During a ten day silent retreat on the outskirts of Nairobi, a Jesuit priest stood before our group of retreatants — a community linked by silence and prayer, the communion of shared meals, the mundane kindness of a passed pitcher, a proffered mug, a quiet smile, and the holy mystery that is the Eucharist — and told us that to be human is to choose. To choose, and to accept the consequences of one’s choice.
It was the day of the feast of St. Ignatius (the man who founded the Jesuits upon principles of discernment), and four months later the priest’s words still echo in my heart and mind: to be human is to choose.
We live in an age ripe with decision fatigue. Where many of our foreparents were expected to live the lives set for them — by circumstance, by parental authority, by God — we are expected to choose our own. To forge our own paths: what to study; where to work; who to marry; where to live; when, and if, to have children; where, and if, to worship. Few of us have either the restrictions, or the comfort, of the seemingly ordained.
Yet I have chased that sense of destiny across continents, longing for a sense of calling that would put doubt to rest. Wanting to relinquish control (and responsibility) with the cry, “It wasn’t me, it was God.” Not my choice, not my fault, not mine, not mine.
I’ve never liked the weight of control. The responsibility of driving a car that could cause injury. The possibility of starting something only to see it go wrong. The culpability of saying “yes” and risking someone else’s heart. I’d rather be a passenger, called to the holy work of submission. Of finding contentment in the midst of a life handed to me, rather than forged through my own action and choice (with all the potential for getting it wrong).
And certainly we are called to that holy work: for we are not, will never be, truly in control. And there is great freedom to be found in accepting, and embracing, that fact. As Emily P. Freeman writes in her book Simply Tuesday, “Unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. This day belongs to the Lord. And he has set out craft paper and Play-Doh. . . . He invites me to come sit at his table and pull up a chair made for small legs. He invites me to surrender myself to his agenda and trust that he intends good things” (134).
But the call of God is complicated and paradoxical. And even a child, invited into a preschool playroom, must choose where to start, where to focus, what to do. (Children, however, seem to lack the fear that paralyzes — trusting all choices as good, they inhabit the fullness of their moment without mourning the loss of what they did not choose. If only I, too, could embody such trust and fearless embrace!)
Perhaps I take choice too seriously. Rather than seeing it as an invitation to playful encounter, a way to explore the world God has placed before my feet (trusting always in his presence to comfort me in the bumps and bruises attained along the way), I dread choice because I recognize too much room for error. Certain choices preclude others, and how can I choose the best, when I know myself short-sighted, lacking in wisdom, ignorant of the future, blind to variables? When I know, in short, that I am not God?
Yet perhaps that is the point. That knowledge — recognition — of my limitations. That moving forward in a fear and trembling that is nothing if not faith.
I’ve been reflecting recently on grace. On what exactly it is (and isn’t). Within protestant traditions, we have a tendency to think about grace in the widest possible way: an unmerited gift. And don’t get me wrong, I love that definition. The breath in my lungs is grace, as is the strength to get out of bed this morning; the colors of last night’s sunset; my nephew’s smile when I walked into the room. I have done nothing to earn any of this, and the more I recognize the gift inherent in the details of my life, the more my soul is set free to worship. To exist in a state of wonder and awe not unlike that of which Mary Oliver writes in her poem “Mindful“:
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over
Yet that is only one definition of grace. The more specific one (what Catholics usually mean when they refer to it) is “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.”
The significance of this difference, in my mind, is that it helps us recognize — with gratitude — that which does not manifest as obviously as “gift.” Under this definition, much is grace that is also painful, difficult, and heartbreaking. As Cowper declares in his hymn,
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense.
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
In fact, if the great human rebellion lies in determining to be God — to exist in ourselves and for ourselves, immutable, self-sufficient, and in control — then grace is precisely that which awakens us to our limitations. That which reminds us that we can’t, in fact, do it alone. That we are not — cannot be, will never be — God.
Choice, then, is not simply an oft-dreaded, ever-present, and inconvenient reality of my 21st-century life. It — like marriage (that joyous and painful winnowing ground) and singleness (a furnace all its own) — is a sacrament: an external reality through which grace enters the mundane, sacred details of our everyday lives.
My brother and I have discussed this subject often this fall, as we’ve walked through the fields around Santa Cruz or driven the hours to L.A. and back. Regardless of one’s best intentions, it seems transition cannot help but raise questions about the future. About all the unknown paths and the choices that must be made between them. As I’ve fielded questions (my own and others’) about those choices, my brother has been there to remind me that, while I might theoretically prefer a world in which the future was set and all I had to do was face it with humility and love, that is not my calling — is not the life I was born to.
My calling (the life I must strive to submit myself to) is this messy reality of choice. This is the sacrament I must accept with open hands. The tabernacle in which I am invited to meet with God.
The church calendar begins anew in two weeks (with the first Sunday in Advent). As we go forward into this new year, readying our hearts once more for Christ, may we face our choices with the courage, faith, and awe that Mary demonstrated in accepting her own sacraments — a pregnancy and marriage not of her own choosing. May we know the truth of Christmas in the deepest places of our being: we are human, we are frail, we are limited, but Christ is with us; we are not alone.