If I enter religious life, do I waste the “gifts” God has given me?

Slide2Another question from a reader:

I am currently in the process of discerning a call to the religious life. However, of late, I am experiencing a deep-seated struggle over what feels like a “locking away” of my gifts.

I have been an actor, writer and poet since I was a child, and I am passionate about music and the arts, theatre in particular. The thought of being unable to do these things, or at least participate in them fully, is painful to me, but I cannot decide if these are legitimate obstacles to a religious vocation, or merely commitment fears.

I thought I might put the question to you, as a writer and communicator. Did you ever struggle in this way with your discernment? Can you offer any insights that might help me in my attempt to be more sure of what it is God is calling me to?                                                                                 – L

Dear L.,

You have raised an excellent question that I’ve heard before and which I certainly understand. When I first entered the convent, I naively thought I was giving up writing altogether. It was a difficult choice, a letting go of a cherished dream. I never imagined that I would go back to writing and eventually become a published author as a Daughter of Saint Paul. Of course, I was too young to be sure that I wanted to be a writer, or even that I could be. But I’ve never regretted choosing to be a sister over writing, even when I thought I would never write again. Following Christ in God’s call to me was and is more important to me than anything else.

Here a couple of insights that I’ve received as I’ve lived religious life as a writer:

  • I have discovered that, whether I’m “assigned” to writing or not, I love our Pauline mission, which is an even deeper call. I didn’t enter the Daughters of Saint Paul to write or to “do” anything else. I entered to become a bride of Christ, an apostle, and a saint (insofar as God works in me). I entered religious life to become a better lover of God and of souls.
  • Living religious life calls forth a deep level of creativity—both life in community and in the mission. Religious life is a very demanding lifestyle, and calls us to use all our gifts, even gifts that we don’t know we have! (For example, I had no idea that I could be a good teacher until I started giving conferences and workshops as an author.)
  • One time, when I was asked to give up a form of writing that was really hard for me, I discovered that I’m most passionate about my writing because of how it allows me to live the Pauline mission. Writing is one way—an important way—that I live my Pauline vocation.
  • Even now, there are times when I’ve wanted to go in a particular direction (with writing) or write a particular project and, in obedience, I’ve had to let go of what I thought was best. I’ll probably never stop writing entirely…but with the demands of our ministry, it’s not always possible to write when, how, and what I’d like to. For example, right now I’m assigned to Pauline Digital, which is wonderful, but also a sacrifice because it means:
    • Most of the writing I do now is “short form,” which isn’t my preferred (or best) form. But I am getting better at it, I hope!
    • I have to “squeeze in” the time to write any new books in free moments, so instead of taking a year to write, now a book will take 2.5 years to write
    • Much of the time I’m not writing at all but focused on collaborating in projects in which I am doing other kinds of work, such as editing, technical, managerial, etc. All of this, however, feeds my writing.
  • When we are truly committed to our art, it grows and develops over time, and our needs and desires as an artist also change over time. I truly believe that God uses my desires, and blesses my obedience as a religious, even when obeying means greater sacrifice. If your state in life changes, you may discover that the very gifts that you brought to the theater arts will be called upon in another way. Or, you might be surprised as I was, and discover that God is giving you a new opportunity to use your gifts for theater, poetry, or music…

I would definitely suggest talking to a sister from the community you are discerning with. Find out if some of the sisters work in the arts, even in an adapted way. (But don’t decide to enter based on the fact that you would only be doing a particular ministry, unless the sisters assure you that this is the case. In our community—as in many others—we are called to obedience especially in our apostolic assignments.) This will give you more information that you need to discern this particular question. 

Also, you may want to look more closely at a community in which the arts has an important role in their ministry. There are a lot of communities where the arts are important to the sisters’ lives and mission (including my own, the Daughters of St. Paul). Music is important to many communities, including contemplative communities.

Finally, have you brought this specific question/fear to Jesus in prayer, and really laid out to him your hopes, your dreams, your fears, and your desire to do his will?  Don’t be afraid to entrust your questions and fears to him. Sometimes when we are really wrestling with something, we forget to bring it to him. Jesus will give you the light—and strength and desire—which you need to discern and respond to God’s call for you.

Whatever you discern his call to be, I encourage you to follow him in the vocation he gives you. You will not be disappointed!  May God bless you in your discernment journey. 

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Vocation #Discernment: the Real Deal @ Chastity

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Lovely view from convent rooftop where I sometimes go to gain perspective

Some months ago, I received a question from a young woman that, after telling me her story, could be boiled down to her question at the end: How have you dealt with feelings of attraction after you decided consecrated life was best for you?  

