In mid-November 2019, I took a leave of absence from my regular job as a project manager for a large construction company. This came at the end of a grueling two plus year assignment on a single project. During those two years, I lost my 17-year-old son in a car accident and my 42-year-old sister to lung cancer. I never had a chance to deal properly and completely with either loss in the course of the job. No job can give you the genuine extended freedom needed to deal with such things appropriately. The “world” is not arranged to allow such accommodations.
I was spent. I did not quit outright because I knew I was in no state to make sound judgments. Did I either want or need to continue doing this type of work with my life? I did not think I would go back, but it was not the opportune moment to decide. To the credit of my employer, they allowed the leave of absence and left the door open for me to come back.
By February, I knew that I was not going back to the corporate construction world. I had neither the desire nor the energy (at age 56) to recommit myself to the grind. I am fortunate that my wife has a good job that provides sufficient income for us to stay even plus the health insurance benefit the “world” requires. I offered to help in a consulting role that I thought might be useful, but the truth is I was relieved when they said no. I did not want to go back even in that role, primarily because of the office politics I knew would be waiting. My wife’s income afforded the flexibility to be patient and contemplate other options. I was content to do just that.
I had been trying unsuccessfully to find time to work on building some houses for a nonprofit. Perhaps I would now have the flexibility to follow through on this not just as a job, but as a vocation. But as the work on the houses unfolded, I found that I was viscerally resisting this option. I was engaged reasonably well as the design work took place, but as soon as we began investigating the money, I was filled with dread each time I needed to open my computer. It had been some time since I had been enthusiastic about the world of construction, but I thought this was due to burn out. Once I had a chance for an extended recovery period, I expected I would re-embrace it, especially if I were associated with a nonprofit.
But this was not the case.
I will stop here long enough to say that in this situation, discernment is a difficult thing. It is hard to know if the resistance is the call of the Good Guys to something else, or the enemy distracting you from what you are supposed to be doing. In truth, I am still not 100% sure which it is. (I say is because the situation is still unfolding. The house building endeavor was stopped cold by the pandemic and is just now regaining traction. While I have reached the decision not to act as the builder, I am still involved with the nonprofit and it is unclear how that will develop.)
As the planning for the houses progressed and the pandemic started, I launched this blog. The idea had been in hand for a long time, but there came a point in mid-March where I could not escape the sensation that the moment had come. The pandemic seemed to offer a natural segue to an online effort at religious formation. People were going to be separated from their fraternities for an extended period (which appears even longer now) and this format had the potential to allow them to maintain some sense of connection. I had experimented with blogging before and found that advancements in technology made it much easier to get restarted. Within a day or two, I was up and running in test mode. In not much more than a week, I was able to publish for the public.
Mid-April arrived and I felt like I had my long-lost energy back. My enthusiasm was no longer being depleted by the stress and strain of a regular job. I was making progress on the housing front and on the blogging front and I was even getting caught up on some commonplace things I had let slide, like keeping my bank accounts balanced. I was exercising regularly, eating better and had lost some weight. I was in the midst of planting a full vegetable garden (39 raised beds) and the physical labor felt good. If not yet fully healed, I was progressing beyond everything I had endured in the previous two plus years. There were other projects not getting attention, but I felt like it was just a matter of time before I could get to everything.
However, within a month, I began to lose momentum. Distractedness and uneasiness increased. I caught myself back at some old, bad habits. Too much TV at night, procrastination, rationalization, etc. When I had a regular job, I always felt that it kept me from doing the things I was being called to by God. The “world” just took too much out of me. I thought without that drain I could consistently and meticulously offer a proper “yes” in response to what God wanted of me. But that proved to be temporary. I was not there yet.
The surge of energy I found in the liminal time waned as a new normal developed. I fell back into the waywardness that I was used to blaming on the fatigue of my working life. But now, I no longer had that excuse. I would find myself sitting on the couch watching some inane show on Netflix or Amazon Prime and would think, “What are you doing? God is watching and you are just sitting here frittering away the day? Why don’t you get up and do something productive!”
But I would not respond. Once I used frivolousness as an escape from the pressure, exhaustion and dissatisfaction of a day spent doing things other than what I felt called to. Now, I could not explain away my flippancy. I had to look at things differently. I could review a day where I meant to get an estimate done on a house or a post written for this blog and see that I did not accomplish what I meant to. I had good intentions at the beginning of the day, but I would find that I got sidetracked, often without realizing it.
Something was wrong and it was now out in front of me. The excuse of a regular job no longer concealed it. I was failing to do what I perceived as God’s Will for my life and I could not hide from it.
