An Antidote to Discernment Anxiety

Catholic young adults are facing a very widespread epidemic of what has come to be known as “discernment anxiety.” Faced with the grandiose task of electing a state of life, whether it be priesthood, marriage, or religious life, many shy away or become paralyzed with fearful indecision.

Hours are spent turning this life-changing question over within oneself in prayer. We place ourselves before the Blessed Sacrament in fear and trembling as we listen scrupulously and oversensitively for the “still, small Voice” urging us to choose this path or that. Truth to tell, discernment is often frustrating and draining for the pious soul who simply wants to do the Lord’s will by his or her life.

There is an antidote to the “analysis paralysis” of discernment anxiety, though, and it needs be spoken about more: confidence and trustful surrender to God’s mercy and His Providence.

Discernment can very easily degenerate into a kind of Catholic schizophrenia. Young men and women, especially those already more prone to overthinking or scrupulosity, tend to lock themselves in their own heads when they spend so much time pondering the question of their state in life. The hyperaware focus on one’s own inner self can cause one to be stuck there, even to the detriment of other duties or relationships.

Now, to be sure, the question of Vocation ought to be pondered well. However, there arises an issue when discernment causes us to lead an unhealthy spiritual life, caught up in our own mental spider webs or in the tornados of our ever-changing emotions. We lose the enjoyment of the good things in our lives, especially our relationships, when we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the fear of the unknown, of the hypothetical, and of taking a “wrong step.” Further, when this is what discernment becomes, we move away from the entire goal of discernment in the first place: making a decision and taking real action.

In my own life, it was most helpful to hear from those priests who, rather than emphasizing the question of which one to choose, focused on the question of how we live the one we choose. In other words, instead of scrutinizing a choice between these very good options (the states of life), which, while hierarchically different, are nonetheless all still ordered to serving Christ and His Church, we rather ought to put forth more effort to prepare ourselves to live whatever we choose with virtue and grace. It is not helpful to turn the question over and over again in our minds if it is not leading us to make a decision, to courageously act, and then to live out our lives striving to be saints.

Yes, it is true. We must say that our Vocations are God’s Will, His plan for our lives. And yes, it is also true that we ought to love God above all things and live out His Will, even if it is not what we ourselves will. However, we often think of choosing a Vocation as a pass or fail test—did we answer the call or did we not? I don’t mean to say that this is an entirely bad way of understanding the question of Vocation and discernment, but I do think that it is unhelpful for most young Catholics today.

Firstly, it is important to notice that this kind of understanding of Vocation and discernment places too much emphasis on us men and our choice. Some well-meaning people speak of discernment as though if one chooses “incorrectly,” his life will be an unhappy wreck that only leads to misery. But, let’s apply that thought to another situation: if a man commits the sin of murder and then repents wholeheartedly, is his life doomed to misery because of his one choice? Obviously not. So then, applying this to the matter at hand, if a young man or woman chooses to become a priest or religious but perhaps should have been married (or vice versa), would God give this young man or woman’s life up to some mediocre, “plan B” version? Would God do away with all of this person’s capacity for apostolic fruitfulness and sanctity because he or she did not “answer the call?” Or would he lessen the joy of his or her life as a natural punishment of not taking the “right path?” It seems to me that thinking this way about discernment and Vocation not only places too much emphasis on us men, but it also minimizes the merciful, loving Providence of the Sweet Savior.

Dear friends, the Vocation which Jesus gives to each one of us is one: love. Each state of life within Holy Mother Church is a path of love that is ordered toward the sanctification of those who take part in them by the grace of Jesus Christ. Every man and every woman, whenever they make a vow to God, whether that be marriage vows or religious vows, is guaranteed the grace to live that Vocation well. Further, no matter what path we choose to walk, and no matter what we may feel about the decision we made, Jesus is there beckoning us unto Himself. This beautiful way in which the Sweet Savior orders all things, all of our twists and turns, unto our good is the work of Divine Providence.

Trust and confidence in the work of God’s merciful Providence is the antidote which we ought to propose to young people anxiously seeking their Vocations. We ought to say, “Yes, my friend, continue to seek a path by which you will serve Our Lord, but do not let your heart be troubled by this pursuit! Do not become bogged down within. Your Master will lead you, the Shepherd will draw you, and the Savior will work all things out unto your good so long as you love Him. So, go out of yourself in love! Choose a path with courage and walk it with holy boldness. Love Jesus and love others with all of your strength no matter which path you take. Your sanctification and salvation is more His work than yours. Be at peace.”

Those seeking their Vocations to states of life within the Church can find rest in the work of Providence and so can all members of the Body of Christ who seek to do the Lord’s will by their lives.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

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Matthew Uzdavinis, originally from Tampa, Florida, is a graduate of Ave Maria University with a B.A. in Philosophy. Before his time at Ave Maria, he attended Jesuit High School of Tampa, where he first encountered the splendor of Truth and the beauty of Catholic tradition, especially the traditional Liturgy. He enjoys spending time outdoors, reading, and writing on edifying topics.

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