This is a great question, and depending on where we are in our discernment (or if someone is still discerning), we can approach it from several perspectives. I’d like to note that this question can come up both when we’re initially discerning a celibate life, and again at some point when we’re living celibacy or consecrated life.

If we are discerning our vocation between priesthood/consecrated life and marriage… 

then these feelings are an opportunity to further discern our vocation. (Just a note here: feelings of attraction are a part of life, no matter our vocation or state in life. Being attracted to someone is no indication of a vocational calling.) For someone discerning marriage, a key question is how strong the attraction is, and what about this person attracts us? If it is simply a physical attraction, then we acknowledge it and let it go. We don’t need to give it additional thought or energy. If, however, it is a deeper attraction—for example, we are drawn to the person’s goodness, the way that they relate to us or to others, their vulnerability and strength—then we might want to think more about it and bring it to prayer. 

Discerning between marriage and a life consecrated to God means discerning how God is calling us to express our love. Especially if we are in the early stages of our vocational discernment, if we find someone with whom we want to explore spending the rest of our life, then it makes sense to choose to get to know that person and see how the relationship develops. On the other hand, if we have been discerning our vocation for a while and have been moving towards the possibility that God is calling us to consecrated or priestly life, then this could be a good opportunity to “test” out our call to celibate chastity. Can we simply put the attraction aside, choosing not to spend time or energy on it, and see how we are several weeks (or months) later? If we find our minds constantly returning to this person we are attracted to, regretting that we didn’t engage with that person, then it may be an indication that living celibate chastity might not be our call, or we may not be ready yet to embrace it.

If we have already made a commitment to priestly or consecrated life… 

then when feelings of attraction arise, we simply don’t give them attention or energy. (We guard our thoughts, hearts, and imaginations so that we are not dwelling on merely physical feelings.) If we have an obligation to the person—for example, we work together—we also may need to practice prudence in how we spend time together. Limiting the time we spend together, inviting others to join us, or not working at night together are some examples. Eventually, the feelings dwindle through lack of encouragement. 

Personally, I have worked with wonderful Catholic men in my media apostolate. Especially when I first started working in cable television, there were very few women in the field. I cannot say that I was not attracted to any of the men I worked with. Occasionally, the thought would even pop into my head, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to be married to someone like him?” But because my heart already belonged to Someone Else—with whom I was in a vital relationship—I didn’t encourage or engage in thoughts or feelings that contradicted my vocation. 

As a woman religious, I identify closely with the description of my vocation as a spouse of Christ. So I delight in “keeping the romance going” in my relationship with Jesus. I sometimes write him poems; I love “candlelight praying” at night where my attention is focused on the spotlighted crucifix or tabernacle; I wear a ring to remind me every day that I belong entirely to him. Most importantly, however, I try to pay attention to him, and to his tender ways of showing me his love. (And there are so many, even in just this past week when I was on retreat!) I try to balance my life which, despite the intensity of our mission and lifestyle, also has moments of great joy and relaxation. Healthy friendships (both within and outside of community) provide tangible affection, companionship, and support for consecrated men and women, which offsets the occasional loneliness that we might feel in living consecrated chastity. 

All of us, no matter our vocation, are called to live chastely,

whatever feelings of attraction we may experience. If we are committed to living a chaste life, we stay attuned to our feelings and take them for what they are—no more and no less. In #2340, The Catechism of the Catholic Church encourages us to use these means to grow in the virtue of chastity: self-knowledge, self-discipline in daily life, obedience to God’s commandments, living the moral virtues (the four cardinal moral virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance), and fidelity to prayer. 

(For more insights on living chastity as a young woman who is discerning her vocation, check out this book: He Speaks To You by Sister Helena Burns, FSP)

Considerations on Discerning Priesthood

 A Saintly Priest: Father Damien of Molokai Photo credited to Sacred Hearts Archives, Rome - http://www.hawaiimagazine.com/images/content/Damien_Hawaii_Saint_Molokai_Kalaupapa_canonization/Damien%20p1.jpg, Public Domain

A Saintly Priest: Father Damien of Molokai
Photo credited to Sacred Hearts Archives, Rome – In Public Domain

“In the unity of the Christian life, the various vocations are like so many rays of the one light of Christ, whose radiance “brightens the countenance of the Church….’  Sacred ministers, for their part, are living images of Christ the Head and Shepherd who guides his people during this time of “already and not yet”, as they await his coming in glory.” (Vita Consecrata, #16)

