Discerning a Vocation
by Fr Anthony Bannon
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 ones 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 élan, and overrides love as a factor in
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 fundamental truth about a vocation is that its source is not
us but God. God calls. From the moment he creates us God has a specific
dream for each one 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 Gods 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 a 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.
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.
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 havent 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 Christs
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 Gods will, but may also be the action of the same evil
spirit, allowed by God for our purification.
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 arent.
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.
Many things pull at our heart and mind. We have instincts and passions
which have their place in Gods plan but are not the final
arbiters of truth nor of Gods 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 Gods 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 dont 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.
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. Shouldnt that be the description of each
one of us? Isnt 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 Gods word found
in the heart of a Pope John Paul or a Mother Theresa, 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 tells us that this is what we can
be with his grace.
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.
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 of 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.
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
We have a certain amount of self-knowledge, but in order to be
sure we are not deluded, we need the benefit of an outsiders
objectivity. We need:
We have to run by somebody else, someone we trust, our thoughts
and experiences. And then heed his advice.
We need them, but most especially we need to recognize the ones
we already have. This means:
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;
Gods 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
of these mark us and show us the path God has been nudging us along.
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 ones 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.
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 Gods 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.