Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Vocations and Discernment 101

The life of a Christian disciple always involves following a personal call. In the Gospels we read how Jesus called the first disciples, beckoning them, “Come and follow me”. This call is not merely a model for us, for it continues to be the reality. The Greek word for Church in the New Testament is ekkl√™sia, which literally means “called out”, while our English word “vocation” comes from the Latin vocare, meaning “to call”. We Christians are those whom God has “called out” in Christ. In the words of St. Peter, “…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).

The Second Vatican Council placed great emphasis on what is called the “universal call to holiness,” underlining the important truth that ALL people are called to become great saints, not only priests and religious, or an elite, chosen few: “…all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fulness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Lumen Gentium 40, emphasis added). This universal call to holiness is found everywhere on the pages of the New Testament. In the introduction of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, for example, we read, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:3-4). Paul was not referring to a select few individuals, but to all Christians.

In my experience, there is still significant misunderstanding about vocations in the Church and in the world today. We often speak about the “vocation crisis” and we “pray for vocations”. By these expressions, however, we typically refer only to vocations to the priesthood and religious life (and at times, only to the priesthood). This way of speaking reveals a misunderstanding, because it implies that God only calls priests and religious. A consequence to this mentality is that those who apparently are “not called” (statistically, it would seem, the great majority) are free to live their lives more or less however they see fit, provided they don’t do anything obviously offensive to God, and it would be nice if they also did something or other to contribute in the Church. I think this way of viewing Christian discipleship and vocations is completely wrong, and so I decided to share some reflections that perhaps may be helpful. The Church’s spiritual and theological tradition on vocations is rich, beautiful, and compelling, if only we take a little time and try to understand it, and above all, to live it.

Happiness and Vocation: Discerning Backwards

As Christians, we believe that God created each of us, freely and intentionally, to be an image of His love in the world, and that He destined us for everlasting union with Him. Therefore, we have to believe that God’s will or plan for our lives is always what is best for us, no matter how much that plan appears to conflict with our own preconceived plans and expectations. God, Who is love (1 Jn 4:8), wills our happiness, which consists in nothing less than union with Him. That union, made possible by the Incarnation of God in Jesus, begins now in this life and continues into eternity. In the famous words of St. Augustine, “Thou has made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” God not only wants us to be happy––God is our happiness. Therefore, it is impossible to conceive of any kind of happiness apart from God; there is no such thing as “my happiness”, understood as a lasting joy or even contentment that could be achieved apart from God and His will for my life. In the end, as the title of Cardinal Robert Sarah’s book has it, we can only choose “God or Nothing.” Or, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” Unfortunately, our discussion about vocations and discernment tends at times to separate – if not oppose – human happiness and the will of God. This is a grave problem that we absolutely must remedy if we are to achieve any real understanding of vocations. Discerning one’s vocation is not a balancing act between two separate, independent things – my will and God’s will – as if I could bargain with God to give me what I want in life while still being basically obedient in the “essential matters”. Discernment is rather the union of my will with God’s will; it is the increasing awareness that my happiness actually consists in God’s will, since He knows me better than I know myself and loves me more than I love myself.

If we’re honest, we have to admit that we often plan our lives entirely on the basis of what seems reasonable and best suits our personal preferences. Maybe we even label this process “discernment”. Perhaps we at least try to include God in this process by asking Him to bless our independent, ready-made plan. However, this second step too is often omitted: we simply determine what we want to do and then, since our plan does not appear to involve anything obviously sinful or contrary to God’s will, we assume that it therefore must be His will for us. But in this scenario, our prayer has ceased to be a dialogue and has become instead only a monologue: “Hey God, here’s what I decided you’re calling me too. Any objections? …No? Okay, good. Thanks!” Instead of actually discerning God’s will as something outside of and superior to our own will, we treat His will as a kind of divine “stamp of approval” on our merely human plan. Instead of allowing God to call us – we effectively “call” ourselves and then attribute this call to God. Commonly used phrases such as, “God put it on my heart to do X” (while not necessarily misguided) can at times be code for, “I felt like doing X and I think God would approve of it.” In such cases, the idea of God as a real, free, and personal agent Who intervenes in my life and has a plan for me is completely missing from the equation.

Of course, this whole way of thinking and discerning is completely backwards! If I really believe that God has a claim on my life, and that His will is the foundation and standard for every vocation, then this means I must discern in a way that does not simply confirm my own preconceived plans. I must be open to the possibility that God’s will could surprise and even shock me. Think about it: If what is supposedly God’s will for my life never surprises me, challenges me, or even varies significantly from what I already wanted, then what evidence is there that this is not simply my will in disguise? (Our capacity for self-deception should not be underestimated!) Discernment should not be our attempt to secure God’s affirmation of what we choose for ourselves – it should be our prayerful recognition and embracing of what God has already chosen for us.

Every gospel scene of Jesus encountering and calling people to follow him reflects this form. People do not present Jesus with their plans for his approval. Instead, he breaks into their lives quite unexpectedly and calls them out of their merely human plans and aspirations: “You shall see greater things than these” (Jn 1:50); “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” (Jn 15:16). In addition to this unexpected “breaking in”, Jesus’ call demands of us an urgency and a totality that no mere mortal could ever claim. We see this in passages such as the following:
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34).

“Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God . . . No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:60, 62).

“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:37-39).
Nothing and no one has a higher claim on our life than Jesus. And he does not share his lordship; he will either hold the center place of our life or else we will worship and follow only a caricature of him, or else some idol of our choosing. Jesus is not a convenience or a commodity, one concern among others to be taken into consideration. All worldly possessions, plans, and relationships must be subordinated to Him: “…at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php 2:10-11); we must “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).

