Part one in a series exploring faith and social justice.
I often find it unfair when God remains silent in response to my continued prayers for direction. After all, Adam heard directly from God, and Moses even got a burning bush. Is a personal burning bush too much to ask sometimes?
Yet if I take the time to listen to God, I realize that everything I need to know about God’s plan for my life flows from a single source: my personal desire.
Desire is often misunderstood in contemporary spiritual life. It is frequently viewed as antithetical to selflessness and the development of Christian virtue. For some, desire is the origin of vices like lust, gluttony, and greed. Negative opinions about the nature of desire are not unanimous, however.
In fact, St. Ignatius of Loyola – the founder of the Jesuits – believed that examination of our deepest desires was essential to determining God’s purpose for our lives. Although disordered desires lead to sinful conduct, desires themselves should not be seen as inherently evil. Ignatian spirituality seeks to identify the deeper, holier desires beneath these surface-level desires, recognizing that each desire ultimately stems from the human longing for God.
For Ignatius, discernment begins with these dreams and desires. The fundamental longing for God, for example, indicates that each person has a general vocation to love and serve God. Yet everyday holiness cannot be confined to certain professions, skills, or actions – everyone is called to serve God in a way unique to their individual capacities. Piecemeal discernment of these more specific calls takes place in the form of assessing innermost desires in prayer. The right option is determined by a feeling of peace and contentment, a “peace surpassing understanding” on a deeper level, even if on the surface-level it might appear a more difficult decision.
My journey to Detroit began in the fourth grade when I was introduced to St. Francis Xavier. He was a founding member of the Jesuits and one of the most prolific missionaries in history. I was fascinated with his life, missionary work, and travels throughout Japan and Southeast Asia. St. Francis Xavier awakened a desire within me to one day serve as a missionary, and it is because of this desire that I now work with at risk youth as a Jesuit Volunteer at Covenant House Michigan in Detroit.
The process of discerning exactly what that desire meant – and still means – has been an ongoing development over the last 14 years. At the age of nine, daydreaming was as tangible of a realization of my missionary desire as I was capable, and my focus quickly shifted to more readily attainable goals.
As my missionary dream faded into the background, other goals and desires filled its place. I set my sights on attending the University of Notre Dame, and nearly everything I did from that point onward was with this goal in mind. I worked extremely hard in every aspect of my life (a natural inclination, given my perfectionist tendencies), and I still count the day I received my acceptance letter to Notre Dame as one of the happiest days of my life.
Despite achieving my goal, I struggled with restlessness in discerning my future. I was overwhelmed by all of the possibilities afforded to me, and the implication that my educational decisions would inevitably determine the course of the rest of my life. Overwhelmed, I found myself probing my deepest desires. My missionary dreams once again came to the forefront, re-igniting my passion to explore peoples, cultures, and ideas from around the world.
Several serious conversations, two academic major changes, and one giant leap of faith later, I became an anthropology and political science double major. Even though I had lost the security of a preordained career path, I found genuine enjoyment and academic rigor in my exploration of the cultures of the world and my analysis of social problems from the perspectives of individuals, communities, and nation-states.
Yet patience and listening to my deepest desires remained a continuous struggle. I constructed grandiose plans for my future time and again, only to discard them when they disturbed my inner peace. In the midst of my struggle, one of the few constants was my unwavering desire to serve according to the example of St. Francis Xavier. When I decided to pursue a year in service, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps seemed like the obvious choice – I wanted to imitate my role model to the fullest extent possible, fostering familiarity with Ignatian spirituality and the Jesuit charism. Summer commitments after graduation limited my opportunities internationally, so I discerned that domestic service was where God was leading me.
Before the application and interview process, I decided that I wanted to do work with immigrants on the east coast. I received three potential year-long placements in Detroit, Kansas City, and Albuquerque; however, only the Kansas City placement involved direct work with immigrants.
I didn’t feel particularly enthusiastic about my choices, and was a bit disappointed. Once again, I had developed very clear ideas about what I wanted to do, ignoring feelings of internal dissonance. Although it was possible for me to turn all three options down and begin another application cycle, I decided to give the placements a chance.
Within moments of my phone interview with Mrs. Adams at Covenant House Michigan, I knew that it was the direction God willed for me. Understanding the mission of Covenant House – providing food, shelter, and love to children who had their childhoods taken away from them due to abuse, neglect, abandonment, or the death of their parents – resonated with my sense of injustice in a way that few other causes ever have, or ever will. It wasn’t until I heard Mrs. Adams’ passion for helping at risk youth that my soul was stirred and I realized my own “calling” to the same cause.
When I expressed my newly realized calling to work with youth, Mrs. Adams paused for a few seconds before replying: “I’m really glad you said that. I really do see working with homeless youth as my calling.” This simple statement connected Mrs. Adams and me through our shared call to serve at risk youth, providing me the clarity I sought in searching for God’s plan for my life. Even in the midst of doubts, mistakes, and the general ignorance of my own desires, I realized that God had managed to “call” me to where I could serve best.
Few people are lucky enough to have an audible conversation with God, and fewer still receive a personalized message in the form of fiery foliage. Yet these all-too-visible signs of God’s presence seem excessive when one realizes that the key to discerning God’s will in our lives is determined by the careful recognition of our innermost desires. Yes, my pathway to God has meandered, zig-zagged, advanced, and receded, but God has still provided me with an opportunity to live my inmost dreams.
Do I know what I will be doing next year at this time? Or five years from now? Not in the slightest, but I trust that God will continue to aid me in realizing my true desires, even in the midst of my own continued human fallibility.
Bob Burkett is a Jesuit Volunteer living in Detroit and working at Covenant House Michigan. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a former editor of the Irish Rover. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.