“The priestly vocation is essentially a call to sanctity, in the form that derives from the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  Sanctity is intimacy with God; it is the imitation of Christ, poor, chaste and humble; it is unreserved love for souls and self-giving to their true good; it is love for the church which is holy and wants us to be holy, because such is the mission that Christ has entrusted to it.  Each one of you must be holy also in order to help your brothers pursue their vocation to sanctity.” — Pope St. John Paul II, Rome, Italy, Homily on October 9, 1984

“His calling is a declaration of love. Your response is commitment, friendship, and love manifested in the gift of your own life as a definitive following and as a permanent sharing in his mission and in his consecrations.  To make up your mind is to love him with all of your soul and all of your heart in such a way that this love becomes the standard and motive of all your actions.  From this moment on, live the Eucharist fully; be persons for whom the Holy Mass, Communion, and Eucharistic adoration are the center and summit of their whole life.  Offer Christ your heart in meditation and personal prayer which is the foundation of the spiritual life.”  —Pope St. John Paul II, Valencia, Spain, November 8, 1982

“The world looks to the priest, because it looks to Jesus!  No one can see Christ; but everyone sees the priest, and through him they wish to catch a glimpse of the Lord!  Immense is the grandeur of the Lord! Immense is the grandeur and dignity of the priest!” —Pope St. John Paul II, Rome, Italy, October 13, 1979

The Vocation of Priesthood

Priesthood is the vocation of men who are ordained and consecrated to serving the People of God in persona Christi, or “in the person of Christ” who is Teacher, Priest, and King. Priests share in Christ’s ministry, building up the People of God as the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

Priests take the vow of celibacy, in order to be more closely configured to Christ and so that they can completely dedicate themselves to their priestly ministry. They also take a vow of obedience to their bishop (in whose priestly ministry they share). The primary areas of priestly ministry are teaching, governing and sanctifying the People of God. Key aspects of priestly ministry include:

  • administering the sacraments, especially celebrating the Eucharistic Sacrifice and absolving sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation
  • preaching the Word of God and explaining it
  • shepherding the People of God,  accompanying them on their journey

Because they are called to lead the People of God on the way of salvation, priests have a special obligation to a life of holiness. Their vocation to love is that of service, but rather than an exclusive service dedicated to their own family, priests are called to be fathers and shepherds to everyone. Their vocation can be summed up thus: A priest is called to be Christ for all whom he meets.

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Here is an excerpt from Vatican II’s document on the priesthood, Presbyterorum ordinis, describing the purpose of the priesthood:

The office of priests, since it is connected with the episcopal order, also, in its own degree, shares the authority by which Christ builds up, sanctifies and rules his Body…. Priests, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are signed with a special character and are conformed to Christ the Priest in such a way that they can act in the person of Christ the Head…

The purpose, therefore, which priests pursue in their ministry and by their life is to procure the glory of God the Father in Christ. That glory consists in this—that men working freely and with a grateful spirit receive the work of God made perfect in Christ and then manifest it in their whole lives. Hence, priests, while engaging in prayer and adoration, or preaching the word, or offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice and administering the other sacraments, or performing other works of the ministry for men, devote all this energy to the increase of the glory of God and to man’s progress in the divine life. (#2)

To sum up, priests are called, ordained, and consecrated to God’s service, sharing in the very ministry of Christ himself, and continuing Christ’s presence in the world through celebrating the sacraments, proclaiming the Gospel, and shepherding the People of God throughout their lives. They are dedicated in a particular way to the service of the Church.

Particular Graces & Strengths of Priesthood

The framework for priesthood is a celibate life dedicated to ministry. Presbyterorum ordinis highlights several virtues or characteristics that are especially helpful for priestly ministry:  goodness of heart, sincerity, strength and constancy of mind, zealous pursuit of justice, and affability. In talking to priests, Pope Francis often highlights the importance of the priest’s relationship to Christ, the priest’s closeness to the people he serves, his dedication to service, and personal integrity and humility as key aspects of what it means to be a priest.

Pope Francis’s recent reflections on the priesthood are helpful in understanding how important human formation and the family, closeness to Christ and his flock, and the call to serve, are to the life and vocation of every priest. You may wish to bring his thoughts, as well as the Scripture passages below, to prayer.

A good priest, therefore, is first of all a man with his own humanity, who knows his own history, with its riches and its wounds, and who has learned to make peace with it, reaching an underlying serenity, that of a disciple of the Lord. Human formation is therefore a necessity for priests so that they learn not to be dominated by their limitations, but instead to build on their talents…

We priests are apostles of joy, we proclaim the Gospel, that is, the “good news” par excellence; it is certainly not we who give strength to the Gospel — some believe that —, but we can either help or hinder the encounter between the Gospel and people. Our humanity is the “earthen vessel” in which we safeguard the treasure of God, a vessel which we must take care of, in order to properly pass on its precious content.

