Do you know what vocational discernment is like? It's like being lost on an abandoned mountain in the desert in the middle of a severe thunderstorm.
Several years ago on a business trip to Arizona, a friend of mine and I finally had the chance to climb Camelback Mountain. We labored our way to the top, hoping to get some decent photographs of the sunset, but, alas, it was a cloudy afternoon, becoming more so as the sun set. Just as we reached the top, the wind picked up and there was a crack of thunder. People began to head down all sides of the mountain on both official and unofficial "trails." My friend and I took pictures of each other very quickly, and then headed over the side as thunder rumbled again, this time bringing lightning and big fat raindrops.
We realized immediately we were off the trail, found our way back in the waning light before the sun dropped below the horizon leaving us scrambling down the huge boulders in the torrential downpour. The trail was not well marked, and the locals had special shoes (read: proper desert-oriented hiking boots) as well as the sure-footedness of native Arizonans. We were the only people on the mountain, it seemed, and we didn't even know where we were going. There was a couple behind us impatiently scrambling behind our slow progress, and they made nary a remark as my friend and I lumbered off the trail in the darkness of the storm-drenched night.
I remember sliding with a sense of alarm as I realized we were headed for the edge of a cliff. My friend, with more control, climbed lower but when my slide halted at a boulder, I remained where I was. We both wanted the same thing: to go "home". To get back to the base of the mountain, to join our friends at the hotel and go out for dinner. To survive. So he focused on going DOWN. I knew people lived on the mountain so wondered if maybe he was right. But....the mountain was deceptive. Were there houses there, or would we become even more lost when we knew we were already off the trail?
One thing I knew: when you are lost, it's not wise to go "exploring". That's probably especially true in places where there are jagged rocks, big cliffs, and scary creatures like tarantulas and rattlesnakes.
I kept looking up, KNOWING the trail was above us. I cringed every time lightning struck the mountain; I used to be terrified of storms. This was nearly my worst nightmare. Going UP wasn't actually something I wanted to do. Still, I knew, somehow, through that little inner voice, that we needed to go back UP to find our way down. We had to fight the idea of descent; to descend when we were lost was death. We had to return to what we knew was true, and then figure out where to go next.
We also knew we needed to stick together.
Finally my friend and I agreed to the basic principles of wilderness survival and scrambled to the point where we had departed the road to salvation (literal!). I looked around...there there it was: the cactus standing in start relief on the ridge. I'd noticed it on the way up, for we'd taken a break around that point on the way up. It was a natural marker, a distinct point, and once I saw it, I knew where to go next. I remembered where the trail turned and where it led.
Joyfully I pointed it out to my friend, and we slowly and carefully made our way out of the storm and off the mountain. Tired, a bit scratched up, more than a little scared but...home.
Sometimes God gives us living metaphors
I have often pondered the cactus that so caught my attention as we'd ascended that day, and the seeming coincidence that it was at that very point at which we'd gotten lost when the storm hit and full darkness fell.
It wasn't a coincidence, though. God can't be taken by surprise. He knew we'd get lost so He gave us a marker to help us find our place again. Even though everyone else fled and abandoned us there in the desert, God remained.
For this reason, as terrifying as that ordeal was that night, it is one of my favorite memories. It has become a metaphor for the interior life, and maybe more specifically, my vocational discernment.
God knows us well, and although we may be surprised by our failures and our unplanned or unexpected "detours", He is not. Just as He pointed out a marker to me on that day, so He does for us in our spiritual lives.
One of the ways He has spoken to me over the years, consistently, is through Psalm 139. Over and over again, I seem to open to this Psalm when I am lost and confused, when I am buffeted about by the winds and the storm and the earthquakes and the fires. When all around me is in chaos, I can find the whisper of God's voice right there, pointing me to salvation just like the cactus on the ridge.
Sometimes I ponder God's ways, and when I remember being lost on the mountain that night, I think that perhaps our being lost wasn't a mistake, but an event directly intended by God to be a living parable. Sometimes we can't find Him because we don't know where to look, and it is only in wandering off the path that we can look up and see Him directing us down the path to salvation....and perhaps, to our Vocation.