I cannot evaluate the call of Christ in my life according to human or worldly standards alone. By the grace of God, and striving faithfully each day, the love of God for me must become the foundational principle of my life, the source of my identity. Slowly but surely, God’s love will animate and inform everything I think, say, and do. This entails, to be sure, a death to self. However, it is only through this death that I can move beyond the pitfall of egoism and make my life into an offering that glorifies God and unites me to Him: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor 5:14-15). If we strive to live this way, our entire life will become a hymn of grateful praise to God; with Mary, we will be able to sing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Lk 1:47).

Christian Indifference

True vocational discernment demands a humble awareness that my plan for my life could be wrong, or more precisely, that it could be at odds with God’s plan for my life. Therefore, in order to understand and accept the will of God for me, I must attain a certain degree of detachment or indifference to my life. If I am already attached to one specific path, I will not be open to receiving and accepting the path which God has actually chosen for me (which could very well be different). The concept of indifference is a central theme of the popular Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th c. spiritual master and founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). The purpose of the Spiritual Exercises, intended to be experienced as a retreat, is to enable a person to make an “election”, that is, to choose freely and definitively the vocation or state of life that God has already chosen for him or her (religious vows, priesthood, marriage, etc.). This Christian indifference that Ignatius promotes is not identical to apathy, passivity, or a lack of passion or desire; nor is it a Stoic indifference (i.e. the trained, unnatural ability to be totally unmoved by anything). Rather, Christian indifference is a fundamental attitude of openness, availability, and readiness that allows one to receive and follow God’s call at each moment, whatever that may be. It means preferring nothing to the will of God, with the willingness to renounce everything in order to follow that will. Because such indifference is essential to our accepting and obeying the will of God, we must continuously examine ourselves to see whether we truly possess it. Thus, we might reflect using questions such as the following:

-     Am I open to being surprised by God’s will for my life, or do I think that I am capable of figuring things out without Him?

-     Am I attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who at times challenges my way of thinking and acting, or do I tend to live as if God’s will is more or less synonymous with my own?

-     Do I discern God’s will as something above and beyond me, which has a claim on my life? Or do I simply ask God to approve of my self-made plans for my life?

Are Some Vocations “Better” or “Holier” than Others?

Unfortunately, for a long time in the Church there was a tendency to speak about certain vocations or states of life as being objectively better or higher than others. For example, it is often still said that the religious state of life (a sister or brother who takes vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience) is objectively higher or holier than the married state because it conforms more closely to both Jesus’ own earthly state of life and to the state of life that all of us will live in heaven – our “eschatological state” (our “end state” – from the Greek eschaton meaning “the end”). In my opinion, this way of speaking about vocations is not helpful and can be very misleading. As I mentioned above, the only legitimate standard for a person’s vocation and discernment is the will of God for him or her. The various states of life – marriage, religious life, priesthood, consecrated life – never exist as abstract realities or ideals. These states or vocations only exist in the lives of real people who are called to them by God. Therefore, it is not helpful or even accurate to speak abstractly about which state is better, higher, or holier.

The best, highest, and holiest state of life for a given person will always be the one to which God is calling him or her – period. For example, if a young woman is enflamed with love for Jesus and wants to devote her life to him as a religious sister, but he is not calling her to that, it would not be “better” or “holier” in any sense whatsoever if she were to enter a convent and take religious vows anyway. To use St. Paul’s image of the Body of Christ, it would not be better if someone called to be the hand were to try to be the eye. Our perfection consists in God’s will for us. Certainly, we must strive to be completely open to whichever state of life God may be calling us, and indeed, open even to renouncing everything in the most literal sense in order to follow Jesus. However, we cannot for this reason assume that our religious zeal and desire to commit our lives to God automatically implies that we are called to, for example, the priesthood or religious life. Desire can certainly be indicative of a true calling, and we should pay close attention to the desires of our heart, especially when a desire arises rather suddenly and unexpectedly, almost as if from “outside” of us. However, desire alone is not a substitute for the actual call: “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn 15:16). There were plenty of people who wanted to follow Jesus as part of his close group of disciples, but he did not allow them to do so:
“And as [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him.  But he refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you’” (Mk 5:18-19; see also Lk 9:57-58).
Vocations and the Cross

As disciples of Christ and members of his Body, we are called to imitate him. Through this imitation, empowered by the Sacraments of the Church and guided by her teaching and wisdom, we are able to extend the love and ministry of Christ on earth. In fact, as Christ’s Body on earth, we do not merely love like Christ – we love as Christ. Of course, exactly how we do this necessarily takes different forms for different people. The variety of our gifts work together in symphony, allowing our individual contributions, however small and seemingly insignificant, to extend the reach of Christ’s saving action on the cross:
“And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph 4:11-13).
As mentioned above, we cannot take our own preferences or the world’s standards for happiness and success as the basis for discerning our vocation. Our one standard must always be the example of Christ and the will of God for our lives. In our attempt to follow Jesus and discern our vocation, we can fall into two general extremes: avoidance of the cross or chasing the cross. To avoid the cross in our vocation means that we pursue a path because we believe it will be easier and involve less suffering. Of course, this avoidance runs counter to the Gospel; it fails to conform to the example of Jesus, who “became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Php 2:8). By avoiding the cross, we attempt to reduce the full cost of discipleship, which necessarily involves, to a certain degree, being hated by the world: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you . . . If they persecuted me, they will persecute you…” (Jn 15:18-19, 20b). The life of every Christian must be Christoform, and therefore cruciform. Therefore, the choice of one’s vocation cannot be motivated by a desire to avoid the cross. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant pastor executed by the Nazis for his opposition, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship).

