It’s been almost a decade since I ended my vocational discernment, something that itself spanned fifteen years, approximately. Recently someone told me a friend was discerning her vocation, and it made me wonder whether the resources available for earnest young Catholics were the same as when I was young, or if they’ve undergone a much needed upgrade. As a busy mother of four, whose philosophy of life is affectionately called Life from Laziness (I’m sorry, but St Thérèse was onto something when she decided to look for the elevator to heaven), I haven’t bothered to look into what’s being published and distributed now, and am instead plunging into a possibly very unhelpful, very personal account on How to Discern A Vocation.
Dear Young Discerner,
Well done. You love Jesus and do not want to hold anything back from Him. You’ve figured out that nothing matters more in life than to become a saint. You earnestly want to serve the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and hold nothing back from him. You’re also of an age where you feel responsibility for the future and you very much want your future to go in the Right Direction. You’re probably a little worried that you might accidentally go in the Wrong Direction, or that you might somehow never find your Direction. You might even be afraid that God might very well have a Direction for you but something might interfere and all will be lost and your life will forever be a vale of tears and suffering.
OR you might be completely different from what I was like and have a completely different background story. I don’t know. This is an open letter. I will try to make it as universally accessible as possible, but this is not a research paper so much as a reflection from experience.
Part I: Addressing the psychological barriers to mature discernment
First: God has a plan for you, but what does that mean?
When people say that God has a plan for you, that doesn’t mean He has something specific in mind for your breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It doesn’t mean you have to wear certain clothes to make Him happy. It doesn’t even mean that, if you’d make a great priest and you end up getting married instead, that you’ve offended Him. Remember that passage from Jeremiah: I have a plan for you, a plan for your welfare and not for evil.
I once had a Spiritual Director counsel me over the fear of having messed up my life somehow (I can’t remember the details): imagine that God had created me to be the greatest soccer player that ever lived. Through a series of life events, however, I never fulfilled that vocation. Maybe I never had the opportunity to play soccer, or maybe I got distracted from soccer and ended up pursuing something else in spite of all my talent. Whatever it was, I had somehow ended up as an art teacher or something.
Does this mean that my life was doomed to be miserable and full of hardships? Was God going to be less accessible to me somehow because I wasn’t all that I could have been? Was God going to punish me by withholding His grace from me? Good grief, no.
God is a Loving Father. The more I parent my children, the more I see that my role is anything but a vindictive, punishing one. We are human. We don’t know everything and we make mistakes, both intentional and un. No matter what we do in life, no matter how many Wrong Directions we take, God’s grace can handle that.
Is life going to be more difficult practically speaking if you gamble away all your money and are deep into debt? Well, yes. But God can transform that, too, if you hand your debt and your gambling addiction over to Him. If you grow in faith and virtue, I have no doubt He’ll lift the burden from you in some way and make your yoke light. He promised us that; it’s on you to believe Him 100%.
So that’s Lesson No. 1 for you: don’t be afraid to mess up. Fear of making the wrong decision can be paralyzing.
Second: God wants to be in a relationship with you
God is a loving Father.
Oh hey, back at that one. But this time, let’s remember that as a Father He wants a relationship with us. I know there have been periods of history when fathers would make arranged marriages for their kids, but the Catholic Church has always taught that we must enter into marriage of our own free will. Marriage is a choice. Our vocation is OUR CHOICE. Ultimately, what God wants for us more than anything is not some kind of blind obedience to his Perfect Little Plan, but rather a relationship of love where we follow Him joyfully.
It might be helpful to think of our vocation in life as His gift to us, but rather than wrapping up a box inside of which is a message that reads “You are to become nun/priest/brother/consecrated virgin” or “Go marry So-and-So,” he’s enclosed a gift certificate that says, “Good for one holy, wonderful life spent in My Company. To be used as you wish.” How you end up using that gift certificate is going to depend on a number of factors, but ultimately it’s his gift to you to use as you wish.
