There are really two camps when it comes to discernment. On the one side, some believe that discernment is discovering what is the will of God so they can do it, and on the other side, some believe essentially that a person’s vocation is just a free-willed response to God’s love. I believe that the paradox of Christianity is such that both can exist completely and simultaneously. I hope the next few tips can help you understand how that’s possible and how it’s helpful when it comes to discernment.
How To Discern God’s Will For Your Vocation
Tip #1: Stop Sinning!
Sin is like drunk goggles for discernment.
The first thing to be aware of before anything else is the effect of serious sin on discernment. Obviously, “the just man sins seven times a day”, and the goal of holiness is to be free from sin, but here I am speaking of serious, habitual, and mortal sin. Serious sinfulness makes it difficult for us to be able to hear the voice of God and to perceive God’s will. Sin is like a fog, a broken window, or drunk goggles: it distorts our perception of God. It doesn’t mean that you won’t get where you need to go. Many men and women are struggling with mortal sin have been ordained or consecrated and ended up living out their ministry with some fruitfulness. However, without the violent eradication of serious sin in our lives, the process will remain extremely difficult, and either the discerner or someone else is likely to get hurt on the way.
Additionally, sin also distorts and decreases our ability to respond freely to God’s love because sin is, by nature, enslavement in all its forms. Our free will is weakened like a disease that weakens muscle tissue. We lose the freedom of spiritual mobility in sin. It inhibits the free will of every person, especially in their relationship with love and, therefore, with God. When it comes to sin and discernment, there is a certain threshold that, if met, greatly helps in the discernment process.
The question for all in discernment is, where are you at with your habits of sin? Everyone sins, and so everyone will struggle with vice to some degree. But when it comes to serious sin, sometimes it doesn’t get dealt with as seriously as it should before entering into a formal discernment process: the seminary, a religious order, or a dating situation with a specific person. Certainly, places of discernment can be greatly helpful for men and women struggling with sin.
However, when sin is not dealt with adequately beforehand, it can, at times, become the focus of the discernment process rather than the discernment or the formation itself.
The most obvious sin that most young adults bring into the discernment process nowadays revolves around chastity. We ought to all sympathize with that tendency because it is very common, very real, very painful, and very deep and can be difficult to overcome.
That being said, the sin of unchastity (among other things) often gets brought into seminary, convent, or the mission field as if it’s just something that can just coexist with proper discernment. I think this is a watering down of the seriousness of sin and one of the causes of the scandalous era we’ve found ourselves in. If you look at the example of many saints, the radical measures they took to combat sin in their own lives was heroic! I’m a firm believer that what one man can do, any man can do, and therefore any of these examples of the saints can be done by us and must be done.
It’s imperative that we combat sin as aggressively as possible to make our hearts adequately disposed to proper and formal discernment.
Sin is like drunk goggles for discernment. It won’t necessarily prevent a person from where they need to go, but it will make the journey very difficult and the individual and/or somebody else will likely get very hurt on the way. It is imperative that a person who is seeking to discern their vocation in any form actively must aggressively… and I mean aggressively attack the mortal sins in their life. A heroic level of effort must be put into action in order to attain freedom from those major sins. This will allow for the healing balm of the discernment process to begin, strengthening the individual and making them capable of fulfilling their role in their vocation, not only with less difficulty, but with real joy and fruitfulness as well.
Quick Note: Don’t get caught up in scruples reading this. If you haven’t committed a mortal sin in the last six months, you’re doing well.
Tip #2: Live the Life you’re Discerning
One of the necessary elements of bridging the gap between the two different camps of discernment is living the life that you’re discerning. It can be tempting to discern in the imagination. Discernment can become asking yourself, “Can I imagine myself being a priest?” or “Can I imagine myself being a sister?” “Can I imagine myself being married?” When, in fact, our imaginations are incapable of experiencing the reality of the life that we are actually discerning, We can put too much stock in our imagination in this field. That’s why it’s so important to begin living the life as much as possible, because it shifts the focus of the imagination from, “Can I imagine myself living this vocation?” to utilizing the imagination for divine intimacy and holiness within the lifestyle itself.
