Q: I am struggling between my family responsibilities as a married man and the desire to lead a contemplative religious life based on my Christian/Buddhist beliefs. I have felt “called” to God since the age of about twelve but have never been able to discern my calling. How can I resolve this conflict? — Steve, UK

A: Dear Steve,

In the midst of your struggle, you may find some relief in knowing that you’re not alone. One thing that characterizes our times is that people of all beliefs are learning a new balance between living valiantly in the world – with everyday responsibilities as well as the vast social responsibility we all share for the healing of our planet – while developing a rich inner life by returning time and time again to our source. Placing these two dimensions side by side brings a fullness to life that cannot be experienced by either in isolation. Contemplation brings us the strength and wisdom for our outward actions; while fulfilling responsibilities brings us a maturity of soul that acknowledges the Divine mystery all around and within us.

Since you ask your question in the context of gratefulness, a good place to begin is with your given situation. After all, gratefulness is the wholehearted response to the surprising circumstances in which you already find yourself. You’re married, with a family for which you’re caring. Right in the midst of that here-and-now situation – which you did not anticipate when you were twelve – is the place to embody and experience sacredness, serenity, and love.

And is that not the greatest challenge imaginable? Family life seems to find all our weaknesses and magnify them. Where we thought we were holy and peaceful, we find ourselves impatient, or angry, or despairing. What a refiner’s fire! If we can bring the wealth of our innermost soul to this experience, we can bring it to almost anything.

The key is to give yourself space for that which you crave: a profound contemplative practice. You can go about this in many ways. Here are four of them:

1) Set aside time each day for your personal practice. If you have children, this may mean rising early, going to bed late, or finding a creative alternative, like saying your prayers while you’re walking to your office. Even ten minutes’ less sleep can make a substantial difference in your balance throughout the day. It’s remarkable how refreshing prayer and meditation can be.
2) Keep in your heart throughout the day a song, a mantra, a sacred image, or a simple prayer to which you can return in stressful moments as well as quiet ones to return to center. Remembering to be aware of your breath, even in the midst of hubbub, also serves this purpose well.
3) Take time away – even a part of a day will help – once a month, or once a season, or at least once a year, to be fully immersed in contemplative practice. Blessedly, in our times retreat centers for this purpose abound. Most have websites where you can learn about what they offer.
4) If you can, find a spiritual guide. Some spiritual communities, like the Sufi Order and some streams of Catholicism, make guidance with carefully trained people a primary part of their offerings. In other circumstances, finding a good guide is an individual matter of discernment: You ask for help – inwardly or amongst people you trust – to meet up with someone well suited to lead you on your path. In either case, you remember that the true guide is the divine Friend. Any human being helps you only to see more clearly what’s coming from within.

You can also remember that we all go through phases of life. One of the most beautiful and advanced souls i ever met was already a grandmother at the time she became a Buddhist nun. The experiences you have as a family person build in you essential skills for all of life, contemplative life included. Value them while continuing to treasure your inner calling, and you will surely find your way.

With sincere regards,
Patricia Campbell Carlson