Another wise and wonderful Spiritual Director once transformed my life by saying, “Look, imagine you’re on an island, and the island is vast and the Lord tells you it is your life. There is a natural boundary to this island: the water, and let’s say the waters are infested with sharks. That boundary is sin. The Lord tells you not to go into the water, but as long as you stay in the island you may do whatever you want.” Whatever you want. It’s not a sin to get married, and it’s not a sin to choose a celibate life. Choose whatever you want. Both are holy vocations.
When I look back on my former fears, it seems to me that I saw God as a control freak who did not really trust me with the life He gave me and was playing some strange, twisted game of “I’m not going to tell you what I want and you have to guess. If you guess wrongly, you’re going to regret it.” That’s not what God is like. That’s what humans are like, fallen humans. I have since gotten to know God better, and he is a God of joy, freedom, and boundless energy.
Please always remember that God wants a dynamic relationship with us, not a static one. In a dynamic relationship, there is room for growth, interaction, even forgiveness. Have you heard of “O felix culpa”? O happy fault! The sentiment is not that we should seek out sin as if it’s a good thing, but that, having erred, God’s love and mercy is so great, he will give us even more support.
Third: I want to follow the Better Path
I’m going to address one more psychological hang-up in regard to vocational discernment: The Better Path. You may have heard it said that religious life is “better” than married life. You’ll recall St. Paul advising someone in a letter to be like him and not marry so that you will be more preoccupied with God than with your husband. You might have heard that in the Middle Ages, celibate life was ranked at 60, widowhood at 40, and marriage a lowly 20. So in terms of “winning,” marriage ain’t looking so good. It kind of looks like you… failed.
I’m not going to address the objective value of the various states of life, but if you are trying to figure out what to do with the rest of your life based on a general prescription of what is Best, you’re missing something very important: it’s not about you.
It’s not about you. You are not so important that you have to have or be the Best. Moreover, what’s “best” objectively and generally speaking may not be best for you individually speaking. Is it theoretically possible to get closer to God in this life as a contemplative nun than as wife and mother? Yes, I believe it. Would I have gotten closest to God as a contemplative nun? I can tell you with complete confidence that I would not have. I tried. I wanted the Best. I wanted the Best for God, I wanted the Best for myself. I didn’t care what it took, I would offer the Best. Yet every time I visited a contemplative order, I saw the beauty and admired the nuns who lived it, but my own heart wanted desperately to run away. I felt claustrophobic. If I had forced myself to become a nun anyway, I would not have been happy, God would not have been happy, and perhaps worst of all—my fellow nuns would not have been happy.
Just because a life is objectively better than another life, doesn’t mean it is for you. If all the flowers in the field were roses, spring would lose its loveliness (St Thérèse of Lisieux). I’m not a rose. I’m probably a dandelion. I’ve learned that that doesn’t actually bother me anymore. I’ll be the shiniest, brightest, yellowest dandelion and declare God’s glory as a weed most people would rather never to make an appearance on their perfect lawns. This little light of mine….
To my embarrassment, I once declared to my vocational discernment buddy (that’s another story), that I thought spiritually mature people entered religious life and spiritually immature people got married. I’m not sure I’ve ever said a stupider or potentially damaging thing in all my life. May I remind you that your life is not for your own glory. Maybe once you recognize that, you may be said to be spiritually mature. Please, I beg you, decrease that he might increase. Take the seat at the lower end of the table, far from the Host. If he ends up calling you to the head of the table to sit beside him, then go.
Part II: Having addressed the psychological hang-ups that make vocational discernment difficult, we now proceed to more practical matters.
Questio 1: have you even visited a convent/monastery/seminary?
I’m not sure why I wasted so much of my life “discerning” (ie angsting) over my vocation sitting on my butt or kneeling in a chapel. Just because you love praying, don’t mean a thing. I might love singing and going to the opera, but I’m not going to become an opera singer, ok? Everyone should go through life with a prayer and a song in their heart at all times, but not everyone should be a consecrated religious or an opera singer. I think I was hoping that if I shook the eight ball enough, my Right Direction would appear and I could fulfill the directive—completely ignoring the fact that God wanted to make the decision with me, not throw me off my horse and blind me. I wasn’t living in sin or persecuting Christians. He didn’t need to hit me over the head. He wanted more than anything my love, not my abject servitude. He wanted a relationship with me. He actually wanted my complete and utter freedom, no strings attached.