A priest cannot lose his roots; he always remains a man of the people and of the culture that engendered him. Our roots help us to remember who we are and where Christ has called us.

Answering God’s call, you become a priest to serve your brothers and sisters. The images of Christ that we take as a reference for the ministry of priests are clear: He is the “High Priest”, close in the same way to God and to mankind; he is the “Servant”, who washes feet and who becomes a neighbor to the weakest; he is the “Good Shepherd”, who always has as his goal the care of the flock.

There are three images that we should look to when thinking about the ministry of priests: sent to serve men, to help them obtain the mercy of God, and to proclaim his Word of life. We are not priests for ourselves, and our sanctification is closely linked to that of our people, our unction for their unction; you are anointed for your people….The good that the priests can do is born mainly from their closeness and their tender love for people. They are neither philanthropists nor officials; priests are fathers and brothers. The fatherhood of a priest does so much good.

Closeness, the depths of mercy, a loving gaze: to experience the beauty of a life lived according to the Gospel and the love of God, which is also made concrete through his ministers. God never refuses. —Address of Pope Francis, Nov. 20, 2015

Resources for Prayer and Reflection About the Vocation to Priesthood

Here are a few Scripture passages to pray with, that could be helpful for someone  discerning his vocation to the priesthood.

  • Exodus 3:1-15 Call of Moses
  • Isaiah 42:1-7 “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations”
  • Matthew 9:35-38 “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few”’
  • John 13:1-15 Jesus washes the feet of the disciples
  • 1 Peter 2:4-10 “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood”
  • Hebrews 4:12-16 “Let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and favor”
  • Hebrews 5:1-10 “You are a priest forever”

If you are reading this blog but not discerning priesthood, join me in taking a few moments to  pray for future priests: those currently discerning, and those who have not yet received Jesus’ invitation to become a priest. 

When and How To Share Our Vocational Discernment with Family

We continue exploring how we can best share our vocational discernment with our family, continuing from our last post. 

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3) Our previous and current role in our family is part of our vocational discernment. Praying about our previous role in our family helps us to understand ourselves better. Praying about our current role in our family enables us to see how our vocational choice will affect our family, and how God might be calling us through our family.

For example, if our family relies on us for food and shelter, or one particular family member relies on us for day-to-day care, this is a special circumstance that we need to take into account. If the obligation or need is temporary, then we can discern after we are no longer needed (for example, after a younger sibling turns 18). If instead the need is permanent or ongoing, then the discernment might include looking at other ways the family’s needs can be met. For example, if someone is an only child with an elderly parent who is suffering from a severe medical condition, God may indeed be calling that person to to take care of their elderly parent, which is their mission at this time in their lives. Or, if we are discerning marriage, perhaps staying close to one’s parents—even including our parents in our new living arrangements—can become an important part of our discernment.

If we are supporting the family by providing, or helping to provide, food and shelter, that could be another indication that God is calling us to take care of our family, at least for now. But if the burden of the family’s support is resting solely or primarily on our shoulders, and others in our family could contribute but aren’t doing so, then that becomes part of our discernment too.

Being an only child highlights one’s responsibility towards elderly parents in our vocational discernment. Rather than ignore this, we bring it into our active discernment. (For example, someone who is an only child may discern to enter a religious community that is physically near their parents and allows frequent visits, rather than becoming a missionary on another continent.) Many “only children” are called to priesthood, religious life, or marriage. Whatever our relationship and role in our family, we need to discern how God is calling us.

God doesn’t call us to turn our back on genuine familial obligations, but Jesus speaks very strongly in the Gospel about the primacy of God’s call in our life—that God comes first. (See Matthew 8:18-22; Matthew 10:34-39; Matthew 12:46-50; Matthew 19:27-30; Mark 1:16-20; Mark 10:24-32; Luke 2:41-52; Luke 9:57-62; Luke 14:25-27. ) If we are struggling to understand our responsibility to our families during our vocational discernment, we may want to pray with some of these specific passages, as well as consult especially about this with our spiritual director.

4) Involving our family in our discernment doesn’t mean living up to their expectations. However, it does mean being sensitive to their concerns and needs, especially when we initially talk to our family members about our discernment. Their feedback and advice can be helpful, especially when we know they, too, are seeking God’s will. But even in the best of families, parents or other family members may resist our following our vocation, especially at the beginning. Perhaps they don’t like our chosen future spouse. Or perhaps they simply don’t want to lose daily or close contact with a loved child/sibling. To help our family accept our vocation, we can:

a. Explain our motivations
b. Explain what is truly involved (especially when aspects of our vocation are unfamiliar to them, such as priesthood or religious life, or our future spouse lives outside the country)
c. Talk about the next steps we will take to follow our vocation

Being open and explaining our motivation can help our family to see that we have considered and discerned well, that we are convinced that God is truly calling us in this way, and to understand what our following our vocation means for them.

