“There’s never a call away from something without a call to something else.” I’ve heard variations on this theme throughout my years of ministry. I’m sure I’ve even said something like this to people in the midst of vocational discernment. In my first ministry position, I was the “Pastor for Discernment” at Calvin Theological Seminary. To get ready for my work, I read all sorts of books on the work of discernment and the nature of calling. I led “Discerning Your Calling” workshops and had vocational pastoral conversations with people who were wondering what they were going to do next with their “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver).
And it’s true: we are people that get called to things. We are drawn by God through our design and opportunity, through prayer and imagination, through dreams and visions to greater things, different things. Better fits. Freer spaces. Deeper challenges.
And yes, usually when we are being called away from something it is because we are being called to something else. But sometimes the Call Away comes and there is no Call To. This is what happened for me this year. The Call Away ripened so much in its specificity and clarity that I needed to release before I rotted on the vine. I needed to answer the Call Away even though I did not have a Call To.
Part of what helped me to heed the Call Away was Sister Lucy, my spiritual director, and her monthly reminder of the wisdom of making only one discernment at a time. When we try to tackle too many decisions at once, we can get lost in the discernment and make reactionary decisions out of anxiety and fear rather than wise decisions from a place of peace. Earlier this year, I was trying to make too many decisions at once. Do I leave? Do I stay? If I stay, how do I stay? If I leave, where should I go? With whom should I interview? Which countries? Which denominations? What about my family? Can we feasibly move right now? I had so many questions, and I wanted answers to all of them.
“Heidi. Remember. One discernment at a time.”
Sister Lucy’s wisdom comes from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. His first point in making a “good and sound election” is this: “The First point is to put before me the thing on which I want to make election, such as an office or benefice, either to take or leave it.” The Thing. Not all the things. I must put before myself The Thing about which I am making a decision.
And so I made one decision: to leave my congregation, and to do so as well as I could.
Sometimes when we are making one decision at a time, the next discernment is right around the corner. A Call Away slides into a Call To. This is what we want for ourselves and for one another. People who love me want this for me and inquire with completely-understandable curiosity and compassion, “So, what’s next for you?” In other words, What is your Call To? “I don’t know,” I say. (I recognize that it is a privilege to be able to say that I don’t know with the relative peace and patience that I have about it. Some people, in order to provide for their family, have to find the next thing as soon as possible. I am able to spend time not-knowing.)
When I say that I don’t know, people are quick to assure me that the next adventure is going to be so great and that God has big plans for me.
Maybe. Maybe not. There will be an adventure. There will be plans. I’m not sure it matters whether they are big or great. Perhaps there will be small things that I will be able to do with great love.
For now, as uncomfortable as it is, I am in an in-between space, a liminal space. Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au (two people who discerned Calls Away from the priesthood and the sisterhood and a Call To marriage to one another) have a gorgeous section on liminality in their book, The Discerning Heart.
The gap created by the dissolution of the old and the yet-to-emerge new is what we are calling liminal space. It is a place of disequilibrium. Visually, it can be pictured as the moment when the trapeze performer lets go of the one bar and waits in midair to connect with another. In life transitions, however, this analogy limps because the connecting bar does not suddenly appear but must be discovered through a process of discernment. Nevertheless, liminality is like hanging in midair until it becomes clear to us what we are to grab. A place where we are caught betwixt and between, liminal space is psychologically and spiritually significant because it is where real transformation can take place. (p. 208)
The Aus point to biblical liminal spaces: the wilderness and the exile of the Israelites, the tombs of Lazarus and Jesus, the withdrawal of Saul into the desert of Arabia after his conversion and of Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism. They quote Richard Rohr who said, “Much of the work of the God of the Bible is to get people into liminal space, and to keep them there long enough so they can learn something essential. It is the ultimate teachable space, maybe the only one.”
In this liminal waiting, I am doing a few things to keep exercising my ministry muscles. I am providing spiritual and religious care for 12 hours a week to residents at a long term care home. I am also doing some congregational restorative practice work. Though the next substantial Call To may be a long way off, I suppose that I have been called to some things in this liminal space. I am called to the people of Fairmount Home, joining them with love today in their Remembrance Day service. I am called to the people of the church where I am facilitating restorative conversation. I am also called to a season of more presence with my family. And I am called to a time of rest and reflection.
Back when I was a “pastor for discernment,” I would tape quotes to my office door at the seminary – quotes from the stacks of books I read about discerning one’s calling. I suppose if you had asked me then, I probably could have guessed that discernment would be my life’s work and that these quotes weren’t just for prospective seminary students, but were ideas and stanzas that would follow me all the days of my life. This one is speaking to me today, which is, interestingly, the 40th day of my liminal space:
Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them and the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without noticing it live along some distant day into the answer. Rainer Maria Rilke
I’ll just keep loving and living the questions… One at a time.