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Discerning a Vocation

by Fr. Anthony Bannon, L.C.

Over the 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 embark upon.

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 an omission.

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 thereof.

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 practice.

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 elements.

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 fruit.
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 experience.

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 my treasure.

Fr. 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.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved