Vocational Discernment’s Big Question: What is the next step God is calling me to take?

Vocational discernment is like any other discernment, but it has a particular importance and urgency. In the next couple of posts, I want to highlight special considerations that might prove helpful to take into account for those discerning their vocations.

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Discerning the Next Best Step

Vocational discernment is not about foreseeing the future or committing to one’s vocation in one dramatic leap. Vocational discernment is about seeking to follow God’s will for us here and now. Is God calling me to consider religious life? marriage? priesthood? Discernment is about taking the next best step.

So, for example, if we are in our third year at college or university, and we start to seriously wonder whether God is calling us to priesthood, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we start planning to enter the seminary. Instead, it might mean that we take the first steps in discerning a call to priesthood, such as: talking about it with the diocesan vocation director, finding out more about the priesthood and the seminary, perhaps even visiting the seminary, and finding a spiritual director. Our constant prayer is twofold: To what vocation is God calling me? and How is Jesus calling me to follow him more closely here and now? If we struggle with the tension of this twofold prayer—for example, if we find ourselves worried about a particular future, then it is best to focus only on the second question: How is Jesus calling me to follow him more closely here and now? This question is enough to guide us in our vocational discernment.

If we continue to feel God’s invitation to consider priesthood, then we take further steps along our discernment: we make a discernment retreat; we follow the advice of the diocesan vocation director; eventually with the encouragement of the vocation director, we apply to enter the seminary, etc.

Entering a seminary or a convent is not the end of our vocational discernment, but a significant step along the way. Until a priest is ordained, a couple is married, or a religious professes perpetual vows, the vocational discernment continues.

After ordination, marriage, or profession, discernment continues but is no longer about discerning which vocation, but how to live our vocation. The fundamental question now becomes: How is God calling me to live as a…[priest, spouse, religious] today?

Discerning God’s Will…Our Mission in This World

We do not discern our vocation in a vacuum. We are born into our family, we grow up as part of any number of communities: our school, our neighborhood, our parish, our town, our country, and our world, in this time. When we discern how God is calling us to give our lives in love, it is important that we do so within our situation and our community, aware of the needs of our world today.

In our vocational discernment we specifically want to pray with the needs of the world, and take those into account as we discern, so that we can fulfill the mission God has entrusted to us. We need to bring our full selves to discerning the mission entrusted to us because God calls us—with our unique set of gifts, weaknesses, skills, experiences, and inclinations—to make a specific difference in the world.

At the same time, a big part of our vocational discernment is to “get out of the way,” putting Christ at the center of our lives and of our discernment. The more Christ becomes the center, the more we can take on an attitude of service, of attending to the needs of others. With a Christlike desire to serve, we are more easily able to discern how God wants us to respond to those needs with our lives.

Discerning Our Call To Serve

06L my crazy ideaA hugely important part of any good discernment is to listen to God’s invitations as expressed in the needs of the world—the needs of those around us: Where is God sending us to serve?

We live in a busy world, with so many needs. Any person of good will alive today can easily become overwhelmed by the number of requests for help, whether from family, friends, neighbors, parish, or work. Sometimes it may seem to be a call from God; at other times, we may become casually involved in helping out our family, our community, or a ministry simply as a favor, and the favor turns into a bigger commitment that we didn’t pray about or plan for. Especially when the invitation is casual, or we never envisioned ourselves serving in this particular way, we may not recognize God’s call.

When we feel pulled in many directions, or find ourselves juggling too much, this is the perfect time to enter into a spirit of discernment, to sort through the different demands on our time and discern which requests or needs are invitations from God. Sometimes, we can easily sort through them. At other times, it may take time to gradually clarify how God is inviting us. But as we go forward in our lives, we will develop more of a sense of our personal mission, of how God is calling us to be and to love in the world.

For example when I visit a hospital, I am drawn to help the people I encounter there—not just the person I am visiting, but also the people I meet casually. While I’m at the hospital, I seek to respond as best I can to the requests that I receive. I believe that God wants to work through me to touch the lives of the people that I encounter on that particular visit. (And often I am deeply touched by the people who are so courageously undergoing such suffering.)

