As we grow in the spiritual life, it’s important to find a community of people who can support us on our journey towards holiness. St. Paul’s image of the Church as the Body of Christ is relevant here—we make our journey towards heaven together. Discernment—coming to know God’s will for us—is a part of our journey, and it’s not easy. Friends or companions who also view life through eyes of faith, and who can share their discernment with us, can be invaluable.
That doesn’t mean we cut off our relationships with everyone else, but it does mean that we develop ways to support our discernment, which includes finding people who share our perspective of faith.
The more important our discernment is to our life, the more thought we should give to whom we share it with and when. In early stages, we may wish to keep our discernment mostly to ourselves, sharing it only with a spiritual director or other trusted mentor, and perhaps a really close friend. Knowing that an important part of discernment is to become free—free of the pressures that could prevent us from hearing or following God’s call—should shape when and how we decide to share our discernment. Early on, everything feels very tentative. Because we haven’t “worked through” even our own desires and thoughts, we can be more easily influenced by the strong reactions of others. We may even be influenced to prematurely end our discernment.
Sadly, I’ve personally witnessed this when a young person expresses a desire to discern religious life or the priesthood. Parents—sometimes even faithful Catholics—immediately put pressure on their child to give up any idea of following a vocation to religious life or priesthood. In some cases, the parents might clearly see that their child isn’t called to the consecrated or priestly life. But most of the time, the parents are reacting because of their own desires, and this impinges on their child’s freedom. Ideally, a young person would share their vocational discernment (or any other big discernment) with their parents at an early stage—because of their youth and need for guidance, and because of their parents’ knowledge of them. But sometimes, to feel truly free, the young person has to discern without their parents’ support, and share their discernment journey only as they receive more clarity, as it nears its conclusion.
The further we go in our discernment, the stronger our desire grows to do God’s will in this particular regard. Even though we do not know how we are called, this time of strength and greater commitment to God’s will is a helpful time to share our discernment with a wider circle. Our friends and family know us well, and they may be able to articulate things about us or our situation that we find helpful to our discernment. Their expressions of support can also be invaluable as we come face-to-face to our own inner resistance.
If a friend or family member truly loves us, they will try to understand what is important to us. They won’t demand that we follow their path, but our own. A friend who truly loves us wants what’s best for us, and gives us the freedom to seek it. This kind of friend can be a tremendous support on our journey of discernment even if they don’t have any faith in God at all.
When we look back at people who have accomplished great things in history, we discover that they were often surrounded by other notable people. For example, great writers often hang out with other great writers. (Look at the Inklings.) Great artists know other great artists. And the more I’ve researched the lives of the saints, I’ve discovered how often great saints know—or are even good friends with—other great saints.
On our spiritual journey, we don’t want to underestimate the importance of spiritual friendship and spiritual support. We may find it at our parish, in a prayer group or lay movement, on a retreat, in a particular ministry, or in an affiliation with a religious community. Our spiritual director may be able to recommend a group that can nurture us spiritually. We all need spiritual support—not just for this discernment but for your entire spiritual journey.