In some cases, one or more family members may simply be opposed to our vocation. Once we have truly discerned our vocation, we cannot let  their opposition prevent us from doing God’s will. Discussion and further explanation may not be helpful in some cases. Although our path may feel lonely and hard without the support of our family, above all, we want to seek God’s will. When we do this, God will not just bless us, but God will bless our family as well.

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.

Checklists for Discerning Our Vocation

Many of us discern our vocation informally through the years. When we enter more intentionally or deeply into vocational discernment, we need a few things already in place in our lives. If we aren’t currently trying to live these already, we will find them of immeasurable help in our discernment. But before I post my list, I want to share about another list, found in a book that I highly recommend:

GeekpriestCover

In his book, Geekpriest: Confessions of a New Media Pioneer, Father Roderick Vonhögen shares the story of his vocational discernment in chapter 2, “Spider-Man’s Day Job.” He compares discerning our vocation with the typical superhero story, and shares a checklist for what we can learn from superheroes in discerning our vocation. (How cool is that! I wish I’d had this checklist when I was discerning!)

Father Roderick’s “Superheroes Checklist” is insightful and a great deal of fun for those with geekish tendencies (like myself) who enjoy superhero stories, but it also makes discernment very accessible to anyone who has seen even one superhero film. Included in his checklist are: seek solitude, study and read, discover your strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses, be humble, listen to your friends, do not fear, and persevere.

Geekpriest is a great, fun read and I highly recommend it for young people, as it offers a fascinating and entertaining “inside look” at the life of a dedicated priest, as well as offering helpful ways for living as a Catholic amid our social-media-inundated world. If you are discerning a vocation to the priesthood, the whole book is a fun read that will also get you thinking and praying! (You can read my full review here.)

At a recent meeting with Father Roderick. (With me is Sr. Anne Flanagan aka @Nunblogger)

I was excited and thrilled this week to meet Father Roderick. (Sr. Anne Flanagan aka @Nunblogger is with us)

Below is my less-fun, not super-hero related list of essentials to put in place in your life as you begin or continue to discern your vocation. (Notice that my list intersects with Geekpriest’s SuperHeroes Checklist in more than one place!) This list also sums up a whole slew of my previous blog posts.

1. A dynamic prayer life and sacramental life. Have a real relationship with God that is living and growing. This means a regular prayer life, not just a “hit or miss” approach, or only praying “when I feel like it.” If you haven’t already, commit to daily prayer.

Becoming an “expert” in prayer is a lifelong journey, but having a genuine relationship with God when we are seeking his will is essential. How better to learn how to recognize God’s invitation in the big decisions we have to make, than to listen to God every day?

The sacraments are the privileged ways that the Church offers us an encounter with Christ. Frequently participating in Holy Mass (Sunday Mass is the minimum) and regular reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation are the ordinary means for growing in our relationship with God. They might seem “ordinary,” but both sacraments are really hidden miracles in our midst.

At Mass, we adore, thank, offer ourselves with, and receive Jesus himself, who delights in sharing himself with us and inviting us into his own relationship with the Father. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, all of the obstacles that we put between God and ourselves—our sins, woundedness, and flaws—are forgiven and healed in a sacred encounter with Jesus’ merciful love.

2. Strive to live a good moral life. All of us are called to holiness, to grow in union with God here on earth, a union that will be fulfilled in perfect communion with God in heaven. Every vocation is a call to profound holiness. Constantly living in a state of serious sin means we are putting obstacles between us and God. All sin is a roadblock for our discernment, because sin is turning away from God’s will and choosing our will over God’s. Instead, discernment is striving to know and live God’s will. We do not need to be sinless to discern because we are all sinners, but we want to be striving to be upright, sincere about our journey of growing in virtue.

3. Trust in God. We can grow in trust in God by pondering and praying with these truths:

  • God loves us
  • God knows us better than we know ourselves
  • God has a plan for us that will bring about our greatest happiness and in which we will help others in a way that no one else will.

4. Get to know ourselves. This includes not just getting to know our gifts and weaknesses, but also discovering our motivations, which helps us to know what is most important to us. Including a daily examination of conscience in our prayer helps us to discover any area in our life—an attachment to a particular sin, for example—that might prevent us from seeking God’s will. Why are we entering into this discernment? What is in our hearts, what are we seeking? How can we more singleheartedly seek God’s will?

