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In my late teens and early twenties, following a pretty significant conversion, the question of my vocation began to loom heavily over my entire spiritual journey. A prolonged pitched battle with God ensued in which I strained mightily (and in vain) for perfect clarity and knowledge of whether I was called to the priesthood. My personal conversion, at the end of my senior year in high school, was prompted largely by the examples of great and holy men who were themselves priests and, so, for me, the attraction to that particular calling was inevitable. Even as a married man and father now, I still have deep respect for the priesthood and continue to think of it as a beautiful way of life.
Due to my well-publicized (at least within my group of friends) struggle with discerning my vocation, others have often referred discerners who have hit similar roadblocks that I had at times to me so that I might help them sort out some of what they are going through. Consistently, these young men (and women) who are discerning whether they are called to the religious life, by the time I meet them, are, frankly, exhausted. Discouraged. Confused. Caught in their own brains. What could and, really, should be this quiet and still discovery of the path in life the Father has carved out for us, leading to a more free, expansive, and trusting relationship with Him, ends up being the occasion for less peace. Why is that?
It seems to me that the frustration surrounding vocational discernment is one of the easiest tricks the Devil can use to close a devout soul off to God. The Devil always tells half-truths. He is not going to tempt these earnest young Catholics who ardently desire to do God’s will with grave sin, but instead will use their otherwise good desire to find out what God desires from them and shift it, thwart it, with little lies or by encouraging certain mistakes. Some of the most common ones that seem to come up time and again, I’ve listed in the article below.
What was funny about my personal discernment was that I got weirdly meta about it. I realized figuring out my vocation was becoming more difficult for me than it probably should be and so I got kinda intrigued by my own own struggle. Why is this so hard for me, I thought, and so became aware of some of the mistakes I was making in discerning my own vocation. I offer them to you here so that they might be a helpful examination of conscience in how you are going about this process. I hope none of these are too controversial and if I hyperbolize in order to make my point, forgive me.
1. Adopting the mentality the religious life is the only path to holiness and that marriage is an easy way out for lesser Catholics
It’s amazing how often I hear this kind of thinking from people. I definitely struggled with this mentality myself as well. Feeling within myself a radical desire for holiness, to be totally united to Christ, I assumed that I was called to be a priest. This notion is one of those half-truths that I mentioned above. Is celibacy an objectively higher vocational calling? Yes. That is just sound theology. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, makes a distinction, however, between the highest objective calling and the highest calling for me. The best vocation for you is the one to which God is calling you. If you are being called to marriage, then God wants to use marriage to make you holier than if you follow your own wisdom into the celibate calling just because it is the objectively higher calling.
I look forward to the day when we as a Church finally but to death the myth that lay people are called to live “normal” lives. You weren’t baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to pursue worldly aims and self-centered ambitions. You’re a new creation. Priests are called to radical holiness. Nuns are called to radical holiness. And, finally, and emphatically, lay Catholics, single or married, are called to radical holiness.
2. Not having a spiritual director OR having too many of them
A spiritual director is crucial for discerning a vocation. You simply need one. Let me be as clear as possible, if you are trying to discern a religious vocation right now, and do not have a spiritual director, find one immediately. When you look for one, keep this in mind as well from John of the Cross. Find one who is knowledgeable in addition to being holy. Holiness is obviously important, but you also need someone who understands the principles of discernment and has some wisdom born from experience as well. Do not go into your head alone without someone who can tell you what is from God and what is just you being crazy.
Also, once you have a spiritual director, listen to them. Don’t waste their time by venting your entire situation to them and then not following their advice. One of the worst things you can do to after hearing your spiritual director’s advice is the, “Yeah, but…” If they are telling you to try something you’re not comfortable with, like taking a break from discernment or pushing yourself in some other way, be obedient while trying to understand why they are asking you to consider whatever it is they are telling you. Don’t pridefully disregard their advice.
The other side of this coin is making the mistake of allowing yourself to have too many spiritual directors. The spiritual director is a privileged position reserved for one priest or nun in whose hands you feel confident placing your spiritual life. You need to follow the advice and prompting of the Holy Spirit in your prayer and then the Holy Spirit speaking through your spiritual director, not your mom, uncle, best friend, three of the ladies at daily mass, and a few other friends you met on r/Catholicism. How are you going to distinguish God’s voice if you are just filling yourself with everyone’s advice? You’ll just keep bouncing back and forth. Usually, when you’re looking for advice from too many people, you’re just looking for someone to agree with you. Or maybe I’m projecting? I’m probably just projecting.
