Is God Calling? Learn to Discern
The following article offers practical solutions to finding God's will concerning a vocation in one's life.
Determining God's Call for Your Life
The quest for discovering God's call for your life should be paramount. Nothing is more important. There can be no doubt that a person's earthly fulfillment and ultimate happiness greatly depend on properly discerning God's will, especially in terms of the particular vocation a man or woman may choose.
Your God-given Vocation
Deciding upon one's specific state in life is not the same as merely choosing a career or picking a profession. While they may be closely connected, discerning your God-given vocation will greatly influence your response to the Christian call to holiness and it could even affect your eternal salvation.
Without a doubt, all that Almighty God requires of us is the faithful observance of His Commandments. And strictly speaking, it is possible for a believer to be saved under every circumstance and in every situation, since sufficient grace to keep God's Commandments will never be denied a person. Yet a Christian who turns a deaf ear to the specific call of the Lord may expose himself or herself to eternal ruin-or to say the least, runs the risk of never reaching the heights of spiritual perfection, unless he or she embraces the grace of one's particular calling in life.
Seeking Divine Guidance
It is important to remember that discovering one's vocation is a supernatural work, and is impossible without the help of Divine grace. This being the case, it is absolutely necessary to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, through the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, to enlighten our minds and to touch our souls. With regard to our own personal activity on the matter, we must be careful to fully cooperate with the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
To do so, it may be most beneficial to discern your call in life by employing time-tested and proven steps of vocational discernment. St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises originally proposed this simple three-step method. It has been adapted and updated to meet the needs of young people today.
The Method of Discernment
A young person about to embark upon a career faces endless choices and challenges. The many opportunities for education or training can at times cloud one's ability to determine what particular vocation or state in life God is calling you to follow. Is it to be married and raise a family? Perhaps the Lord wishes you to be a priest or religious? Does God want you to be a missionary or possibly to serve Him as a cloistered nun or monk? Is He inviting you to be a leaven in society as a member of a secular institute or perhaps as part of a society of apostolic life? Does being a hermit or consecrated virgin for the Lord attract you?
Whatever the call, rest assured that if you are truly open to God's will in your life, the Almighty will manifest His desire in regards to your particular vocation. Either your calling will be made known in some altogether unusual manner, or else with extraordinary clarity as expressed in some ordinary ways of His Providence.
To Know With Certainty
For whatever reason, perhaps known only to God, should He not make known your call in either of these ways, you can draw upon your intellect and heart. These gifts from God will assist you to determine properly the path in life to follow. In this way you can know with certainty how best to serve the Lord and lead many others, including yourself, into a deeper, more intimate relationship with God. This is your Divine destiny.
St. Ignatius was given special spiritual gifts to share with others, including the ability to shed light on discerning one's vocation. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius identifies three specific situations, which he calls "times" or circumstances favoring a good choice. His doctrine is as follows:
I. "First Time": A Miraculous Vocation
"The first time," says St. Ignatius, "is when God our Lord so moves and draws the will that without doubting, or even being able to doubt, the pious soul follows that which is shown it."
Almighty God, does at times, speak thus directly to a soul, or else sends an angel or a saint to convey His will in explicit terms. Such was the case of St. Paul when he was struck to the ground on his way to Damascus (cf. Acts 9:1-18); or Matthew and the other Apostles when He called them. Many of the saints throughout the history had similar experiences.
At other times God's grace is so strong that a man is drawn toward the priesthood or a woman to the consecrated life almost irresistibly. In these particular circumstances, he or she sees things in such a light that it is impossible to entertain any doubt that he or she should embrace this particular state of life. Such cases are rare, and may be classified with miraculous vocations and extraordinary graces.
II. "Second Time": Vocation by Attraction
God typically does not speak in the manner as described above. But He does make His will known either by certain lights and attractions of ordinary actual grace, or through the inspiration of His holy angels whose primary mission is to lead and guide us to our eternal destiny.
And so, "the second time," St. Ignatius says "is when a soul receives much light and knowledge by means of the interior consolation it experiences, as well as through the discernment of spirits."
It is not rare to find a young person who for a long time-months and even years-has felt drawn the priesthood or consecrated life. They have felt a certain inclination or strong urge to give themselves entirely to God. Some are even overjoyed at the thought, and yearn for the day when they may enter the seminary or begin religious formation. Others, on the contrary, feel a great repugnance at the idea of giving up all things to follow the Divine call that has been ringing in their ears for a long time. Some even try to ignore any or all thoughts of a priestly or religious vocation as though they were temptations, yet they fail to do so.
How are we to account for this light, inclination, or attraction-whatever it may be called-which is almost unnatural, haunting a person for years? It is to be attributed entirely to grace or to the watchful angels, according to the teaching of many noted spiritual writers.
Attractions of Grace
Such movements of the soul cannot be explained in any other way except that they are the attractions of grace. Surely such thoughts, attractions or inclinations do not come:
From the devil-for devoting oneself to the service of God means working against the rule of Satan;
Nor from human passions-which are properly integrated for a higher purpose in the priesthood or consecrated life;
Nor yet from the world-for most people fail to appreciate or understand these sublime vocations.
An objection could be made that it originates by suggestion from some priest or religious but the mere suggestion of a vocation cannot, of itself, explain the persistence of the thought or inclination. God's grace sustains such persistence, even if the birth of one's vocation may have first emerged from the encouragement of another.
Even St. Thomas Aquinas acknowledges that while the suggestion to enter the vowed life or priesthood may have originated from a source other than the Lord, he teaches "the resolution to enter is always from God, no matter who may have inspired it."