5. Active engagement with the Church. Our vocational state in life determines our role in the Church, as well as in life. Discernment doesn’t just involve God and us; it also involves the Church, the People of God within whom we will live and serve. In order to discern our role in the Church, we must already know the Church from the inside by being actively engaged with our parish or a church group. If we have not been involved with our parish, or other form of ministry, now is the time to get involved!

Especially for those discerning religious life or priesthood, or between one of these and marriage, it is essential to take part in the ministry and missionary life of the Church; otherwise we will not have the experience of sharing our gifts in ministry and the Church’s mission. Without this experience it’s hard to know what it would be like to share our gifts in this way as a lay person, sister, brother, or priest. We don’t always have to do this through our parish—there are other church groups that we can become involved in—but we need to find some way to get really involved in the Church’s ministry and mission.

6. Regular spiritual direction. [For more about spiritual direction—what it is, how to find a director, and what to expect for the first time, visit here and here.] A spiritual director may not be necessary as we begin discerning our vocation, but once we start to get serious, we should definitely start seeing a spiritual director regularly.

The first five areas are so important for discerning that they are, in a way, “prerequisites” to seriously discerning one’s vocation. If any of these are lacking, it might be a good idea to make that our “next step” in discerning our vocation.

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.

Discernment: A Call within a Call

silhouette-691522_1280Many women saints—like Jane Frances de Chantal, Elizabeth of Hungary,  Rita of Cascia, and today’s saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton—were wives and mothers who, after the death of their husbands, entered religious life. They did so after a period of grieving, discernment, and taking care of their children.  Their midlife discernment of God’s call to enter religious life was dramatic.

Whether or not we face such dramatic change in our life circumstances, we may still receive a new call from God that transforms our lives into something new: “a call within a call.”

“A Call within a Call”

Born the youngest child of her parents, she lost her father when she was eight years old. By the time she was twelve, she felt the call to become a missionary. When she turned 18, she left behind her beloved family and traveled to a foreign country to join a missionary community of teaching sisters. A year later she was sent as a missionary to another country, professed her vows, became a teacher and eventually principal of the school where she taught. Loved by her students, she experienced great joy as a religious sister and was respected by her community for her profound spirit of prayer, generosity, and compassion.

When she was thirty-six, on her way to making her annual retreat, she received another inspiration from God, what she called “a call within a call.” During her retreat and afterwards during her prayer, she became urgently convinced that Jesus was calling her to radiate his love in a new mission to those in the slums. She shared her inspiration with her spiritual director and her superior. Although eager to begin, she waited obediently for two long years for the Church to confirm her inspiration and new mission. Finally, she began her new mission all alone, choosing to wear the native dress of the local women rather than a traditional religious habit. She had to learn by trial and error how to best help the people in the slums, always seeking to discover Jesus in the unwanted, the unloved, and the uncared for.

Perhaps by now you recognize that this missionary sister was Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, soon to be canonized. (The second miracle attributed through her intercession has been recognized as truly miraculous.)

The new film, The Letters, beautifully shows the story of Blessed Mother Teresa’s discernment. It’s not unheard of for a sister to begin a new congregation, but it’s very difficult and almost always very painful. Note that Mother didn’t change her vocation, but discovered that God was calling her in another direction within her calling, even though she was a perpetually professed sister in the Sisters of Our Lady of Loretto.

All of Mother Teresa’s life is inspiring, but this particular aspect of her story can give courage to us who—because of or despite our already-existing commitments—feel God’s invitation to “something more,” or “something new,” especially when we’re not sure how to go forward.

Those with the benefit of some years of life experience have some advantages in discernment that younger people don’t have:

* We know ourselves well, and so we may be able to discern more easily between the voice of self-deception and God’s voice. With greater self-knowledge, it might be easier to discern how God is calling us. With greater experience, we can respond to God’s invitation with insight and perhaps greater resolution. Already knowing what it means to make a commitment, it’s less likely we will be  easily discouraged.

* We already have mentors who know us well and can offer us their advice and wisdom from the years that they have known us

* We have a lived history of our relationship with God, and so we can more easily perceive continuity between how God has called us in the past and how God is calling us now. (For example, Mother Teresa always felt called to be a missionary. Beginning the work of the Missionaries of Charity wasn’t really a change from her fundamental vocation of being a religious missionary, but extended that call further.) This continuity in how God works in our lives is another sign to look for that can help affirm that the call we are receiving is truly from God.

* * *

If you didn’t catch The Letters in U.S. theaters this December, keep an eye out for its release to DVD. I’ll try to post when it comes available again.

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Will My Family Disapprove If I Discern Consecrated Life?

