Theoretically, it would seem that the process of discerning a priestly or consecrated vocation should be pleasant, since you’re really just striving to set your life more in conformity with the good and merciful God who already loves you. I do hope that discernment is accordingly bright and joyful for all my readers who are listening for their own vocations. But speaking for myself, on an experiential level discernment was agony! At times I would even find myself feeling somewhat annoyed with God for not communicating His will more plainly.
Yet all of the confusion and anxiety I experienced while discerning my vocation evaporated almost to the point of being erased from my memory once I made my decision and thus crossed over to the “other side” of the question. At one point I even found myself tempted to say to a young man considering the seminary: “So what’s your problem? Just become a priest.” (Fortunately, having at least some sense of tact, I was able to catch myself!)
But recently having had the chance to meet some people my age who in the midst of discernment reminded me of everything I experienced when I was in a similar place. So with the hope of expressing some empathy, I thought I would share something which I found helpful.
When I was on my long retreat, I came across an older book titled, We Live With Our Eyes Open, by Dom Hubert van Zeller, OSB. I had never heard of Fr. Van Zeller before, but apparently he was a Benedictine monk who was also a spiritual director to a wide variety of individuals, including a number of laypeople. He wrote a whole serious of books in which he wittily presents the basic elements of substantial Catholic spirituality.
I found this book both helpful and enjoyable on many levels, but I saw one passage in particular which struck me as a excellent cipher for the central puzzle of vocational discernment:
“Perhaps one reason for the confusion which exists in the minds of some, and
which prevents them from following their true vocation, is that if God showed
them exactly what He wanted of them they would refuse Him. God seems to prefer
that His creatures should muddle through in more or less good faith than that
they should live for any length of time in thoroughly bad faith.”
In other words, if God’s will is genuinely unclear to us (and I don’t intend to address here those cases where a person has an inkling of what God wants for them, but either do their best to ignore it or else hesitate in carrying it out), it may be because we are not predisposed in the first place to doing what He would like to ask of us in. So in a way, the sense of frustration which plagues some serious discerners could be a direct consequence of God’s paternal mercy.
So it would seem that the best way to discern is to say “yes” to God before you know what you are saying “yes” to. I call this “writing God a blank check.”
If you write out a literal blank check to someone, then you are giving that person full permission to take however much money they want out of your back account, to be used however they see fit. When you write God the metaphorical blank check of your life, you put every fiber of your being at His disposal, before you know how much it will cost you. (And obviously, you wouldn’t want to have this sort of relationship with anyone else except God!)
I suppose an example of this would be person sincerely prays along the lines of: “God, if you want to be a Carthusian, I will do it. If you want me to be like John the Baptist and wear only camel hair and subsist on insects, I will do it. And if you want me to become a wife and mother in suburban New Jersey, then I would do that too, as long as it pleases You.”
In a lot of the glossy, user-friendly literature being printed today on discernment, the focus is on choosing a path in which your gifts and talents would be best used, and which corresponds to your deepest desires. There is truth in this, as God can speak to us through attraction and He always seeks our best interest. He would not call us to something for which we were truly and manifestly unsuited (although as Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah found out, our idea of being suitable may be very different from God’s).
However, I would think that approaching discernment from this perspective would predispose a person to winding up in a spiritual quagmire. Trying to discern the Divine will by such human considerations is almost a contradiction. Without undermining the virtue of prudence, we have to remember that God has said, “My ways are not your ways.”
This idea is hardly new in the Catholic ascetical/mystical tradition. St. Ignatius Loyola’s ideal of indifference, St. John of the Cross’s teaching of radical detachment (the “nada”), and even Our Lady’s “Behold the handmaid of the Lord…” are all different expressions of the same concept of total trust of and submission to God.
The uncanny thing about this is that once you are willing to take this leap in the dark—and I admit that it took me a long time, and I am certainly not there completely—it’s only then that you KNOW.