Two years into her work at a New York advertising research firm, Joan Conroy realized her workdays were making her miserable.
“A lot of it was just the way I was feeling when I would come home at the end of the day,” says Conroy, 27. “I wasn’t feeling like I had energy; I was burned out. I didn’t want to come home every day feeling like this.”
Conroy, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, longingly thought of her past social services work with homeless people, which she had done for two years after college.
“I felt like I have these great skills for counseling people; I have a heart for working with the homeless and the poor,” Conroy says. “I thought, ‘Why am I here with these top business executives?’ Not that they don’t need love, too, but when I have these great skills, what am I doing here?”
As unhappy as Conroy was, the thought of quitting her job without having another one lined up was daunting, especially while living in an expensive city. She decided to do some soul-searching.
“I talked to people a lot-my parents, my friends in the city,” Conroy says. “And there was definitely some crying and some long walks.” She prayed, wrote a list of pros and cons in her journal, and confided in a co-worker. Finally, when that co-worker said she thought Conroy would be more fulfilled if she left, Conroy decided to take it as a sign.
“It was a moment of clarity for me,” Conroy says. “I decided to stop talking about it and make the jump.”
Like Conroy, many people struggle to discern what they are “meant” to do, often described in religious terms as seeking “God’s will.” Whether it’s a decision about career, family, relocation, or a medical issue, Catholics use a variety of spiritual discernment methods to determine their next step.
Does God have a plan for each person’s life? Many Catholics acknowledge they’ll never know for sure, but that hasn’t stopped them from devoting lots of time to discerning God’s will for their lives.
Since leaving her job, Conroy has enlisted the help of a trained spiritual director to help her figure out what to do next.
“It’s a neat idea to have someone else help you look at your life and be able to pull things out for you, to help you see where God is moving in your life,” Conroy says. “It’s nice to have someone specific you can bounce things off of.”
As she looks ahead, Conroy harbors some fear of the unknown, but she feels a sense of peace about her decision.
“I feel like God will use me wherever I choose to go,” she says. “I don’t think that there’s one certain path and I have to take all these right steps.”
Conroy believes taking time to thoughtfully discern God’s will for her is just what God intends.
“I feel like I’m doing God’s will when I’m continually seeking that, wherever I am in my life.”
Make a new plan
Finding the will of God often is understood as trying to figure out what God wants for our lives in the way of a vocation, says Michael Downey, the cardinal’s theologian for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and a professor of systematic theology at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California.
“The question often is, ‘What does God want me to do with the one and only life I have to live?’ ” Downey says.
While people often wrestle with the question of whether God has a plan for them, Downey suggests that reframing that question can be helpful.
“Very often there is a sense that there is a kind of preordained plan that God has for each one of us, and we often get a little too absorbed in trying to figure out what that is,” Downey says. “I think the question is along this line: If God is the giver of all gifts, what are the gifts I have received so that I might pass them on to others?”
Discerning the will of God, Downey said, is often a matter of cultivating a sense of awareness rather than just a matter of problem-solving.
“Finding God’s will has less to do with trying to figure out God’s mind and more to do with being alert to the events and the vital forces of life in the world,” Downey says.
“I’ve never had much luck at reading God’s mind, but I do believe there are traces of grace in our ordinary, humdrum lives, and if we are alert to them, these often slowly and gradually-rather than all at once-disclose God’s intention for us.”
For Brendan Wilson, an attorney in Washington, D.C., determining God’s will is more about listening than it is about doing.
“When you talk about ‘doing’ God’s will it puts a lot of emphasis on the action of it,” says Wilson, 29. “I think that doing God’s will is a question of listening-trying to be quiet enough and thoughtful enough about your life and honest enough to admit to yourself that what you’re doing is not always God’s will.”
This means not only admitting that we are sometimes shortsighted and selfish, Wilson says, but also learning to trust God.
“The most important thing in all this is humility,” Wilson says. “If we’re humble we can be open to correction.”
Kate Kustermann, 39, a senior manager of strategy and innovation at a consulting firm in Chicago, says she thinks doing God’s will is a matter of both listening and taking action.
