I began my journey of discernment in high school believing it was an easy and almost magical process. I saw it play out fruitfully in the lives of others, but as I entered the seminary in my senior year, my own discernment took on a dynamic that I was not eager to face. Discernment was often a challenging and frustratingly long process for me. While deciding on a vocation can be incredibly joyful and fulfilling, the path to this decision can be a challenging one to walk with God. Yet, eventually, it became a source of great joy and hope.
I entered discernment with the desire to be married, which was an idea present in my mind since fifth grade. But as I grew in my faith during high school, a new desire arose to do something great and remarkable with my life. I developed a desire to be a leader in my faith and to spread my newfound love of God to others. So God’s plan for my life and my own conceptions about my future began to interact. I saw priesthood as the higher calling and, in a way, a better way for my life. I believe this ideal of priesthood came from the experience of observing only a few married fathers who were leaders in their faith. I had a belief that, since I wanted to do amazing things for God, I must have a calling to the priesthood. But deep down I still wanted to be married and a good father. This mind-set followed me as I entered seminary in Minnesota.
There were a variety of exterior factors that added to the challenges I faced in my discernment process. First were the reactions of other people. Parishioners in my church acted as though they were convinced I would be a priest from the moment I told them I was going to enter seminary. Many affirmed me since they saw me as helping to solve the dreaded “priest shortage crisis.” Others thought I acted too hastily, and my friends often could not place me in the priestly role or understand my decision.
The first semester in seminary went by quickly. But the feeling that I still desired to be married persisted during the following semesters. I continued to try to be open and believed my doubts were simply part of the natural reactions one has within the discernment process. But as the first summer arrived, the problem quickly became that I believed I needed to figure out all the solutions to the puzzle God had seemingly given me. In this process I was rarely at peace. I became frustrated and impatient, believing that I must either be doing something wrong or that God was making me wait through this challenging process for some reason.
What I realize now is that I had completely missed how God was speaking to me, and I was overly attached to my discernment. I did not really understand or give much credit to the second mode of Ignatian discernment and found too much comfort in the advice and confirmation of others. I discounted the movements of my heart and my desires and my dreams to live out my life in a certain way as not enough to affirm my vocational choice.
As I entered my third year in seminary, two events greatly affected my ability to understand my discernment. The third year was dedicated to prayer and discernment at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. I decided early on to rest more and worry less about my vocation. I wanted to be more open to God’s voice in my discernment. I was able to make this change with the sound advice of my spiritual director. I also trusted that the 30-day silent retreat at the end of the year could give me the clarity I needed to decide. The second major event was a visiting priest’s talk at the seminary about the three modes of discernment of St. Ignatius. This was when I finally came to understand the second mode of discernment and how God was speaking to me in my vocation since fifth grade. This year helped me be more trusting of God’s ability to lead me in my vocation and helped me understand how he was speaking to me.
During a five-day silent retreat in the spring, I decided, with the support of my spiritual advisers, to make the vocational choice that I was called to marriage. God confirmed this choice to leave the seminary by giving me four days of consolation. I then left in the peace I had hoped for.
Being at peace with one’s vocation is a great gift. But this gift is not easy to find. The process of discernment may take months or years of listening to God, growing in the spiritual life and growing as a person. The process of discernment is not meant to be so challenging that it seems meant for only a few chosen people. For each Catholic discerning his or her calling, discernment allows God to enter one’s life and offer affirmation. It is in finding our vocation that we will find joy and peace in serving God and our fellow human beings. As in my own discernment, there can be many challenges that burden or complicate the process. Still, we must enter into this uncertainty. For it is in living out our vocations as Christians that we experience the full fruits of our baptismal gifts, rooted in the reality of Christ’s redeeming love.