A painting by Claude Joseph Vernet depicts Jonah having been regurgitated by the whale onto dry land. Bridgeman Images

The Resistant Prophet Jonah

A model for discernment in our contemporary culture

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The Book of Jonah commences with the Lord’s word and the prophet’s call: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; for their wickedness has come before me. But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish, away from the Lord” (1:2-3). Encapsulated in these two verses is a summation of salvation history and the divine-human theo-drama that has played out from Eden until our very day.

I would like to hold up the story of Jonah, God’s most resistant prophet, as a radiant icon to explore the dynamics that often plague the fear-ridden heart of a young person feeling called to discern priesthood or religious life. What can Jonah, son of Amittai, prophet to Nineveh from thousands of years ago, teach young people today about being called by the Lord to do something extraordinary with their lives — to be something extraordinary in this life?

Resisting a Call

Every vocation and calling, when it is genuine, is issued first from the eternal heart of the Father into the hearts of his sons and daughters; that’s where it all begins, with God’s mysterious invitation. God’s call, God’s initiative toward his human creatures as Creator and Father, always comes first; our own first step is always a response (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2567). In fact, our word “vocation” comes from the Latin root “vocare,” meaning, “called.” The Lord calls, then he waits. Will man respond in kind? Will he trust me? Will she follow me?

Everyone is called to a vocation: marriage, priesthood, the diaconate, consecrated religious life or single life. “We each were made for a definite purpose,” as Blessed John Henry Newman put it. Jonah was called to Nineveh and was commissioned to be the agent of the great ancient city’s conversion. But notice how Jonah — and most of us sinners — responds when the Lord called him to do something unexpected, unplanned or seemingly impossible: with fear and flight.

How often it happens in the life of a young person who, having felt the stirrings of the Lord’s proposal to discern a priestly or religious vocation, finds himself or herself gripped by fear and paralyzed to act. Why? Because suddenly it appears that another will is inserting itself into the sovereign sphere of my personal volition: “Whoa, whoa, whoa — God, back off! This is my life we’re talking about! I’m in charge here!”

Our modern American vision of freedom is less informed by the Gospel and more influenced by modern sensibilities. The modern American narrative has recast the notion of freedom to mean the capacity to hover above an array of options, detached, and uninfluenced by them, and then, without coercion, choose. Under this rubric, the fulfillment of freedom, then — for example, the good life — is the self-directed, unconstrained, maximally pleasurable life. For this reason, how fearful and strange it is for a young person to feel chosen, to feel called and to feel moved in an unexpected direction in life, one that deviates from what is considered normal — such as toward a cathedral floor, for example.

Like Jonah, many a young person has heard the voice of Jesus whispering: “Come, follow me; come, drop your nets; come, see where I am staying,” and has responded with: “I can’t do this; I don’t think I want to do this! How could I be happy? I want a career, a family and a normal life! This wasn’t what I had planned!”

Making Offers

Gripped by fear in the midst of initial vocational stirrings, many young people will follow Jonah’s lead and flea to Tarshish. Lord, you say go east by land? Fine, I’ll go west by sea! In the effort to silence the voice beckoning from within, young people will seek to stuff their hearts, their ears, their minds and desires with all sorts of things — some good, some not so good — that deceptively promise to satisfy. At college, a young freshman may negotiate with the Lord’s call and barter with God: “Lord, I’m not going to the seminary, but how about I work for your Church as a youth minister?” Or, at the worst extreme, a young person may stuff his heart’s desires with sex, drugs, alcohol, honor, power, prestige or popularity, etc., worshipping at the altars of all sorts of idols.

How often, then, do these young people find their lives taking on water, flooding and foundering — the Lord indeed sends storms to jar us out of our self-destructive or self-defeating patterns of life. Let’s be clear, however: The Lord is not vindictive or mean to us when we wander away from him; rather, he is Father, which means that his heart breaks when his children try to order their lives around anything else but him, who alone satisfies. In “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis remarked:

“God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now, God designed the human machine to run on himself. He himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from himself, because it is not there.

Turning to the Lord

The original lie that was swallowed way back at the beginning of human history is precisely this: God’s will is against my will, and God’s plans will undermine my happiness. The truth, however, is that our highest and fullest happiness is found precisely in moving with the grain of his will, not against it.

Thus, to save them from themselves, to draw them back, God sends a fish, like he did for Jonah, to slow them down. The fish is symbolic of all those ways in which the Lord, like a good parent, might confine and constrain his spastic child to allow him or her to calm down and refocus. For the young man who fled to a regular college — the University of Tarshish — instead of acting on his heart’s promptings to enter the seminary, he might find that nothing he did there really could provide that satisfaction and meaning to life he so longed for — no class, no girlfriend, no group of friends, no amount of extracurricular activities could quench his thirst for fullness. He feels frustrated, confounded and confined — in the belly of a fish. Then hopefully, like Jonah, he will turn to the Lord. Notice it is from within the belly of the fish that Jonah cries out and prays. And so must we.

In the addiction recovery community, the “fish” that swallows a person is often called “rock bottom.” Once at this place of incapacity and poverty, a person, especially one who finally has collapsed, exhausted, from trying to fulfill his or her longing for life and fullness according to his or her own terms, is perfectly suited to turn to the Lord, the source, and call out for help and direction. After Jonah prays, the Lord has the fish spit him out upon the shores of Nineveh — thy will be done! At this point of desperation, the young person, like Jonah, likely will make the words of the psalmist his own:

“Lord you have probed me, you know me: / you know when I sit and stand; / you understand my thoughts from afar. / You sift through my travels and my rest; / with all my ways you are familiar. / Even before a word is on my tongue, / Lord, you know it all. / Behind and before you encircle me / and rest your hand upon me. … / Where can I go from your spirit? / From your presence, where can I flee? / If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; / if I lie down in Sheol, there you are. / If I take the wings of dawn / and dwell beyond the sea, / Even there your hand guides me, / your right hand holds me fast” (Ps 139:1-10).

‘He Gives You Everything’

The whole of God’s good creation, every force — every mysterious fish and sea monster — every person and circumstance potentially is a fish, a place where, and a means by which, the Lord can hold us to himself. Neither Jonah nor any of us can run and hide from the Lord. How wonderful it is, then, that Jonah, having turned his heart back to the Lord, hears again the Lord calling him to Nineveh. The young person who, having fled in fear from a calling, must not despair; the Lord’s hand remains outstretched to the human heart, ready to reissue the invitation. He does not wag his finger with a crestfallen face: “You missed your chance, Jonah; you’re doomed to a life of mediocrity!”

‘Listening to God’s Voice’
“Living a spiritually mature life requires listening
to God’s voice within and among us. To discern
means first of all to listen to God, to pay attention
to God’s active presence, and to obey God’s prompting,
direction, leadings, and guidance. Discernment of spirits
is a lifelong task. I can see no other way fordiscernment
than to be committed to a life of unceasing prayer
and contemplation, a life of deep communion with the
Spirit of God.” — Henri Nouwen, “Discernment:
Reading the Signs of Daily Life” (HarperOne, $17.45)

I think, perhaps, the greatest lesson Jonah teaches us and all young people feeling the Lord tugging on his or her heart is that our response has direct and serious consequences on the lives of others. Jonah’s “yes” converted Nineveh. The Lord was calling him particularly, yes indeed, but not simply for his own sake.

There is immense power latent in the human “yes.” With Jonah’s “yes,” Nineveh was so thoroughly converted that even the cattle fasted and repented!

What would our world be like had Simon the Galilean fisherman not dropped his nets and said “yes” to Jesus? There’d be no St. Peter. What would our world be like had Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu not heeded his call to follow and serve him in Calcutta? There’d be no St. Mother Teresa. What would our world be like had that young Polish actor and poet named Karol not entered the seminary? There’d be no Pope St. John Paul II.

Like a groom who already has gone down on one knee before each human soul, the Lord waits patiently for a response, a fiat that will change the world. What will your yes (or no) mean for the world? Jonah, son of Amittai, the Lord’s most resistant prophet, teaches young people that they are called by the Lord from all eternity for a particular mission. He teaches that young people need not fear this call nor try and run from it, for in following it, they will find their greatest joy, happiness and purpose in life. And once followed, Jonah teaches today’s fearful discerners that the ripples of grace flow outward to touch countless others; that our “yes” affects untold souls. Speaking at his inaugural Mass at the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI encouraged the faithful with words that Jonah himself could have written:

“Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that he might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? … No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No!

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“Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ — and you will find true life. Amen.”

FATHER PATRICK R. SCHULTZ is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland and serves as parochial vicar at Communion of Saints Parish in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.