I have just come off of a wonderful 8-day silent retreat. We used the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola as a guide for the retreat. I have always loved St. Ignatius because he was able to put spiritual discernment in a language that is easy to understand. Simplicity is such an important thing for the discerner. Why? Because those discerning a vocation, especially if they are young, can have a very hard time hearing God speak. This entry is to pass along a few important points that might help the discerner. While I will not cite Ignatius’ principles word for word in this article, you might say that the principles are “Ignatius inspired”.
Principle Number 1: If you want to hear God’s voice, accept God’s teachings. This may seem like a “no-brainer”, but if you believe in Christianity’s God, and you want to hear this God’s voice, you might want to be an observant follower of the Christian religion. It is found in its fullness in the Catholic Church, while also existing essentially, but with errors, in other Christian communities of faith. So, if you are serious about discerning a vocation in the Catholic Church, you might want to start learning the faith from a Catechism, understanding the Scriptures in a Catholic way, accepting the authority of the Pope and Bishops, the Sacraments, etc. You might want to start going to Confession and Eucharist regularly. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours is a great help, too.
Principle Number 2: Know what you are looking for This could almost go under Principle #1, but it is worth explicitly saying that if you are to discern a choice, you had better know what you are choosing. What do you know about Priesthood? About Marriage? About Diaconate? About Consecrated life? Are you wanting what that lifestyle really is, or what you want to make it to be? As they say, “it is what it is”. If you are not comfortable with what Priesthood is (male, celibate, and many other things besides), this might not be for you. Likewise, you would not enter the Benedictines thinking that it was the Franciscans. Both are consecrated life, but the two orders live by different Rules. God doesn’t send us mirages to chase after. He surely leads us. God does not trap us in places where we are unhappy. We do that to ourselves. Know what you are choosing.
Principle Number 3: Reject the bad, choose the good. Again, pretty basic stuff – Choose faith, hope, and love. Understand morality. Use your faculties of reason. Try to do the right and virtuous thing every time. Try to reject the sinful or evil thing every time. When we fail, we learn. We grow in knowledge. We can go to Confession. We can choose to try again. Strictly speaking, there is no discernment between a good act and a bad act, because there is only one choice to make – choose the good.
Principle Number 4: When we are in a state of sin, the evil voice sounds comforting, while the good voice sounds aggravates us. When we are away from God, the evil voice will comfort us, telling us, “it is alright. You have lived this way and done no real harm to anyone. Just be comfortable living as you have. In the meantime, God will remind us of the shame of our sins, and the hurt that we are causing both Him and others. This is to bring us to change our ways, and come back to the good.
Principle Number 5: When we are in a state of grace, while the good voice may feel comforting to us, we will be tempted with loud temptations out of keeping with our character. We can often begin to take for granted God’s Presence within us when we are in a grace-filled place. We are often agitated by evil thoughts of evil acts when we are in God’s peaceful presence. They won’t seem to leave us alone until we follow them.
Principle Number 6: When we are in God’s grace, we are free to be led by God. When we are not in God’s grace, we are not being led by God. Discernment can only take place in one who is in the state of grace. When we are not in that state, there is only one discernment to make, and that is to return to God. Once we have done that, then the discernment path can open up anew for us.
Principle Number 7: Discernment is between a good and a greater good. When we are choosing something really good, like our vocation in life, we are choosing between two goods. We are trying to find out what type of gift of God we really are. That process of discovery is always a good thing!
Principle Number 8: Whatever leads to a sense of long-lasting, abiding peace is the discernment choice that we want to make. God is a God of peace. God speaks to us in a voice that is easy to recognize, if we are indeed listening for that voice. It is not the voice of violent, coercive, and aggressive desire. Rather, God’s voice is a holy desire – peaceable, kind, gentle, wise, and joyful. This desire is planted like a seed in our hearts and grows. As it grows, we notice what this desire is telling us. This desire can help us to know if we should marry that person, or apply to the seminary, or visit that religious order house. God wants us to be free, peaceful, happy, and certain in our vocational calling!
Principle Number 9: Your vocation is not yours, it is God’s. God is the one in charge! It is not right to say, “I am going to make this happen! It is my destiny.” Maybe, or maybe not. God only knows. And your life is not your own – it is made by God as a gift to be given. Accept this truth and “give your life away”, and you will find a greater life. Simply become more authentically Catholic, stay in grace, know what you are looking for, increase your peaceful, holy desires, and follow them where they will lead. If you do this, you will find rest for yourself!
I hope that these help. Again, I am indebted to St. Ignatius of Loyola for inspiration for this blog, but these principles are not quoted from Ignatius. I am applying some of his wisdom to my own thinking. I hope you find these words helpful in your vocational journey!