“I do think generally there is this grand plan, but at the same time, God gives us our own ability to think and make decisions,” Kustermann says. “It’s a complex idea, but the two things are somehow connected.
“If you really believe that you’re a kind of puppet and God is pulling the strings, it could lead to a very passive life,” she says.
Like Wilson, Kustermann says she thinks discerning God’s will often is a matter of paying attention.
“It’s being open to listening and following the signs you’re being given; being open to possibility,” Kustermann says. “It’s not really like there’s some clear map or direction. It’s being open as life is unfolding in front of you.”
I saw the sign
For Ken Heigel, 44, a civil engineer in Dublin, Ohio, receptiveness to such “signs” helped him make a decision during a very difficult time. Heigel’s wife was dying of breast cancer, which meant he would be raising their three young children on his own. As she neared the last weeks of her life, she was moved to a hospice center, and Heigel couldn’t decide whether she should die at home or in the care of hospice. He worried how her dying at home would affect their small children.
“There were some intense periods of prayer,” Heigel says. “I said to God, ‘What do you want me to do? You’ve got to give me some strength.’ “
One night, as he lay in bed, Heigel says he prayed: “I need to know where she should pass.”
Then something profound happened.
“I felt God’s presence that night,” Heigel says. “I felt that strength of someone physically holding me.”
The next day, Heigel visited his wife at hospice and saw that she was doing well that day. He decided to bring her home to die.
“I had to listen to God,” Heigel says. “He gave me the sign I needed.”
After his wife died, Heigel thought he’d never marry again. But a few years later, he met up with a college classmate, felt a strong connection with her, and they began dating. Heigel says he took that connection as a good sign and decided to introduce her to his children.
“The kids took to her instantly,” Heigel says. “It was the final sign that we were meant to be.” Heigel remarried four years ago.
God is my co-pilot
For some people struggling to make decisions, “signs” can take the form of inner longings and desires. Those who are trained as spiritual directors take it upon themselves to help people uncover those inner longings and desires.
“What we help people to do is to discern-to sort out or sift apart their outer and inner feelings, impulses, and promptings,” says Sister Maureen Conroy, R.S.M. (no relation to Joan Conroy), director of the Upper Room Spiritual Center in Neptune, New Jersey.
“We look at the pros and cons-sorting them out with another person can be clarifying,” Conroy says.
And at some deep, inner place, God’s desire and a person’s desire are one and the same.
“To do God’s will is to follow God’s desire for the person,” says Conroy. “I prefer to use God’s ‘desire’ rather than God’s ‘will’ because ‘will’ sounds like it is fixed and ‘desire’ is more of an ongoing, unfolding process.”
David Schimmel, the co-director of the Institute for Spiritual Leadership in Chicago, says that when he’s doing spiritual direction, before anything else, he first tries to help people identify their deepest inner desires.
“The big question is, ‘What is my heart’s desire? What at this moment is my passion? What do I really long for?’ The first step is to answer those questions.”
Schimmel says helping people identify their heart’s desire can be difficult, but it’s possible when given enough time to strip away distractions.
“Each of us as individuals has the wisdom we need to discern God’s will, to become our most authentic self,” Schimmel says. “But often that’s pretty hard to access. There are layers of culture, family systems, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’. We grow up with all this information from the outside telling us who we are, who we should be.”
Paying attention to the longings of one’s heart, not just one’s head, is important in any kind of discernment, says Sister Maureen Conroy.
“Making a decision to follow God’s will is not just a matter of thinking something through,” she says. “It’s not just a matter of the mind; it’s a matter of the heart also.”
The facts on the ground
According to Schimmel and Conroy, determining God’s will always involves practical considerations. “Discernment always works in the context of our lives,” Conroy says. “It’s meant to enhance our life with others.”
Schimmel says that bringing logic into the mix is an important second step after identifying one’s desires.
“Spirituality is practical; it has some effect on the world,” Schimmel says. “It’s not only ‘What do I want to do?’ but ‘What are the needs?’ “
“You need to take into account your life situation,” Conroy says. “If you’re a husband or wife, you have to take into consideration your spouse.”
