Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Vocations and Discernment 101



The life of a Christian disciple always involves following a personal call. In the Gospels we read how Jesus called the first disciples, beckoning them, “Come and follow me”. This call is not merely a model for us, for it continues to be the reality. The Greek word for Church in the New Testament is ekkl√™sia, which literally means “called out”, while our English word “vocation” comes from the Latin vocare, meaning “to call”. We Christians are those whom God has “called out” in Christ. In the words of St. Peter, “…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).

The Second Vatican Council placed great emphasis on what is called the “universal call to holiness,” underlining the important truth that ALL people are called to become great saints, not only priests and religious, or an elite, chosen few: “…all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fulness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Lumen Gentium 40, emphasis added). This universal call to holiness is found everywhere on the pages of the New Testament. In the introduction of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, for example, we read, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:3-4). Paul was not referring to a select few individuals, but to all Christians.

In my experience, there is still significant misunderstanding about vocations in the Church and in the world today. We often speak about the “vocation crisis” and we “pray for vocations”. By these expressions, however, we typically refer only to vocations to the priesthood and religious life (and at times, only to the priesthood). This way of speaking reveals a misunderstanding, because it implies that God only calls priests and religious. A consequence to this mentality is that those who apparently are “not called” (statistically, it would seem, the great majority) are free to live their lives more or less however they see fit, provided they don’t do anything obviously offensive to God, and it would be nice if they also did something or other to contribute in the Church. I think this way of viewing Christian discipleship and vocations is completely wrong, and so I decided to share some reflections that perhaps may be helpful. The Church’s spiritual and theological tradition on vocations is rich, beautiful, and compelling, if only we take a little time and try to understand it, and above all, to live it.

Happiness and Vocation: Discerning Backwards

As Christians, we believe that God created each of us, freely and intentionally, to be an image of His love in the world, and that He destined us for everlasting union with Him. Therefore, we have to believe that God’s will or plan for our lives is always what is best for us, no matter how much that plan appears to conflict with our own preconceived plans and expectations. God, Who is love (1 Jn 4:8), wills our happiness, which consists in nothing less than union with Him. That union, made possible by the Incarnation of God in Jesus, begins now in this life and continues into eternity. In the famous words of St. Augustine, “Thou has made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” God not only wants us to be happy––God is our happiness. Therefore, it is impossible to conceive of any kind of happiness apart from God; there is no such thing as “my happiness”, understood as a lasting joy or even contentment that could be achieved apart from God and His will for my life. In the end, as the title of Cardinal Robert Sarah’s book has it, we can only choose “God or Nothing.” Or, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” Unfortunately, our discussion about vocations and discernment tends at times to separate – if not oppose – human happiness and the will of God. This is a grave problem that we absolutely must remedy if we are to achieve any real understanding of vocations. Discerning one’s vocation is not a balancing act between two separate, independent things – my will and God’s will – as if I could bargain with God to give me what I want in life while still being basically obedient in the “essential matters”. Discernment is rather the union of my will with God’s will; it is the increasing awareness that my happiness actually consists in God’s will, since He knows me better than I know myself and loves me more than I love myself.

If we’re honest, we have to admit that we often plan our lives entirely on the basis of what seems reasonable and best suits our personal preferences. Maybe we even label this process “discernment”. Perhaps we at least try to include God in this process by asking Him to bless our independent, ready-made plan. However, this second step too is often omitted: we simply determine what we want to do and then, since our plan does not appear to involve anything obviously sinful or contrary to God’s will, we assume that it therefore must be His will for us. But in this scenario, our prayer has ceased to be a dialogue and has become instead only a monologue: “Hey God, here’s what I decided you’re calling me too. Any objections? …No? Okay, good. Thanks!” Instead of actually discerning God’s will as something outside of and superior to our own will, we treat His will as a kind of divine “stamp of approval” on our merely human plan. Instead of allowing God to call us – we effectively “call” ourselves and then attribute this call to God. Commonly used phrases such as, “God put it on my heart to do X” (while not necessarily misguided) can at times be code for, “I felt like doing X and I think God would approve of it.” In such cases, the idea of God as a real, free, and personal agent Who intervenes in my life and has a plan for me is completely missing from the equation.

Of course, this whole way of thinking and discerning is completely backwards! If I really believe that God has a claim on my life, and that His will is the foundation and standard for every vocation, then this means I must discern in a way that does not simply confirm my own preconceived plans. I must be open to the possibility that God’s will could surprise and even shock me. Think about it: If what is supposedly God’s will for my life never surprises me, challenges me, or even varies significantly from what I already wanted, then what evidence is there that this is not simply my will in disguise? (Our capacity for self-deception should not be underestimated!) Discernment should not be our attempt to secure God’s affirmation of what we choose for ourselves – it should be our prayerful recognition and embracing of what God has already chosen for us.