Along these lines, as a p.s.: you’re not called to be a priest just because some of the old ladies at your church told you that you’d make a great one. No offense, but they say that to everyone. 🙂
3. Thinking about your discernment too much.
Potentially, the greatest mistake you can make in discernment is making your entire spiritual life about this one decision. I have seen so many people essentially put their relationship with God on hold because they are so worried about what He wants from them. If all you do every time you go to pray is constantly see every grace you receive in light of whether it means you are suppposed to be a nun or not, then: 1) you are going to fray your nerves and 2) you are not going to actually grow at all. If the entire point of the spiritual life is growing in a union with Christ, then myopic fixation on this one question is going to be harmful to that process, and you know who wants that? Well, you can figure that out I suppose.
What would a marriage look like if all you ever did was ask your spouse where they wanted to go to dinner that night? No conversation, no laughter, just brass tax: where are we gonna go eat tonight, that’s all I care about.
One of the reasons this is dangerous is because if you obsess about this decision and never actually live life, you’re making a decision without any new information but also without being a new you. This is where people get stuck in discernment. They’re just constantly sifting through the same one or two thoughts and experiences hoping to squeeze more discernment juice out of them. If you’re stuck, you need new and fresh insight, not just the same thought analyzed from a million different directions.
Don’t miss the forest for the trees. You’re not going to be able to read the map if your nose is constantly a half-inch from it. It’s just going to blur your vision. When your heart starts to feel cramped, small, fearful, and fretful, you need to back up and just learn how to be in love with God again. Then dive back in.
4. “If I don’t pick the right vocation, I’ll never be really happy.”
For some reason, this is every speaker on vocation’s favorite line. If you don’t follow the vocation God has for you, you will never be truly happy in this life. Here is another of those half-truths. Is there a sense in which God’s calling for you is your path to ultimate fulfillment and joy? Absolutely. Is this line also extremely unhelpful to an 18 year old? You bet.
The amount of pressure this line puts on a young person to “get it right” cannot be overstated. The idea that the possiblity of ever being happy or holy hinges on this one decision that is happening at the outset of your adult life is overwhelming to most young Catholics.
God the Father challenges and encourages (like a dad teaching his kid to ride a bike) but He is also gentle, loving, and, most importantly, always faithful. This is the same God who St. Therese tells us takes our sins and, in His Mercy, uses them as rungs on the ladder to Heaven for us. Is He really going to banish us to a lifetime of misery and sin just because we “did not make the right decision?” It’s neither helpful to a discerner, nor entirely true. Or at least missing significant explanation.
What this line also does is make it seem like vocations exist primarily to make you happy in the sense that life will never be hard, or unfair, or fraught with suffering. That’s just not the point of vocations. Marriage, priesthood, the religious life are all places where good people choose to go to die. Jesus Christ’s vocation was to die for others. Yours is too and that’s often quite painful. The Old Self doesn’t go quietly. He howls and shrieks and begs us not to let go of Him. I have died with Christ that I might live with Him. This total breaking open of our heart that allows for charity to be poured in, ultimately, is blessedness, beatitude, eudaimonia, happiness. But it’s not worldly happiness and it often doesn’t look like what we thought it would look like.
This is more theologically speculative, so take it with a grain of salt, but the Catechism is very clear about marriage and priesthood being sacraments of mission meaning they are primarily ordered toward the sanctification of others. Essentially, your calling to marriage or priesthood is more about the holiness of your “spouse” whether that is a human of the opposite sex or the Church. It is baptism, and not the sacraments of still reigns supreme as the sacrament of Christian holiness.
CCC 1534 – “Two other sacraments, Holy Orders and Matrimony, are directed towards the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so. They confer a particular mission in the Church and serve to build up the People of God.”
5. Believing that suffering is a sign something is wrong.
“It’s hard,” is not the same thing as, “it’s wrong.” I had someone tell me one time that they basically saw God’s will as this path that you followed and if you stepped off the path, you experienced suffering, and if you stayed on, everything was easy. I love that honesty because I think a lot of people still carry this idea around in them latently. This idea goes hand-in-hand with number 4. If vocations are to make you happy, then any felt unhappiness is a sign you’re not doing the right thing.
Honestly, for me, many sufferings I’ve experienced have more often been a sign that I’m doing something right than wrong. If things have been hard, it’s usually a sign that I’m being stretched by God in a good, albeit painful, way. If we shy away from new challenges because they are difficult or out of our comfort zone, then we will never experience the true greatness to which God is calling us. To do great things, you have to first become great. Agere sequitur esse. Action follows being. John Paul II was great because he was forged in the fires of external and interior sufferings, not because God just allowed him to skip his way through life and into the papacy. He could be a “witness to hope” because he knew what it means to continue to trust in Christ in the midst of tremendous adversity. If you want to be a great saint, you need to let God make you one, and that means getting uncomfortable even in ways that you don’t want.
