On Daughters, Vocation & Human Happiness

The Sound of Music just finished its run at the college where I work, and my daughter had a part: Brigitta, one of the von Trapp children. Everyone in the production did a marvelous job, although (you’ll forgive me—I’m a dad) I think that my daughter gave an especially outstanding performance. Bravo!

Another standout of the show was Uncle Max. The student who played him brought an air of gusto and joie de vivre to the character that I don’t recall from the film version, and Max’s fundamental transparency was highlighted as a result. “I like rich people,” Max unabashedly declares at one point. “I like the way they live. I like the way I live when I’m with them.” There was no trouble believing him.

Refreshing honesty like Uncle Max’s is in short supply these days, but young women got a heaping dose from Susan Patton in her Valentine’s Day reflection in the Wall Street Journal last week. Lines like this:

Despite all of the focus on professional advancement, for most of you the cornerstone of your future happiness will be the man you marry. But chances are that you haven’t been investing nearly as much energy in planning for your personal happiness as you are planning for your next promotion at work. What are you waiting for?

The advice Patton dishes up may not be universally palatable, but I think she deserves some credit for having served it up at all, and with so much candor. Instead, she’s catching a whole bunch of grief—like Emma Gray at the Huffington Post, and Alexandra Petri at the Washington Post. Petri’s critique is satirical, and particularly harsh:

Don’t listen to Susan Patton, who is trying to sugar-coat it. Here is the REAL, COLD, HARD, UGLY TRUTH, in BLOCK CAPITALS. Women, if you are alone on Valentine’s Day, right now, reading this, over your giant bucket of ice cream, it is because you have Failed. You heard me.

Funny, yes, but pretty predictable.

Patton’s Argument: Its Strength and Weakness
Look, I have four daughters, so I think about this stuff a lot, and, overall, I appreciate Patton’s approach—especially when she cuts to the chase:

Not all women want marriage or motherhood, but if you do, you have to start listening to your gut and avoid falling for the P.C. feminist line that has misled so many young women for years.

In a world in which so many marriages end in divorce, and casual attitudes about extramarital sex lead to single motherhood and/or abortion all too often, I’ll encourage my older girls to read Patton’s column, and I’ll pass along the same ideas to my younger daughters in due time. Just as Patton advises her readers, I want my own girls to be intentional about choosing a path and, if it includes marriage, to be intentional about choosing a husband.

That being said, I do have a problem with Patton’s column, and it’s this: She didn’t go far enough. Patton assumes a dichotomous future for young women: Either it’s marriage, or dying an old maid—that’s it! If Patton really thinks that way, then I can well understand her urgent warnings and prescriptions. But, really, nobody’s life should be primarily about pursuing married bliss—I’m with the feminists on this point. And, frankly, it’s not even really about whom you should marry if you do decide to pursue it. Rather, questions of marriage should be subordinate to larger, more weighty questions of discernment—i.e., contemplating God’s will for me, and asking whether He has called me to marriage at all.

Leaving Vocation Out of the Discussion
In other words, Patton leaves out any discussion of the question of vocation. In Christian tradition, marriage isn’t mainly about temporal happiness, and least of all my own. Rather, marriage ought to be directed to the true happiness of the beloved, one’s spouse, and in that sense marriage is truly a calling—a calling that even requires its own special Sacrament.

This is also true of the other Sacrament of vocation, Holy Orders, and the Catechism highlights the link between these two callings in this way:

Holy Orders and Matrimony are directed towards the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so. They confer a particular mission in the Church and serve to build up the People of God.

So, instead of mapping out a plan of life that’s directed toward self-actualization and maximizing pleasure, we’re called to contemplate paths that put us in positions of servitude—and then, with God’s help, to choose between them: Marriage on the one hand; celibate priesthood, along with religious life, on the other. Both paths are designed to ultimately bring us the fullest kind of joy (i.e., heaven), but they both have self-abandonment and self-denial at their cores. Really, they’re simply different ways of carrying the Cross, and that’s a far cry from virtually all popular notions of how to go about finding happiness.

Which brings us back full circle to The Sound of Music. The story of Maria von Trapp—especially as it was crystallized by Rodgers and Hammerstein—is a study in vocational discernment. Maria was truly abandoned to pursuing God’s will, and, for her, that meant giving up her personal goal of religious life in order to embrace the married state instead.

Both would entail sacrifice; both would involve struggle. Both, in the words of the Mother Abbess, would require climbing mountains—an idea that the Abbess could’ve borrowed directly from Gregory of Nyssa:

He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows.

Yet it is not climbing to achieve the pinnacles of worldly success or career satisfaction or even marital bliss. One climbs to achieve Christ, and, with Christ, true joy.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared February 16, 2014 on the author’s blog “One Thousand Words A Week” and is reprinted with permission.

Richard Becker

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Richard Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He blogs regularly at God-Haunted Lunatic.

  • ForChristAlone

    You write: “So, instead of mapping out a plan of life that’s directed toward self-actualization and maximizing pleasure, we’re called to contemplate paths that put us in positions of servitude—and then, with God’s help, to choose between them: Marriage on the one hand; celibate priesthood, along with religious life, on the other.”

