Most people know well that the influence and role of religion has been on the decline in the United States for some decades now. The idea of “cultural Catholicism” is less of a present reality and more of something that used to be. Polls indicates that fewer people are attending Mass and fewer people believe in God. Though trying to right this is something we ought to pursue, it’s worth a few minutes to reflect on one of the effects of this religious decline.
The fading of religion and piety in the public arena has created an inevitable void in our country and in our lives. It is the case, whether people like to admit it or not, that we are made for God, not just as individuals in our private lives but in our public lives too. We, as men and women, have been made with an orientation to pursue our ultimate good found in God. In turn, our societies exist so as to provide for such a pursuit, both individually and collectively. When our societies do this, it’s great. But what we’re experiencing — this gradual but real fading of religious consciousness — has created a void.
This void is simple to understand. As human beings seeking after the good, we naturally desire and look for fulfillment outside of ourselves. We can be temporarily satisfied by created goods and relationships, but our hearts long for more. In times past, a society built around the worship of God readily directed people’s lives to the divine. Now, it’s not so easy to find. But there is an upside.
This longing that we all experience does not go away. It nags at us. It makes us realize that we want more, that we’re made for more. And it is this nagging, this longing, that turns our minds to questions about our lives, or, more specifically for those who do believe in God, it turns our minds to questions of vocation.
Vocations, at root, are terribly simple. God calls. We answer. God calls because we’re made for him. We answer because we’re made for him. Working out the finer details can be overwhelming and complicated, but such is the nature of life decisions. As because it’s the case that we are all indeed called by God to some vocation, it’s helpful to properly situate good discernment. So, here are some tips:
“The Spirituality of Discernment”
First, there is no such thing as a “spirituality of discernment” when it comes to discerning your vocation. I’m sorry if you think there is. When I’ve heard things along these lines, I’ve always rolled my eyes; and when I’ve asked for clarification, I’ve never been given a satisfactory answer. I don’t buy it. What I am willing to buy into, though, is Christianity. Discerning a vocation is simply part of the Christian life. God has made us for something; he has called us to be something. Figuring this out is what it means to follow Christ. Discernment is nothing but asking for and responding to the grace that the Lord is offering you so as to be more and more conformed to him and to follow him more closely. That’s it.
There is no spiritual algorithm for discernment. It is not as if you need to come up with the right recipe of spiritual things that will produce an answer to your life questions. God isn’t a prize to be won. God isn’t being coy. He just wants you.
Practically, then, cling to the tried and true practices of our Faith: the sacraments (especially the Eucharist and confession), regular prayer, silence, spiritual and theological reading, devotionals, spiritual direction. Discerning a vocation is about learning our Lord’s will for you, and his will is revealed the more we come to know and love him, the more our friendship with Christ deepens. Our ability to know and love God is a grace given usually through the habitual practice of the Faith. Trust that.
Discerning by Asking Questions
Another foundational point about vocational discernment has to do with the questions you ask in prayer. I always recommend that, rather than asking something like, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” ask, “Lord, who do you want me to be?” What we do follows who we are. And, more importantly, a vocation is not primarily about doing, but about being. It is about receiving his love and mercy and becoming a saint by his grace. This may seem like a bit of semantics, but I think it does give proper context to the questions we’re after.
We talk a lot about grace when we talk about God and how he works in our lives. It is important to remember that grace is given for actual, particular actions, not future contingents. God gives us the grace to follow him now, even if that means taking a little step like looking up a religious order online or calling a vocation director. Of course, these little steps lead us to larger life decisions; but every moment of discernment is not miraculous. So much of discernment is about growing in our friendship with Christ so as to be more and more sensitive to how it is that he is working in the here and now.
Examine your Desires and Abilities
Finally, trust your desires and ability to make prudent decisions. Often our desires and abilities are good initial indicators as to where God might be calling us. Use those to begin your investigations. And remember that you are capable of making decisions. Do your research, seek wise advice, pray and act. And, most of all, trust that God is calling and leading you.
The fading of faith in our world is regrettable and something we should work against. But such a reality does not mean that God is pulling back. In fact, history seems to say otherwise. It’s often times of need that produce the greatest of saints.