Every gospel scene of Jesus encountering and calling people to follow him reflects this form. People do not present Jesus with their plans for his approval. Instead, he breaks into their lives quite unexpectedly and calls them out of their merely human plans and aspirations: “You shall see greater things than these” (Jn 1:50); “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” (Jn 15:16). In addition to this unexpected “breaking in”, Jesus’ call demands of us an urgency and a totality that no mere mortal could ever claim. We see this in passages such as the following:
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34).

“Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God . . . No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:60, 62).

“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:37-39).
Nothing and no one has a higher claim on our life than Jesus. And he does not share his lordship; he will either hold the center place of our life or else we will worship and follow only a caricature of him, or else some idol of our choosing. Jesus is not a convenience or a commodity, one concern among others to be taken into consideration. All worldly possessions, plans, and relationships must be subordinated to Him: “…at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php 2:10-11); we must “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).

I cannot evaluate the call of Christ in my life according to human or worldly standards alone. By the grace of God, and striving faithfully each day, the love of God for me must become the foundational principle of my life, the source of my identity. Slowly but surely, God’s love will animate and inform everything I think, say, and do. This entails, to be sure, a death to self. However, it is only through this death that I can move beyond the pitfall of egoism and make my life into an offering that glorifies God and unites me to Him: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor 5:14-15). If we strive to live this way, our entire life will become a hymn of grateful praise to God; with Mary, we will be able to sing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Lk 1:47).

Christian Indifference

True vocational discernment demands a humble awareness that my plan for my life could be wrong, or more precisely, that it could be at odds with God’s plan for my life. Therefore, in order to understand and accept the will of God for me, I must attain a certain degree of detachment or indifference to my life. If I am already attached to one specific path, I will not be open to receiving and accepting the path which God has actually chosen for me (which could very well be different). The concept of indifference is a central theme of the popular Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th c. spiritual master and founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). The purpose of the Spiritual Exercises, intended to be experienced as a retreat, is to enable a person to make an “election”, that is, to choose freely and definitively the vocation or state of life that God has already chosen for him or her (religious vows, priesthood, marriage, etc.). This Christian indifference that Ignatius promotes is not identical to apathy, passivity, or a lack of passion or desire; nor is it a Stoic indifference (i.e. the trained, unnatural ability to be totally unmoved by anything). Rather, Christian indifference is a fundamental attitude of openness, availability, and readiness that allows one to receive and follow God’s call at each moment, whatever that may be. It means preferring nothing to the will of God, with the willingness to renounce everything in order to follow that will. Because such indifference is essential to our accepting and obeying the will of God, we must continuously examine ourselves to see whether we truly possess it. Thus, we might reflect using questions such as the following:

-     Am I open to being surprised by God’s will for my life, or do I think that I am capable of figuring things out without Him?

-     Am I attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who at times challenges my way of thinking and acting, or do I tend to live as if God’s will is more or less synonymous with my own?

-     Do I discern God’s will as something above and beyond me, which has a claim on my life? Or do I simply ask God to approve of my self-made plans for my life?

Are Some Vocations “Better” or “Holier” than Others?

Unfortunately, for a long time in the Church there was a tendency to speak about certain vocations or states of life as being objectively better or higher than others. For example, it is often still said that the religious state of life (a sister or brother who takes vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience) is objectively higher or holier than the married state because it conforms more closely to both Jesus’ own earthly state of life and to the state of life that all of us will live in heaven – our “eschatological state” (our “end state” – from the Greek eschaton meaning “the end”). In my opinion, this way of speaking about vocations is not helpful and can be very misleading. As I mentioned above, the only legitimate standard for a person’s vocation and discernment is the will of God for him or her. The various states of life – marriage, religious life, priesthood, consecrated life – never exist as abstract realities or ideals. These states or vocations only exist in the lives of real people who are called to them by God. Therefore, it is not helpful or even accurate to speak abstractly about which state is better, higher, or holier.

The best, highest, and holiest state of life for a given person will always be the one to which God is calling him or her – period. For example, if a young woman is enflamed with love for Jesus and wants to devote her life to him as a religious sister, but he is not calling her to that, it would not be “better” or “holier” in any sense whatsoever if she were to enter a convent and take religious vows anyway. To use St. Paul’s image of the Body of Christ, it would not be better if someone called to be the hand were to try to be the eye. Our perfection consists in God’s will for us. Certainly, we must strive to be completely open to whichever state of life God may be calling us, and indeed, open even to renouncing everything in the most literal sense in order to follow Jesus. However, we cannot for this reason assume that our religious zeal and desire to commit our lives to God automatically implies that we are called to, for example, the priesthood or religious life. Desire can certainly be indicative of a true calling, and we should pay close attention to the desires of our heart, especially when a desire arises rather suddenly and unexpectedly, almost as if from “outside” of us. However, desire alone is not a substitute for the actual call: “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn 15:16). There were plenty of people who wanted to follow Jesus as part of his close group of disciples, but he did not allow them to do so:
“And as [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him.  But he refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you’” (Mk 5:18-19; see also Lk 9:57-58).
Vocations and the Cross