Ferguson Slide by Eeekster (own work) [CC by 3.0]

One response that came up high in the results of the poll, What’s the Biggest Obstacle to Considering Consecrated Life, was a written-in answer that had a common thread:

  • Fear of what others (especially family) will think of me
  • Fear of disappointing family or parents
  • Fear of disapproval or lack of understanding

All of these answers are about what others think and expect of us, especially family and loved ones. This fear is very understandable. But, being overly concerned or fearful about others’ opinions impinges on our freedom to discern. Yet in our discernments we are to consult with those who know us well. How are we supposed to take into account our family’s and friends’ advice when we are discerning something that they don’t expect, such as an unusual vocational choice? Should we even consult them?

Several Factors To Consider
1) Discerning our vocation is sacred, and if we truly feel that we might be called to religious life or priesthood, it’s important to discern it without letting our families’ or friends’ opinions prevent us from doing so. Our vocation is a sacred calling that is too important to let the resistance or disapproval of family and friends stand in the way of even exploring it. This doesn’t make it easy. But it is very freeing to seek our true calling, and if God is calling us to religious life or priesthood, he will give us the grace to work through our fears and all other obstacles.

2) When we are discerning, the people we seek advice from should above all be living a spiritual life, otherwise they may not understand or be able to support us in seeking God’s will. (Other qualities, such as wisdom and knowing us well, are helpful. But above all, they must also desire that we follow God’s will.)

3) Seeking advice or counsel is not the same as seeking approval. In consulting others, we are looking for greater knowledge and insight about ourselves, our situation, and how God is inviting us, but we are not seeking to please the person we are consulting with.

4) To know our fears when we discern is really helpful because fear can help us to reflect and to bring our discernment to prayer. However, fear in itself is not a sufficient motivation to decide whether or not to discern something, especially when it’s something as important as a vocation. Instead, we can make our fear part of our discernment by exploring why we are afraid, and then, offering our fears to the Lord and moving forward.

If we feel the need to discern something which we know someone important in our life (such as a parent or friend) is probably going to disapprove, then we need to seek greater interior freedom. Becoming free is the hardest part of discerning! In these cases, it is really important to detach ourselves from others’ opinions about our discernment, so that we don’t allow fear to control us and so that we can more freely listen to God’s invitation. This detachment is often a gradual journey that happens as we discern and God’s call becomes clearer to us.

Sorting Through Others’ Opinions
Sorting through others’ opinions—whether favorable or unfavorable to our discernment—can sometimes be helpful in detaching ourselves from them. We may want to ask ourselves a few questions:

A) Why do we think they would oppose a particular decision? Are we just unsure, or are we pretty certain that they will be disappointed? Will the lack of support be permanent, or is it just that what we are discerning is new, and they will need time to get used to the idea?

B) If we are pretty sure that this person(s) will not understand or be disappointed in our decision, do we know why? For example, some parents are hesitant about their daughter becoming a sister because they think they will never see her again, and they love their daughter and want to stay close to her. (Different congregations have different practices about their sisters visiting their families, so this particular concern may not even be real.) At other times, a parent might resist a child trying to follow a certain career (such as becoming an actor or an artist) because they know how hard it is to earn a living in the arts, and they want their child to have security.

These kinds of questions can help us to see past our own fears into the real concerns of our loved ones—concerns that we need to think about and perhaps address with them, if and when we tell them about our discernment.

Discerning Our Vocation Is Sacred
Ideally, we’d want to share our vocational discernment at least in part with our family, because we want our family’s understanding and support throughout our life. But sometimes a parent or family member will be so resistant to a particular vocation that we simply need to wait to tell them about it until after we have completed our discernment.

Our vocation is a sacred calling that is too important to let the resistance or disapproval of family and friends stand in the way. Countless priests, brothers, and sisters had to go against their parents’ wishes to follow their vocation. (The family of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s family kidnapped and imprisoned him to prevent him from following his vocation in the Dominican Order.) This is not an easy path to walk, but if we possess sufficient maturity and have discerned well, it is more important to follow God’s call than to give in to our family’s opinions. Jesus himself called his disciples to leave their parents and families behind to follow him.