I would do an examination of conscience at the end of the day and see spots where even if I were doing something that seemed productive, I was not focused on the most important thing that needed doing. This is what I mean by rationalization. I would choose to dig a garden bed when I could have been writing a new blog post that was needed to maintain the pace of the blog. I knew in retrospect the blog post was the priority, but I was not choosing it in the moment. (Before June I was publishing something every four days or so. In all of June there are only four posts, and this will be the first in July. I could have published most of Journey thru John in June if I had just been diligent about it.)
The open discernment issue on the nonprofit is another example. I have yet to find my way to a final answer. This is at least in part due to not working diligently enough at the issue. If, in the end, I am going to move away from that possibility, I still must complete what is mine to complete before I can hand things off. But I am procrastinating instead of working consistently on it. I could still decide to stay involved, limiting my availability in other areas and that will be fine if I believe staying involved is in fact a “yes” to a calling. But I am not sure because I am not diligently doing the work, which is the most likely way to complete the discernment.
I am allowing myself to be distracted by a sort of lesser good, a human conceived good. Why? If I think a blog on religious formation or working for a nonprofit is was what I might be called to, why am I continually being distracted by the garden?
Some of this is attributable to still having too much on my plate. I have not learned to make my life simple enough yet. (Just yesterday I was watching a show on Netflix called Amazing Interiors and found myself thinking about all the cools things I could design and implement. Then I stopped and thought, “Am I called to that? Probably not. ” At least I had that thought to check me, but why did I allow the show to distract me to start with?) I am rid of the burden of a regular job, but I still have too many things to do. The work on the houses, the blog, the garden and more mundane things (like grocery shopping and cooking, which I feel more obligated to since my wife is working and I am not) still add up to more than what can be accomplished in a day.
Still, I cannot escape the real conclusion that I am not saying “yes” to God and Jesus in the way I need to. If I cannot yet do exactly what is asked of me, I can at least work on the simplification that should lead to the proper “yes” I so desperately (at least in theory?) want to say! Whether it is an outside distraction from the enemy or an internal failing (or more likely a combination of both) is hard to know, but I feel as if I must develop greater discipline than I have known in a long time If I am to grow into what I long to be for God. I have a lot of negative habits to unlearn and a lot of positive ones to subsequently relearn.
In Franciscan terms, I have a lot of conversion in front of me! I need to find a way to get to the point where I am feeling confident that I have said “yes” in a comprehensive way! I want more than ever to do what I am called to do! I am committed to this despite being disappointed in my execution the last few weeks! I am resolved not to give up!
As a result, I have concluded that I need to investigate the idea of saying “yes” itself. It is an idea I have already been considering. My recent prayer life has led me to a deep reflection on the ultimate “yes” in scripture, the “yes” that Mary says in response to the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation.
I have also recently been reading a commentary on The Confessions of St. Augustine. His “yes,” which comes at the end of a long period of “worldly” procrastination, comes out of a life experience that I have always felt closely parallels my own. I believe it could help me greatly if I can find my way to the core of Augustine’s triumph over his own prevarication.
I am also feeling drawn to the conversion experience of St. Paul. I cannot give details about that yet other than to say there are certain passages in his writing that I connect to in a substantive way.
And then, finally, a review of the Franciscan sources with an eye toward identifying those pivotal moments when Francis said “yes” and thus moved toward the culmination of his seeking. At what moments did Francis chose Jesus definitively and how do those relate to the experiences of Mary, Augustine and Paul? And how might those moments help me to give a more perfect “yes” in imitation of these other great yeses from Christian history?
At the beginning my reflections may not be as strictly Franciscan as the Journey thru John formation series is. I will not often be drawing on Franciscan Sources and the OFS Rule as I look at the examples of those who came before Francis. But I do believe that those three figures will inform and give context to my investigation. In the meantime, I hope that my Franciscan nature is sufficiently developed that it will show through even when I am not specifically concentrating on Franciscan texts or overtly attempting to make Franciscan points.
In Journey thru John, I began by following a personal calling to investigate the phrase “gospel to life and life to gospel.” I then took my local fraternity along for the ride. (As an aside, I would recommend every formation director follow similar inclinations as they discern what materials to present to their groups. Passion for your subject material will translate into a positive experience for those you are leading.)
I am proposing to do something similar here. In order to take the next step in my faith development, I am feeling the need to investigate what it means for a committed Christian to say a complete and proper “yes” to whatever it is she or he might be called to by God.
I am inviting you to join in this exploration!
And I would humbly and appreciatively welcome any observations the Holy Spirit might inspire you to share along the way!