At the same time, don’t cling to the broken piece of driftwood out at sea if God is reaching out to you from the boat. If you’ve been hitting your head against a wall, and feeling wrong about your choice for a long time, and haven’t yet made a permanent commitment, don’t be afraid to follow God where He’s going. Don’t fear letting Him lead you out of a dating relationship or postulancy just because you made a big deal about jumping into it. Have the humility to know when God is showing you something else. I knew a girl who admitted she stayed in an order about a year and a half after she knew she wasn’t being called because she just didn’t feel like she could leave. Now, I’m sure she learned a ton from that experience, and God’s Providence can be found in everything, but don’t cause yourself unnecessary heartache. As I mentioned, this absolutely goes for dating too. Have the courage to break up with him or her, if you know it isn’t right. Just don’t do it solely because things got hard for a minute or it’s different and uncomfortable.
People often seem to think some situation is “harming” their spiritual life when really the adversity is actually just bringing up their faults. When we suffer, we see how much inconstancy and selfishness still exists in us. Just because hardship is exposing your weakness doesn’t mean you should jump ship. That weakness is still going to be in you and is going to need to be dealt with at some point in the future.
6. Chasing your feelings around.
There seem to be a lot of topics, both secular and religious, that people love to get to a cursory understanding of and then act like experts in. Discernment of spirits seems to be one of those things. So many young Catholics speak of the experience of “feeling” called to something but seem to have very little background knowledge of how to actually make decisions based on your internal experiences of consolation and desolation. Instead, this complex process laid out by St. Ignatius of Loyola becomes overly simplified into a vague idea of “being at peace” with a decision. The rules for discernment of spirits are way more awesome and helpful than just what gave you goosebumps one time when you were praying and I recommend that if you’re going to try to discern based on the movements in your heart, or even really live as a human, you read up on both sets of rules. The second set of rules, dealing mainly with how the Devil tries to appear as an “angel of light” and use false experiences of consolation, is more advanced but crucial to understand. I won’t go into depth about the rules here but I’ll post some links to good resources that you should read up on to get a firm grasp of how to use these important discernment tools.
First Set of Rules: http://www.discerninghearts.com/catholic-podcasts/14-rules-discerning-spirits-different-movements-caused-soul/
On the Second Set of Rules: http://www.theway.org.uk/Back/4712gallagher.pdf
Really, your resource for all things Ignatian discernment should be Fr. Timothy Gallagher. Anything by him is going to be excellent.
To summarize, If you just chase whatever you’re feeling that day, you’ll become inconsistent and fragile and unable to actually attend to the directives of God in your heart. You shouldn’t spend your whole spiritual life just running after your feelings. Part of Christian maturity is being able to peacefully navigate the waves of your emotional life. I have a friend who said that discovering the Rules helped him not just uncover his vocation finally, but also just get through a day. When you can step back and ask, “Why am I desolate right now?” and come to the conclusion that it’s just because it’s February or because someone was short with you at work instead of, “BECAUSE GOD DOESN”T LOVE ME OR ISN”T REAL ONE OF THE TWO,” that’s a really helpful place to be spiritually.
7. Being unwilling or afraid to commit.
Huge one. That’s why we saved it for last. In my experience, it’s only through actually making a choice about a path and then following through on it that any lasting clarity can be found. If you constantly stay on the high dive looking down at the water, you can’t learn anything new and can’t grow. It was only when I finally applied to a diocese, and went to seminary, that I was able to discover quickly, really within a few months, that, “I am definitely not called to this.” I stuck it out for the whole year because I had promised God that I would, and that time was a crucial period of prayer for me. If I had never actually gone to seminary, who knows, I might still be trying to figure out what to do with my life. Instead, my experience of diving in, though very painful at times, led to the clarity that allowed me to commit wholeheartedly to the vocation of marriage.
If you have a pretty strong feeling that God might be calling you to be a priest, start applying to seminary. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain as long as you stay open to Him throughout the entire process.
Truthfully, I’ve never made a decision in life that I was 100%, scientifically certain about. I just haven’t, and I don’t expect that I ever will. Every decision I’ve made, and there have been plenty because your parents can tell you that your vocation is not even close to the last big choice you have to discern, has contained some level of uncertainty. That’s partly because I’m just a generally uncertain guy and partly because I’m human. There’s something about stepping into something that you’re pretty sure is right and letting God take care of the rest that is incredibly freeing and reveals your deep trust in Him.
I don’t know if it’s a “kids these days” thing or if people are generally just terrible at making commitments, but, either way, this mistake is incredibly common. We fear what might happen if we jump. What if we’re not caught? We need to remember that this entire process is being guided by our loving, provident Father. And He takes care of us.
If you’re discerning a vocation right now, I’ll pray for you. The very fact that you’re seeking after what God wants from you alone is an amazing truth about you and shows the depth of your desire to please Him. Remember that no matter what He is good and faithful and loving. You have nothing to be afraid of. Coraggio. Take courage. Don’t be afraid to give Christ everything.