One of the great joys of being a teacher is watching my students’ growing awareness of who or what they want to become. When they finally voice that decision for ‘engineer’, ‘designer’, ‘university student’, ‘apprentice’, I very often see a mix of composure, elation, eagerness and resolve in their faces and I know that, to some degree, my job is done. They are ready to move on.
For many students, however, there is a real struggle to understand their place in life; they seem rootless, restless and unsure of themselves and their talents.
These students, far more than the others, provoke a sense of paternal compassion and a desire to provide some guidance and direction. I feel this, too, when I hear young Catholics talk about struggling to find their vocation. So I want to offer some concrete points for reflection for those of you feeling a similar, perplexing drift in life.
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7 reasons you are struggling to discern your vocation:
1. You’re confused by the word vocation
Does it refer to the choice for either marriage or the religious life? A career? Some specific community or social action? The application of talents or skills? Does it generally mean ‘what the heck am I supposed to do with my life that’s significant’ to some extent? Let me suggest two ways of considering this, first as a sacred vocation and then as a secular vocation.
A sacred vocation:
Vocation comes from the Latin word, vocātiō, meaning a call or a summons. It’s a word that carries significance, obligation and commitment. It is in this particular context that Catholicism recognizes marriage, the consecrated single life, religious and ordained life as the four vocations. While this narrows things down a bit, consider that, as a Catholic, there is the expectation that you will end up in one of these four vocations! It’s part of God’s sacred plan! It might freak you out, or it might give you hope and confidence, but either way it’s something to think seriously about. Note that ‘enjoying the blissfully single, carefree life of a bachelor or socialite’ isn’t an option… There is a specific role for each of us in this world and it’s your task to find out what yours is.
A secular vocation:
Recently, the use of the word vocation has shifted to describe the application of our talents and abilities in a specific career. And so we hear the phrases ‘vocational training’ or ‘vocational qualifications’. However, even though you may be deeply drawn to use your distinctive gifts in a particular profession, there is always the possibility that this could change over time as your life and interests evolve. So it is not strictly a vocation in the sacred, infinite sense. There is also the danger that casually substituting the words ‘career’ and ‘vocation’ causes you to place an excessive emphasis on your job, at the expense of your real vocational calling.
Let me give you two further points for consideration. Firstly, a sacred vocation can be understood as a state of self-emptying in anticipation of a future consummation, whereas the secular version is one of self-fulfillment with a view to immediate, if fleeting, satisfaction. Secondly, it is good to remember that the Catechism speaks of love as the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. This should radically alter your perception of the model of vocation. It’s not so much a search for self-fulfillment as a search for the particular way in which God has called you to love.
2. You’re stressing too much about discovering your vocation
You haven’t dated for a couple of years? Your relationship doesn’t appear to be going anywhere? You’ve attended so many discernment days they all blend into one, but you’re still none the wiser? You’re sweating it out in prayer but not getting any concrete answers? Everyone you know seems to have their lives worked out, but you’re still pounding away like a moth at a lightbulb? You’re anxious that you’re being left behind or that your life seems to have no specific meaning?
Really, I mean it. Relax.
Good things happen in silence and space. Right now, I’m looking out over my garden as I type. It’s apparently dead after the long winter months. I’ve done nothing to it since October, but I know that the sweat and toil I invested beforehand requires a period of rest and some tough winter gestation in order for it to bear fruit. But a closer look reveals some small, inevitable, cheering signs of spring. And I also remember the time that I decided that I was going to give up the tantalizing, frustrating chase of the dating game and wait for God to show me the woman I was to marry. After a quiet, blissful relationship hiatus, two wonderful girls arrived on the scene and I suddenly had the awkward blessings of abundance, choice and decisions.
So, why not, for a time, consciously lay aside agonizing about the future? Consider that you’ve done enough worrying for a season. Instead, plunge in to the present of your everyday life. Relish your day-to-day activities with those around you. Make your prayers for others, rather than for yourself. Remember that God has a vocation in mind for you and perhaps He’d like some space and peace to get on with preparing it!
3. You’re not stressing enough
On the other hand, are you the sort of person that thinks, “Oh, it’ll all work out – something will turn up eventually!”? Unfortunately, this attitude is sometimes an excuse for not engaging with our calling. As the saying goes, don’t ask God to guide your footsteps if you’re not willing to move your feet! Any summons demands a response and that response is a choice to act or not to act. If you choose not to act, you’re essentially avoiding the call and so, unsurprisingly, nothing will happen.
So get off your backside and act!
And as a word of encouragement, here is one of my favorite quotes:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative there is one elementary truth …: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
I love this quote because of the suggestion that the very act of simply making a start generates enchanting, unanticipated outcomes. God moves when we move, and He moves in mighty ways. So get on to a Catholic dating website; sign up to a discernment weekend; order some good Catholic books about marriage, the religious life, the priesthood; inform yourself on the internet; orient your life towards a vocation. Don’t worry for the moment about which vocation – just get out there with frankness, honesty, open-heartedness and integrity and look at all the options available to you.
