years I have had occasion to speak to many young people who have told me
they were trying to discern if they had a vocation to the priestly or
consecrated life, and I have had to tell them, sometimes to their
surprise and consternation, that they were on the wrong track, that they
should not be “discerning” but doing something else.
Let me explain lest you think I am against vocations.
The big problem with discernment, at least as many understand it, is
this: it often turns what should be a vital conversation with God, the
experience of the breath of God on one’s life, the stirring of our
deepest and noblest aspirations, into a cold examination and spiritless
calculation of risk, preferences and rewards, and the ceaseless
rummaging for signs. Instead of increasing trust, discernment — as
practiced by many — stifles it, robs our search of all elan, and
overrides love as a factor in our decisions.
The nature of discernment itself has something to do with this, and also
the fact that in the matter of vocation, discernment is only one
element, and perhaps the one that we have least control of, though it
commandeers most of our attention and is the one we are most anxious to
The Whole Context
The fundamental truth about a vocation is that its source is not us but
God. God calls. From when he creates us God has a specific dream for
each of us. It follows that God in his providence and intelligence will
make sure we receive sufficient indication of what it is he wants of us.
We need not worry about that.
The other side to the equation is that for God’s plan to come true we
have to perceive it and act upon it. This perception and acceptance has
to happen at all levels of our nature, not only the intellectual but
also the spiritual and the emotional.
Though a person will pray about it, what is commonly understood as
discernment is the process of trying to satisfy our skeptical intellect
as to the existence of our call. Purely and simply. This involves many
We do not normally take into consideration as a factor, for example, our
willingness to accept the call — nor do we consider the influence of
this willingness on our ability to perceive it, nor the obstacles that
there may be within us to perceiving and acting upon a call. Yet all of
these are of enormous consequence in our vocational search, and
frequently are the hidden factors in determining its success or lack
The Key to Successful Discernment
Discernment will be truly successful if we find out what God wants of
us, and then go do it. So much is obvious. It is not difficult to see
how pointless it would be to search for our vocation if we are not
willing to follow it.
What some might find surprising is that our willingness to follow our
vocation is a major factor in our willingness to accept it, and our
willingness to accept it is a major factor in our ability to discover
it. Discovery is acceptance on an intellectual level that the vocation
is there, acceptance is to admit it is something that should be acted
upon, and action is the crown of the whole process — it is love made
We cannot help but approach discernment with a certain number of
prejudices and biases, be they positive or negative. Indifference in
this matter is not part of our nature. The sacrifices we know are
entailed in following a vocation do color our willingness to accept its
existence. Often, like a border guard faced with a person of
questionable origin, we can question the vocation to death, playing it
all by the book, prudently.
So the real challenge for a person considering a vocation is to be
willing to follow it if he has one. The real problem is to acquire this
disposition of willingness, unconditional openness. And this, rather
than mere discernment, should be our concern.
Openness and its Rivals
Often we understand by openness that we accept intellectually the fact
that conceivably God could call us. There is a more useful form of
openness. It consists in the ability to say to God, and mean it,
“whatever you want of me I will do.”
It is therefore a fruit of prayer, and is expressed in prayer that is
more offering than petition. This kind of openness faces significant
obstacles, most of them at work inside us. The parable of the sower can
help us understand some of these. (cf. Luke 8; 4-15)
The devil comes and takes the word out of their hearts. Because we
haven’t invited him, we practically never consider the tempter as an
active participant in our vocational discernment. But he gatecrashes
anyway. Remember Peter? As long as he followed the Holy Spirit he could
see (“discern”) that Jesus was the Messiah; but when he thought “as men
did” he was unable to accept Christ’s passion and death, and Christ had
to call him a “satan” for the one he was following.
In struggling to open ourselves to a vocation we are trying to open our
minds and, more difficultly, our hearts to God. But the Enemy, the
father of lies, is doing all he can to cloud our judgment and harden our
heart. At times the chilling indifference with which we stand on the
sidelines while our brothers and sisters suffer need, and die of hunger
and thirst for the truth, is due to this action of the evil spirit. And
when we go through our difficulties and trials we often forget that they
are not in themselves indicators of God’s will, but may also be the
action of the same evil spirit, allowed by God for our purification.
Emotions. “They are enthusiastic for a while but then they fall away in
times of trial.” The ups and downs of our emotions often affect our
openness. One day we are, and another we aren’t. One day we would give
our lives for Christ, and another we say we do not know him. At one
moment we want to know what he would have us do, and the next we walk
away sad at what he asks. To be truly open we have to overcome the
instability of our emotions. Our Christian life must not be a matter of
emotions but of convictions and love.
The attraction of the world. Many things pull at our heart and mind. We
have instincts and passions which have their place in God’s plan but are
not the final arbiters of truth nor of God’s will. Further, it is still
an understatement to say that the “worries and riches and pleasures” of
this life exert an enormous attraction on us through these same
instincts and passions. There is a real battle to be fought at the very
core of what we are, flesh and spirit, at the encounter of these two
Jesus’ words here put us on guard against thinking that just because we
have not out and out rejected God’s will, we are necessarily following
it. The seed is not lost, it does not die for lack of moisture, but
still it does not bear fruit — other things get in the way and do not
let it grow. Perhaps a common fate for many a possible vocation. We
don’t dare say no to it outright, but we do put it off, occupy our minds
and engage our energies in activities and projects that take us away
from it, and so let other things displace it. The result is the same: no
Good soil. Jesus gives here a wonderful description of the person who is
truly open to his vocation, he is of “noble and generous heart, who
hears the word and takes it to himself, and yields fruit through
perseverance.” Shouldn’t that be the description of each one of us?