As disciples of Christ and members of his Body, we are called to imitate him. Through this imitation, empowered by the Sacraments of the Church and guided by her teaching and wisdom, we are able to extend the love and ministry of Christ on earth. In fact, as Christ’s Body on earth, we do not merely love like Christ – we love as Christ. Of course, exactly how we do this necessarily takes different forms for different people. The variety of our gifts work together in symphony, allowing our individual contributions, however small and seemingly insignificant, to extend the reach of Christ’s saving action on the cross:
“And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph 4:11-13).
As mentioned above, we cannot take our own preferences or the world’s standards for happiness and success as the basis for discerning our vocation. Our one standard must always be the example of Christ and the will of God for our lives. In our attempt to follow Jesus and discern our vocation, we can fall into two general extremes: avoidance of the cross or chasing the cross. To avoid the cross in our vocation means that we pursue a path because we believe it will be easier and involve less suffering. Of course, this avoidance runs counter to the Gospel; it fails to conform to the example of Jesus, who “became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Php 2:8). By avoiding the cross, we attempt to reduce the full cost of discipleship, which necessarily involves, to a certain degree, being hated by the world: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you . . . If they persecuted me, they will persecute you…” (Jn 15:18-19, 20b). The life of every Christian must be Christoform, and therefore cruciform. Therefore, the choice of one’s vocation cannot be motivated by a desire to avoid the cross. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant pastor executed by the Nazis for his opposition, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship).

The second extreme is the opposite of the first, not avoiding our cross but chasing it. By chasing the cross, I mean seeking out and choosing for ourselves the way in which we will make an offering of our lives, instead of allowing our cross to come to us as a natural consequence of our obedience to Christ and following him. In other words, chasing your cross means trying to “customize” the sacrifice involved in your vocation instead embracing the “package deal” as God gives it. Just as we should not attempt to avoid the cross when discerning God’s call in our lives, we likewise should not presume that some particular sacrifice is being demanded of us. Every Christian should have the readiness to renounce everything in a very literal and material sense. This is why the Church has always held up the martyrs as exemplary disciples, and during times of minimal persecution, the monks. This is also why even today religious sisters and brothers offer us an inspiring witness by their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. However, while we all should be willing to sacrifice everything, we should not take it upon ourselves to do so, because just as God’s will is the only standard for our vocation, it is likewise the only standard for our cross. Like Jesus, who prayed to accept his Father’s will during his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, we too must allow God to determine what our “chalice” of suffering will be: “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk 22:42).

Let me offer an example. A young man’s willingness to give up marriage and children to become a priest is indeed commendable and probably a sign of genuine piety and zeal. However, such willingness considered by itself, no matter how humble or fervent it may be, can never replace the actual call to the priesthood. The same applies to the discernment of religious and consecrated life. God is free, and He calls whomever He wills. The universal call to holiness entails that everyone, regardless of their state of life or particular calling, is called to become a great saint. There is not some spectrum of holiness or commitment to God and the Church, so that those who are “really serious” about their faith must therefore be called to the priesthood or religious life. No. The possibility of radical discipleship, and of service to God, Church, and neighbor, exists equally in every vocation, even if the outward form this takes varies significantly. A married woman with a job and five children to care for cannot live the same daily schedule as a religious sister serving the poor in Calcutta. In a sense, priests and religious can be something to everyone, but married men and women are everything to each other and their children.

Discerning Marriage

The vocation of marriage is different from the priesthood, religious, or consecrated life in that, ordinarily, one does not need to discern a distinct “call” to the married state. This is not to say that a person cannot feel called to marriage in a certain sense. However, there is a reason we do not normally use the language of “discerning a call to marriage”. This is because a “call” to marriage is most often the prayerfully discerned recognition that one is not called to the priesthood, religious life, or consecrated life. The reason for this is that Christian discipleship always presupposes the possibility of being asked to renounce everything to follow Christ in a complete and literal sense. The New Testament is full of references to selling one’s possessions, leaving everything behind, abandoning the world’s way of thinking, and embracing a new identity, one that is conformed to Christ and characterized by a radical availability to spreading the Gospel: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Anyone who would follow Christ must count the cost of doing so; the cost is ALWAYS everything: “…whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:33).

