Should you date while discerning?

No, probably not.

It’s one of the toughest struggles, especially for a young person seeking to do the will of God in their lives, to adequately discern a religious vocation while desiring to date.  I tried to walk that line in college and failed more than a few times, hurting several friends in the process.

But how can I know for sure?  What if the right person comes along?  What if I miss the opportunity? How can I know if celibacy is right for me if I’ve never seriously dated?

Here’s my recommendation: No, you probably shouldn’t date while seriously discerning a celibate vocation. The keyword here is “seriously,” indicating that this is something you’ve been wrestling with for more than one evening. (If it is your first evening, stop hyperventilating. If it’s been five years of you putting this off, get your act together).

This is one bearded man’s opinion, not the Gospel truth.  But I can tell you from personal experience (and doing it poorly) that discerning a religious vocation while trying to date isn’t fair to either the person you’re trying to date or even yourself.  Love means to will the good of the other, especially when it hurts.

Made for Love
Perspective: no matter what vocation you are called to, every man and woman has been created by God and for God, the Author of all Love.  In God alone do we find our destination, the aim of our love, and we must run to Him for the fulfillment our hearts yearn for, not to any mortal man or woman.

Marriage itself becomes an idol when we put a man or woman on a pedestal and expect him or her to fulfill our deepest longings (spoiler alert: never gonna happen).  What marriage should be is a signof the love between God and His people, a sign that points us onward to the banquet of heaven.  Heck, even the priesthood or religious life can become an idol when it stops being the means by which we will serve God and his people and becomes the destination. The joyful celibate is a witness to the union with God we’re all called to share, but it is indeed a total gift and total commitment meant to be a life of service for others. Life doesn’t end on your wedding day, ordination day, or professing your final vows. That day should be the beginning of the next, much less self-centered season of your life.

But let’s back up to the initial question.  If you’ve passed the initial “curiosity stage” of considering a religious vocation and entered into a more serious discernment phase, I don’t believe it’s wise or prudent to date.  Here’s why.

Lack of Intentionality 
What’s the purpose of dating?  Dating ought to be the process by which we’re looking for our future spouse.  If you’re not ready to get married then you probably shouldn’t be dating.

Dating while discerning is, quite frankly, not intentional.  While the intentions of a person may be clearly defined (“Just so you know, I’m considering the priesthood”), the language of the body is not aligned with the intent of the heart.  I may be romancing a person by my words and actions, but my mind and heart are divided in considering an alternative destination.  I’m essentially already considering dating another person while trying to woo you.  This leads to inevitable confusion and hurt.  If you haven’t ruled out a religious vocation for your life and you seriously desire to explore that option, then you’re not ready to sincerely consider marriage (and thus shouldn’t be dating).

“’The biggest coward is a man who awakens the love of a woman without the intention of loving her.” –Bob Marley

Dating while in a period of discerning can be a selfish act to stem off loneliness or even be a purposeful act of self-sabotage because we fear the demands of our vocation.  We can lead people on by our actions, giving them false hope.  Especially when God is the alternative option, how can a person compete with that?  The person rejected feels like they were never had a chance anyway or they got their hopes up, thinking perhaps that they would be “the one.”

In college, I experienced a persistent call towards the priesthood.  I tried ignoring/burying it, yet I kept feeling the tug to follow Christ on the road of priestly discernment. Eventually I entered the seminary, but not before dating several female friends, thinking maybe I would prove to God (and myself) that I wasn’t called to be a priest.   My efforts were often conflated with a self-centered, overly romanticized outlook that covered up my fear of loneliness or lust for a warm body.  I hurt many friends because I didn’t have enough self-mastery to recognize my own selfishness and to curtail flirtatious actions or words.  These relationships were never fair to my friends from the get-go because my heart was already looking towards another horizon.

Fear of Choosing, Fear of Losing 
I experienced a phenomena that I recognize in many other young adults that I like to call, “vocational paralysis.”  For a host of different reasons, we may feel overwhelmed by the decision before us and so we either postpone it or make no decision at all.  It’s easier to remain on the fence than actually move in a direction.

