Through my career and ministerial experiences, I have learned the importance of discovering and following my deepest desires as a way to connect to God.
I thought that teaching high school math was my deepest desire—what I was supposed to do. In fact, I thought it was what God wanted me to do. Part of me is quite suited for the profession; I am an astute organizer and immensely attentive to details, and I have a unique ability to breakdown complex mathematics and learn where a student is missing something. However, teaching in a classroom setting left me physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually drained. I had never been more depressed or discouraged in my life, and I realized that this was not just something that needed more time. The veteran teachers who mentored me were still dealing with all the things that bothered me. It did not bring me life. I was crushed. I thought I had followed the path God wanted me to follow, and it was not fulfilling. I was confused, frustrated, and scared.
When I think about my deepest desires, my heart’s desires, I often recall this quote from St. Augustine who cries out to God, “for you have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” God has created us with a hole in our hearts which only can be filled by God. This deep desire—this inward longing—can lead us to God. If I can pinpoint where my heart finds rest, then I have found God. This is what St. Ignatius meant by the notion that our deepest desires are God’s deepest desires for me. Psalm 139 (1-18) and Jeremiah 29 (11-14) make it clear to me that the Lord knows me deeply and intimately. I have come to believe that God planted these deep desires in me and wants to fulfill them. God doesn’t want us to live aimlessly, miserably and unfulfilled our whole lives.
I began to think about what led me to teach in the first place. Why did I think this was what I was supposed to do? What about teaching do I like? What gives me life? What do I have a passion and enthusiasm for? When have I felt pure joy? And what is that joy really rooted in? When I uncovered the superficial layers, I discovered that my attraction to teaching was rooted in two main things: leading others to a “light bulb moment” and making a contribution and a difference for the common good.
The thought occurred to me that maybe teaching high school math is not necessarily what God wanted me to do. Maybe God didn’t really care what career I chose. Perhaps it was my choice to use God’s gifts as I wanted. To some this may seem wonderfully liberating, but as someone who rarely took risks and who embraced the label of “perfectionist,” I wrestled with the idea of “failing” at this job and beginning another which did not offer guaranteed fulfillment. Eventually, I realized that the costs of staying were worse than the risks of leaving. This was not a quick decision for me; I endured a year-long reflection period in agony, wrestling with God. I did not know it at the time, but I later learned that I had practiced a discernment process. I was discovering my deepest desires, praying, and listening to the wise around me whom I honored and respected.
Once I really explored the other job opportunity, all the pieces fell seamlessly into place. My work at the state’s educational agency is still relevant to my education and experience, and I’m able to use all those organizational, communication, and detailing skills. I get to use my gifts to make a contribution towards the common good in public education and enjoy seeing the gains we are making as a state. When I first left the classroom, I was eager to use my free time and spent hours tutoring students privately and poured my care, energies, and other gifts into youth ministries. I discovered new gifts and enthusiastically shared them. I was very happy and fulfilled and continued in this way for years, but God wasn’t finished teaching me!
I have learned that discernment is an ongoing process. As part of my coursework for a Master of Pastoral Studies, I was challenged to question my assumptions and beliefs especially about what God wants of me. I realized just how burned out I had become, and I was challenged to examine my motivations for being involved in three major ministries simultaneously. I had developed a distorted perception of service; I had become convinced that God wanted me to serve and serve unceasingly. For as long as I can remember, I have heard it said that God calls us to service. I believed that service equaled doing—and doing as much as physically possible. I had made it my practice to say “Yes” to all types of service. Often I was serving without an attitude of service. Here I was AGAIN--physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted.
I have often identified with the notion of Ignatian spirituality, which teaches one to model their journey after the early brothers, who would retreat to the mountaintop to be still and pray. They would experience a revelation or a high on the mountaintop, but then they were always called back down to the valley to be with the people. There was still work to be done. This “valley work” had long resonated with me.
But after ten years of active ministry, I heard God telling me, “Get back on the mountain! My people don’t need this kind of Marcie! My people in the valley need a Marcie who remembers the mountaintop!” I realized I wasn’t truly serving anyone by wearing myself out and not taking care of myself. I had to re-learn what Service means. “Service” might mean taking a break from ministry to allow God the time, space, and stillness to work in me. Reluctantly I returned to my mountaintop, so I could rest, reflect, and remember what my deepest desires are and be sure I was pursuing that. Still feeling guilt from choosing rest over service, a mentor offered this jewel of wisdom. She said when faced with a difficult decision, she asks herself, “Will this build up or diminish my spirit?” She said, “If I am honest in my answers, I usually know what to do.” My guilt vanished when I realized I was choosing to build up my spirit! How could a choice to be still and let God in not be a response to God’s call?! Up on the mountain, the Lord affirmed my desire to give back to my community, but he reminded me of my deep desire to love and be loved in connection with family and close friends who are like family. Perhaps my time in formal ministries were limiting my opportunities to engage in my own family.
Knowing my deepest desires helps to keep me focused and to navigate through choices. I have learned that my helpful spirit as a task-master and organizer can cost me dearly. I can quickly allow some undone task to consume me and my energy, or I can easily allow someone else’s undone tasks or agenda to become my own. But reacting and responding to these events prevents me from living a purpose-driven life and leaves my heart feeling restless. Aligning my choices with my deepest desires allows the Lord to meet me there—where pure joy and love abound. For me, this could be something as simple as wasting away an afternoon playing with my godson.