While Conroy says she often recommends books to people to whom she offers spiritual direction, Schimmel says he prefers not to.
“People then stay in their heads and look for answers in the book,” Schimmel says. “I invite people to just trust the process, then themselves.’ “
In any period of discernment, an important part of the process is simply gathering information. For Kate Kustermann, while deciding whether to marry the man she was dating long distance, this meant getting to know him as much as possible, while praying about the decision at the same time.
“Most of it was just spending more time with him so I was getting more data points,” Kustermann says. “It was finding out who this person was and praying that God could help me. It was mostly just me observing and getting to know him.”
Kustermann says she didn’t solicit the advice of family and friends as she had with past relationships.
“I only talked a little to my friends,” Kustermann says. “But when I did, it was more that I was introducing him, that here was this very special person.”
Over time Kustermann says she was able to piece together certain signs that she and her significant other were meant to be together. When he indicated that he was willing to quit his job and move to the city where she lived, she took that as the final sign things were meant to be.
“It was such a huge vote of confidence, a huge emotional deposit,” she says. “That was on top of a lot of signals that were happening-signals of commitment, signals of love.”
I will follow him
Because of the unpredictable twists and turns life often takes, people sometimes think they have “missed” their vocation or “missed” their chance to do God’s will. On this note, Michael Downey has some encouraging words.
“God can redeem even the bad choices we make,” Downey says. “God’s will is never discerned once and for all.”
Discerning God’s will, rather than being one big choice, is often closer to a series of smaller choices that gradually determine one’s life course, Downey says.
“Sometimes we find God’s will in bits and pieces, and over the course of many years we look back and say, ‘It’s really all of a piece-like a quilt of patches that while it was being sewn looked uneven and scattered.”
Brendan Wilson says his life thus far has unfolded in such a way. After practicing law in Washington, D.C. for two years, he decided to enter the seminary in another part of the country.
But soon after he arrived, he suddenly felt like he was in the wrong place.
“Everything about it felt wrong,” Wilson says. “I was sick a lot; I started putting on weight. But I was with a community I loved, so intellectually it didn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
After a semester at the seminary, Wilson returned to Washington during a holiday break to confide in a priest friend and to make a weeklong retreat at the seminary next to his former parish. He spent the week talking with his friend, writing in his journal, and praying the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
“It was a really challenging time,” Wilson says. “But there was a moment when I reached a conclusion in my mind about what I wanted to do.”
Wilson eventually decided to leave the seminary. Though he had experienced much pain and angst leading up to his decision, he says he felt a sense of peace almost instantly once he had finally made his choice.
“I felt liberated,” Wilson says. “I was able to pray again, and the joy I had had before I went came back. In the next two weeks, about 10 things happened that confirmed it.”
In an interesting twist of events, Wilson later took a position with a Washington law firm that represented religious orders.
“It combined my previous life as a lawyer and my interest in religious life,” Wilson says. “It has been remarkable to see how God brought all of that together but took me through this weird path.”
Wilson says his experience at the seminary helped to make an important future decision easier. He says the decision to get engaged was one of the easiest he has ever made.
“It was obvious,” he says. “If I hadn’t gone to the seminary and wrestled with that question, I would not have been able to say yes to this.”
Facing a major life decision often can feel draining and overwhelming. From time to time it can be helpful to take a step back from the discernment process and try to put things in perspective.
Sister Helen Cahill, O.P., a spiritual director at the Claret Center in Chicago, recalls one clarifying moment in her own life during an agonizing decision-making process that stretched over several months.
“One morning I woke up and had a sense of this inner voice that said, ‘Helen, I really don’t care what you do,’ ” Cahill says. “It was a very freeing moment. Initially it was a shock because I had been in this mode of trying to figure out what God wanted me to do. At one level, God cared, but I had the freedom to choose what would make me happy, to make a loving choice.”
Ultimately, Cahill says, the moment made her realize that in any kind of discernment, a sense of humor can be a big help.
“That inner voice was a playful voice,” Cahill says. “There ought to be some lightness, some playfulness in our discernment process with God. God is with us in that way if we are open to it.”