By Noah Stansbury
It’s been nearly a year now since that first phone call brought me to Philadelphia and turned everything right side up. Not very long after my arrival, I found myself one Sunday afternoon on South 4th Street, having the ancient words of a girl who said yes inked into my arm: “Be it unto me according to your word.” Even then, I knew that my own inclination to say yes to everything would fade, that soon enough I would pass back into ordinary time, when this faltering heart would need a reminder.
A few weeks prior, I had gone to confession for the first time in several years. I had been in Servant Year for about a month at that point, and on our mid-year retreat some time had been set aside that our chaplain would be available, come if you wish. Everything was new again then, and I liked Mother Erika quite a lot for having met her only a few times, so I followed the quiet impulse to give another chance to this thing that had once been more harmful than helpful.
As she was offering counsel, she said that she heard in my words a desire to follow the will of God. This was an idea that was not altogether explicit to me up until that point, but it made a lot of sense; “the will of God” was rhetoric deployed often and to great (and at times dubious) effect in my upbringing. This idea came up again a few weeks later, when I broached the idea of vocational discernment for the first time with my priest. As he pressed me on my motives and thought processes, we got back around to this idea of aligning one’s self with the will of God. I don’t really remember where the conversation went from there, but that stands out to me.
Easter came and went, the summer came and went, the school year ended and started again, bringing with it new students, new co-workers and housemates, new Servant Year members. I was still experiencing new things, yes, but everything was comfortable. I was no longer the new kid on the block and things once unknown were now familiar. There is much good in that; I have found a deep sense of place and family and belonging that I have never known in my adult life, and it is an unspeakable, beautiful thing that I cherish because I know that it will someday end. My purpose in coming to Philadelphia has always been a transitory one. The constellations will shift even if they do contain some of the same stars.
So all things new are old and will be new again, and I am left with myself, wondering if this work of discerning the will of God, let alone following it, will ever come to pass. Saying yes to everything—perhaps more to the point, saying no to some things—doesn’t come as easily as it once did. The same things that always get in the way are still there, doing so precisely because they are good things that deserve, at their core, to be pursued, even if the way in which I go about it is (unavoidably, desperate-ly, humanly) flawed.
I am sure of few things when I think about my vocation, at least concretely. But one thing that has emerged is the yearning toward a vowed profession that has hounded me for years: marriage, ordination, religious life, any of the above, something else entirely. While it is easy for me to romanticize such things (dear reader, how I do!), I am left with a hollow feeling when I take in what it really means to covenant oneself and hold it up to the guarded, selfish creature that I am. You want me to do what? If I ever make it to the altar to give myself to anything, it will truly be through the work of God.
Perhaps this is the point. I vacillate wildly in my response to grace—“grace changes us and the change is painful”*—but the quiet, persistent call remains unchanged, faithful when I am not. So I return to the altar week after week, to hear the will of God shown forth in words and water and wheat and wine, strengthened for the time when I find myself at another crossroads so changed that the most natural thing in the world is to say yes.
*Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being
Noah Serves as Volunteer and Church Outreach Coordinator at St. James School.