Discernment Woes

Let’s begin with one of the biggest buzzwords in Catholic circles: discernment. What vocation is God calling me to in life? A healthy way of looking at how to discern starts with another healthy buzzword: organic.

Vocation grows out of everyday Christian living. We can often make it a project of its own, taking it as the “theme” of our prayer life or our social life, bringing it into every conversation. But looking for God in some far-off plan can mean that we miss Him speaking in our given circumstances—as it is God, after all, who gives us our circumstances.

Nowhere in Scripture did Jesus call men or women and say, “Go out to the desert and wait for a message! Your directive should arrive soon, brought to you by a Holy Dove!” He said, “Follow Me.” Come and be with Me. Listen to My teaching. Wrestle with it in your heart and your mind. So they followed Him, but only in the hope of wanting to find out who He was. As the story progressed, it became clearer who they were called to be. Their place and role in the community took shape with time.

So why doesn’t God just tell us His plan for us in prayer? As essential as silence is, listening for God to reveal His plan can be frustrating, because He usually doesn’t work this way. If we do hear His voice, it’s often very real, but very simple: “Be with me. I made you. I love you.” God is not withholding His plan for us. We just forget that roughly 99% of His “will” for us in this life is growing in love and knowledge of Him, more and more. God’s will for us is Jesus! The remaining 1% is what role will we play, and so forth.

We can also tend to think of vocation in career terms, like: what kind of person will I end up being, which will define my life and give me meaning? One day I was riding a bike home from morning Mass, and the thought popped into my head, “I forgot the other half. I’ve been discerning what I might do, but not where I’ll be fed and kept faithful and made holy.” Vocation is as much about finding what life will offer us support and keep us growing, as it is what kind of work we can do for God.

There’s also the somewhat controversial topic of “discerning marriage.” Some argue that everyone’s vocation is marriage, unless God intervenes and does something, well, strange to a person’s heart. This just means that God made us all for relationships, and He does guide us to them and blesses them when they arrive in our lives—unless He chooses you only for Himself. When that happens, you definitely have to “step out” of normal life and “discern” what this new activity is. With marriage, though, you don’t find a spouse by discerning in prayer that you were finally “ready.” Usually, you meet someone at work one day, or at a party, or have a moment when you realize a friend is becoming more than a friend… Then you talk and fall in love and there’s your vocation.

For years I was frustrated by how many conflicting pieces of advice I’d get on discernment. I thought to myself, “I don’t think anybody really knows, but no one will admit it.” While there is, of course, some good advice out there, it’s liberating nonetheless to admit that there is still no textbook for making a single life decision. That’s the burden of being created free, of being a protagonist. Every author admits that their characters take on a life of their own and determine some of the story, even though the author guides them to the end he has in mind. We are those characters, and our lives are admittedly full of guesswork—but also full of grace. If we remain faithful to Christ, we can trust our desires, our heart, our “gut,” in making choices. We overcomplicate our lives by thinking of them in future terms, instead of the present moment. When we dream about who we’ll be and what we’ll do, we dream big, when in reality we’ve been given one small life, one small part to play in a wide world.

Without a doubt, God has a plan for each of our lives. Yet much of the time we don’t fully understand it—before or even after receiving our vocation. Hopefully our lives, whatever shape they take, will amount to one thing: getting to know Him. Friendship with Christ is the vocation before and beneath every vocation. Because vocation isn’t the meaning of our life. Christ is. Vocation is what grows out of our relationship with Him. He is not the spiritual director of our life, for whom we wait to tell us exactly what to do. He is our life. There is no waiting. He is the one who loves us now, and who guides us as we love Him in return. The focus of anyone in love, if he wants to stay in love, is the other person. Not himself.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Dominicanathe Dominican student blog of the Province of St. Joseph, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

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Fr. Timothy Danaher is a priest at St. Patrick's Church in Philadelphia. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he studied Theology and American Literature. He entered the Order of Preachers in 2011, and has worked primarily in hospital and Hispanic ministries.

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