5 suggestions for fruitful discernment
In conversations with students and others, I have come to realize that many hold a model of discernment that reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.”
When people talk of vocation, they often speak as if they are at a fork in the road. Conceived that way, failure to choose wisely, to choose the “correct” path, could lead to years of self-reproach, or worse, a worry that one has spurned God.
Some Catholic men stand before this fork presuming the priesthood to be the more heroic option. Marriage is sometimes viewed as the safety valve, an easier route.
I cannot speak for women, but I know that some Catholic men feel pressured to choose what is supposed to be the “one true path” ordained by God.
Such an understanding, while springing from good intentions, tends to cause inner turmoil and obscures the richness of the Catholic tradition. To help bring some peace of mind to those—of any age—who are working through vocation decisions, here are five suggestions.
First, instead of framing vocation as if one confronts two diverged paths, I believe a better image for responding to God’s invitation is the image given in the Book of Genesis: a garden. Adam and Eve were given a paradise, not a fork in the road. To seek God’s will is to recognize the abundance that lies before us. As David Lonsdale has written, “[D]iscernment is the art of appreciating the gifts that God has given us and discovering how we might best respond to that love in daily life.” In such a view, God’s goodness gives us many career or life options that will bear fruit. In Lonsdale’s words, “There is no blueprint in God’s mind with which we have to comply.”
Second, while it’s good to aspire to heroism, trying to identify the most heroic vocation is not only arbitrary; it creates anxiety. How can one possibly decide what is or is not most heroic? Is that even possible, or desirable? Heroism is found in many fields, circumstances and walks of life.
Instead, I recommend connecting vocation to the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists 12: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control and chastity. These fruits open our hearts to discipleship and sustain the Christian moral life. To someone searching for what to do with his or her life, I would ask: In what situations, and with whom, do you experience these fruits? Where are they present in your life? Sometimes those discerning the priesthood speak as if they are contemplating a painful task, and there’s an attitude of, I guess if God wants this, I’ll do it…
But joyless reluctance is no way to enter into a calling. God doesn’t want to make people miserable. So be attentive to the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Where qualities like joy and kindness and peace reside, God is likely at work.
Third, remember that God is a creator. From nothing He creates something; from chaos He brings order. In discernment, it is tempting to force one’s future into preexisting careers, religious orders or professions. But are we leaving space for God to innovate? Consider the example of St. Ignatius of Loyola. When St. Ignatius and his companions founded the Jesuits, there were many religious orders they could have joined. Yet they remained open to something not yet known, something unprecedented. The same might be true for you.
Fourth, learn to be comfortable with mystery, with periods of not knowing. We are a culture of dates and deadlines, of credits and prerequisites, of tools and methods that try to predict and verify. And those are helpful, but we cannot impose this framework on the divine-human relationship. We are wise to follow the words of Franciscan priest Fr. Richard Rohr: “Deep acceptance of ultimate mystery is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing.”
Fifth, take a break from searching, and from agonizing over hearing a voice from God. Such straining can lead one to become exceedingly analytical, obsessive about missing signs or defeated when petitions seem to go unanswered. The testimony of the saints and of Scripture tells us that God comes to us in ways and at times that catch us off guard. Sometimes what we most need is not earnestness, but equanimity. Pray to be ready for the surprise. As Bishop Robert Barron has written, “To have faith is to allow oneself to be overwhelmed by the power of God, to permit the divine energy to reign at all levels of one’s being.”
Bishop Barron’s words invite us to cultivate skills of listening, of noticing, of trust. The world presents many options for the use of our gifts, and there is no spiritual benefit in allowing ourselves to feel cornered. If we are open to it, God will bestow the light we need to make good decisions. To borrow from the poet William Cowper, “God is His own interpreter, / And He will make it plain.”