The second extreme is the opposite of the first, not avoiding our cross but chasing it. By chasing the cross, I mean seeking out and choosing for ourselves the way in which we will make an offering of our lives, instead of allowing our cross to come to us as a natural consequence of our obedience to Christ and following him. In other words, chasing your cross means trying to “customize” the sacrifice involved in your vocation instead embracing the “package deal” as God gives it. Just as we should not attempt to avoid the cross when discerning God’s call in our lives, we likewise should not presume that some particular sacrifice is being demanded of us. Every Christian should have the readiness to renounce everything in a very literal and material sense. This is why the Church has always held up the martyrs as exemplary disciples, and during times of minimal persecution, the monks. This is also why even today religious sisters and brothers offer us an inspiring witness by their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. However, while we all should be willing to sacrifice everything, we should not take it upon ourselves to do so, because just as God’s will is the only standard for our vocation, it is likewise the only standard for our cross. Like Jesus, who prayed to accept his Father’s will during his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, we too must allow God to determine what our “chalice” of suffering will be: “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk 22:42).

Let me offer an example. A young man’s willingness to give up marriage and children to become a priest is indeed commendable and probably a sign of genuine piety and zeal. However, such willingness considered by itself, no matter how humble or fervent it may be, can never replace the actual call to the priesthood. The same applies to the discernment of religious and consecrated life. God is free, and He calls whomever He wills. The universal call to holiness entails that everyone, regardless of their state of life or particular calling, is called to become a great saint. There is not some spectrum of holiness or commitment to God and the Church, so that those who are “really serious” about their faith must therefore be called to the priesthood or religious life. No. The possibility of radical discipleship, and of service to God, Church, and neighbor, exists equally in every vocation, even if the outward form this takes varies significantly. A married woman with a job and five children to care for cannot live the same daily schedule as a religious sister serving the poor in Calcutta. In a sense, priests and religious can be something to everyone, but married men and women are everything to each other and their children.

Discerning Marriage

The vocation of marriage is different from the priesthood, religious, or consecrated life in that, ordinarily, one does not need to discern a distinct “call” to the married state. This is not to say that a person cannot feel called to marriage in a certain sense. However, there is a reason we do not normally use the language of “discerning a call to marriage”. This is because a “call” to marriage is most often the prayerfully discerned recognition that one is not called to the priesthood, religious life, or consecrated life. The reason for this is that Christian discipleship always presupposes the possibility of being asked to renounce everything to follow Christ in a complete and literal sense. The New Testament is full of references to selling one’s possessions, leaving everything behind, abandoning the world’s way of thinking, and embracing a new identity, one that is conformed to Christ and characterized by a radical availability to spreading the Gospel: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Anyone who would follow Christ must count the cost of doing so; the cost is ALWAYS everything: “…whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:33).

We could say that this universal requirement to renounce all that one has in order to follow Jesus is, in a sense, the default disposition of Christian discipleship. In other words, it is simply the “Christian state of life” without further qualification or specification. Now, this certainly does not mean that a majority of people will be called to express or live out their renunciation through religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. However, it does mean that, as each of us discerns our vocation, we must always begin by assuming that God may be inviting us to this total renunciation. Only when we are truly indifferent to our own plans and preferences and completely open to God’s will, trusting that He will make this known to us, and assuming that we may indeed be called to anything and everything––only then can we truly be said to have discerned our vocation properly. Therefore, discernment of marriage should always pass through an honest discernment of religious life, consecrated life, and for men, the priesthood. However brief this process may be, it is nevertheless essential because it respects the totality demanded by the call of Christ, and in this way it follows the form of discipleship presented in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament. The call of the first disciples is not merely an inspiring story, nor even a historical example, something on which we can reflect from the “safe” distance of two thousand years. Rather, Jesus’ calling of them is the timeless norm that confronts us and challenges us in our concrete life situation here and now.

At the outset of one’s vocational discernment, then, the guiding question should not be, “Why me?” but rather, “Why not me?” For me personally, asking this very simple question was what really ignited my vocational discernment. One day, during Mass at my home parish, we prayed an intercession that said something like, “That more young men will respond to God’s call to the priesthood.” A light went on in my mind. I had been earnestly praying this prayer with everyone else, knowing that the Church indeed needed more priests, and yet I had never actually considered the priesthood as a possibility for myself. Then it occurred to me, “Wait…why not me?” At first, I dodged this question with various excuses, but I never could shake it. God is persistent, and He can be very convincing if only we open ourselves to Him! It was impossible for me to continue opening myself to God in prayer indefinitely while avoiding this question. Perhaps many of us never ask the question because we’re afraid of the answer! And yet we know that God will move us beyond this fear if we trust in Him, because “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18).

Vocations and the Church

A discussion of vocations would be incomplete if we left out the Church’s role. Every vocation comes through the Church and is ordered to the good of the whole Church. One’s vocation is never a private and exclusive spiritual undertaking, or a kind of self-help program aimed only at one’s own happiness and perfection. Practically speaking, this means that when discerning our vocation, we must always do so in communication with the Church, that is, with the assistance of priests, religious superiors, or other designated and competent persons. The spiritual guidance of others ensures the authenticity of our call and prevents self-deception on our part. Our vocation is not a matter of our personal discernment alone: The Church has the authority and responsibility to discern our vocation with us and for us. My own subjective certitude about my vocation can never override the obedience and respect due to Christ’s chosen representatives on earth. It is impossible for the Holy Spirit to guide me into a vocation and, at the same time, to allow the Church to deny me that vocation indefinitely, “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor 14:33). Clearly, openness to the Church’s judgment regarding something as life-determining as one’s vocation presupposes a degree of spiritual maturity, and humility in particular.

Finally, vocations come through the Church not only insofar as one’s discernment requires the Church’s formal approval. As a general rule, the Church – the People of God – is also the immediate means through which one’s vocation is first discovered. Although God can obviously communicate directly to us in prayer, millennia of experience reveals that He generally prefers to involve others in doing so. This indirect or mediate process of communication with God prevents us from developing spiritual pride and keeps us united as the Body of Christ. We all depend on each other as we strive to follow and serve God, and no one has a monopoly on access to God and knowledge of His will. Therefore, when discerning your vocation, be attentive to the observations and recommendations of other committed Christian disciples who know you well – take them seriously! Just as God spoke to the Israelites through the prophets, and Jesus ministered to many people through his disciples (even during his time of public ministry), so also today God works through other people in our lives to communicate His will to us. As Jesus told the 72 disciples, “He who hears you hears me” (Lk 10:16). We should all listen for and heed the call of Jesus when it comes to us through our fellow disciples.

Conclusion: Mission and Identity

The encounter with Jesus Christ always implies a personal call that demands a total response. In our unique individuality, we all have a critical part to play in the drama of God’s plan of salvation for the entire world. We are not cogs in a machine, but members of a Body. Regardless of our particular vocation, each of us is called to the heroic holiness of the saints. Discernment involves the sober consideration of our personal gifts, life history, experience, and desires, all with prayerful attention to the Holy Spirit’s promptings in prayer. Each of us has the serious duty (not option!) of striving to understand, accept, and wholeheartedly follow the particular vocation to which God is calling us. Only when we accept and live out our God-given mission will we be fulfilled in our identity. Consider Jesus, whose very name means “God saves”. His identity is his mission. With Jesus, whom God sent “not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17), we too are called to sacrifice ourselves in love for the salvation of others.

I’ll close here with a quote from St. John Paul II, from a 1986 address he gave to young people in New Zealand:
“Since the Cross of Christ is the sign of love and salvation, we should not be surprised that all true love requires sacrifice. Do not be afraid, then, when love makes demands. Do not be afraid when love requires sacrifice”
Under the Mercy,

Chris Trummer

Monday, April 15, 2019

We Dare to Say "Our Father": Claiming Your Identity as a Beloved Child of God

A Simple Question?

One of the most basic questions you can be asked in life is, “Who are you?” At first glance, this question seems so simple, but nevertheless it can be quite difficult to answer, at least in a succinct and meaningful way. “Who are you?” If someone asked you this, your immediate response would probably be, quite naturally, to state your name. Good. That’s settled. But, after all (and not to downplay the importance of names), your name is...only a name, a callsign, a way for people to distinguish from others and address you––it doesn’t get to the heart or substance of your identity. Now suppose your hypothetical inquisitor probes deeper, “No really, who are you?” At this point, assuming you’re not weirded out or convinced this person is just “trolling” you, you have a number of options as to how you can respond. For example, you could tell the person about your job or profession––what you do and where; if you’re a student, what you study and where; if you’re married and/or have children, how you’re related to So-and-so ("I'm the son/daughter/brother/sister/father/mother etc. of this person"). In whichever of these ways you choose to respond, you would begin to sketch an outline of your self-portrait. Just as important, the way you respond would tell the questioner how you see yourself, and who or what is most important in your life.

In this post, I’d like to share a few thoughts about a theme that has occupied a central place in my thoughts and prayer for several months now. At first, this theme or idea may seem simple or obvious enough, and yet, based on much of what I see, hear, watch, and read concerning our world and the Church today, I think it is significantly misunderstood and severely under-appreciated. I am speaking about our identity as Christians: the fact that we are the beloved sons and daughters of God––that you, reader, are the beloved. In contrast to this truth, which is revealed to us by Jesus Christ, there are a number of alternative definitions about who we are. These alternatives range from confusions and doubts coming from ourselves and society, to outright lies and deceptions coming from others, and ultimately, the Enemy. The extreme relevance of this theme is that, in my estimation, the vast majority of anxiety, depression, dissatisfaction, and lack of meaning or purpose that plague people today is caused by the fact that so many of us don’t know who we are. Maybe we never learned our true identity and so settled for a false one, or worse, maybe we wander through life without any clear sense of our identity, strangers to ourselves. Even for those of us who do know our true identity on some level, I would argue that all too often we do not live this truth: it is our objective truth but not yet our subjective truth; true about us, but not yet true for us. Perhaps, even as baptized and practicing Christians, we have not yet fully owned our truth, not yet fully recognized our dignity as God's beloved sons and daughters. To some extent this is understandable, because claiming this truth can be exceedingly difficult in our time and culture, bombarded as we are with so many contrasting and contradictory messages about our identity. This can be disorienting and anxiety-inducing. Which message is true? And how do I know it’s really true and not merely my subjective belief or wishful thinking? In answering these questions, it's important to note that, even if we accept and embrace our identity as God’s beloved children, this movement of the heart is not a one-time event. Instead, it is a reality about which we must be constantly reminded. Assisted by God's grace, we must claim our identity again and again, over and against the noise of a world that so often tries to convince us otherwise. That is why I wrote this reflection, in hopes that it will be a small source of consolation, coming from someone who has himself found this message consoling. As St. Paul says, God "comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Cor 1:4).