I’m not saying don’t pray. Pray! Pray a lot! But you’re not going to find yourself in a vocation if you don’t move.
A wise married person once said to me, you’re discerning a religious vocation? Then why the heck don’t you go meet some nice convents?
Next up in my life was scheduled a Convent Crawl. As my peers crawled from pub to pub, I went from convent to convent, getting to know the lives of different groups of women living exclusively for Christ. I even lived with one order for several months as I continued my studies at the university—it wasn’t an order I felt any attraction to, but they graciously ran the ministry of a discernment house, so I lodged with them, prayed with them, and frequented their chapel.
Make sure you go on one of their Come and See retreats. In November 2012 I thought I’d discerned a vocation to the Dominicans in Nashville, as I visited them as an independent retreatant and fell in love with the convent. They invited me to come visit again on their Come and See retreat two months later. Very happily, I booked my tickets. I arrived that January thinking I was going to be filling out an application, but instead God said No. I didn’t belong there and I knew it.
It’s hard to explain how I knew I didn’t belong there when I had already decided I belonged there; I think it must have been grace that revealed this to my heart. In speaking with religious who discerned their vocations to consecrated life, I know it’s not uncommon for God to impress a different knowledge on the heart. Indeed, I think usually a person (naturally) desires marriage and, gently, God impresses on his or her heart that, no, that isn’t the best path for this individual. I remember one sister I spoke with had been dating a wonderful Catholic man whom she wanted to marry, but she could not shake the pestering feeling that God was inviting her to become a religious. In the end, she followed that voice in her heart.
Questio 2: Do you really think it’s all your decision?
Let’s say a good Catholic realizes he’s not called to be a priest, has no attraction to it, and there is no Sorting Hat yelling “Dominicans!” He assumes logically enough that marriage is for him. Does he then approach pretty Sue, say “marry me,” and drag her to the altar?
Neither does one discern religious life or priesthood by saying, “you’re the one!” and living happily ever after. Once a special convent or seminary has caught your eye, you visit. You attend a retreat or two. You apply to enter. In short, you enter a kind of courtship. Did you know convents and seminaries turn applicants away? Did you know they even turn away people who have been with them for an extended period of time? The decision is not solely yours. God also has to open a door for you in the form of a specific convent or seminary or whatever.
Remember the examples of Saints Louis and Zélie Martin. They both wanted to consecrate themselves wholly to God. But God shut that door on both of them and led them to each other.
You can’t discern marriage as a general vocation. You discern marriage to a person. You can’t discern religious life as a general vocation. You discern a religious calling to a specific order (or you discern a call to diocesan priesthood).
I never really ended up discerning a vocation to Marriage. I ended up discerning a vocation to marriage with Rob. That particular man was (and is) the man among all men. That particular man made marriage make sense to me. That particular man made marriage seem worth it to me. That particular man made marriage seem like an excellent risk to bet my whole life on.
If you are called to serve God as a consecrated, vowed celibate, your vocation will be less specific than to a single individual, but there will still be specifics. You will find yourself led to active or contemplative life. You will find yourself attracted to the Sisters of Life or to the Dominicans. You’ll find yourself applying to the convent in Michigan or the convent in Tennessee.
Perhaps some people will need to meet fewer specifics. Maybe some people really could marry any old Joe who is a good provider and be perfectly content. Maybe some people could enter any old convent and be perfectly content. I don’t know. I was never going to be such a one.
Questio 3: What’s on tap?
Note also that one is always bound by what one has access to: my vocation would have looked different if I hadn’t met Rob; my friend’s vocation would have looked different if she had never heard of the Benedictines of Walburga. Fine. But don’t fret: God is in charge of all our circumstances. He will set everything up so that you will be happy if you but choose to love and serve him.
Part III: Embrace freedom
God loves freedom. I think we sometimes forget that because much of our training as fallen human beings includes Thou Shalt Not. We also tend naturally to seek bondage: give us a mortal king, Lord, begged the Israelites. God wants to entrust us with much, but often we would rather He didn’t. Please, Lord, just tell me what you want and then take away my free will so I never mess up. I’m pretty sure I’ve wanted to say that many a time.
