In my sixteen years as a priest, I’ve been vocation director, seminary rector, and spiritual director to a convent. More importantly, I’ve made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot, and like many God-related things, a lot of the knowledge we have about vocations is about what’s not true. How exactly someone goes about “discerning a vocation” is a hard thing to answer, but I can definitely tell you what not to do. For one thing, don’t talk to me about it anymore. This post is all you’re getting. Also there’s a video at the bottom of this post you can watch of an event we did at school.
I’m not a historian of theology, but I wonder how old the current idea of “discerning a vocation” really is in the first place. In the olden days, you get the sense that some kid kind of liked the idea of being a monk, so he became a monk, and that was that. I think it’s possible that a lot of the torturous self-searching we find ourselves doing is the result of our confused and narcissistic culture. I think maybe the same goes for the decision of choosing whom to marry. I get that it’s an important thing to you, but honestly you’re not that important, so just pick something and get on with it. Being a young person is already confusing enough without you obsessing.
For the most part, I’ll be discussing discernment of a consecrated vocation generally speaking – that is, a way of life that requires sacrificing marriage. That includes religious life, consecrated virginity, and (today, in the West) most vocations to the priesthood. I’ll use a question-and-answer format, both for clarity as well as for some gags to entertain myself.
“How do I know God’s will?”
As promised, I’ll tell you what not to do: don’t treat God’s will as something independent of, or opposed to, wisdom. God wills for us to choose wisely. So if you’ve (prayerfully) figured something out (anything in life) according to the best of your wisdom, you’re done. Don’t think that discerning God’s will is something different than that.
“What if I don’t feel called to a consecrated vocation?”
Good. Move on. Very few people are called to it, and not that many think about it, and you don’t have to. Go get married or something.
“Isn’t everyone supposed to discern a consecrated vocation?”
“Isn’t marriage a vocation?”
I guess? In the sense that it’s a way of life that God can use to sanctify you and the people around you. But it’s not a vocation in the sense of “special calling,” and definitely not something you need to discern. Every human being, in virtue of being part of the human species and having a human body, is “called” to marriage. Family life is home base and definitive for all of us. So you’re not discerning whether you’re called to marriage or celibacy. That’s already a dumb question. Everyone is “called” to marriage, by nature, insofar as they are human. The question is whether you’re also called to a supernatural way of life, some forms of which require you to sacrifice the natural “calling” of marriage that you already have.
“How do I discern whom I’m supposed to marry?”
I have no idea. Dating? Is that what dating is? I guess the other person should be involved at some point? Go ask your parents.
“What if I pick the wrong vocation?”
God will not eternally destroy your face if you pick one holy way of life over another. For the love of God, why would you think that there’s some magical vocation out there for you that you have to magically find out, and if you don’t figure it out and end up doing some other good thing, you’ll burn in hell forever?
Discerning a vocation isn’t deciding whether or not to follow God. The fact that you’re thinking about this already means you’re following God. A vocation is just the particular way you’re gonna do it. But all the options before you are good options. I’ve had girls come to me having panic attacks because they’re not sure which convent God wants them to join. CALM DOWN. They’re all convents. If you like one more than another, join it.
“But what if I like something more than another for selfish reasons?”
Why are you like this? Why are you doing this to yourself? More importantly, why are you doing this to me and wasting my time? Your vocation is first and foremost for YOU. So if you like one more than another, GOOD. Do you think God’s will is for you to hate being alive? Do you think you’ll be able to serve others very well when you’re living like that? Yeah, every vocation has its struggles. Just leave the martyr complex at the door. You’re not doing anyone any favors.
“But isn’t suffering part of a vocation?”
No. Suffering is a part of human life. You don’t have to seek it. It will find you, wherever you are. When it does, deal with it like an adult and it will sanctify you.
“But how do I know which vocation I want?”
How am I supposed to know?
“What if I feel called to a consecrated life but don’t do it?”
