Dodging the Dangers of Discernment

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February 4, 2014 by Alex Johannigman

As young adults, we spend a disproportionately large amount of time trying to figure out what our purpose in life is. As Catholics, that usually consists of wondering what God is calling us to, and more specifically, whether we are being called to religious life, priesthood, marriage, consecrated single life, non-consecrated single life, etc.

There have been two dangerous mindsets that I’ve fallen into during my years since becoming a “real adult” at 18 and beginning to wonder what I’m supposed to do with my life. I think they are struggles that most people my age deal with at some point, and I’d guess that many of us continue to struggle with them, even if we know that we shouldn’t.

My friend Brother Gabriel says "I want YOU to pray about your vocation."

My friend Brother Gabriel says “I want YOU to pray about your vocation.”

The first is the belief that priesthood and religious life are the best ways to serve God, and that deciding to get married or choosing a career outside the church are cop-outs for people who don’t have what it takes to be a priest or a religious sister or brother. I feel this way every time an old lady at daily Mass asks me if I’m going to be a priest, and every time I think about the sacrifices that my seminarian or priest friends make for the sake of following their vocation. As someone who, at the moment, feels much more called to marriage and a secular career, I often wonder if my choice is truly motivated by a desire to serve God, or if I’m just too scared to commit to poverty, chastity, and obedience.

The truth is, God isn’t calling everyone to the religious life, for a number of reasons. Besides the obvious logistical problems that would arise from all male Catholics in the world (about 600 million people, or twice the population of the U.S.) being priests, we have to also consider the needs that we have as a church that is on a mission. We need holy, faithful people in all walks of life, because we are an evangelical church, and there are many places that priests are just never able to go. Most people who haven’t heard the Gospel aren’t sitting in the pews of our churches. They are at our workplaces, at the mall, at the movie theater, and at the bar. This is why we also need faithful businessmen who can remind their co-workers that there is more to life than materialism and greedy pursuits. We need faithful lawyers who can work honestly and fairly to win justice for their clients. And we need faithful politicians to support laws that uphold the dignity of the human person. We need faithful parents who will raise their children to love and serve God in a climate that tells them, in increasingly more forceful ways, to choose otherwise.

As part of my missionary formation, I’m taking a class on Fridays that is taught by a professor from the seminary here in Denver. A couple weeks ago, our professor for that class, a man who trains future priests for a living, explained that he believes there are many professions that need additional faithful Catholic witnesses even more than the priesthood needs more priests. First he highlighted the need for more Catholic clinical psychologists to speak the truth in a field that is becoming more and more relativistic. Then he stated that what we need even more than that is an increase in authentically Catholic OB/GYNs who are willing to talk to their patients about the damage caused by abortion, the realities of the physical and psychological effects of contraception, and the value of every human being, even after prenatal screenings have shown that that person will likely have Down syndrome or a similar abnormality. I’m sure the list could go on and on, but the point is that in some cases, choosing a secular career may actually be better for the mission of the Church than religious life if God has given you the specific talents and desires for it.

The important thing is to be open about the direction in which God is calling you. God wants you to discover your vocation at least as badly as you want to find it, so if you are approaching your discernment with the proper motivation–one of service and not one that is chasing after selfish desires–you will find it. The only way to “miss” your vocational call is to ignore God, either by refusing to pray (super important by the way) and listen to what he is saying, or, like the rich young man in Matthew 19, by hearing Christ’s specific call for you but then forgoing it because it is too challenging for you. God is calling many devout and faithful people to religious life, but he is also calling many more devout and faithful people to live in the world, possibly to raise families, and to be lights in a place that is often filled with darkness.

The second dangerous mindset is the belief that our life becomes truly fulfilled only once we have found our vocation, and that the time before that is just an awkward waiting period. This is wrong for two reasons.

The first is that the “discernment” phase of our life can and should be a time of growth, where we determine who we are and where we are going, and also where we can grow in our relationships with God and others in a unique way. As the secular world frequently reminds us, there are a lot of great, fulfilling things that you can do as a young single person, like getting an education, going on a long-term mission trip, or exploring the world, which are all things that become much more difficult once you have made a lifelong commitment like marriage or religious life. Those pursuits may even be part of God’s vocational plan for you; perhaps by traveling you will discover a passion for serving the poor in a Third World country, or by getting an advanced degree you prepare yourself for a career that can support your future family.

But even more importantly, we often need that time to grow into the people that we need to be before taking on the responsibilities that many of our vocations may entail. I was certainly not ready to be married when I was 18, or 21, or even 24, but I believe that the experiences that I am having now are preparing me to love my future wife in a way that I could not have if I had committed to her 5 or 6 years ago. Anyone who has watched the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” as much as I have will know, especially after the recent episode titled “How Your Mother Met Me,” that sometimes a lot of different moving parts have to fall in place before each person in a couple is ready to start dating each other.

Gabbi has already written about some ways to make the most of the time before marriage, so if you’re feeling that you may be called to that vocation, you should check out what she has to say too. Any men or women who have thought that the religious life may be for them would benefit from reading this article and other articles on that site. And guys, if you’re thinking that priesthood is the direction God is calling you, check out this new video by Father Robert Barron.

The second reason we shouldn’t believe that our life becomes truly fulfilled only once we have found our vocation is the fact that finding your vocation will not solve all of your problems. Marriage is hard. Religious life is hard. If you think that your life will be pure bliss once you are married or commit to a particular religious community, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. I don’t mean to say that discovering and living out your vocation can not also be very rewarding, but we should be careful not to believe that our life right now is somehow incomplete or missing something critical, and that once we find that “missing piece” or our “other half,” everything will be noticeably better. Don’t fall into a “the grass is always greener on the other side” mindset.

Discernment is challenging, but we should be careful to view it in the right light. For those of us who aren’t quite there yet, let’s be sure to appreciate where we are now and what we are learning about ourselves through better understanding our talents and desires while we continue to grasp the unique vocation we are each called to. And if you think you’ve already discovered what your mission in life is, do the rest of us a favor and pray for us.

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