According to St. Ignatius, a person whose vocation is made manifest by attraction should remain steadfast in his or her initial inclination. For in moments of fervor and consolation, the person feels drawn to God. Yet as soon as he or she lapses into lukewarmness or falls into sin, all pious sentiments take to flight.
How are these opposite states to be explained? In the first case, it is a good angel who speaks to the fervent soul and draws it according to the will of God. In the second instance, it is the evil spirit who is leading the tepid soul into the broad and easy path.
Struggle for Mastery
There is one other sign of a vocation, which, though less manifest, is nevertheless considered morally certain. A young person feels a struggle, as it were, going on within, while he or she looks on as a mere spectator. Regardless of his or her soul's state of fervor, the young person feels drawn now toward the world, now toward the priesthood or consecrated life. Here may be seen the action of good angels and evil spirits, as they struggle for mastery. Wisdom and prudence will naturally demand that everything be weighed and considered very seriously before coming to any definitive vocational decision.
This, then, is what St. Ignatius calls the "second time." Those who experience these signs of the first or second "time" may have what is called a "special vocation." It would seem that Almighty God is so desirous of them in His service, that He pursues them with His grace. He is ever at hand with light and strength, repeating the invitation, "Come follow Me!"
III. "Third Time": Vocation Through Reason
"The third time is an hour when the soul is calm," writes St. Ignatius. "Then, first of all considering why man has been created, which is to praise God our Lord and to save his soul, and moved by the desire of sustaining this end, one chooses as a means thereunto a state or kind of life sanctioned by the Church, in order to do better work in the service of our Lord and for the salvation of one's soul. I call that time an hour of calm when the soul is not under the influence of either good or evil spirits, and makes use of its natural powers freely and quietly."
A Five-Step Method
The "election" or choice, according to the third "time," is made as follows:
1. "I must first of all," continues St. Ignatius, "place before my eyes the end for which I have been created, which is to praise God our Lord and to save my soul. I must, moreover, be in a state of perfect indifference, and be without any unreasonable desires, so that I am neither inclined toward, nor desirous of choosing one state of life more than another, keeping a perfect balance and ever ready to choose that state which will seem most proper to procure the glory of God and the salvation of my soul."
2. Then, St. Ignatius suggests: "I shall ask of God our Lord to deign to move my will, and to Himself suggest to my soul whatever I should do in regard to the choice which I am engaged in making, for His greater praise and glory."
3. Next, ask with all sincerity to know what state of life you should embrace, with the view of more surely attaining the end for which you have been created-the glory of God and the salvation of your soul.
4. To do this in a really practical manner, take a sheet of paper and write the heading, "Life in the World." Then divide the page in two columns and write down on one side the advantages to be gained by living in this state; on the other, all the disadvantages, which may come to mind.
Do the same in regards to the priesthood and/or consecrated life. Jot down all your reasons-spiritual and temporal-and anything else there may be worth noting, always keeping the same end in view-your eternal salvation and the glory that you must procure for the Divine Master.
5. When this is done, draw the conclusion. Weigh each side with its reasons very attentively, considering and comparing each vocation accordingly. Once you have done this, you will be able to see just which one is best for you. Before coming to a final decision, be careful not to be led away by natural inclinations or by passion; let cold reason be your sole guide.
A Three-Fold Consideration
St. Ignatius himself suggests a means to avoid being deceived by passion or one's own inclinations. It is the following three-fold consideration:
(a) Imagine that a young person in precisely the same position as yourself came to you, to seek your guidance before choosing a particular calling. Having studied the matter, you would certainly say to that person: "Everything is quite clear. Because of such and such reason, you must choose such and such a vocation." This being the case, do the same yourself, as you would advise a stranger to do under similar circumstances. To do otherwise would be unreasonable.
(b) Having decided upon your vocation, ask yourself, "How would I feel about this on my deathbed? Should I be pleased, or should I suffer remorse of conscience?" If I see that the latter would be the case, there is something wrong somewhere. Review your reasons once again.
(c) Finally, picture yourself at your own judgment. Will all the work that you have been doing just now in coming to your decision, show forth as that of a conscientious person? Or, will you realize on the contrary that you have been trying to cheat yourself by marshalling up silly reasons, dictated by human nature and passion? If such should really be the case, start over again, and this time, go about it more earnestly.
Finally, a few important points must be insisted upon. Before starting to write anything, pray earnestly to the Holy Spirit for enlightenment, beg for the grace to know God's will and the strength to do whatever the Almighty desires of you.
Recall Jesus' words: "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?"
Since you must always keep eternity in mind, ask yourself these two questions:
Where must I go to save it more surely?
Where shall I do better work for the greater honor and glory of God?
Is not this, however, asking a little too much? No. It is only reasonable that you should employ the very best means to save your soul and to assist others to do the same. Ask yourself frankly then, "In which vocation would I most securely work out my salvation?" Will it be in the world as a layperson, as a secular priest, or in the consecrated life? Go about your work seriously then, in the presence of God. Weigh all your reasons carefully and then decide.
The next thing to do is humbly to submit everything-reasons and conclusions-to your spiritual director, make haste to offer our Lord the choice you have just made, begging Him to receive and confirm it, if it be in conformity with His greater service and glory.
If you are really convinced, and feel within yourself while praying, that your offering is pleasing to Almighty God, resolve immediately to remain faithful to it, and to carry out your decision at the earliest possible moment. Embrace this special grace after learning to discern!
This resource was excerpted and adapted from the booklet, Choosing Your Career by Rev. J.I. D'Orsonnens, S.J. It was originally published by The Paulist Press (1951).