Here are a few tips for those who are discerning their life’s vocation (single, married, priest, deacon, religious). All these tips apply to anyone.
1. Discernment is different from self discovery. Some people enter into discernment as if it is a process of self-discovery. It is totally normal to try to “find yourself” and answer basic questions about who you are and what you believe. It is crucial to establish what is most important to you in life, what you stand for, and what goals you are setting in the life journey. But this is not the same as discerning a vocation, for discernment is finding God’s will for your life. This is different from finding your “identity”. A potential spouse, a religious superior, or a seminary formator would hope that you would already have a well-established sense of yourself. These things will also change during discernment, and will change during the course of an adult’s vocational life. You can know yourself really well, and still know very little about God.
Discernment is truly listening for God’s voice and following Him when He calls (not literally a booming voice from heaven, of course, but a discerning of the Holy Spirit moving in your heart). St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Discernment of Spirits is recommended by me as very helpful with discernment prayer. The Erie Diocesan Vocations Office also has good, basic material to help you get started on discerning the Spirit’s movements in your heart. Trust that God has a plan for you! You can’t follow that plan with fidelity, and become the person God desires you to be, unless you enter into daily discernment, with prayer, practice of religion, and moral conversion of heart.
2. Discernment is not primarily about “self-improvement”. Some people treat discernment as if it is spiritual self-improvement (in other words, what will fulfill my needs most completely?). Self-improvement can focus too much on personal gain and count too much the personal costs. At the center of a Christian spirituality is the Cross. Should it surprise us that each calling of Christ in our lives comes with a cost, which often times seems like personal loss? Each vocation will include with it lots of suffering, but this should not make us afraid. We remember that Jesus’ Passion, as fearful as it was, lasted only for a time. He is Risen for eternity! Even if our suffering must be long-suffering, it pales in comparison to the glory that awaits us when we listen for God and follow God. The ultimate self-improvement is the Resurrection, but first comes sacrifice.
Occasionally, a young man in reference to priesthood, or a young woman in reference to religious life, will say, “I want to get married and have kids.” Yes! That is good! For most people, getting married and having kids is a healthy, praiseworthy, and good thing. Most priests and religious, as they were discerning the call, had that desire in their hearts, too. That desire is a natural part of being human. It doesn’t mean that you stop discerning a priestly or consecrated vocation. It celibacy a sacrifice? Common sense tells us that it is a big sacrifice. But if we are called to it, we will only be blessed if we answer the call, and not run away. As Jesus said in reference to celibacy, “Those who can accept this ought to accept it.” (Matthew 19:12)
3. Discernment is primarily about Hope with a capital H. It takes a lot of hope to simply live a Christian life, that is, a life founded on the principles and teachings of Christ and His Apostles. This is because so much of the daily experience is filled with contrary evidence. Many things we see can be used as very convincing proofs against the existance of a loving, powerful, personal God. Yet, there are clear, shining, bright moments in the life of discernment that convince us that every word of Jesus is true! These are moments of enlightenment by the Holy Spirit. These moments help us to accept a hard teaching of the Church, to help a neighbor in need, and to put our own needs aside. These moments build trust in God, that He indeed has plans for our welfare, not for our woe.
When we discern in patience and hope, God will place thoughts and movements in our minds and on our hearts. These movements confirm what God has revealed in Scripture and in the teachings of the Church. They are in harmony with what Christ has instituted. Yet, these movements in our hearts are specific messages to us, which move us to do something (or avoid something). These are the movements that we need to be attentive to in discernment. These are the movements of the Spirit which prompted Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, John the Baptist, and St. Paul. These are the joyful, peaceful, and long-lasting movements of the Holy Spirit.
When we follow these movements, they move us towards our vocation, whether it be as a spouse, consecrated vows, or a promise of life in Holy Orders. We make these big movements in vocational discernment with a large helping of Hope. We live in hope! We are a people of hope! That is why we discern. Our vocation is a sign of hope, a piece in the larger work of God, to bring all things to completion in peace, joy, and love.
That sounds like a good deal to me! How about you?