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.
Bobby 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