“Discernment” has become a modern buzzword that means, “I will never make a decision.”  You may know a friend who is perennially “discerning” his or her state in life (you may be that friend).  The problem is that you can’t adequately discern without concretely venturing forth into the unknown.  Eventually you must get out of your head.  You have to act.

But of course, especially with dating, our fears bubble up:

  • What if I miss the right moment to act?   Some of us wait too long to act, others act too rashly. Either way, if you are following the will of God and listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit you will never “miss” the moment that He wants you in.  Trust that He has plans for your welfare and not your woe. The moment will come, you only need eyes to see it and the courage to act. 
  • What if the right person comes along while I’m in the seminary or convent?   Whether it‘s our own fear, our tendency to self-sabotage, or a legitimate temptation to deviate from God’s plan, alternate options will always present themselves.  Our dream girl or guy inevitably shows up as soon as we’re about to commit to such a journey with God.  The question is whether we trust God enough to not grasp and wait on His plan for the allotted time.

I met Jackie while I was a seminarian.  Simply happy that a pretty blonde girl was talking with me, I had no idea I was meeting my future wife at the time.  A friendship grew organically over the next year and a half, but it was very much detached and without ulterior motives.  God seemed to be “protecting us” from jumping to the romance stage, and He forced us to cultivate a real friendship first that genuinely wanted the best for the other person.  Meanwhile, I continued to give myself to the priestly discernment process and, with the help of my spiritual director and friends, concluded that I would be more generous and “most me” in the married state.  Lo and behold, God brought Jackie and I back together at the right moment.  But it was only after I stepped out and trusted Him.

  • So should I not date at all for my time in college if I am feeling called?   If you’ve seriously arrived at a place in your heart where you persistently hear Christ knocking on the door of you heart and you know you need to explore religious life, dating is only going to muddy the waters and create confusion.  This is where heroic self-mastery comes in…to not use another for selfish reasons or rationalize dating “for the moment.”  Good Christian men and women can do a lot of harm by dating with selfish motives.  Because if Christ has been knocking, He’s not going away.

Concerning dating while discerning, there are other variables to examine. What stage of life are you in? High school?  There will be a lot of growth and transition coming soon.  College?   You’re starting to make some concrete decisions for your future, while still on fertile ground to explore.  Post-college? Flexible, but it’s time to make serious life choices. We’re not guaranteed seventy years on this earth. How will you serve God today?

  • How can I know if celibacy is right for me if I’ve never seriously dated?   This is a good question. We’ve had many saints who entered religious life who never dated (St. Therése) who led lives of great holiness and others who demonstrated heroic self-mastery when it came to refraining from dating for the good of others (Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati).  Some individuals, however, need a “peace of mind” when it comes to the dating question.  Be careful not to rationalize out of lust, though.  This is where a good spiritual director or vocation director could provide valuable, personalized insight and give an external perspective.

On the flip side, if you feel God calling you to follow Him wholeheartedly in this radical way but never actually commit to journeying down that road (whether religious life, the seminary, missionary work), how will you know that’s not the life He has called for you? You don’t take a blood oath when you enter a seminary or convent; you’re only entering into formation to see if this is what God has called you to, and you will be better for stepping out in faith regardless of the outcome.

“The greater the feeling of responsibility for the person, the more true love there is.”

-St. John Paul II

If a vocation is truly a heavenly call within an earthly vessel, we need to treat it carefully.  What a gift to be called into union with and service to Christ!  We should run to Christ, entrusting our journey and our youth to Him as soon as possible.  I have no doubt that a lot of religious vocations are muted, lost, or killed in the hedonistic culture of college life.

Ironically, it was my surrender to God in what I believed was a call to the priesthood that led me to my wife.  I am a better husband and father today than I ever could have been without my journey in priestly formation.  The priests, formation directors, and brother seminarians all helped me to become a more selfless and Christ-centered man.  Your particular journey will be your own and no one else’s.  Entrust it to Jesus Christ and hang on for the ride.

Seek wisdom, talk to vocation directors.  Form virtuous friendships and know yourself well enough to be honest with yourself.  Exercise self-mastery especially when it hurts.  Run to Christ in your loneliness.

