I have not always been sure of what I wanted to do with my life, but I have an uncanny ability to know deep within what I do not want—especially after what you might call “defining moments” in my life.
Lesson #1 – Don’t crawl under the holy robe
Like the time I was a low-level public relations assistant for a government transit agency, assigned all the tasks that the director of communications didn’t want. Knowing the Cardinal was in town that day to dedicate the opening of a new subway station near the Cathedral, I wore my nicest skirted suit. It made no difference that there were two men, in pants, staffing this event alongside me–I was ordered to step onstage during the speech, get on my knees, reach under the robe of the holy man, and adjust the sound system. Soon after my boss ribbed me about “getting to fiddle around under the Cardinal’s robe” I realized this job had run its course, and the public relations business was not a good fit for me.
Lesson #2 – Pay attention to the signs
Leaving that job, I went to seminary in the hope that my theological leanings would lead to a career. Everyone, including me, expected I would become an ordained Presbyterian minister. But part of seminary training is exposure to a variety of ministries and ministers. And what I discovered was a general malaise that set in for many clergy after doing the job for five or more years. These men and women of God talked a lot about “callings” and “loving the people”—in the abstract. In reality, they were lonely, tired and depleted. I became tired just being around them. Some of them had personality types like my own, and I realized that if they couldn’t cut it, neither could I. It was a sign that I just didn’t have the metal to be a parish minister. And I knew that if I ignored that no and pushed forward anyway I would have a lot harder time leaving that job than I did saying goodbye to the job that had me crawling onstage with the Cardinal. So, with a bit of sadness, I crossed “pastor” off my list.
What, I wondered, would I ever be willing to say “yes” to?
Lesson #3 – Follow your own passion
While in seminary, I also studied to become a spiritual director—someone trained in listening and helping people along their spiritual journeys. We look for signs of energy, desire, life and joy—clues that God is doing a new thing in the person’s life. We look for the “yes” and pay close attention to the “no,” which is a key principle in the spiritual discipline of discernment.
As I learned how to walk with others, I found my own passions. For example, writing was the one activity in school that energized me. Being a former broadcaster and having that short-lived career in public relations meant that I had done a lot of writing over the years. Now it was time to write about things that really mattered.
It began with articles, essays, book reviews and finally authoring a book. I was saying “yes” all over the place, and amazingly, people were responding. Then came an offer to write someone else’s book. It looked like a great career move, but a little voice deep inside me was saying that old familiar “no.” I pondered. Weighed the pros and cons. Consulted with mentors and elders. No. No. No. As certainly as I did not want to duck under the robe of the holy Cardinal, I did not want to write someone else’s book. And so I didn’t.
Lesson #4 – Always look back
These experiences taught me the cardinal lesson of discernment. It is only in hindsight that we know whether the path we chose was the right one, and that’s OK. As we keep looking back, we discover what we need to know to move forward. That visceral “no” is an important voice to honor. In fact, sometimes I think that’s the voice more good people in the world need to obey. It’s heartbreaking to see someone who says “yes” to every offer that comes down the road and becomes a scattered mess. Perhaps they heard the shout of “no” a few times but ignored it and now they are burned out and looking for the escape route.
That “no” has taught me that, because life is short, I need to pursue what I am specifically made by God to do, even if it’s not all that clear at the moment. I need to write what I want to write, be around people who are full of life and help others along their spiritual journey. And, of course–never, ever, work for someone who demands that I crawl under a Cardinal’s robe.
Teresa Blythe is a spiritual director, Director of the Hesychia School of Spiritual Direction and author of 50 Ways to Pray from Abingdon Press. Visit her website here.