St. John Paul II had this to say about following one’s vocation:

“Do not be afraid of the radicalness of Christ’s demands, because Jesus, who loved us first, is prepared to give himself to you, as well as asking of you. If he asks much of you, it is because he knows you can give much.”                                                                                                                – Sept. 8, 1992

Photo credit: Ferguson Slide by Eeekster (own work) used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license

Tweeting with God Book Review: Putting Our Relationship with God in the Spotlight

When I first saw the new book, Tweeting with God by Father Michel Remery, it intrigued me because:

  • the title is awesome
  • the book has a free app
  • I’m always looking for easy-to-understand books that connect the Catholic Faith with people’s questions today
  • I liked the personal questions the book is not afraid to ask…and answer

So when I was asked to be part of the Tweeting with God Blog Tour from the perspective of discernment, I just couldn’t say no! Here’s the book trailer so you can see a glimpse of the book for yourself:

A Solid Overview of Our Catholic Faith

A solid overview of the faith written in 140-character chunks sounds just perfect for young people today, right? And this book definitely has 200 great tweets about our faith, but it has a lot more than that. Each question has a two-page spread which includes a tweetable answer, and a more thorough one. The tweet is used as the quick “summing up” of the explanation at the end.

I really appreciated the approach of Tweeting with God. While covering the main areas of faith (traditionally Creed, Sacraments, and Morality), many answers start from a personal perspective: What does this [area of faith] have to do with me? The questions are sometimes posed to cover a particular area of faith, or address a contemporary issue, but they are also often personal and common questions that I’ve had people ask me, for example: “Why is the Mass boring?” or, “How does one become a saint?”

The personal “what does faith have to do with my daily life” approach is what I appreciate most about this book. It makes Tweeting with God an excellent introduction to the Catholic life of faith when read cover to cover, but also a great reference for the tough questions often posed to Catholics—from the history of the Crusades to the motivations for a celibate priesthood.

To keep the language understandable, large concepts are explained simply. In most cases, this works really well, but occasionally I felt that the answer was oversimplified and really suffered from the lack of precision. Still, overall this is a great introduction to the faith that addresses many controversial or counter-cultural issues that Catholics face.

(For a fun tweet-able review of the book, check out Alison Gingras’ review at Reconciled to You.

What Does Tweeting with God Have To Do with Discernment? (or Why Am I Blogging About This Book Here?)

The personal approach that Father Remery takes connects the mysteries of God, Christ, and the Church with how to live a vibrant spiritual life. Instead of an “add-on” section in the back on prayer, the Christian’s relationship with God is front and center throughout the presentation of the Catholic Faith. What we believe is shown to directly connect with our personal relationship with God. The opening pages don’t speak about God just from the traditional language of the Book of Genesis and the creed, but they emphasize that God’s plan for creation includes his plan for each of us. A surprisingly thorough and wonderfully accessible treatment of prayer begins early on in Part 3.

With the spotlight of the book focused on our personal relationship with God, it’s only natural that Father Remery frequently refers to seeking God’s will and discovering God’s plan for our life. The principles of discernment are raised simply and persuasively. A few of my favorite spots in the book about discernment are:

Tweet 1.7 Why should I believe in God (sets up God’s longing for us and our longing for God that are so important on a vocational discernment journey)

Tweet 3.4 Can prayer help me to make the right decisions? (simple explanation of superficial desires and deep desires)

Tweet 4.3 What does God ask of me? (the description of vocation is simple and fantastic)

Tweet 4.6 How can I know the will of God? (check out the red box—great advice for listening to God’s will)

Tweet 4.8 What is the relationship between faith and actions? (Offers a defense of monastic life of prayer)

Appendix 4: Praying with the Bible according to St. Ignatius of Loyola

Appendix 5: Reflecting on your day through prayer (or the Examen Prayer) 

Although I am really impressed with Tweeting with God overall, there are a couple of things that I wish were done differently:

1) To keep the book short and focused on young people’s questions, some things were left out that might have been helpful to include. For example, the only references to discernment (or seeking God’s will) have to do with vocational discernment. I couldn’t find a reference to living in a spirit of discernment. In a book geared to young people—which this book undoubtedly is—vocational discernment is certainly an appropriate emphasis, but it is also important to realize that God doesn’t just call us once in our lifetime.

2) The initial vocational division that the book offers is “to be married in the Lord” or “to remain single in the Lord.” The text seems to suggest that this is the basic question to begin discerning your vocation with. While this may be helpful for some people, I don’t necessarily think that this is a good starting point for everyone. This might be a case of oversimplifying.

3) Every 2-page spread has a picture which you’re supposed to be able to scan with your smartphone using the Tweeting with God app, so that it will bring up new content. I tried scanning the pictures with two different phones, and it didn’t do anything. However, the app still has a few cool features of its own. In addition to additional information for all the tweets in the book, it also has a section on the Mass and Catholic Prayers in 10 languages (very helpful for international travelers, or if you’re visiting a parish that celebrates Mass in another language!)

Tweeting with God is an splendid introduction to the faith for young adults that compellingly and beautifully integrates learning about the truths of our Catholic Faith and living a dynamic relationship with God as a Catholic.