Our Family’s Role in Our Vocational Discernment

SrLaurawithFamilyWhat role does our family have in our vocational discernment? Ideally, an important one.

(For those who fear family will oppose their vocational discernment, you can read my previous post here, responding to concerns several readers raised.)

As I mentioned previously in response to a question, our vocational discernment greatly affects our family, and most of us desire to remain close to our family. In addition, we care about what our loved ones think, especially when we need another perspective on our strengths, weaknesses, and suitability for a particular vocation. At the same time, our call from God is sacred, and our discernment shouldn’t be influenced by familial pressures and undue attachments.

We want to share our vocational discernment with our family in such a way that it will promote the most freedom and wisdom in our discernment. A lot depends on whether our family members share our faith, our desire to seek God’s will, and the kind of selfless love that seeks what is best for us apart from self-interest. Our role in the family is also crucial. In some cases, our family’s dependence on us may be an important factor in our vocational discernment, for example, elderly parents or siblings who are much younger who depend on us because our parents aren’t able to support their basic needs.

Here are a few guidelines that can help us to know how and when to share our vocational discernment with our family.

1) Discerning our vocation is sacred. In many cases, our initial steps in our discernment are private. We need to start thinking through possibilities, come to know our own feelings and desires without others’ expectations or concerns, listen in the quiet of our hearts to God’s invitation. Especially when we are discerning something new, we are uncomfortable or unsure sharing about it, it is advisable to discern privately and wait to share it with family and friends.

2) Our families are God’s great gift to us and are a huge part of our lives. When we are ready to start sharing about our vocational discernment, and when we need advice from those who know us well, it’s often very helpful to talk about our vocational discernment openly with our family. In doing so, we build up our family love and unity, and also set a good foundation for how we will relate with our family as we follow our vocation. Ideally, we want our family to be involved with our discernment fairly early on, so that:

  • They will understand why we make the choice that we do
  • They can learn about our vocational choice as we do (e.g., getting to know about religious life, or getting to know our future spouse)
  • We don’t block them from being part of one of the most important decisions of our lives

At the same time, we don’t want to let our family members’ private agendas drive our discernment. So, for example, deciding not to get married simply because a sibling or parent will miss us too much or might need us in the future, is allowing others to have undue influence on our vocation. Instead, our priority is to listen to God. God is not only our Creator who gifted us with our lives, God is the One who loves us most and has the best—perfect!—plan for us. Above all other pressures and expectations, we want to listen to God’s invitation.

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Does Everyone Need To Discern Their Vocation?

streak-275978_1280Often when we begin discerning our vocation, we already have an inkling about which vocation we are drawn to or God might be calling us to. But one reader recently raised this question:

What if we are pretty sure we already know how God is calling us—do we still need to discern our vocation?

Many people do not feel the need to discern their vocation. Lots of good Catholics never heard about the spiritual art of discernment or never considered discerning their vocation.

A formal vocational discernment may not always be necessary, but there are compelling reasons and excellent benefits for discerning our vocation, even if we are already strongly inclined in one direction. If we are wondering if we should discern our vocation, we might find it helpful to do so for the following reasons:

1) Committing to our vocation is a huge decision that shapes the rest of our lives. Taking time to consider our vocation gives us the opportunity to look at all the possibilities at least once, even the ones we haven’t considered.

If we haven’t witnessed or been inspired by people striving to live their vocation to holiness in a particular state in life, we may not feel drawn to that state simply because it’s not been part of our experience. While some people want to be priests or sisters from an early age, others are surprised by an insight or experience only after reaching adulthood. Other people may need to consider the full beauty and potential of marriage. Every vocation is beautiful, and there is a special complementarity between married family life and consecrated religious life—a complementarity that can support and strengthen us in our vocations in the future.

Since God gave us the gift of our lives, knows us best, loves us and wants what is best for us, it makes sense to consider his plan in creating us and putting us in this time and this place. If we want to be happy, then it it is fitting to seek God’s will.

2) Discerning our vocation helps us to know and follow God’s will for our lives. Even if we think we already know God’s will, it’s a wonderful opportunity to open ourselves to his loving plan, and to learn and/or grow in the art of discernment—a spiritual art that we want to use throughout the rest of our lives.

