What is vocation discernment?
From the moment He created us God has had a vision for our lives that completely fulfils our potential. Vocation discernment is about choosing to allow God to reveal to us His plan for our lives and trusting that He knows what is best for us.
God reveals His plan by allowing us to discover the deepest desire of our hearts. We have so many desires on so many different levels but getting in touch with our deepest desire reveals our vocation to us. Whether it is marriage, religious life or whatever our calling is, it is our own unique way of responding to God's love. That may mean letting go of our own ideas and plans and allowing God to lead. This is not easy but God loves us more than we can ever imagine, and wherever He leads is where we will be happiest and most fulfilled. There is no need to be anxious or afraid; we just need to keep trusting Him and have confidence in His Love for us.
The journey of seeking is a response to the desire of wanting to be in a deeper relationship with God who calls us and desires to communicate with us. Only when we experience how infinitely we are loved by the Lord who has called us, will we be able to respond with our "yes" as Our Lady did. "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. (Lk 1:36). She is our constant companion and guide but it is also critical to have a trained spiritual director to accompany us on the journey. No one should ever discern for us but they can help us to see God's will and grow in freedom.
We offer here some ideas and questions that may help in your explorations. We hope that "Nourished by personal prayer, prompted in silence, shaped by the Church's liturgy you will discover the particular vocation God has for you." (Pope Benedict XVI; Youth Rally New York 2008)
Why do I need to discern my vocation?
If God has a plan for our life, then why do we often seem to begin at the wrong starting place - with ourselves? Normally the questions we ask ourselves are very self-centred: "what do I want to be in life?", "what are my goals, my dreams, and my ambitions?", "what should I do with my life?" Shouldn't we begin by thinking about God, our Creator? We were made by God and for God, and until we understand this, our life will never make any sense. In God we find our identity, our meaning, and our destiny.
Yet because God made us free, placing our self-realisation in our own hands, life entails a great deal of decision-making. The path to holiness is not problem-free. All of us encounter difficulties and situations where we do not see any clear, fast, easy or sure solution. In other words, we often face the questions: "what can I do?" or "what should I do?" For an unbeliever, or for people who don't allow faith to affect their behaviour, decisions are based solely on reason - on weighing the pros and cons of our options or on intuition, which is often the product of emotions, whims and personal preferences. But for a person with a living and active faith, the question "what should I do?" becomes, "what is the will of God for me in this situation?" "What does Christ want?"
Discernment is not, as some think, a stage in our life, that we go through for about a year before choosing our path.
So as to better understand the need for discernment, we can start with some simple facts:
1. God loves us: He desires to share His life and love with us, and to bring us to the fullness of joy for which He created us from all eternity. Since His plan is so beautiful, it is very important that we discern the paths that will lead us to fulfil His will. Ours is not a disinterested God; He came to live among us and within us. Not only did He become incarnate, but through Baptism we actually become His dwelling place.
2. Our nature has been fractured by sin: The result is that our intellect finds it difficult to know and understand God's will and our weakened will doesn't like to follow His will even when we know what it is. Our passions and sentiments are disordered and often we behave like spoilt brats, never satisfied and always trying to have everything we ask for.
3. The devil exists: We can feel his influence in us and in the world, and his only pleasure is separating us from our loving Father - a goal he pursues relentlessly.
These three points lead to the logical conclusion that we need help in discerning God's will for us. We need to discern which movements of our soul help us see and follow His will more clearly, and which ones separate us from it.
How do I discern my vocation?
Three fundamental dispositions are necessary for us to be able to discern our vocation:
1 . Desire to do the will of God: We can only discern if we are ready to do what God wants. We have to be willing to "write God a blank cheque."
2. Openness to God: It can happen more often than we may like to admit that our discernment ends up being about trying to bring God around to our way of thinking. We want to do the Lord's work but we want to do it our way, and don't necessarily want Him to be in control. True openness is more than just accepting intellectually that God could be calling us. Basically it means that, in spite of our fears and anxieties, we offer ourselves from our heart, "I will do whatever you ask me to do."
3. Experiential knowledge of God: Through prayer and the help of others we need to get to know God as person, not as a theory. Entering into a personal relationship with God, in which He is a friend with whom we can share everything, is essential. This becomes much easier once we see that God became man for love of us and that we can relate to Him because He was human like us and faced all the fears, anxieties and joys that we do.
These dispositions have something in common. They highlight how important it is for us to experience God's Love for us, which enables us to love Him in return. We then pray for the grace to keep growing in this love until we love enough to give our lives completely to Him in marriage, religious life, the priesthood or any service we are being called to. So the main thing we need to do is keep on developing our relationship with Jesus, giving time to Him each day by going to Mass, reading Scripture, spending time in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and filling our minds and hearts with His words of love and encouragement.
Vague vocations don't exist, Jesus always invites us to something specific, a particular religious community, marriage partner or mission, for example. When we find the place He is leading us to, we can often feel two things at once: a sense of peace, joy and "rightness", but at the same time there can be a sense of fear, and there is usually a recognition that this is not going to be easy and will require a lot of self-giving. It's important to talk to different people about their journeys and how God has led them and continues to lead them in their vocations. If the thought of a religious vocation or the priesthood comes up, it is a good idea to visit different communities or seminaries. God's will "written in the sky" happens rarely, if ever, and most of the time the best we can do is just take each next step in the direction we believe God is leading. What is needed above all is trust and confidence in God's Love for us.
Any attempt to discern God's will without prayer is doomed to failure. Discernment without prayer reveals our will, not God's will. How could it be otherwise if God is not consulted? It's not always easy to work out how God is leading us, which is why it is critical to have a spiritual director accompany us on the journey and guide us in the best ways for us to open up to God's Love in prayer. Prayer is not just for the holy; it is how we become holy so we need to find a Chapel or quiet place and speak to God from our heart as we would to a friend over a cup of coffee. It is important to commit to times of prayer and keep them, even if we feel nothing is happening - this is the single most important aspect to discerning God's will.
The ancient spiritual tradition of the Church, explicitly connects the enclosed-contemplative life to the prayer of Jesus "on the mountain", or solitary place not accessible to all but only to those whom he calls to be with Him, apart from the others.