A close colleague of mine and I were eating lunch the other day. Her son is in the seminary right now and she is observing the process of discernment that he and other seminarians are going through. I too am in a discernment process and we sometimes discuss it.
One day while eating lunch, she said, "Katie, I have an article that I need to show you. It's about discernment and loneliness."
To my surprise, I had just secured a dinner meeting with a young woman who has chosen the same vocational path I'm discerning and my first questions for that young woman were going to be "Are you lonely? And if so, how do you handle it?"
She and I went on to have a discussion about the reality of loneliness in religious vocations and the priesthood, and if it was worth the sacrifice of a long-term relationship. She is concerned about her son making the right choice that makes him happy.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with a companion about a month ago. I explained how frightened I was to be alone if I chose a particular path, and how much human companionship was important to me. Her answer to me was that God may want human companionship for me in the form of a marital relationship, or he may want me to offer it up as a sacrifice to serve him more fully.
This was hard to hear...mostly because it resonated. God does sometimes ask us to sacrifice for the greater good. Sometimes those are big sacrifices.
I know many young people struggle with discerning the call to priesthood and religious life, and the leading reason I hear for not following that path is a strong desire for a marital relationship and the realization that this path is the only one that will give them true joy. Of course there is nothing wrong with that, and marriage is a beautiful, meaningful vocation. I often sense, however, that there's something else lying beneath the surface of that desire for a relationship:
I'm afraid to be alone.
I too am afraid to be alone for the rest of my life. I'm afraid of not having that person there for me day in and day out, which makes life a lot easier to bear. I'm afraid of not having a partner on the tough days, and even on the joyful days when you want someone to celebrate and enjoy life with. I know that I'm not alone in that fear. Many other young people have it too. It's just rarely said.
I'm realizing that there is an unspoken emotional poverty that comes with following a religious vocational path. You don't know where your next hug or embrace is coming from. You don't know if you'll connect with someone on any given day. You yearn to touch and be touched and yet you don't know how to fulfill that need in a healthy way. You long for companionship with the opposite sex, which is difficult to attain.
Above all, you have to completely surrender your emotional needs to God and offer your desires for companionship and intimacy up to him each day to provide it in other ways such as your relationship with him, service, family, friendship, and everyday encounters.
That's a hard thing to do day in and day out, especially when life gets hard and we feel like we need a partner to help us get through it.
For the sake of vocations, I think our Church needs to talk about this reality of loneliness and emotional poverty in the priesthood and religious life more, and we need to hear more from people who have chosen these paths and found healthy ways of addressing the issue of loneliness. We need to see more of their joy and all of the good things that come from following this path that compensate for the difficulties and sacrifices.
So many have gone before us and found true joy and treasure in religious paths. Now, we just need to illuminate that for young people and support them along the discernment journey, and most importantly make it known that they are not alone and have a community of believers there for them.