3) Knowing that we carefully discerned our vocation can be very reassuring for those times in the future when we are struggling or facing doubts in our vocation. We can rest assured that we sought God’s will, and that, even in the darkness or challenges that we face, we are living God’s call.

If we have already chosen our vocation and are living it, do we need to feel bad if we didn’t discern it? Absolutely not! Most people consider their choice very carefully before making such a commitment, even praying over it. God works with all of us individually and guides us, even when we don’t know we are being guided. We may think we didn’t discern because we didn’t follow certain steps, but most likely the Holy Spirit was at work in us, especially if we were prayerful and seeking God’s will.

We cannot always see how God leads and guides us, but we can be sure that God has led us in the past and will continue to lead and guide us into the future. Discernment simply helps us to be more aware of and attentive to God’s presence and work in our lives.

One of the Most Important Discernments We’ll Ever Make

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Whether we follow our vocation or not can have eternal consequences, both for ourselves and for others. And it definitely has profound consequences on our lives and happiness here and now. In other words, discerning our vocation is a big deal, and it’s something to take seriously!

On the other hand, we do not need to worry obsessively about mistakenly missing out on what our vocation is altogether.

Discerning our vocation presupposes a couple of assumptions about God and his relationship with us. Without these assumptions, it doesn’t make sense for us to discern, nor is it possible for us to discern well. Discerning is based on the beliefs that:

1. God has a plan for us

2. God’s will is the best for us (because God is almighty, omniscient, all-loving and merciful)

3. God will communicate his will to us, at least as far as the next step he invites us to take

Discerning God’s will for us is putting our lives, our future, all we have, are, and want to be, into God’s hands. When we discern well, the process of vocational discernment brings us to a free, complete surrender to God’s will for us. Discerning our vocation is an immense act of trust in God’s loving goodness. This is one reason why it’s so important to nurture a personal relationship with God throughout our lives, and to be already living a dynamic relationship with God when we begin to discern our vocation. True discernment requires this immense trust in one’s real, personal relationship with God. A superficial relationship with God that we haven’t taken time to develop may not have the depth to sustain the generous surrender that discernment requires.

For those who worry about making a mistake

in their vocational discernment: If someone mistakenly chooses a vocational state different from what is God’s will for them, God will work with that person to bring them to live his or her personal vocation as fully as possible, inasmuch as the person seeks to collaborate with God’s action in their lives. On the other hand, if someone discerns God’s will but deliberately—out of neglect or self-will or omission—follows his or her own will instead of God’s plan, it’s harder for God to work with this person, because they aren’t truly seeking God’s will. That is why the key to discernment truly is the motivation to do God’s will. God can (and does) work with our mistakes, perhaps eventually bringing us to living the fullness of his plan for us. God will not, however, force us to choose his will if we choose another path. God always leaves us free.

If we are sincerely seeking God’s will, and we do our best to come to know and then to follow God’s will for us, then God will guide us, because God loves us, knows us better than anyone else ever could, and wants us to experience the fullness of happiness.

What is vocational discernment?

LoveisHumanVocationFor the next few posts, we’ll be focusing on one of the most important discernments that we can ever make: our vocational discernment.

In his apostolic exhortation, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, St. John Paul II wrote, “Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (no.11).  Every person has a unique, unrepeatable vocation to love. Discerning one’s vocation means discerning how God is calling us to love, how God is calling us to bring life into the world.

Several understandings of the word “vocation” have arisen even in Catholic circles, which could cause a bit of confusion.


Possible meanings a Catholic would give to “vocation”:

1) a person’s call to priesthood or religious life

2) how God is calling a person to live their call to love throughout their entire life

3) how God calls a person to live their call to love through a specific state in life


Let’s look closer at these three meanings:

1) Using the word “vocation” only to mean a person’s call to priesthood or religious life is too restricted a meaning. Every human being has the vocation to love. The vocation to marriage is just as important as the call to priesthood or religious life.

