Thursday, June 28, 2012

Discernment is Not a Personality Quiz

Homily on the 4th Sunday of Easter, 2012

I’m not sure if you’ve ever filled out one of those online personality quizzes before?  They have a million of them now on facebook, or whatever.  You answer a series of questions – “I like to be in charge” Strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree.  “I generally try to be helpful to the people around me” Strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree…. 
And then, after finishing twenty or thirty or so questions you are told that you are particular personality type.  And you can put that personality type on your wall in facebook so that everyone.  Sometimes it does that automatically, as I found out a few years ago.  Your personality type: hell on wheels.  What?!  And of course: “If you are unhappy with the result, click here to take the quiz again.”  Click!  Quick, answer the questions – this time trying to think happy thoughts.  “Your personality type: Mr. whine and complain.”  Well what kind of personality options do they have on this thing anyway?  “Life of the Party” “Computer Geek” “Mad Max” “Codependent Copycat.” 
Here I was, hoping for insight to the question of my being, who I am, who God made me to be, how I fit into the world – and that desire was ruthlessly twisted by this manipulative online game in order to entertain my virtual friends.  If it weren’t for the fact that most of them succumbed to the same quiz and now are sporting similar epitaphs on their walls, it would be truly humiliating.

I remember back when I was in high school, at a youth ministry camp we spent all kinds of time on a more sophisticated personality quiz, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.  I imagine many of you are familiar with it.  I remember when I was getting ready to leave for the seminary and a close friend of the family who was not Catholic found out.  He was quite disturbed: “But you are an INFP!  You will be miserable in a world dominated by ESTJs!” 

It is a profound human desire: the desire to know who we are and where we stack up in this world.  To know our vocation in life.  This weekend is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.  And one of the things that we talk about all the time is the importance of promoting a culture of vocations, a culture of discernment in our Catholic parishes, in our community.  I think that part of the way that we can work to do that, is by contrasting a healthy discernment culture with this kind of unhealthy labeling and personality typing that is so common in our culture today.
The personality typing, or the other forms of personality labeling that we see so often today prey on the natural desire in the human person to know who he or she is.  Unfortunately, we are many times too quick to give to some stupid test or some seemingly objective source the power to suggest to us who we are based on incredibly superficial characteristics or answers to superficial questions.  And when we do so, we allow our desire to know ourselves and our destiny, to be in control of our lives, to drive us to place in the hands of another a power that only God should have, the power to judge us and to give us a vocation.  Probably each of us has met someone who has gotten caught up in this mess.  They have given over to a person or a seemingly objective test the ability to categorize them.  “Well I can only do this because I am an _________ sort of person.”  Fill in the blank. 

But  the reality is that no man made category, no personality type, can ever describe a human person.  Sometimes categories and types can be helpful, sometimes… but very rarely, I think.  Far too often they instead become obstacles, limiting factors that close us off from the freedom that God wants us to have in discerning his will, discerning our vocation, who he made us to be.  We end up becoming far too preoccupied with ourselves, with our own strengths and limitations – with naval gazing.  And we lose our grasp on the complexity and the mystery of the truth about who we are.  We lose touch with the freedom that we are given in Christ to work out our vocation with God.

Discerning a vocation is an entirely different process from filling out a personality quiz.  First of all, it never ends.  You don’t come up with some neat answer.  You are a __________.  God always leaves us with a certain mystery about who we are and about who he is and about his will for us.  It is always somewhat disconcerting.  But that makes sense.  Because a vocation is not a role or a job or a category that we are to choose or accept.  It is a pathway that we are invited to walk as we seek to live out our baptismal call to holiness.  It is the way that we are made to reflect God, the way that God’s life is meant to unfold within us.  And so it is mysterious and beyond our ability to comprehend or control.  And we never cease that discernment.

And the way that we grow in our understanding of our vocation is rather counter intuitive.  It is precisely not by spending our days looking at the intricacies of our own personalities and gifts and talents.  We risk becoming completely self absorbed and deluded when going down that path.  Most of us tend to be horrible judges of ourselves and our needs and our strengths and weaknesses.  We tend to try to live someone else’s lives, to live the life we want rather than the life we’ve been given.
No, to grow in the understanding of our vocation, we must grow in our understanding of Jesus Christ.  He is the one who reveals us to ourselves.  His life acts like a mirror – a perfectly clear mirror.  When we pray, when we come to know him and speak with him, he reveals to us who we are.  He is our good shepherd, he knows his sheep better than they know themselves.  He made us, we are made in his image and likeness.  He knows us authentically, from the inside out, and it is only in knowing him that we can know ourselves authentically. 

And so to discern a vocation is not a process of isolated self awareness, nor is it a matter of following your dreams.  It is a matter of a mysterious dialogue, a discussion with the good shepherd.  Of rooting our lives on the stone that was rejected by the builders but that must become the cornerstone of our lives. 

We are made to build our lives on that rock of Christ’s life in us, even in a world that tries to pretend that fulfillment and happiness come from some sort of individual self-awareness and ego driven pursuit of your dreams. That is a true culture of vocations – a culture that speaks to Christ, that asks him to show us who we are and what we are made to be.

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