Note on the inspiration for this reflection: Besides Scripture, which is always primary, a few other resources have been particularly helpful for me in reflecting on this theme of being God's beloved child. First, there is a beautiful prayer called, "The Litany of Trust", which is the most powerful prayer I've found for claiming one's true identity as God's son or daughter. Second, there are two excellent books by 
Fr. Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved and You Are the Beloved (a set of daily meditations compiled posthumously). Finally, on a somewhat lighter note, the most recent Mumford and Sons album, Delta, features a song entitled, "Beloved". The chorus of this song includes the words, "Before you leave, you must know you are beloved." If this reflection leaves you with one insight, I hope it's just that: You are beloved. It would be a tragedy for you to come to end of your life without understanding this foundational truth, to "leave" without knowing you are the beloved.

Most Common Answers to the Question

In a powerful series of three sermons titled, “The Life of the Beloved” (based on the above-mentioned book), Fr. Henri Nouwen identified the three most common responses to the question, “Who am I?” They are:
  • I am what I do. (My job/career; my success; my contribution to my family, my community, the world, etc.)
  • I am what others say about me (My social status or reputation)
  • I am what I have. (My wealth and possessions––any worldly treasures)
I think it will be helpful to reflect on these three responses, to expose their errors and the negative consequences of adopting them. If we recognize and reject the inadequacy of these false identities, we will be more free to accept the identity that God gives us. After all, it's not as if we would ever actually declare this self-definition aloud––that would be embarrassing, because we would have to admit our shallowness and vanity. Most of the time, we are not aware that we have bought into one or more of these definitions. Therefore, as always, identifying and admitting the problem is the first step. 

"I am what I do."

Our society, and especially our economy, is fast-paced and competitive. It therefore insists strongly upon efficiency and constant progress. To meet the ever-increasing demands of these ideals, our mentality about education and formation has changed so that now what is most practical and profitable is seen as most worthwhile. Every pursuit of learning and every career path is judged against this standard. People ask themselves, "Which classes should my son take? Which sport should my daughter participate in? Which extra-curricular activities will ensure that I get into the best school? Which college major guarantees the highest paying career? Which career path promises the most raises and the greatest potential for upward mobility? Which profession is most respected and envied by others? Which will award me the most status in society?"

Of course, it is not necessarily wrong to ask some of these questions. It is quite natural and prudent to consider one's various options in life and, all things being equal, to pursue the most promising one. However, the underlying assumption that often motivates this line of questioning is: I am what I do. According to this assumption, the primary concern when considering what I should do with my life is not, “What do I really want?” or “What will bring me the most meaning or fulfillment?” but rather, “How do I want to define myself?” or “How do I want to be perceived by others?” If I don't believe that my identity is a given reality, something that I am by nature or that I receive, but instead something that I must create or earn by what I do, produce, or contribute, then I am faced with an unsolvable problem. The problem is that I could always do more, and therefore, I can never know whether or not I am good enough. This doubt about whether I have done enough could very well haunt me for the rest of my life. However, the appeal of this mindset is that I seem to be in control of my own identity and destiny, and therefore, I can claim all the credit and praise for my contributions and success. The downside, of course, is the simple fact that I am never actually and completely in control of what I do, produce, or contribute, since these things can be instantly taken away from me by any number of misfortunes: an economic crisis, accident, diagnosis––you name it. Most important, I cannot control what other people think about what I do, how they perceive my contribution. Work that is esteemed and appreciated at one time and place may be considered less important and uninteresting by people of another place or later generation. In this sense, defining myself by what I do is often a form of the next definition, "I am what others say about me".

In contrast to this scenario, consider for a moment the scene of Jesus’ baptism. The context of his baptism is that he has lived the first thirty years of his life in relative obscurity, out of the public eye and working quietly as a carpenter. As far as his teaching, miracles, and history-making acts of redemptive suffering are concerned, Jesus hasn’t really done anything at this point (that is, anything visible and recognizable to others). And yet, at the moment of his baptism, what does God the Father say in the voice from the cloud? He says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Mt 3:17). Jesus is the beloved Son of God, not because of anything he has done, produced, or contributed, but simply because He comes from the Father and is loved by Him. This is a profound truth that applies to us as well: We are God’s beloved sons and daughters, NOT because we have done anything to earn this title, but because God created us and chose us as His own. Our sonship is gratuitous, a pure gift. Therefore, we strive to live out our identity as God’s children, not because we think we have something to prove, or because we want to “earn" the gift of being called His children, but because our love for God and neighbor is our response to the fact that God has already loved us. As St. John put it, “We love, because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19).

"I am what others say about me."

