When my fiancé and I were still just dating we approached our priest and spiritual director and asked him how we might discern if we were called to marriage together. He leaned back in his chair and said “you have to know how to pray, and what to ask when you pray.”
Father went on to explain that marriage is always described as a gift; that the individuals give themselves to each other on the altar. “But really,” he clarified, “you’re not giving yourself. You’re receiving the other person. Look at the vows, you say ‘I take you,’ not ‘I give myself.’” He suggested that in our prayer, we ask God “is this the person you want me to receive?”
This got me thinking. Before my then boyfriend and I started discerning together, I had been pretty sure that I was called to marriage in a general sense. All I had to do was find somebody that filled the need. However, now I was approaching marriage in a very specific way. Suddenly, my vocation was not dependent on some abstract idea of a vocation, but rather on a specific event; it was dependent on the outcome of a particular relationship.
Then I realized: I wasn’t called to marriage.
This may strike you all as odd, given that I’m now engaged to the man. But, I’m not called to marriage. I am called to marry my fiancé. That is an important difference. As I waded through my prayers of discernment, I realized, that if marriage is a reception rather than a gift, then maybe that means that you can only truly discern it if there is another person for you to potentially receive. Otherwise, how can you ask God if He wants you to receive the other in the sacrament of marriage?
Moreover, I began to see that my call to marriage is intimately linked to the one who fulfills it, such that if I’m not called to marry this person, then I’m not called to marriage at all. In other words – I am not called to some general vocation that I then find someone to insert to make it work. Rather, I am called to marriage because I’m called to marry my fiancé; the specific calling to be with my fiancé is what makes the general call “vocation of marriage” true in my life. Not the other way round. If I weren’t called to marry my fiancé, then I wouldn’t be called to marriage. I am only called to marriage because he exists.
As I began to take this new approach to discernment, I began to wonder if it worked with religious vocations. I mean…don’t people discern their call to the religious life and then find an order to join? As I began talking to friends who were discerning the religious life, those in seminary, those becoming postulants, I began to realize that the same rang true for many of them. Many of my friends stated “If I wasn’t joining X order, I don’t know if I would become a religious at all.” That is, that just as I was only called to marriage because I was called to marry this person, so too, those joining religious orders are only called to the religious life because they are called to be Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Salesians, pick your favorite order.
I see so many people struggling with their discernment and I wonder if they’re not approaching it a bit backwards. We stress over and over again “discern, discern, discern!” with this odd idea that if you discern the general idea, you can then figure out the specificity of that call. We seem to miss that, perhaps, the general vocations exist on account of the specific calls to either a person or an order. People want to argue that the specifics of vocations – person, order, diocese, etc. – come from the generalities of vocations: “Oh, once you’ve discerned that you’re called to the religious life, then you choose an order.” But, it may be the other way. That is, general callings only exist on account of the individual callings; we can only speak of the “vocation of marriage” because there are millions of people who are called to a specific vocation with a specific person. So, when someone says “the vocation of marriage,” it is just a way of referencing millions of specific couples in specific vocations. Thus, to discern vocations generally may be impossible for some. I mean, you can’t know if you’re called to marriage if you have no one to potentially marry. You’re only called to marriage if you are called to marry someone.
So I wonder if our answer to the vocational crisis we face isn’t to just calm down a bit. Don’t stress the vague notion of “discern! Discern! Discern!” when the youth have no one with whom to discern. Rather, perhaps to answer this vocational crisis, we need to focus on building stronger relationships with God, stronger relationships with the Eucharist, and holier interactions with other people such that those specific relationships can be potential opportunities for clarity. We need to give our young people specific relationships to delve into, as delving into a vague idea of a vocation is often much more difficult than it may seem.