Remember that God is your destination.  Let Him fill your ache.  The rest will be sorted out.

_____________________

photoBobby Angel hails from St. Petersburg, FL, and is now a campus minister and theology teacher at an all-boys Catholic high school in Anaheim, CA. In August 2013, he married Jackie Francois and the two have been sharing the Good News together through blogs, talks, and webcasts. They enjoy living by the beach, eating good food, swing dancing, game nights with friends, and being married. Their blog can be found at: www.jackieandbobby.com

28 Comments

  1. Thank you Bobby! One of the best discernment advice I’ve heard.

    By Alyanna | 1 year ago Reply
  2. Any suggestions if you are already in a relationship and then you feel the tug of God to look into religious life. This article seemed more sided to a SINGLE person who is seriously discerning and then it says you shouldn’t date.

    By Anna | 1 year ago Reply
    • Do you think the relationship you’re in is going to lead to marriage? Is he a man of God who will lead you and your future children to heaven? If the answer to both questions is is “yes” then you should continue dating. If the answer to one or both questions is “no” then it might be a good time to end the relationship and discern religious life. But doing both at the same time is not a good idea.

      By Stephanie | 1 year ago Reply
  3. Thanks Bobby for writing this. I’m one of those people that really needed to read this at this time. I have been in this discerning process for a while now. I’m not sure what to do next except wait and trust Jesus.

    Peter

    By Peter Navarini | 1 year ago Reply
  4. Your post is wonderful…I love your writings….I see myself so much in you 😉

    By Jana | 1 year ago Reply
  5. Why does this article dismiss marriage as a vocation to be fully discerned? Why are you perpetuating the false notion that only those potentially called to a celibate vocation are people who should be “discerning?” If you are considering marriage, especially being Catholic and it being one of the Seven Sacraments (religious vows are not sacraments), why is not a proper form of discernment necessary? Is the author of this post dismissing marriage as the “default” vocation and only resorted to by those incapable of religious life? That is offensive to the one vocation that if done well makes any of the others even remotely possible. Please stop dumbing down the preparation for marriage as anything less than a full discerning of God’s Will as it is in the case of non sacramental vocations.

    By Richard J White | 1 year ago Reply
    • THANK YOU!!!!

      By Michael | 1 year ago Reply
    • Richard, Bobby isn’t saying that marriage isn’t a vocation that should be fully discerned. Rather, if you have a strong pull to the religious life, you should look into religious life. If this calling to enter into religious life is from God then it will not go away. If a person did feel a strong attraction to religious life and they opted for marriage instead of giving God a chance then the opportunity to follow God’s will may have been lost. You’ll constantly be asking yourself the “I wonder if God was calling me to the religious life” question, that question would ultimately go unanswered because you’ve already chosen marriage. Yes marriage is a wonderful vocation and The Church needs laymen to live holy lives through the marriage covenant. But The Church also recognizes that not everyone is called to get married. Some people are called to live out celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. In no way is it implied that people who get married are incapable of living the religious life. God wants us all to be saints, our primary vocation is answering God’s call to holiness. Our secondary vocation pertains to how God wants us to become the saints and how we would best serve The Church. Some are called to the married life, while others are called to the religious life or priesthood and still other people are called to the single life. This is not a knock on marriage and preparation for marriage. God just wants us to trust Him and allow ourselves to be led by Him to our vocation. May God Bless you Richard!