Isn’t that what attracts us about the saints, the living ones we see and
those we read about?
How much richer we all are for the good soil God’s word found in the
heart of a Pope John Paul or a Mother Teresa, and what wonderful fruit
they have brought forth in their perseverance— a perseverance by which
they withstood temptation, let the Word go deep into their lives and
make extraordinary demands of them, and cleansed their hearts of any
attachment or ambition that might smother that seed.
Christ here opens an invitation to each and everyone of us. He describes
his dream for us. He tell us that this is what we can be with his grace.
Elements of Discernment
Though “discernment” is not the most important facet of a successful
vocational search, let us nevertheless insist that it is necessary, and
find a way to do it well.
Attitude. At the risk of repetition: if you are scared stiff of what a
vocation entails, you will find it harder to be open and accept that it
might be happening to you. But take heart, besides prayer there are
several other relatively simple and practical means that can be of help
to overcome this fear.
One is getting to know people in the walk of life (Community, Movement,
Seminary...) that you are thinking of. Visit them, see that they are
made out of the same stuff as you, that they had (and have) their
trials, and that still they are answering the call.
Another is to try the life yourself. A visit. Long enough to get a good
feel for it. If this is where God wants you, you will begin to discover
the aids that God has built into that way of life for a poor, weak human
being like you to be able to live it. This is a great vocation enhancer.
Another is to shake off all spiritual narcissism. Stop thinking about
yourself and your gifts. Think about how best you can help others and
Christ. Do not seek personal comfort.
Read. But read inspiring things. The Gospels. The Acts of the Apostles.
Lives of saints. Their heroism can help us transform our attitudes. They
can set our hearts on fire.
Prayer for enlightenment. There is not much — as a matter of fact there
is nothing — we can do as regards getting in tune with God without the
help of the Holy Spirit. This enlightenment comes through the exercise
of faith, allowing faith to let us see everything in a new light.
(Without faith your birth was a chance event explicable by the
confluence of certain conditions; with faith your birth, life, is a gift
given you by God....)
Self-knowledge. we have a certain amount of self-knowledge, but in order
to be sure we are not deluded, we need the benefit of an outsider’s
objectivity. We need:
Spiritual direction. We have to run by somebody else, someone we trust,
our thoughts and experiences. And then heed his advice.
Signs? We need them, but most especially we need to recognize the ones
we already have. This means:
Acceptance of the ordinary. There is a certain compulsion afoot to go
seeking for extraordinary signs and experiences. Here are some of the
ordinary ones that we risk missing, and are more compelling: the fact
that you are thinking about a vocation; your personal spiritual journey
and experience; God’s providence in your life (from the gift of life
itself, to the circumstances in which you have had to live it; the
blessings God gave you; the trials he allowed you to go through....),
all of these mark us and show us the path God has been nudging us along.
Shake off the scepticism. Idealism is no longer kosher. No wonder, in an
era that has reduced love to sex and happiness to self-indulgence.
To discover your vocation and accept it you must dream and hope at least
as much as the young man and woman who are getting married. You have to
dream even more.
To discern a vocation you have to loosen the ties that bind us to the
merely pragmatic, the distrust that our society breeds in us. You have
to believe in a dimension of life and of people that is not tangible —
the dimension of the spirit, the thirst for goodness and truth there in
each one’s soul, untapped and unsatisfied.
You have to believe enthusiastically that Christ is more necessary to
your fellowmen than the new boat, the second house, the third car or the
next promotion. That society needs him more than NAFTA, the EURO or IMF
handouts. That success and happiness are measured in the next life
rather than in this. That eternity lasts whereas this life is passing.
You have to be ready to do what almost without exception your friends
think is madness.
Balance in Discernment
From the above it is clear that the step of discernment (which only has
value if it is a prelude to action) involves two different aspects that
could be interpreted as conflicting.
One is to intellectualize, turn it into a problem to be solved mostly in
my head — although perhaps, yes, with the help of prayer — but the
emphasis is on me figuring it out. The other is intuitive, an inner
recognition, guided more by the movement of my heart, with the emphasis
on faith, and which is often sparked by living example and direct
Both have to be present. The mix will depend on the individual, but the
analyst in me has to make room for the believer, and the believer has to
use God’s gift of reason. And neither should forget that it is where we
put our treasure that our heart will be, and that our heart more than
our reason will determine our actions, at least in the long term.
So it is ultimately a question of giving God his place, and making him
Anthony Bannon is a priest of the Legion of Christ and the author of
Peter on the Shore: Vocation in Scripture and Real Life. For more
information about the Legion of Christ, contact him at 475 Oak Avenue,
Cheshire, CT 06410, (203) 271-0805.