    So how do you explain the vocation to the ordained diaconate for married men? It’s interesting that you omit the diaconate from consideration since, after all, a deacon is configured to Christ as Servant. It just might mean that deacons have the best of both worlds; we are called to servitude in marriage and servitude to the Church.

    One additional thought: when I was ordained a deacon, I placed my hands in those of the bishop and swore obedience to him. It might not be a bad idea to revise the marriage rite to include the same: husband to pledge obedience to his wife and she to him. As I “belong” to my bishop, I also “belong” to my wife. Don’t believe me? Ask her.

    • One of my biggest influences in my marriage was the title a friend used for his wife before I was married: “She who must be obeyed”.

      I completely agree.

    • Marissa

      It might not be a bad idea to revise the marriage rite to include the same: husband to pledge obedience to his wife and she to him.

      Wives are to submit to their husbands; it’s not vice-versa. Husbands are the head, the leaders. Leaders don’t obey their subordinates. And it’s truly unfortunate that the next commenter uses the sobriquet of a tempting demoness as his wife’s title. If your wife “must be obeyed”, you are emasculated.

      • ForChristAlone

        Ephesians 5: 21 referring to husbands and wives: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” I’ll just stick with my wife and me being obedient to one another. It’s worked for 43 years; no sense upsetting the apple cart now. And by the way, neither my wife nor I would agree that I am emasculated. But thanks for the analysis anyway.

  • Beacon

    Thank you for your wise words. I am sharing with our daughters to share with their kids. Re: permanent deacons. When my husband was ordained a permanent deacon, one of the other deacon wives said the Church is getting 2-for-1. In many ways her cynical comment was very true. But then, any time he and I are faithful to our Faith, anytime we serve each other, our family, our community, all receive the blessings of our 2-in-1 enfleshed souls. That is why my fellow lay Carmelite buddy calls me the Beacon. In discerning one’s call from God, the wise person always remembers that one discernment path may cross that of another who is also responding to God’s call.

  • Julie A

    I don’t understand why vocations to marriage and the priesthood are sacramental and religious life is not.

    • Rick Becker

      That’s a great question, and I suspect the answer lies in the fact that religious life is simply a structured and communal expression of the virtues that all single Catholics are called to. In other words, we’re all called to poverty, chastity, and obedience, but those in religious life live those ‘evangelical counsels’ out in particularly public and intentional ways (cf. CCC 915).

      On the other hand, it seems that matrimony and the priesthood had to be Sacraments because they’re basically impossible: Priests are ordinary men who make God out of bread; husbands and wives are ordinary flawed human beings who commit themselves to getting each other to heaven, along with all the kids God blesses them with. Yes, supernatural powers are called for, and thank God He gives them to us!

  • Elizabeth

    Sixty-five years of obeying and loving one another has not been too bad!

  • fRED

    Discerning God’s will… that is easier said than done. Church is not providing much support or guidance on how this is done. I understand the concept of seeking God’s will is the ideal but the reality of actually accomplishing it is much more difficult. Let’s face it, do you start your day asking for the grace to do God’s will for this day; and then at the end of the day actually know how successful you’ve been?

    I’d like to know how you are teaching your children to discern God’s will. Obviously prayer is part of it.

    In reality, most young women right now are putting career first; marriage is later, if at all; and having children?

    Our society is dying today because we have not raised our daughters to aspire to be good wives and mothers. Instead, we have raised our women to athletes and career people. That is why the polls show so many so-called RCs are opposed to the Church’s teachings on divorce, birth control, and homosexuality. Today, it would be difficult not to be arrested for raising a daughter to be a wife and mother.

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  • Scott

    No, no, no, a thousand times no!!! This piece, though well-intentioned, makes a catastrophic error which has hurt at least two generations of young Catholics. We have a vocation to marry, by virtue of being created male and female. Discernment is about whether we have a vocation to a supernatural marriage in the priesthood or in consecrated life. Otherwise, unless we have a strong reason for not marrying, young men and women need to focus on marriage as their most likely vocation, and make a point of preparing for it from a early point in life. The college years, as Susan Patton suggests in the Wall Street Journal, are an appropriate and obvious time. Both young men and young women need to get their educations, careers, and life priorities in order so that they are ready when the specific call to marriage comes. The idea that the human person is a vocational tabula rasa and that we can’t know about our vacation to marry until we discern about discerning and then discern some more is an importation from pop psychology in the 1970s. One needs to assume that marriage is likely at some point and plan accordingly, whether that moment comes early or late. Faux discernment from the 70s era is really just an excuse for drift, and vocational drift by young men who weren’t focused on marriage in their 20s and find themselves still unprepared in their 40s is a major reason why so many young women can’t find husbands. Another big error is that there is no such thing as vocation to marriage until you meet the person you will marry. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Unless you anticipate the future and plan accordingly, you will not marry and you will disappoint someone else — probably one of the millions of devout young Catholic women who can’t imagine why they are single and lonely. If you realize that marriage is not for you, and God definitely has something else in mind, that’s another thing entirely. You should be open to God’s call. The whole point of discernment, properly construed, is to see if God has something in mind different for your. Otherwise, get ready for your likely calling, starting now! Don’t let the D-word, discernment, turn into drift, for decades, resulting an empty life and missed calling.

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