That's one of the most basic and important questions we can ask, and finding the answer to it should be at the heart of all our actions and decisions. Yet, while most of us plan how to find a job, get a raise and buy the things we want, fewer have a clear idea of how to answer this question. The issue is more pointed after the attacks of Sept. 11, when many Americans are rediscovering the values of family, religion and the need to make commitments.

As Catholics, we should be busy about the issue of vocation. The Church provides proven methods of discernment, but rarely do we hear them mentioned at Mass or other gatherings of the faithful. Traditionally, there are three categories, or states in life, which the Church presents to us. These states focus more on “how I will live” than “what I will do” — and thus are neglected in our practical, bottom-line culture. How often are children asked what state in life they want to enter when they grow up?

There is the married state, in which a man and a woman vow themselves as husband and wife for life, and are open to the gift of children. There is the celibate state, in which priests and men and women religious choose “the greater portion,” vowing themselves to the Lord and the service of his people. And there's the lay celibate state, in which a man or a woman gives up the chance of marriage to serve God and the Church as a person in the world. In the end, the question of vocation is a question of love. Where do I place my heart? How do I best live out the universal call to love God with my whole heart and my neighbor as myself?

We should approach these states in life as calls from God in their own right, rather than as conditions we find ourselves in as the result of other decisions. How often have you heard a young man say that he can't become a priest because he wants to get married? He may indeed be called to marriage, but he also may be failing to ask a deeper question: Does God want me to get married? If he finds the answer is No, the question of priesthood takes on another dimension. If the answer is Yes, he will see matrimony in a more sacred light, as both a choice and a calling.

With so little talk about the states in life, many young people are left in a state of suspension. The choices in our society can be overwhelming; the possibilities for careers, money and success, blinding. To keep options open, too many fall into lay celibacy and are not particularly happy or fulfilled. I say “lay celibacy” rather than the lay celibate state, because most of these young people still consider marriage or consecrated life a possibility, but fail to take the step. A state in life requires a state of commitment.

But, for many, it seems easier to sit on the fence, in this interim lay condition, not embracing celibacy as a vocation, but practicing it, sometimes with difficulty, as a way of avoiding sin. In this context, human sexuality can lose its dignity and drama and take on a sterile spin. I speak from experience.

I once thought I should be a priest. After avoiding the issue for a few years, I entered the seminary and was heart-broken when, after three years, I found I was not called. Why did God say No? Wasn't the Church in dire need of priests?

Obviously, he had another plan for me, one which I found a few years later when I met the woman I married. Now I see that, when I entered seminary, I saw priesthood as a noble profession that required the great sacrifices I was anxious to make. I viewed priestly celibacy not as a state to be lived and loved, but as an obstacle that could be overcome by positive thought.

I did not address the question of my state in life until I left the seminary. A priest asked me if I felt drawn to a particular state. I said I was open to all three, but when he mentioned marriage, joy filled my heart and a smile, which I tried to hide, broke out. That flash of insight developed into a conviction as I began to live as a man called to marriage.

The lesson of my experience is not to forget about seminary and find a wife. I am grateful for my time in the seminary, where I learned the discipline of regular prayer and forged lasting friendships. Rather, the message is: Don't be afraid to walk the wrong way on the road to vocation, and turn back and start again. But, by all means, make a start. Embrace the risk. Love with all your heart, and don't be afraid to look foolish. It's the Lord you serve.

There are young men who have said in all the time I've known them that they're thinking about priesthood, and others who insist they're meant to be married. Yet, year after year, they remain in the lay single state, not applying to seminary in the first case, not nurturing a serious relationship with a woman in the other. The same is true with women who constantly weigh the possibilities of consecrated life and marriage.

They all are faithful Catholics, active in their parishes, and do many works of charity. But they would be the first to admit that they're fence-sitters. Part of the problem, ironically, is that they're successful. They have good jobs, faithful friends, comfortable lives. It is difficult for them to hear God's call to leave their comforts and launch into the deep, the uncertain world of consecrated life or marriage.

Many in the Church are responding to the vocation shortage with calls for men to consider becoming priests or brothers, and women to consider becoming consecrated.

This is good. But these vocations can too easily be viewed as jobs to be considered against other jobs in the world. Maybe the vocation message would gain greater depth if young people were asked to consider the three states. We need to ask them: Are you willing to give up your comfortable seat on the fence in order to embrace the uncertain drama of life?

Brian Caulfield is managing editor of Columbia magazine.