My favourite thing in the world next to God and people is music. I even teach music I love it so much. I could give a student an assignment, as I often do: go make me a composition this week. I would then hope that the student would return the next lesson and play for me something she made up with her intelligence, creativity, and love. It might not be objectively as good a piece of music as it would have been had she plagiarized Mozart. It might not be objectively as good a piece of music as it would have been had I told her exactly how to compose every bar, prescribing the “perfect” dynamics, rhythm, and range of notes. But which of these three hypothetical compositions would bring me the greatest joy? The first one, because it was an expression of her unique goodness. Remember, God doesn’t need any of us any more than I need my student’s composition. When God created us, he handed us a blank sheet of staff paper and said, go make me some beautiful music.
Perhaps you are thinking at this point about that parable where three men were given talents. Two went and “made music” with their talents. The third buried his and hoped his master would do the homework for him for fear of doing it wrong. How utterly disappointing.
My grandfather often told me (you’re going to know all the advice all the mentors of my life ever gave me at this rate) “go shake the tree.” By this he meant you won’t know if an action is fruitful unless you try it. Is this the forbidden fruit tree? No? Does it look appetizing? No? Go shake another. Did fruit fall? No? Try another. And so forth. He physically brought me around my undergrad campus seeing if there was some way I could take an acting course as an elective, something I dearly wished to do. In the end, it proved a fruitless mission, but I’ll never regret having tried. Likewise, I’ll never regret how hard I shook the trees of religious life. I shook until my heart was raw, and then I remembered the advice about the Island and decided to ditch all my concerns about doing what God wanted me to and have fun, lots of fun! I was going to do what my heart wanted to do wherever it wanted to so long as it was good and holy. I had finally given up my desire for control, and I had finally given God the freedom to move in my heart. He led me quickly after that. I was married within eight months.
Such constitutes my personal advice for you, Young Discerner. I think you’ll find all the other helpful stuff elsewhere, like make sure you participate in the Sacraments regularly, live in a state of grace, read the Scriptures, the lives of the Saints, and good holy writings, etc.
Perhaps it’s also worth noting here that St Ignatius of Loyola’s Rules for Discernment are really extraordinarily helpful, or they were for me. I definitely applied them frequently during my journey of discernment, including when deciding whether or not to date and marry Rob.
If you are afraid you will love Jesus less if you marry, don’t be afraid. Even though I’d rigorously discerned my vocation to Rob, I still cried the night before the wedding, scared that I might be limiting my ability to love Jesus (here is one place where the Rules helped me: never change a course of action chosen during a time of consolation when you are in a time of desolation). But seriously, don’t be afraid. I’ve now been married eight (?) years and I have learned so much more about loving Jesus than I would have had I forced myself into a religious vocation and somehow been accepted. If you find yourself getting married, you will end up loving Jesus to your maximum potential in that vocation. It’s not like marriage puts a lid on how much you can love Jesus.
Also… sometimes I think our vocation might be more about where God can most easily show His love to us. After all, He’s the one who loved us first, and it’s only through His love for us that we have any love for Him. Marriage has been really good for me in this regard: whereas before I was constantly trying to prove my love for God, now I let Him show His love to me, mostly through my husband and children. It’s humbled me.
On the other hand, if you find yourself irrepressibly attracted to religious life against your desires, don’t be afraid either. God is a Loving Father.
Pray, hope, and don’t worry.
God is SO good. I may not be praying the Office of the Hours before the Blessed Sacrament every day, but, my friends, I’m adoring Jesus on the altar of my heart daily. I see the face of my baby, and I adore Him. I hear the voice of my husband, and I adore Him. I suffer the death of my child, and even then I adore Him, albeit in a rather lifeless way. For God would like us to be joyful even when our hearts lie panting on the floor (Fiddler on the Roof, great theological work). In all things, I adore Him and worship Him. He is never far from me.
May the peace and joy of Christ, which surpasses all understanding, be with you always. -M.