. Leslie
    December 17, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    What if you aren’t super serious about discernment, in a sense that “I can enter into the religious life any second!!!!!” But you just aren’t ruling out that option and don’t know if the religious life or the marriage life is the life you are called to!? Would you say it’s okay to date then?

  3. Katie
    December 17, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    Thank you! That was right on the nose, on how I feel about discernment. One of my friends thinks it’s ok to date while discerning, and I never really been able to share with her why I think it’s not the best idea. I am definitely going to show her this. Thank you for doing all that you do, for working tirelessly for the faith, I will be praying for you and your family.

  4. Leslie
    December 17, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    What if you are not seriously discerning the religious life? Like you said above. Like right now, I am open to either the religious life or marriage and know it is in God’s hands, but I have no idea which one is my vocation. Does that mean one shouldn’t date until we know that we are forsure called to marriage? Because I feel like, when it comes to my vocation, it can go either way! Should we not date unless we are sure we arent called to religious life?

    • December 17, 2015 at 9:39 pm

      Leslie,
      My main thrust here is that if you have been weighing this question for some time (months and years), and you’ve reached a point where you KNOW that you will have to explore this option in a realistic way because it keeps arising in prayer and God doesn’t seem to be leaving you alone, then it’s unwise to date. It rarely ends well, especially for the other person. You cannot give of yourself if you are divided.

      Regarding “being sure”…God asks for our faithfulness, not our certainty. To one journalist asking for God’s certainty, Mother Teresa famously responded, “I’ve never had clarity and certitude,” she said. “I only have trust. I’ll pray that you trust.”

      The funny thing with God is that He seems to want us to step out and exercise our own free will…meaning He isn’t necessarily going to “spell it out” in the sky what our vocation is, like some kind of genie or Magic 8 Ball would. He works much more quietly. He wants us to use our wisdom and prudence to make a decision, and if we are desiring to serve Him then we are headed in the right direction. If you aren’t seriously considering a religious vocation then don’t put yourself into a spiral of questioning. God will reveal all things, but we have to first quiet ourselves to listen.
      -Bobby

  5. thesmallsteph
    December 17, 2015 at 9:32 pm

    Well put! Your theology of the body and discernment topics are so on point and answer so many of my questions. Would you do a post about ex’s?

    • December 17, 2015 at 9:41 pm

      Thank you for the feedback!
      Sounds feasible…what exactly would you want addressed or written about on the topic?
      -Bobby

      • thesmallsteph
        December 18, 2015 at 11:34 am

        Remaining friends…going through heartbreak…unequally yoked relationships…comparing future relationships or the magic you had with them. I’ve found some answers via prayer, books and such but yet to find something so detailed or concrete.

  6. I said yes to Him! :)
    December 18, 2015 at 5:48 am

    Dear Jackie and Bobby, I want to thank you for this! I have a call to religious life, it’s already sure, when I’ve ended my study, I will enter! Of course I knew I don’t have to date right now, but I’m struggling a bit because I feel a little bit in love with a guy I met in Mass! I try to give it to the Lord, but especially when I see him, it’s hard for me! I’m really in love with God, I love Him immensely and I know He calls me to marry Him, but I think you understand me! Could you pray for me? I thank you to give me the assurance that this beautiful religious life is for me, cause everything you describe is clearly for me! :) I thank you for what you’re doing! God bless! A 17-year-old girl from Europe!

  7. Joey
    December 19, 2015 at 3:24 am

    Bobby..
    There is this Girl that i Love, and i am sure that its not just Lust full desires. We became friends first and i gradually started developing feeling for her. She has dedicated one year of her life to God and currently perusing that. I have told her about how i feel and she also feels the same way. Though we have surrendered I still didn’t Give up on thinking about her How do i Approach about this ? I do think about getting married to this girl. how do i know if she is the one ?

  8. Jessica
    December 20, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    Thank you so much for this, especially when you share about how we can hurt others because of selfish motives. I had been hearing God’s call, but I dated and feel saddened that I hurt a really nice man because I gave him false hope. I was really leading him on, and persisted in the relationship out of loneliness and curiosity. Thank you for the reminder to pray, discern, have intentionality and cultivate self-mastery.

  9. Nweke Dieudonne
    December 21, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    Am a Nigerian who was born in Cameroon and I really want to discern my vocation to the priesthood but it is very difficult here to join any seminary because of vocation boom in our country. I need help

  10. December 30, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    Great blog post! Thanks for sharing! :)

  11. January 11, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    Thank you for the blog!

  12. Maria
    February 3, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    Great post as always, Bobby! I went through this experience about 6 months back and thankfully through good spiritual direction came to the same conclusion you did here: Jesus has to come first. I’m in application with religious order right now. :)

    Would you ever consider writing a post on what it is like/ what to do after discerning out of seminary or religious life? I have seen friends and acquaintances struggle after leaving seminary or the convent, especially if the decision is made by the seminarian director or community. Do you have any advice on how to transition back into lay life and continue to discern God’s will? Thank you!

    • February 4, 2016 at 7:53 am

      Actually yes, I’ve been wanting to write a “Life After Seminary” post for awhile now. I’ll carve some time out to make that happen!

  13. November 5, 2016 at 12:42 am

    Yes! I trust that God will close the door if He sees it unfit for me. If He does not, then it is my vocation and I will obey despite my not particularly liking the idea of religious life, (what! A nun? Me?)

    Could you do a blog how exactly you discerned “away” from priesthood? How do you know if it is the Congregation or the religious life itself that is not for you?
    What is life after seminary like? any financial ramification?(You have to give up savings when you enter a religious life. This is a worry I have since I cannot turn to my family if I discerned away from religious life after formally entering discernment with a Congregation as I expect pretty strong family opposition due to them not being Catholics nor Christians) Do I just have to trust God that He will work it out for me?

    • November 6, 2016 at 1:31 pm

      Absolutely! I will write up something soon on these points. The diocesan seminary requirements obviously differed from that of a religious order, especially regarding private property. If not your family, is there anyone else you trust who could be a steward of your possessions while you explore this life option? Financially, this is indeed where the trust in God really comes in. The funny thing is how perhaps we can trust Him with our life but not our bank account. Pray for clarity, hope, and don’t worry (shout out to Padre Pio). God is never outdone in generosity, especially to those who offer Him everything.

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