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However in my vocation as a Daughter of Saint Paul, I am also aware that I am not called to be a nurse. Instead, my vocation as a Pauline communicator is to focus on the spiritual poverty and suffering of the people whom I encounter, whether they are wealthy or poor. This can be a less obvious call, because physical poverty and suffering are often more noticeable.

What criteria can we use to sort through the many demands that we experience? For me, the wonderfully profound Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner sums it up best when he wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Frederick Buechner, from his book Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC). Looking for that resonance between the outward call we receive/perceive, and the inner movements of our heart may take time, prayer, and discernment, but the God who lovingly calls us will clarify his will for us in his time.   

The World Needs You!

06I RGBstock choice 2“The world you are inheriting is a world which desperately needs…to be touched and healed by the beauty and richness of God’s love. It needs witnesses to that love. The world needs salt. It needs you – to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world” (St. John Paul II, Homily for 17th World Youth Day at Downsview Park, Toronto, on July 28, 2002).

The world is deeply hungry: for love, for justice, for peace, for Christ. Many of posts in this blog have been about searching interiory to hear God’s call. But a critical part of discernment is to reflect on how God calls us through the needs of others, through the needs of the world.

The world is a big place, and each of us is just one person. How can we respond to the needs of the entire world?

By responding to the needs of those around us and the people that we interact with, we are responding to the needs of the world. If each of us truly did our part to bring love, healing, and justice to our “little worlds,” the entire world would be transformed. In addition, we never know how our actions—however small—can touch or shape another person. As members of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, everything we are and do affects the rest of the Body. So every time we choose to act out of Christ’s love, our love has the potential to change the world for the better.

God calls us not just through our being, but also through the needs of those around us. All of us want to make a difference in the world. So how can we come to know the needs of the world? And how do we discern which need(s) of the world we are called to serve?

We can come to know the needs of the world in many ways. Here a few:

  • The world around us carves us and sculpts us. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are people of our time, and we are each uniquely aware of certain needs. Our personal experiences, the communities in which we live and work, the people we know, the personal challenges we face, and the challenges faced by those we know and love, are already deeply embedded in us. What about our experiences move our hearts? Who are the people in our lives whom God might be inviting us to reach out to or respond to?
  • Find a way to stay in tune with current events, if we don’t already do so. We don’t necessarily need to watch TV news broadcasts or read the daily newspaper, but we do need to find a way to engage with the larger world. Unless we are called to living like a hermit, as Christians we are called to be informed and engaged with the world. Going through a daily news app, reading the latest novels that touch on social issues, watching documentary films—all of these are ways to stay in touch with what’s happening in the world. We are particularly blessed today with a wide diversity of media that can help us to know about what’s happening—both in our own backyard and all around the globe. Each of us can choose a couple ways to be in touch with the larger community of the world, paying attention to those stories or situations that touch us deeply. Whether it’s orphaned children, the plight of a village that doesn’t have access to drinkable water, the suicide rate of teenagers in the USA, or the efforts of a particular community or group to bring about reconciliation between hostile groups—we will find out about situations of others that we feel deeply about. Bring these situations to prayer. When we feel strongly about them, we can take time to reflect on them and how God might be calling us to take action.
  • Listen to the invitations of our Pope and bishops. Very often, the Pope and the bishops have their fingers on the “pulse” of the most urgent needs or the most neglected people of our society. Prophetically, they often point out disturbing trends that if not addressed, could spiral downwards into crisis. Their words are based on research, reflection, and prayer—and can be a fruitful source for our prayer and discernment. Often, the Pope can orient us in how to respond to a particular need. (If we don’t have the time or energy to keep up with the documents of the Pope or bishops, we can read the “news briefs” from the Catholic News Agency, other Catholic news services, or the Vatican’s news service. One easy way to keep up with the Pope is to read the text of his general audience on Wednesdays.)

As we listen to the needs of the world, we may feel drawn in many directions. But we don’t need to feel overwhelmed. The world—and all its people—are in God’s hands. Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, and Jesus invites us to participate in his saving mission. The needs of others that we are called to serve will deeply resonate with us. The gift of discernment is that we discover how the Lord is inviting us, through the situations in which we live and in the situations that we come to know about, to share in Christ’s mission of further bringing God’s love to the world.