A regular part of the life of a priest is getting invited to people’s homes for meals. It is a great way to get to know our parishioners better and a way for us priests to “be shepherds with the smell of the sheep,” as Pope Francis likes to say. Inevitably, when invited out, the host will ask if there is anything I am allergic to or anything I don’t like. I always give the same answer: “I have no food allergies, but I do not like cod, peas, or dessert.”
But recently I was serving lunches at the local Union Gospel Mission when I got the duty of dishing out another food that I get disgusted by: cottage cheese. I find cottage cheese particularly gross and would actually rather have a full meal of peas and cod than even a half serving of the half-curdled milk.
The crazy thing is that when I was serving it, it was a hit among the clientele! They loved it. And it made me wonder: Why is it that some people love what I am disgusted by? It is the same taste and the same texture, so why should there be such opposite reactions to the same reality?
I have a great love for Johnny Cash. I am certain he sings better than the angels in heaven, and yet there are so many people who do not like his music at all. They are the same sound waves that travel through the air to our ears, so how can there be such different reactions to the same reality?
My least favorite subject in school was always math, yet some people live for math and make a living out of it.
Is it simply different strokes for different folks? Not always.
God speaks to us through our likes and dislikes. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that God speaks to us through our well-ordered desires. If what we are drawn to is well-ordered and not sinful, then God communicates through that.
Here is another crazy example in my own life. Anyone even remotely familiar with me knows that I have a passion for any historical object that has to do with the popes and saints. It is an admittedly unique desire, but because it is well-ordered (I think), this desire of mine has been a great tool in evangelizing thousands of people.
A nobler example of this is St. Mother Teresa. God put in her a desire to serve the poorest of the poor. She served these people in conditions that most people would find reprehensible, yet it was her greatest desire. Closer to home, young Joseph Buh, while growing up in Slovenia, had a burning desire to come to the United States and spread the Gospel of Christ. He became Monsignor Buh, the patriarch of the Diocese of Duluth, and did immeasurable good in our own local area, all because he followed his well-ordered desire.
God gives us these desires for the good of our neighbor. If we cooperate with God, there is no telling the good that comes from these desires.
Let’s put this in a biblical framework. One of the most familiar lines in the entire Bible is when Jesus said to his first Apostles, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Notice the words “I will make you,” meaning it is Christ’s action. The apostles are not initiating the action, it is Christ who is making them the fishers of men. In response to this, they desire to follow him as a well-ordered desire.
This reality is a big deal when it comes to young people discerning their vocation in life — what it is God is calling them to do in life. I look back at my own time of discernment as a particularly difficult time. I had a desire and interest in the priesthood, but also a very strong interest in another career field. Those two desires seemed to do battle in my mind, but if that was not enough, I had the greatest desire for a wife and family. (As an aside, when I speak to young guys about the possibility of the priesthood, very often they say they like girls too much to be a priest. At that I roll my eyes and ask them if they think I didn’t like girls.)
Discernment was difficult for me, as it is for many people discerning some form of religious life, but for me it was more than a question of marriage vs. priesthood, it was also a question of two different career fields which I was greatly drawn to. All options were good options, but which was the most well-ordered desire in my case? That was the trick for my discernment.
One aspect of this that is important to observe is that God wants us to be happy not only in the next life but in this life as well. He inspires and uses our desires for the greater good if we are listening and willing to cooperate.
So it may indeed be different strokes for different folks when it comes to taste in music and food, but when it comes to our discerned vocation, we will only find happiness when we figure out what God wants us to do.