Living the life is a temporary way of stepping into the vocation. Clearly, there are limits on how much a person can simulate this life: please don’t start saying Masses if you’re discerning Priesthood! The useful aspects of stepping into living the life of your discernment mean stepping into the day-to-day regular habits of the vocation itself. Starting moderately and building slowly (Atomic Habits would be useful here) is best. Do a daily holy hour, regular mental prayer, or pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Pray a Rosary or join a group of like-minded Catholics who are also discerning a similar lifestyle. This is a great way to simulate some of the basics of what it’s like in religious life, the priesthood, or holy lay life.
If you’re discerning marriage, the best way to simulate married life is simply by dating somebody. It can be fairly casual. It doesn’t need to be all in. You don’t need to know whether you will marry that person to have coffee with them or go sledding together. You don’t even have to be thinking about that. In fact, it’s probably better that you don’t! Just keep it light. Get to know them and if you think there might be something there, start spending time one-on-one and let it grow until it’s time to decide what the relationship is and where it’s going. Until then, keep it light, keep it simple, and allow for a natural bond to form.
In marriage, living the life is clearly not just a practical thing. It’s not just “doing the marriage things.” It’s a relational thing. This is a good analogy for all discernment. Like every vocation, it is ultimately to see whether you’re finding real fruitfulness in your relationship with God in that vocational life or whether you’ll find spiritual growth better elsewhere.
All that being said, anyone seeking to “live the life” has to devote adequate time to be able to tell the difference between what is fruitful or whether it’s just something that you like; and, conversely, whether it’s fruitless or just something that you dislike.
There are things about marriage, there are things about the priesthood, and there are things about the religious life that inevitably no one is going to like, and to really enjoy that lifestyle, we have to learn how to like them. I’m talking about the menial tasks, the boring stuff, the tedious, repetitive stuff. It is very important to know what those things are and how they are affecting or not affecting your discernment.
Discernment is not done in the imagination, in the future, or in the past. It’s now; it’s always now. In fact, discernment is not so much discerning your future. It’s discerning your now. The best now with God will bring you into the best future with God.
Tip #3: Find Counsel
It is not good for man to discern alone. A good spiritual director is like someone who stands on a telephone pole while you’re walking through a maze or stands on a mountaintop while you walk through a valley. When we are in the valleys of spiritual desolation, a spiritual director can remind us that there is a reason for the valley. It’s part of the trip.
Spiritual counselors can remind us that, in fact, valleys are often the most life-giving places to end up when you’re on a journey. They are where we find water and food. A spiritual director can give us the perspective we need to be able to stay the course when our own judgment is obscured by darkness or confusion. It’s essential when it comes to discernment to have somebody with the perspective and the experience to be able to show you new ways of looking at situations and to be able to challenge you and confront you.
That being said, not all directors are good spiritual directors. In our church today, there are many wolves among the sheep and it is very important to be open to the possibility that your spiritual director has an agenda and that you are a means to an end and not an end in itself. With this in mind, it’s also good to also consider that all spiritual directors are fellow sinners, and there has to be a degree of leniency when it comes to a spiritual director, their preferences, their style, their personality etc. The foolproof litmus test is whether you are getting authentically holier under the direction of this spiritual director.
Tip #4: Analysis Paralysis
If your discernment is eating your life away, then you’re not discerning anymore; you’re just lost. Sometimes, when it comes to discernment, it matters more that you make a decision than making the right one.
I think this problem is usually rooted in the misconception that God has a specific plan and path for my life, and that it’s completely my responsibility to figure out what it is. God is not going tell me what it is, and if I get it wrong, then, at best, I’ll be unhappy, at worst, I go to hell. In other words: slavery.
It’s so important (and such good news!!) to know that God does not sit up in heaven playing charades with us.
God‘s love is overabundant, and sometimes the best way to discern is to just simply make a choice, because it is only by making a choice that you have moved your relationship with God outside of your imagination and into reality. I have this weird thing I do where if I can’t make a decision, I ask someone else to make it for me, and in hearing them choose for me, I suddenly become aware of what I truly want. Sometimes the decision can work like that: helping us separate from the paralysis of analysis.
It is in reality that we discern and can discern. If someone you know is stuck in a discernment loop, encourage them to try to break the cycle that is consuming their life.