Some of the problems with this second definition will be clear from what has already been said. For example, we just noted that we cannot control what other people think about what we do, and the same goes for what they think about who we are. Often times, however, this obvious fact that we all know from experience does not stop us from expending a huge amount of time and energy trying to manipulate the impression others have of us (In psychology, this is called "impression management"). Perhaps the place where the temptation to manipulate our impression on others is strongest and most evident is in the world of social media. Let me be clear: I don’t want in any way to condemn social media altogether, and I recognize that there are valuable elements in it, such as increased connection and access to the lives of friends who are separated by distance and the many demands of life. However, the more time I spend on Facebook, the more I am disheartened by what I see. Besides the many depressing news stories about current events and trends in society (which admittedly are not totally new, but already existed with TV news), I also see countless posts that seem to be obvious attempts at affirmation seeking––I sometimes call this "affirmation baiting". Many types of posts, which may seem so commonplace to us today, are in reality quite novel and bizarre, if only we compare them to the way human beings communicate and share their lives together in any other social context (or, we might say, in actual social contexts). For example, in face-to-face encounters, people generally do not speak so angrily, bluntly, argumentatively, or in such self-aggrandizing ways. Also, many people, who would be too embarrassed or afraid to express their more controversial opinions in person, are, thanks to the platform provided by social media, now able to present these views to everyone. Then, since people who disagree or disapprove of a post are much more likely to ignore it rather than comment, “downvote”, or give an "angry face" reaction (gasp!), the majority of reactions are almost guaranteed to be affirming. It's a kind of vicious cycle.

For example, if a woman posts a selfie showing off a new outfit, who is going to downvote this or comment negatively, even if the outfit is trashy and makes her look desperate and devoid of self-respect? No one. Now compare this to the same woman's real-world encounters with people, in which she is forced to see and feel all the responses of other people––good and bad. I'm not saying that in-person reactions are better because they're more judgmental! However, we are social creatures who have to learn appropriate behavior in part from the reactions of others. Given the demands and pressure involved in real life interactions compared to online ones, it’s no surprise that many people, especially young people, are opting more and more for the virtual reality. It's much easier to control and manipulate, and therefore, less threatening or risk-involved. The ability to artificially filter one's interactions with others so that only the favorable messages come through is causing more and more people to become affirmation-addicted. Social media has made it possible for the definition “I am what others say about me” to become effectively, “I am what I want to hear others say about me”. I can even remove or hide the comments of others to improve my "social" experience! Hmm...I wonder if any of this is having long-term, negative effects on our self-image and our ability to engage others in an authentic way?

What is the solution to this unhappy scenario? If defining myself by what others say about me inevitably leads to an artificial existence cursed by an insatiable need for affirmation, then what is my alternative? The alternative is to listen to and believe what the Divine Other says about me: You are the beloved. In his first letter, St. John writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn 3:1). This is the ultimate form of affirmation. Through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and in all His words and actions, God has spoken His authoritative declaration of your identity once and for all. Jesus' willingness to share in our human nature––an unfathomable act of solidarity performed out of sheer love––has permanently elevated our status: his stooping was our exaltation, his emptying our fulfillment, his dishonor our glory, his descent our ascent.

"Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Php 2:5-7).
Because of what Jesus has done, you do not need to go through life insecure and anxious, frantically grasping at things and experiences in an attempt to define yourself––you have already been defined. Nor do you need to question your worth––you are worth the Incarnation and the Cross. The same voice that spoke all Creation into being out of nothing is the voice that now affirms your identity in His Son. You don’t need to manipulate others to gain their affirmation; you don’t need to present yourself on social media in an attention-seeking way, waiting to see if you earn enough “likes” to justify your identity. People who truly know that they are loved are completely unconcerned with being "liked". They are not enslaved to the opinions of others, but instead enjoy a profound interior freedom. They cannot be offended or "triggered". St. Paul called this, “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rm 8:21) and considered it the primary purpose of our salvation: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). In the movie A Man for All Seasons, St. Thomas More, responding to the insistence of others that he compromise his conscience by conforming to the status quo, says, “I do not care very much what men say of me, provided that God approves of me.”

God approves of you, if only you let Him be God and do not put other "gods" before Him. Human affirmation and love are necessary for our psychological and spiritual development, and God uses them as instruments to communicate His love for us. However, they are not ultimately what establishes our identity, and to put them before God is, frankly, idolatry. Other people can (and should) recognize and affirm your value or worth, but they cannot give it to you. The One who created you, and moreover, redeemed you, can indeed give you value. In his willingness to suffer and die for us, Jesus established our identity and our worth once and for all. You are not anonymous, undefined, or a "blank slate"; you do not need to “find yourself” or “make a name for yourself”. Your identity is: “child of God worth dying for”. In St. Paul's words, "You are not your own; you were bought with a price" (1 Cor 6:19-20).

"I am what I have."

The whole testimony of Scripture presents riches and possessions as potentially being a great risk to one’s spiritual well-being. In the Old Testament, the Psalms and the wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, and Sirach) are particularly forceful in criticizing people who put their confidence in riches instead of God. The constant warning is that riches do not bring a person wisdom or lasting happiness, but instead lead to pride and a false sense of security and self-sufficiency.

“The righteous shall see, and fear,
and shall laugh at him, saying,
‘See the man who would not make God his refuge,
but trusted in the abundance of his riches,
and sought refuge in his wealth!’” (Psalm 52:6-7)

“…if riches increase, set not your heart on them” (Psalm 62:10)

“Riches do not profit in the day of wrath,
but righteousness delivers from death” (Proverbs 11:4)

“Again, I saw vanity under the sun: a person who has no one, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, ‘For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?’ This also is vanity and an unhappy business” (Ecclesiastes 4:7–8)

“…gold has ruined many,
and has perverted the minds of kings” (Sirach 8:2).