4. Your expectations are too high, or too immediate
When I look back at my journal from a number of years ago, I find the rather grandiose statement that I felt certain I was destined to do something significant, something that would set me apart from my peers. I wasn’t sure what, but I lived in great anticipation of it being a single, outstanding event or circumstance. I also expected a distinct sign, a flash from heaven if you like, that would illuminate the path I should take.
That didn’t happen, of course. God works quietly and organically, and I find, at the age of 41, that my expectations of a vocation have vastly mellowed. I realize that choosing and living out a vocation is rather like designing and working a garden: it takes ideals, commitment, effort, planning, crafting, intellect, inspiration, perspiration, conversation, tenderness, artistry, passion, patience. And time. Of course, there is always a single point in time where you make a choice for either marriage or the celibate, religious life, but the full revelation and comprehension of that vocation only unfolds over time. The fact that this is hidden from us at the beginning of our vocational journey shouldn’t put us off, because the strange thing is that vocational fulfilment is not to be found at an end point or in some distinct recognition that you’ve finally got to where you should be. No, its satisfaction is completely inherent in the action of its discovery, of its undertaking, of its evolution and improvement, every day.
5. You’re scared because a celibate vocation will leave you facing a life without sex
I’m not going to knock this; it’s a totally legitimate fear. Sex is a beautiful, breathtaking, intrinsic part of who we are and we yearn to experience the intense intimacy it brings. So, if you feel this way, it either means you seriously need to consider marriage as your vocation, or you seriously need to re-orientate your views on the celibate life. Your fears about a celibate vocation may be holding you back from considering it. So, go talk to a priest, some nuns, a consecrated single person about their struggles and joys, about how they faced these concerns and worked them through, and what it feels like to come out the other side. (And at the same time, talk to married couples about the very real and present struggles of living out a fulfilling sexual relationship!). But don’t carry your fears in isolation or else you’ll never be rid of them. And simply talking to someone about the celibate life doesn’t mean it’s going to happen! It just means you sift the soil of your mind and heart so that the tough bits are exposed for further reflection.
6. You have no one to guide you
Many of my students lack good mentors or role models to help them along the way to a suitable career. This is a great sadness, and I often wonder how many of them have missed some wonderful opportunities to reach their potential as a result. Often, all it requires is for someone to say, “You seem talented in this area; had you thought about this?” Maybe your struggles with discerning a vocation stem from a similar concern. There are many things that we can’t see for ourselves because we have very subjective views about them: oh, I can’t do this because I don’t know how; or, I couldn’t possibly be this because I’m not good enough. Sometimes it just takes an outside, objective view from someone we know or respect, for us to permit ourselves to move forward.
But what if you don’t have this ‘someone’? Then gather up the courage to find him or her, preferably a committed Catholic, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their faith: someone you respect from your parish or your chaplaincy team; a teacher; a priest; someone from a religious order or a Catholic marriage support organization. Ask if they will help you over the next few months to talk through ways of approaching and discovering your vocation.
7. You haven’t allowed yourself to fully experience life
Unless you’ve been blessed from an early age with a clear and direct call from God, you will have to go through all the stages and experiences of youthful life as the rest of us: upbringing, education, sports, dating, travel, culture, work – and all the failures and achievements, pains and ecstasies that these entail. These experiences mold and shape us as individuals; they open us up to new understandings about ourselves and the world around us; they push us in directions that we wouldn’t otherwise have chosen. To an extent, we become the sum of all these experiences and we are almost obliged to use the time and energy of youth to increase that sum to the best of our capabilities. Then we arrive at the threshold of our vocation able to say: here I am, at the point of my fullness, ready to offer all I have, all I have learned, all I have become, to the service of others. Otherwise, we may enter our vocation still full of regret or resentment that we haven’t had the chance to fully experience life.
To conclude, I would like to leave you with the insightful words of the Catholic author, A. G. Sertillanges. He suggests that our vocation actually arises from what we truly enjoy and that a sacred vocation is the only real path for us to follow:
“Our liking, if correlated to our fundamental tendencies and to our aptitudes, is an excellent judge …. If pleasure characterizes functions and may serve to classify man, pleasure can also reveal our vocation. Only, we must search down into the depths where liking and the spontaneous impulse are linked up with the gifts of God and his provenance.”
“All roads but one are bad roads for you, since they diverge from the direction in which your action is expected and required. Do not prove faithless to God, your brethren and to yourself by rejecting a sacred call.”
Has this article touched on all of your obstacles to discerning your sacred vocation? What else do you think is holding you back? Please leave your comments below.