2) The concept of “personal vocation” is important and still developing. Our personal vocation includes—but is more comprehensive than—our vocation to a specific state in life. Our personal vocation animates how we live in every aspect of our lives. Every human being has a vocation to love, which is strengthened and specified when we receive the sacrament of Baptism.

Father Herbert Alphonso, in his small but powerful book Discovering Your Personal Vocation: The Search for Meaning Through the Spiritual Exercises, talks about our personal vocation as the unique God-given meaning of our lives, and as God’s call to us to reveal through our lives a particular aspect of the face of God. In an article in “America” magazine, author Russell Shaw describes personal vocation as “an unrepeatable call from God to play a particular role in his redemptive plan and the mission of the Church.”

(If you are interested in exploring the concept of personal vocation further, I highly encourage you to read Father Herbert Alphonso’s book, Discovering Your Personal Vocation: The Search for Meaning Through the Spiritual Exercises, and Personal Vocation: God Calls Everyone by Name by Germaine Grisez and Russell Shaw.)

3) The most common understanding of “vocation” in its Catholic sense, is how God calls a person to live their call to love through a specific state in life. “Discerning one’s vocation” traditionally refers to discerning whether one is called to Holy Orders, consecrated life, marriage or the single state. This is how I have been and will continue to use the word, “vocation.”

Discerning one’s vocation, understood as discerning one’s state in life, is potentially the most important discernment one can make, because this one choice “sets the course” of our entire lives to be most in accord with God’s plan for us. Living God’s will as closely as we can is the surest way to finding deep happiness and fulfillment. Living according to God’s plan for us means that we are seeking to fulfill the unique mission God has given us—and others’ happiness could easily depend on whether and how we fulfill our specific mission.

Living Our Vocation “to the Full”

"The Good Shepherd" by Joseph Ritter von Führich, c. 1840

“The Good Shepherd” by Joseph Ritter von Führich, c. 1840

Yesterday, “Good Shepherd” Sunday, was the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. If you are discerning your vocation, I hope that you could feel the support of the Church’s prayers for you, lifting you up from all over the world!

Pope Francis offered a really beautiful reflection for the day in his Message for the 52nd World Day of Prayer for Vocations.  One of the coolest things about it is that he describes “vocation” in such a dynamic way, comparing the living of our vocation with the exodus experience. Thus, Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations isn’t just for those discerning their vocations, but an invitation for all of us to live the gift of our vocations fully. I’d like to share three points that particularly struck me and that I’ve been praying with:

 

Following One’s Vocation (whether for the first time, or as a renewal of our commitment): 

Belief means transcending ourselves, leaving behind our comfort and the inflexibility of our ego in order to centre our life in Jesus Christ. It means leaving, like Abraham, our native place and going forward with trust, knowing that God will show us the way to a new land.

Living One’s Vocation “To the Full”:

The exodus experience is paradigmatic of the Christian life, particularly in the case of those who have embraced a vocation of special dedication to the Gospel. This calls for a constantly renewed attitude of conversion and transformation, an incessant moving forward, a passage from death to life like that celebrated in every liturgy, an experience of passover…. Vocation is always a work of God. He leads us beyond our initial situation, frees us from every enslavement, breaks down our habits and our indifference, and brings us to the joy of communion with him and with our brothers and sisters. Responding to God’s call, then, means allowing him to help us leave ourselves and our false security behind, and to strike out on the path which leads to Jesus Christ, the origin and destiny of our life and our happiness.

The Model for Every Vocation:

The Virgin Mary, model of every vocation, did not fear to utter her “fiat” in response to the Lord’s call. She is at our side and she guides us. With the generous courage born of faith, Mary sang of the joy of leaving herself behind and entrusting to God the plans she had for her life. Let us turn to her, so that we may be completely open to what God has planned for each one of us, so that we can grow in the desire to go out with tender concern towards others (cf. Lk1:39).  

If you can, go and read the entire message here. It’s not just beautiful, but challenging and encouraging, reminding us that the Christian vocation is to love, and that living the fullness of the Gospel message does not limit us but leads us to the fullest possible freedom. I also was struck by his comparing each Christian’s vocation to the Exodus experience, because in doing so, Pope Francis is indirectly validating the “storytelling” lens that I’m using on this blog to talk about discernment!