The young man in Matthew 19 asked Jesus what he needs to do to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him to follow the commandments. The young man, feeling that there was something lacking in his life, asked “but what do I still lack?” Jesus answers, “if you want to be perfect, go and sell your belongings and give to the poor, and come, follow me.”
The guy didn’t want to, so he left sad. But the reason given in the Gospel for his sadness was because he had many possessions, not that he had this one and only chance to follow Jesus, and now he was lost forever and condemned to hell because he missed his one chance, as if salvation is an Eminem song from 2002.
Look at Matthew 19 again (verses 16-30). The first question is about eternal life. The answer to that is to follow the commandments. Not selling his belongings and following Jesus in that radical way. Following or not following a vocation is NOT a moral or immoral act. Choosing one way of life (in Christ) over another is NOT a sin.
Sin is determined according to the good or bad of the human species (“The sabbath was made for man” – not for Fred). Your vocation is determined for you, so it falls into a completely different category than sin does. If you feel called to give up everything, sell all your belongings, and follow Christ, go for it. If you don’t do it, you won’t go to hell (at least for that). You might walk away sad, especially if you have many possessions. But that’s a different thing. And not my problem.
“Am I supposed to feel something or receive a sign if I’m called to a consecrated vocation?”
I didn’t, and I don’t know anybody who did. If Jesus did appear to you, either that’s really cool or you’re really crazy. If you got a rose on your doorstep or something, you might have a stalker.
“Is it okay to date if I’m seriously discerning a consecrated vocation?”
Nah. You wouldn’t seriously date more than one person. There’s no way to do that without hurting someone’s feelings, or your own, or both.
“What if I’m not seriously discerning, just kind of thinking about it? Should I break up with my boyfriend/girlfriend?”
Probably not. If that starts growing, it wouldn’t hurt to talk to them about it and go from there.
“What if I had a really sinful past?”
Nobody cares. Worry more about your present.
“What if my sinful past still haunts me with memories and temptations?”
Work on it. But I don’t think it makes a consecrated vocation impossible. See St. Augustine.
“But didn’t St. So-and-So say X about vocations?”
Beats me. Go ask her.
“Why are you so rude and unhelpful?”
Because people keep trying to talk to me about their vocations.
“Isn’t a consecrated life more noble than a married life?”
Yup. Doesn’t mean you’re called to it though. And it doesn’t mean that any given celibate is any happier or holier than any given married person.
“If it’s more noble then why doesn’t God call more people to it?”
Because noble/higher things are by definition rare.
“Isn’t the priesthood more noble than the lay state?”
Nope (at least I couldn’t find anything in Denzinger that says that). The priesthood is about service. And answering dumb questions. But most priests are also dedicated celibates, so the previous two answers apply to them for that reason.
“What’s it like being a priest?”
It’s cool. Sometimes it sucks.
“Aren’t you supposed to say it’s amazing?”
This isn’t a Disney movie.
“What’s the best part about being a priest?”
Saying Mass, by far.
“What’s the worst part about being a priest?”
“If this is how you feel about people why didn’t you become a hermit?”
“Seriously you’re rude.”
That’s not a question.
“Ok so how do I discern my vocation?”
I don’t know. This is a super personal thing that God gives to you. It’s not intelligible to anyone else but you. Figure it out yourself.
“Can’t you give some general advice?”
Fine. Pray long and peacefully, and go to adoration and sit and shut up and just be there. Look at what challenges you and exhilarates you. Look at what brings you closer to God. Look at how God works through you. Keep trying to grow in love of God and neighbor, and all the virtues (that will clear your head and help you think better). Most importantly: look at what you want. Do you want to live a consecrated life? Ok do it. Are you not sure? Go do one of those weekend visits or like a Zoom meeting or whatever. Do you kind of like it and think you might want to do it? That’s what seminary and novitiate are for. Join.
“What is it like to follow a vocation?”
Weird and interesting and annoying.
“What if I never figure this out?”
God will use you anyway.
“Should I calm down?”
Ok here’s the video: