What is Discernment?
The word discernment comes from two Latin words: ‘dis’ (apart) and ‘cenere’ (to separate). To discern means ‘to separate apart’. Any time we choose between two or more options, we discern. If both options are attractive, the best choice might not be obvious. Vocational discernment is an action of self-discovery, and an action of discovery of God. Discerning your vocation is not primarily about choosing something you will do for life but about discovering who God made you to be, discovering your deepest identity. It is more than an intellectual weighing up of options, or applying a technique to find an answer. The question of our vocation is not a problem to solve, but an adventure into who God made us to be and how we can best glorify God in this life. Discernment is a process of becoming aware of what’s in our hearts and minds, listening to God, gaining clarity and taking the next best step toward the call. It involves asking the question: “What is it that God desires me to do with this life He has given me?” The answer to that question always involves not only ourselves, but also takes into consideration the needs of the Church and of the World. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said: “Where our personal passions intersect with the needs of the Church and of the World, there we find our vocation.” One of the primary aspects of discernment is to first simply ask God for the grace to be called.
Discerning my Vocation: How do I make a gift of self?
A vocation is all about love. And Love is all about making a gift of oneself. Jesus said: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” (John 12: 24-25) In these words, we see the essence of vocational discernment because we see that the way to understand God’s call is through the Christian lens of a true understanding of love. When we give of ourselves, we come to know who we are, and we come to the greatest joy and happiness we can have in this world. And we come to know I what way we can glorify God the most in this world. It is through giving that we receive.
And every vocation, the way of living a life of being a gift to others, is lived in a concrete, particular form, because love is always concrete and particular. A vocation begins with God’s love for us. In His love for us, God calls us to a particular form of life. We call this particular form of life a “state of life in the Church”. There are basically four states of life in the Church: Marriage, Consecrated Life, Priesthood, and the Single State. Each of them are authentically lived when the individual makes a gift of self in response to an invitation from God to live a self-sacrificial love.
In the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus said: “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). His choice for us is what makes a vocation different from an “occupation” or a “career”. We can choose an occupation or a career for ourselves, but a vocation (from the Latin verb vocare, “to call”) is HIS choice for us and which He invites us to accept, embrace and undertake for love of Him. His choice for us will never be contrary to our true happiness.
Often, we are taught to ask, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” or “What life will I choose?” The better way to think is, “What does God desire for me?”, “What life will bring God the greatest glory?” and ultimately to say, “I want what God wants because I know that what He wants is going to give His the greatest glory and give me the greatest joy.”
It is vital that we find our vocation because it is from God and is intended to bring us the fulfillment and joy that He wants for us. Our happiness, and ultimately our salvation can depend on our acceptance of the mission that Jesus has chosen for us. Moreover, other people’s salvation will depend on us giving our full “Yes” to Jesus in our vocation.
Presented below are some basic steps of vocational discernment. These steps, however, are not steps that are taken and finished. We are always engaging these steps at deeper levels, even after saying “Yes” to our vocation. Sometimes these steps are going on at the same time, and there is always more work we can do at each step.
THE THREE FUNDAMENTAL STATES OF LIFE IN THE CHURCH
All the states of life in the Church are based upon marriage and involve entering into some sort of spousal relationship. Why is this? Because the Church is the Body and Bride of Christ and we are in relationship with Christ through the Church. If the fundamental relationship of Jesus with the Church is a nuptial one, then all the states of life within the Church are fundamentally nuptial.
Jesus wedded the Church to Himself on the Cross, and so at the center of every state of life in the Church is the Cross. It is important to keep this truth in mind. Every vocation will involve the Cross and so there will be times when living our vocation is difficult and requires sacrifice. But the suffering of the Cross always leads to the glory of the Resurrection. We have to die to ourselves to be alive in Christ.
Every state of life is an image of the nuptial union of Christ and His Church (marriage) or points to the eschatological fulfillment of this relationship (priesthood and religious life). In other words, some men and women who would normally enter into the vocation to marriage are called by Jesus to prefigure its final consummation in Heaven where men and women are no longer given in marriage (Lk 20:35).
Marriage is the "natural vocation", the original vocation that was not lost in the Fall. The Lord Jesus elevated this natural and noble vocation to the level of a Sacrament, and the well being of the Church depends upon good and holy marriages. Out of this vocation comes the domestic church and the family as the basic building block of human society. Marriage can be thought of as the "default vocation" in that one does not need an explicit call from God to enter in the state of Holy Matrimony. In fact, without an explicit call to the priesthood or some form of consecrated life in the course of discernment, you can assume that you are being called to the married state.
Holy Matrimony is an image of the nuptial relationship between Christ and the Church. It is a relationship between one man and one woman that is 1) exclusive, 2) life long and 3) open to children. The vocation is intended for the union of spouses, the begetting and rearing of children, the sanctification of spouses and children, and to be salt and light in the secular world.
The priest is a man who is called by Jesus to share in His spousal relationship with the Church, to be conformed in persona Christi capitis ecclesiae (the person of Christ, Head of the Church). The priest is a real man who is made into a husband to the Church and spiritual father to all. Through the grace of Holy Orders, a man is ontologically changed, that is, he is changed on the level of his being to be in the person of Christ. He exercises this spiritual fatherhood following that of Jesus as prophet, priest and king, that is, teaching/preaching, sanctifying and shepherding. The priest is a man, spiritual husband and spiritual father. The priest does things like teaching and preaching the Word of God, sanctifying the people through the Sacraments, especially Holy Mass and Confession, and he leads the people who are entrusted to him to the life of Heaven.
It is important to note that the priest is not “single” nor did his vocational discernment lead him away from marriage but rather leads him to share in Jesus spousal relationship with the Church.
Consecrated life involves taking the three evangelical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. These evangelical counsels imitate Christ’s life on earth and prefigure our final state in Heaven. In this way religious life shares in the nuptial banquet of the Lamb.
There are many ways of living the consecrated life, in a community or as a solitary. Consecrated life also can be more contemplative or more active. More contemplative communities would be the Benedictines, Carthusians, Trappists or Carmelites. More active communities would be the Dominicans, Francisicans, or Jesuits. Consecrated life that is more solitary would be a hermit, a consecrated virgin and sometimes as a member of a secular institute. Each type of consecrated life involves the living of the evangelical counsels according to the particular charism of the founder who is often a saint.
A WORD ABOUT THE "SINGLE LIFE"
Sometimes in vocation circles we hear of a vocation to the "single life". However, we should understand this in the correct sense. Jesus always calls His followers into a permanent state of life which involves the taking of promises or vows. With this understanding, the single life would mean some sort of consecrated life in the world. If a person is "single" it is because he or she has made vows, either public or private, of consecration to the Lord.
By following these steps, you will be able to go a long way in making progress on discerning and choosing your vocation. The important thing is to keep at it and not give up on any of the steps, and to have patience with the process. Keep giving it over to the Lord and it will happen. I also suggest that you begin to pray one “Hail Mary” each day to Our Lady asking her to help you discover and say “Yes” to your vocation. It’s a small prayer, but I’ve found it to be very powerful.
Based on the Basic Discernment Guide by Monsignor John Cihak & Father Derek Lappe