      By Jake | 1 year ago Reply
  6. I had always wanted to get married, but I heard someone say a few years ago that people should discern their vocation, but the thought of making my final vows makes me want to flinch and cry. I have always been scared to try it out because I am afraid I will never get married and have children and realize that the convent is where God wants me to be. I have spoken with priests in confession and they said to only try it out if you feel that is where God is calling you to. How would I know if that is where God wants me to be? What does that look or feel like? What does deciding to try it out look or feel like? Wouldn’t God want us to be happy in our vocation? Yes, we are all called to serve and both vocations are sacrificial toward the good of others, but it should not want to make you cry. I guess I am so scared to try it out because I am afraid I won’t find my future spouse (if he exists). Even if after someone has been in the convent for a while, what does knowing that God doesn’t want you to be there look like? I really want to please God and trust him in the vocation he wants for me, but I really want to get married. I don’t hear of too many people who are at their wedding and decide they really don’t want to get married. Perhaps they call it off for that person but not for getting married in general. I am 30, so maybe the convent is where God wants me to be and why he hasn’t given me “the one”. My chances of finding someone now is starting to dwindle because everyone wants to date the young girls. I always attract the ones who seem a little awkward, are older, and/or I am not attracted to. I know part of it is I want to live a life of comfort, too, and I think deep down on a physchological level it is easier to live a life of comfort than to constantly having to give of myself. I feel really jealous of others too because I am stuck babysitting their kids while getting no kids of my own or a husband to love in return and a feeling of lonliness. I feel like I should just try it out even by just going on a retreat in order to find peace of mind, but I cannot help but want the married life, so it is keeping me from looking into the convent. I almost want to try it out to prove to others and myself to say, “See? It wasn’t for me!” I used to write letters to my future spouse. That would at least give me hope. Now I don’t know if he even exists. I know God is the best spouse anyone can get, but I really want to get married and still have God in my life. Help!

    By Marita | 1 year ago Reply
    • Why do you think there are only two choices–marriage or the convent? Maybe that was true for women at one time, but in the 21st century being single is fine. Being single means you can have independence, an education, career, friends and a social life. You can work to advance the Kingdom by your choice of career fields, or how you spend your free time. You can tutor children, teach adults to read, help the homeless, the disabled, the elderly, work to improve the environment, visit the sick, and you do not need to be a nun to do any of this. Married women can do all these things and so can single women. You may find your future husband, or not. You are limiting your choices when there is no need to do so

      By Teresa | 1 year ago Reply
    • Marita, I hope you see this reply. I understand your confusion. Your first step is to ask Jesus to bring you the right spiritual directior. Pray every day for this write it down and put it in a place you will see often. Pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy & Rosary for this intention also. Ask others to pray for this intention. Then when you find the spiritual directior meet with them at least once or even twice a month. Get books about discerning, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Fr. Mitch Pacwa and Gary Zimak have books. There are more like that also. Fr. Mike Schmitz has a YouTube video about your questions too.And do not delay finding a spiritual directior!

      By Michelle | 1 year ago Reply
    • Hi Marita, has anything come about for you in the last 10 months? You message me if you’d like, I am literally in the same boat as you. When I read your post it was almost as though I had written it myself.

      By Catherine | 1 year ago Reply
  7. I seriously have been struggling with this for a while. I prayed and prayed and I was at my lowest point overthinking this particular question and the next day I woke up to this blog in my inbox and tears rolled down my face. Bobby, God answered my prayers through you and I am eternally grateful. I will read this until its second nature to me. Thank-you! Thank-you! THANK-YOU.

    By Shannon | 1 year ago Reply
  8. Thank you so much for this post! I’m a freshman in college and had been toying with the idea of whether to try dating or not while still knowing that Jesus is tugging at my heart. My own poorly-thought-out conclusion was “whatever it is I’m called to I’m still finishing college first, so what does it matter if I date a little?” I knew deep down I was just avoiding the nagging feeling deep within me, I just needed someone to tell me what I didn’t want to admit to myself. Thank you so much, I completely agree with Shannon, God spoke straight to my heart through this post! And Marita, I’ll be praying for you and my only advice is to talk to a spiritual director and go visit a convent on a discernment retreat, you won’t regret giving God an opportunity to speak to your heart (but don’t just let Him speak to you for a weekend, let Him speak for a lifetime).

    By Kate | 1 year ago Reply
  9. Bobby,
    I’m feeling really torn right now. Up until last year (sophomore year of high school) I had thought that I would live as a single person. I had never dated anyone, though, so I didn’t know for sure. I also did have crushes on guys, I just didn’t think marriage would be the right vocation for me because I’m not fond of the physical obligations. Amid one of those crushes, I felt a call to become a consecrated sister. The guy I liked was also not paying much attention to me. It took a few months, but I got over the crush. I talked to a vocations director, sister, and priests and they said that before I decide to be a sister, I ought to date someone because I am still so young. I was (and still am) ready to be a religious sister if that is what God wants me to do. I’m almost positive that I would love consecrated life. For me, celibacy is not a drawback. However, about five months ago, that guy I had gotten over suddenly came back into my life. In October, we started dating after he asked me if I wanted to be his girlfriend. He has been absolutely amazing and treated me with the utmost respect. He hasn’t even kissed me yet (though that might change in the near future), which is exactly what I want. So here’s the issue: I really do love this guy. I want to do what’s best for him and his eternal soul. I still feel called to the religious vocation, but at the same time, I’m considering the vocation of marriage for the first time (and I really could see myself marrying him). As I said earlier, I’ve never had a boyfriend before him, and he really is so well matched to me. I can’t help but see God’s hand in this, because I really wasn’t looking for a boyfriend when he came back into my life. Should I break up with him or not? Please help! Thanks!

    By Livy | 1 year ago Reply
    • I’m not the author of this article but I would highly encourage you to not break up with this good man. All souls are slightly different but we desire the same things. Chief among those desires is love. You are still young but your intentions are well aligned and your conscience well formed. Pursue God in this relationship with your boyfriend.

      My best friend was in a similar spot a few years ago. She was a sophomore in college and feeling called to religious life and truly loving the idea of entering this holy vocation. All of a sudden, when she least expected it, a handsome good hearted man began courting her. She was confused and almost rejected him! Eventually she came to her senses and saw what God placed before her. They were married last January and are genuinely one of the happiest couples I’ve ever met and two of my closest friends.

      Pursue God in a relationship. God isn’t trying to fool you. When a gift is given, be grateful. Don’t question the gift!

      By Michael | 1 year ago Reply
  10. This is the best article I’ve read on this website. Thank you so much for your words!

    By Laura | 1 year ago Reply
  11. The devil will never ever EVER tell you to do something good, and both the seminary/convent and marriage are good. (and guys, even if you get married you can still become a deacon.) So, if you end up going to the seminary, if God doesn’t want you there, if you have Faith in him and obey him he can still get you the person he wants you to marry. And I think, even if you get ordained, if you meet someone that you know is the right guy/girl for you, you can always leave ask the bishop if you can leave, I think. If a bishop tells you otherwise, then, yeah, listen to him. But yeah, just pray, like really, Pray, and have faith that God will lead you where he wants you. And hey, I’m only 16 years old. But I think I’m gonna be a priest. But if a girl that’s really special comes in my life then, I might get married.

    By André | 1 year ago Reply
  12. This is so helpful! I am a high school kid discerning priesthood. I’ve been almost positive I was going to be a priest, but then I got taking to a girl that I met through a leadership retreat, and we are really hitting it off. This makes complete sense, so thankyou for this!

    By Dan Allan | 1 year ago Reply
  13. Thank you so much for sharing this. It literally answered all of my questions. Discernment is a rough road at times, but it can only ever lead to happiness in Christ.

    By Mary | 1 year ago Reply
  14. I am a sophomore in high school and have had been friends with a good guy for a while now. He is a senior in high school. Ever since I’ve met him he has changed dramatically and has gotten closer to God. He says it was me that helped him have a stronger connection to God. We both help each other in our times in need and respect each others boundaries. We were thinking of dating decided a date to ask my parents and everything, until days before I had received a calling from God to discern for being a nun. (I had been praying for my vocation a lot) We postponed asking my parents and I prayed for that time a lot on what to do. I felt God was telling me that now was not the time to date him so I told him shortly after. He respects my decision but it gave him a lot of heartbreak and he was down a lot. He decided he wanted to wait for me until I was confident on what was God’s will for me. He refuses to not wait for me; I am that important to him. Lately we had a talk about this he wanted to speak to the counselor so I went with him and the counselor had told me that it would help me to make a decision if I dated him and that I should and not be “an all or nothing.” When we had talked afterwards he told me that he thought God wanted us to be together but he didn’t know if it was just a figment of his imagination. I’ve been so confused I don’t know what to do. This guy is literally all I’ve wanted in a guy he respects everything I say and the boundaries I put, he prays daily and goes to mass with my family, he is so self giving. I still love him as much as he loves me, but at the same time I don’t know if I would be doing God’s will. I think I’m overthinking this whole situation and am too young to be thinking about this. I don’t know what to do.