These Old Testament warnings against riches, along with numerous others that could be cited, are strong indeed. However, the strongest warnings about riches and possessions come from Jesus himself. In the parable of the sower and the seed, Jesus says, “As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mt 13:22). After the rich young man walks away sad in response to Jesus’ challenge to material poverty, Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 19:23-24). In the “woes” following the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says, “But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Lk 6:24). In the so-called “parable of the rich fool” (the name of which is telling enough), Jesus specifically criticizes putting faith in one's possessions. After the rich man delightfully expresses complete confidence and self-satisfaction at his superabundance of resources, Jesus quotes God as suddenly saying to him, “‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus concludes, warning, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Lk 12:20-21). For Jesus, riches are a spiritual threat above all because they distract people from their relationship with God, who is the “one thing necessary” and “pearl of great price”. God wants to possess our hearts, which are unfortunately prone to becoming possessed by worldly treasures. But God does not share His lordship with anything or anyone, and so we must choose Him over everything else, as Jesus says, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon" (Mt 6:24).

Being an intentional disciple of Jesus Christ is an “all or nothing” affair, he demands a singular devotion. Thus, our response to Jesus’ call, “Follow me” must be a total and immediate response, like that of the first disciples. The gospel account of their response records no words on their part, but only the statement, “And immediately they left their nets and followed him”, and regarding the second pair of disciples, “…and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him. (Mk 1:18, 20). Immediately...they left. Urgency. Totality. For some disciples, the total response to Jesus will mean committing themselves to material poverty (as in the vow of poverty taken by religious priests, sisters, and brothers). This is the particular vocation to which Jesus invited the rich young man, which is why he began with the words, “If you would be perfect…” (Mt 19:21). However, while not everyone is called to such a complete renunciation of wealth and material goods, everyone is called not to define themselves by these things, and instead to recognize their dependence on God. I think all of Jesus’ teaching on the proper attitude toward riches and possessions is summarized powerfully in this one sentence: “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Lk 9:25). If I ground my identity in my wealth and material possessions, then even if I possess the entire world, I end up losing myself––I lose my identity.

Once again, we see that the alternative to defining ourselves by what we have, by the worldly treasures we store up for ourselves, is to receive our identity as a gift from God. This means being possessed by God instead of trying to possess more and more things in an effort to build myself up. Instead of trying to build a kingdom for yourself, Jesus says to “seek first [God's] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt 6:33). If I make God the center of my life, my highest priority, then everything else will fall into its proper place. It is only when I worship God as the "one thing necessary" that I can properly enjoy and benefit from secondary things that are unnecessary. My subjective hierarchy of values reflects the objective value and importance of things.

Becoming the Beloved

Now that we have carefully considered the problems with these three popular ways of defining ourselves, we are well-equipped to return to our initial question: Who are you? To the extent that we base our identity on what we do, what others say about us, or what we have, we will be like the "foolish man who built his house upon the sand” (Mt 7:26). Let us instead heed the words of Psalm 127, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” But how exactly do we let the Lord build our house, that is, our identity? To begin with, we must give Him permission to do this. We have to grant God complete access to our hearts and minds. This requires being honest and vulnerable, first with ourselves, then with others. Beware though, if you open yourself to God in this way, He is going to do things. His love is active, effective, and concrete; it changes us in noticeable ways, and sometimes, in uncomfortable ways. Like the complete renovation of a house, sometimes things have to be disassembled and broken before new additions can be added. This hurts. However, God knows what He is about. He is transforming our hearts, our desires and sentiments, by con-forming them to the Sacred Heart of His Son. We begin to love what Jesus loves and to hate what Jesus hates (Yes, there are some things that we should hate: disorder, sin, and evil). As St. Paul put it, "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind." (Rom 12:2). The Greek word for conversion or repentance in Greek is metanoia, which literally means, "a change of mind". We must inevitably conform our minds to something or someone––why not conform them to Christ, who sees all things as they truly are? "We have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor 2:16).

Our ongoing process of conversion, of having our hearts and minds "changed", is what continues to build and maintain our identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters. This happens through our heart-to-heart, vulnerable engagement with Him, that is, in our private prayer, our active participation in the Liturgy, and most importantly, our devout reception the Church’s Sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation). Cor ad cor loquitur (Heart speaks to heart). Through this exchange, we receive all the grace we need and find ourselves, slowly but surely, becoming ever more conformed to Jesus Christ, to his mind and heart, his way of thinking and loving. With our hearts conformed to Jesus, we can hear resounding in our hearts those same words of affirmation that the Father once spoke of him, “This is my beloved son/daughter, in whom I am well pleased.” Like Jesus, we do not assert our own identity, but allow God to declare our it to the world: "...the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise" (Jn 5:19). Then, through the Holy Spirit, whom we received at our Baptism, we are able to respond to the Father in gratitude, as St. Paul said, “When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:15-16). Because Jesus is the Son of God now become our brother in the flesh through His Incarnation, we can claim our identity as sons and daughters of God. Jesus is our access to the Father, our entry point into the Trinity, as he said, "...no one comes to the Father, but by me" (Jn 14:6). We are sons and daughters in the Son; He the Son by nature, we the sons and daughters by adoption. Being a child of God is a sure foundation, one that can endure all the storms of life, the attacks of the Enemy, and the doubting of our own hearts. Our identity becomes a more powerful source of joy and consolation when we actually live it out, not only in words but in actions as well.
“Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us” (1 Jn 3:18-24).
You are the beloved. Do not be shaken or undone by the clamor of voices trying to tell you otherwise. Do not be seduced by the lies of the Evil One, who accuses you and tries to convince you that thinking you're a "child of God" is simply child-ish, wishful thinking, or too good to be true. We can ignore these lies because, by the love of Christ, "...the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God" (Rev 12:10). Ask God to banish from your heart the prideful desire to be something independent of His loving, creative will. Embrace the fact that you are the creature and God is the Creator. Allow your absolute dependence on Him to be the cause of your joy, not merely an inconvenient fact that interrupts the illusion of self-sufficiency. Be content and confident in knowing that one day you will stand before Christ, not as one who has achieved, but as one who has received. Realize that all the value and meaning of your life comes from the fact that God first loved you. You have no claim to being the beloved unless you first acknowledge God as the Lover. Own your beloved-ness by choosing to be grateful (it takes practice and doesn't happen accidentally!). Tell others the good news of their beloved-ness––after all, Jesus taught us to pray the Our Father, not the My Father.

"Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours."

Please permit me one final thought for your reflection. In Jesus' parable about the prodigal son (or "lost son"), the main character is really the father. The father's unconditional love and mercy for his sons is Jesus' most dramatic image for his Father's love for each of us. In the parable, both of sons suffer from the same mistaken assumption, which leads them down apparently opposite paths, the younger son running off on his own and the older staying home to work in his father's fields. The mistaken assumption of both sons is that they think their father's love, and therefore their sonship, is conditional––they think sonship is a prize that is earned or the just wages for work completed. The prodigal responds to this belief by simply giving up, he thinks, "Because I can never live up to my identity as my father's son, I'll just find a new identity and life elsewhere." He reveals his mistaken belief about his identity in the rehearsed confession he tries to tell his father upon his return, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son". In other words, "Sonship has to be earned, and therefore I'm clearly disqualified." The older son takes the opposite approach of the younger, but his angry complaint to his father upon his brother's return exposes the fact that his mentality is really the same: "Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!" (Lk 15:29-30). Again, the same mistaken belief: "Your love has to be earned; my sonship has to be earned." The difference is that the older son thinks, "And I have certainly earned it." The solution to the false assumption of both sons is the truth that we all must come to believe and accept: Being a son or daughter is given, NOT earned. Our heavenly Father bestows his love and mercy on us unconditionally, just like the father of the prodigal son, who said, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours" (Lk 15:31). Jesus brought us into this kind of relationship with the Father, evidenced by his prayer, "...they are thine; all mine are thine, and thine are mine, and I am glorified in them" (Jn 17:10). We glorify our Father through Jesus our brother by embracing our identity as the Father's beloved sons and daughters. Jesus is the Son of God by nature, and by becoming our brother in the flesh, he has made us sons and daughter by grace. Therefore, our Baptism was both our rebirth and our adoption. There are two extremes concerning our identity, each of which is wrong and leads to confusion and unhappiness. The first is, "I am not worthy of my identity," and the second, "I must earn/create my own identity". Between these two extremes lies the truth revealed by Jesus: Our identity is itself a gift from God, and our proper response is gratitude and worship.

Celebrating Your Beloved-ness

Holy Week and Easter constitute the climax of the liturgical year, the celebration of the greatest Mysteries of our Christian faith. The passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (collectively known as "the Paschal Mystery) are both the cause and the supreme revelation of God's love for us. Consequently, our celebration of these events is the "prime time" for us to express our identity as Christians. Beginning with Lent, the Church asks us to prayerfully enter into a space of existential tension, which lies between the two opposing poles of our identity. On the one hand, we are fallen sinners, undeserving beggars before God who stand in absolute need of His mercy. We were reminded of this fact on Ash Wednesday, when we received ashes on our foreheads and heard either the words, "Remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," or, "Repent and believe in the Gospel". On the other hand though, we are the redeemed ones, the beloved sons and daughters of God. In the words of St. John Paul II, "We are an Easter People, and Alleluia is our song!" This reality is confirmed at every Mass when the priest prays, "At the Savior's command and informed by Divine teaching, we dare to say, 'Our Father...'". This gets to the heart of what I've been trying to express in this reflection: "We dare to say." It is daring indeed to call God your Father, and to pray to Him with the confidence of a child. Perhaps the words, "Our Father" have become so familiar to us that we've forgotten just how radical they really are. According to most other religions, it is at best mistaken or foolish to call God your Father, and at worst, presumptuous or even blasphemous. In fact, the Jews who rejected and condemned Jesus shared the latter view, as we read in John's gospel, "This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God" (Jn 5:18). Had Jesus not revealed the Father's love for us through his death and resurrection, and given us his Holy Spirit, the view of those other religions would be entirely justified. But now we know the truth––you know the truth. Never be embarrassed to be a child, to be little, to achieve nothing and receive everything, even if this means being foolish in the eyes of the world. After all, "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" (1 Cor 1:20). Being God's beloved child is not a question of your worthiness, but a fact of His grace, as St. Paul recognized when faced with his own unworthiness, "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain" (1 Cor 15:10). Do not let God's grace toward you be in vain!

In light of all that's been said (a lot, I know!), I humbly urge you: pray to God, your heavenly Father; ask him to help you, to give you the grace to believe, embrace, and live the truth of your beloved-ness. This is the only sure path through the confusion, storms, and deception that confront us in this life.

"Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name. Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. I have said this to you in figures; the hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in figures but tell you plainly of the Father. In that day you will ask in my name; and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from the Father" (Jn 16:23-27).
I pray that this Holy Week and Easter will be a time of grace and spiritual growth for you, and that you may be renewed in your identity as God's beloved son or daughter. May you recognize your unique and supreme value in the eyes of God, the only Person whose opinion has eternal significance. This holy season is the privileged time each year for you to celebrate your worth, your value, your lovability. Your life is worth living because it was worth Christ dying.
"Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom 5:7-8).

Under the Mercy,

Chris Trummer

*All Scripture quotes come from the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition