A - Thanks for the question. It is a big one, so it may take me a while to adequately answer it. First off, you are on the right track. Dating is a big issue with many Christians, because of the culture and expectations that go along with it. So, I will try and help you out by approaching it from several different angles.
1) Dating is a new phenomenon. What we call dating and how we date currently in our society is a very new and novel way of going about forming a relationship. There are both good and bad elements that go into it. Remember that throughout most of history and most cultures marriage was not discerned through a dating process. So, we have had arranged marriages, courtships, and other ways of planning marriage. But, for the most part, dating exclusively is novel.
2) You do not need to date to discern your calling in life to marriage or the priesthood. Don't think that your life experience in this area is the only way that God will call you. He can call you with or without the experience of dating.
3) You should examine your heart and emotions closely. If you want to date, why? Is it just to have companionship, is it to fulfill a desire, etc.? Do you want to date a particular person? Do you feel a desire to be married? All of these questions (and more) should be part of the decision-making process. You should also talk them over with a spiritual director who can provide a more objective viewpoint for you.
4) Are you spending adequate time in prayer? If not, then this is where the discernment process should start and end. Without prayer, we cannot truly hear God's call.
5) If you do decide to date, there are certain guidelines that I think can help. First of all, you should make sure that you are guarding your heart, mind and body for the proper intimacy that the relationship ought to have. For instance, a dating relationship should never go into too much intimacy emotionally or mentally. Your girlfriend need not know everything about you. The same goes for physical intimacy and emotional. You need to make sure there are appropriate levels taken as the relationship progresses, all the while making sure you have clear boundaries to protect both of you.
Every relationship should be an avenue to holiness. So, you should continually ask if the two of you are helping or hurting the other person's relationship with God and if the relationship is glorifying to him. Ask yourself these questions throughout the time you might date:
- Are you in the state of grace?
- Is this person getting in the way of my continued growth in relationship with God?
- Is there some sexual sin I need to deal with?
- Can you get beyond the emotional infatuation you might feel?
- Is the relationship not dragging me away from my other relationships with friends and family or my other commitments?
- How is your prayer life?
- Do you communicate well?
- Is there any kind of abuse or addiction?
- Do I know that love is a choice and not a feeling?
- Is it romance that I seek or true love?
- Have I bought into the deception that God has made me for one person whom I need to find?
Furthermore, this should be a discernment process. If you decide that you could not marry this person, then the dating should end. Otherwise, you are just using them. If you start to go beyond the boundaries you set, then you need to slow the relationship down, take a break from it, or end it.
Now, if you think that God is calling you into a deeper dating relationship with a woman in order to discern the future and to help you grow in holiness, then you ought to obey his will.
So, to sum it up. If you do date, then make sure it isn't dating in the way that our culture has defined it. It should be dating for the purpose of discerning marriage with this person or not. During all of these times, make sure you are seeing a spiritual director who can help you cut through the noise and confusion that surrounds us, especially in dating.
We all have a vocation to holiness. So, make this your goal. With this in mind, develop a deep prayer life, find a good spiritual director, do God's will even when it is hard, and seek what is best for the other regardless of how much it costs you. Do these things and you will be on the path of discernment.
I hope this helps.
For those that want to learn more, we will be hosting a short-term relationships class on 3 Tuesday nights during Lent (3/22, 3/29, and 4/5). More info here.