And I don’t say this lightly; I spent eight years in the seminary. I didn’t doubt my vocation to the priesthood until the diaconate retreat I attended provoked my leaving the seminary six months later. I believe I remained with God by going to seminary, by leaving the seminary, by marrying my wife, and by writing this article.
The fact of the matter is God is not discerning your future so much as He is with you discerning your right now. What are you going to be with God right now? You’ll never go wrong if you can remain on the vine. Analysis paralysis means that we’ve lost sight of the gift of vocation. Every vocation is a gift.
If God is calling you to the priesthood, that is a gift!
If God is calling you to marriage, that is a gift!
If God is calling you to the religious life, that is a gift!
If God is calling you to consecrated single life, that is a gift!
It is all a gift: an unspeakable, indescribable gift. When it comes to vocations, to think that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence is like thinking that the west side of Heaven is better than the east side. It is all gift.
Tip #5: Remember What it all comes Down To
The truth of the Gospel is not bound by the procedures of formation.
The last element of discernment is to keep it in perspective. It’s easy to lose perspective on things. Whether it be politics, liturgy battles, scandal, or even our vocation… we can easily lose perspective on what it’s all about.
Here we can find wisdom from the early Church. When it comes to discernment of vocation, people in the Apostolic times and shortly after had a very beautiful perspective. Choosing or discerning a vocation was not looked at like it is now: something that resembles choosing what college you want to go to, or what kind of car you want to buy. Back then, it was all about Jesus and spreading the Gospel. The disposition of heart was many of the early Christians was “Jesus, how can I help?”
At times, we can get picky with our faith. This religious order doesn’t quite do this for me, these prayers don’t quite suit me, or I don’t like the habit!
The nuances of which religious order best fits my personality fall by the wayside when we are focused on Christ and focused on what we can do for him in order to accomplish his great mission of salvation of souls. In other words, when our mission is in perspective: saving souls, then things get a lot clearer.
#6 “Sell all you Have and Give to the Poor, then come and follow me”
This instruction from Jesus to His followers is overlooked in our modern day. Personally, I believe that our culture (myself being just as guilty of it) is so inundated with consumerism that we subconsciously think that we need to interpret this passage symbolically. We can’t fathom the idea of actually getting rid of all our stuff.
Nowadays, consuming things or not consuming things is a matter of survival. In our culture, we treat material things like medicine.
We think we need it.
Our cell phones, our computers, our technology, our cars, our shelters, and our space have become such idols in our lives that even to consider going without some of them, much less all of them, is unthinkable.
It doesn’t change the fact that Jesus told His disciples to sell all they had and give it to the poor. This is one of the most important elements of discernment; it’s a real radical, substantial, and physical detachment from the material world.
I believe with all my heart that when we are embarking upon the first stages of our faith-life (discerning), Jesus calls us to get rid of our cell phones, our computers, our cars, and every other monitory good that we have that prevents us from being completely reliable on Jesus Christ through prayer and Providence. Jesus doesn’t call all people into the vow of poverty, but Jesus calls all Christians to experience the gift of poverty.
I believe wholeheartedly that when a person strips themselves of material goods, they experience profound liberation of the spirit, and frankly, profound liberation of life as well. We are all addicted to our cell phones, and if we actually just cold-turkey broke that addiction, we would probably all experience a massive relief (after the withdrawals). So, why don’t we?
Our material goods and our attachment to them or a major threat to our discernment, as well as our happiness. attachment prevents a person from experiencing the freedom that God desires for us to experience in Him and in Him alone.
There are plenty of allegorical interpretations of the scripture passage that have led to the idea that we don’t actually need to get rid of our things but that we only need to be detached from them. I think those interpretations were written by individuals who never actually tried it. Certainly, we need to be detached from them interiorly. But embracing poverty in this way does something much bigger than helping us detach from our material possessions.
In the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus calls his disciples and apostles at first to sell all that they have and give it to the poor, but later on, when He sends them on mission, He tells them what to bring, and He tells them to bring provisions. I think there is an important point in this; that it is essential at some point in the discernment process to embrace poverty completely so that you can experience what it’s like to rely on God fully, to be free from the attachments of the world, and to break or addictions to material goods and consumerism. It is when we experience this freedom and provision in Christ that the “one thing necessary” becomes clear: and we’re able to remain connected to Vine that gives us life.