    By anonymous | 1 year ago Reply
  15. Hey Bobby,

    For a few months i’ve had this desire to priesthood that suddenly came, but there’s still this girl who I used to have a past when I was 15 years old, but nothing really happened cause we let each other go to let each other grow. And now we cross paths again and I’ve seen her change into a woman I can see myself pursuing and marrying, we’re beginning to start a new friendship and as I get to know her more I feel like I still have lingering feelings for her. I know I had the desire for priesthood it was a sense of overwhelmed, but I feel the same way with her. I was planning on courting her when we’ve gotten further with our friendship but after reading this I’m confused whether or not I should continue to pursue her and get over it because I still am open to priesthood and the thought of serving many people and bringing christ to them is something I also want to do. Please respond

    By Mark | 1 year ago Reply
  16. Bobby,
    You have wise words! I have been meeting with a vocations director over the last few months and am in the midst of seriously discerning the priesthood, of which I have had numerous signs point me towards (most notably peace in my heart). However, a girl who was in one of my classes last year (and whom I was VERY attracted to) came back into my life this year, and I have been struggling mightily with the strong emotions in my heart for her. After some advice from the vocations director and now this post, however, I am beginning to feel more at peace with trusting God and continuing to pursue priesthood. Thank you for allowing the Lord to speak through you; He is using you to help and give peace of mind to many of your brothers and sisters in Christ!

    By Justin | 1 year ago Reply
  17. I’ve been discerning since I was a kid, now I’m 19 I still feel called but some days I wonder if it’s real and if I can really do it. I don’t have anyone to talk to and though I have crushes I don’t feel the urge to act in them. I’d really like to know if I’m really called to be a nun or if I’m destined for something else… help

    By anonymous | 1 year ago Reply
  18. I’m 30 this year and I am in a relationship with a discerning partner for the past 12 years. She received her calling to follow Jesus as a celibate 7 years into our relationship but there has not been any advancement in her discernment.

    What do I do? I feel I’m called to the marriage vocation but I don’t want to break her heart either. I’ve waited many years and clung on in case she does a 180 change and decide to settle down, until sometimes I feel like I’m a backup plan. We’ve spoken to each other on this topic countless times but it always ends up in tears and unanswered questions.

    I don’t want to see her sad, upset or disappointment and am most certainly like to settle down with her. I also cannot bear the thought of her being alone and lonely in her old age. I love her very much but I don’t think I can wait much longer. What am I to do?

    By Andrew | 1 year ago Reply
  19. This is such pure, holy spirit inspired stuff. Wish I had this stuff growing up, I wouldn’t have had such heart break and pain.

    “When in doubt don’t”
    God’s timing not ours!!!

    By Mary | 1 year ago Reply
  20. Hey Bobby, so I’ve been thinking about becoming a priest for a little over a half a year. I just graduated high school and I’m going to college and I am on college’s swim team. I met this real nice Catholic girl on the swim team and I am caught between pursuing a relationship with her or not because I’m still trying to figure out if I should go into the seminary. The past couple days I’ve sort of decided to stop pursuing a relationship with her, not because she wasn’t what I expected when started to talk to her more, but because I’ve become a little more serious about going to the seminary in the fall. But every time I see her at practice or at school, I’m a little scared that I’ll miss out on a opportunity for a good relationship.

    Any feedback that you could give me would be absolutely awesome.

    By Brian | 1 year ago Reply
    • Brian, if your going to the seminary then discern the seminary. Once you enter into seminary, you’ll have a vocation director and a formation director and they’ll help you sort things out. It’s best to only discern one vocation at a time. Talk to your spiritual director it and invite Jesus into the situation. May God continue to bless you and assist you in the discernment process.

      By Jake | 1 year ago Reply

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