We could say that this universal requirement to renounce all that one has in order to follow Jesus is, in a sense, the default disposition of Christian discipleship. In other words, it is simply the “Christian state of life” without further qualification or specification. Now, this certainly does not mean that a majority of people will be called to express or live out their renunciation through religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. However, it does mean that, as each of us discerns our vocation, we must always begin by assuming that God may be inviting us to this total renunciation. Only when we are truly indifferent to our own plans and preferences and completely open to God’s will, trusting that He will make this known to us, and assuming that we may indeed be called to anything and everything––only then can we truly be said to have discerned our vocation properly. Therefore, discernment of marriage should always pass through an honest discernment of religious life, consecrated life, and for men, the priesthood. However brief this process may be, it is nevertheless essential because it respects the totality demanded by the call of Christ, and in this way it follows the form of discipleship presented in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament. The call of the first disciples is not merely an inspiring story, nor even a historical example, something on which we can reflect from the “safe” distance of two thousand years. Rather, Jesus’ calling of them is the timeless norm that confronts us and challenges us in our concrete life situation here and now.

At the outset of one’s vocational discernment, then, the guiding question should not be, “Why me?” but rather, “Why not me?” For me personally, asking this very simple question was what really ignited my vocational discernment. One day, during Mass at my home parish, we prayed an intercession that said something like, “That more young men will respond to God’s call to the priesthood.” A light went on in my mind. I had been earnestly praying this prayer with everyone else, knowing that the Church indeed needed more priests, and yet I had never actually considered the priesthood as a possibility for myself. Then it occurred to me, “Wait…why not me?” At first, I dodged this question with various excuses, but I never could shake it. God is persistent, and He can be very convincing if only we open ourselves to Him! It was impossible for me to continue opening myself to God in prayer indefinitely while avoiding this question. Perhaps many of us never ask the question because we’re afraid of the answer! And yet we know that God will move us beyond this fear if we trust in Him, because “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18).

Vocations and the Church

A discussion of vocations would be incomplete if we left out the Church’s role. Every vocation comes through the Church and is ordered to the good of the whole Church. One’s vocation is never a private and exclusive spiritual undertaking, or a kind of self-help program aimed only at one’s own happiness and perfection. Practically speaking, this means that when discerning our vocation, we must always do so in communication with the Church, that is, with the assistance of priests, religious superiors, or other designated and competent persons. The spiritual guidance of others ensures the authenticity of our call and prevents self-deception on our part. Our vocation is not a matter of our personal discernment alone: The Church has the authority and responsibility to discern our vocation with us and for us. My own subjective certitude about my vocation can never override the obedience and respect due to Christ’s chosen representatives on earth. It is impossible for the Holy Spirit to guide me into a vocation and, at the same time, to allow the Church to deny me that vocation indefinitely, “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor 14:33). Clearly, openness to the Church’s judgment regarding something as life-determining as one’s vocation presupposes a degree of spiritual maturity, and humility in particular.

Finally, vocations come through the Church not only insofar as one’s discernment requires the Church’s formal approval. As a general rule, the Church – the People of God – is also the immediate means through which one’s vocation is first discovered. Although God can obviously communicate directly to us in prayer, millennia of experience reveals that He generally prefers to involve others in doing so. This indirect or mediate process of communication with God prevents us from developing spiritual pride and keeps us united as the Body of Christ. We all depend on each other as we strive to follow and serve God, and no one has a monopoly on access to God and knowledge of His will. Therefore, when discerning your vocation, be attentive to the observations and recommendations of other committed Christian disciples who know you well – take them seriously! Just as God spoke to the Israelites through the prophets, and Jesus ministered to many people through his disciples (even during his time of public ministry), so also today God works through other people in our lives to communicate His will to us. As Jesus told the 72 disciples, “He who hears you hears me” (Lk 10:16). We should all listen for and heed the call of Jesus when it comes to us through our fellow disciples.

Conclusion: Mission and Identity

The encounter with Jesus Christ always implies a personal call that demands a total response. In our unique individuality, we all have a critical part to play in the drama of God’s plan of salvation for the entire world. We are not cogs in a machine, but members of a Body. Regardless of our particular vocation, each of us is called to the heroic holiness of the saints. Discernment involves the sober consideration of our personal gifts, life history, experience, and desires, all with prayerful attention to the Holy Spirit’s promptings in prayer. Each of us has the serious duty (not option!) of striving to understand, accept, and wholeheartedly follow the particular vocation to which God is calling us. Only when we accept and live out our God-given mission will we be fulfilled in our identity. Consider Jesus, whose very name means “God saves”. His identity is his mission. With Jesus, whom God sent “not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17), we too are called to sacrifice ourselves in love for the salvation of others.

I’ll close here with a quote from St. John Paul II, from a 1986 address he gave to young people in New Zealand:
“Since the Cross of Christ is the sign of love and salvation, we should not be surprised that all true love requires sacrifice. Do not be afraid, then, when love makes demands. Do not be afraid when love requires sacrifice”
Under the Mercy,

Chris Trummer

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