Monday, June 11, 2012

How do you know if you have a vocation?

Unscientific reflections...

Actually, a day ago, a friend asked me how I knew I didn't have a vocation - which I understood as nearly the same question as, 'How do you know if you have a vocation?'

I don't know. 

However, I explained that I only knew with time, and only after searching and trying out a couple of religious orders: Discalced Carmelites, Little Brothers of Jesus, Trappists, Carthusians.  Initially, on my first retreat after my conversion, I asked our Lord out loud, "Do I have a vocation to religious life/priesthood, Lord?"  I heard a distinct interior voice say "No."  So I proceeded to try my vocation in the above named orders, and went back and forth for several years wondering, Should I go?  Should I stay?  Do I have a vocation?  Or not?  I wonder if the Lord was standing there talking through his teeth, "I already told you..."  But that isn't how it works - the process, the attempts - it's all part of it.

Anyway, as time went on, I knew I could never stick it out anywhere beyond a couple of years.  When I was 'in' the monastery, I loved it, but I couldn't settle down - which is my natural explanation why I tried the Benedict Joseph Labre thing - which only made me long for the security of the monastery again.  That said, supernaturally, the entire experience had been a novitiate for my life, a training in the spiritual life and prayer.  Sort of special-ed for me to know how to be normal and live an ordinary life - because I had never known what normal was, or what ordinary life meant. 

It appears my voice was right the first time - but I had to go through all the attempts to find that out.  In retrospect, the Lord saved the Church from me, he preserved the religious houses I tried out from me:  And countless souls may have been saved because I stayed out of the monastery... horrible scandals were averted.  I exaggerate perhaps - maybe not.  Other people may think I had a vocation but lost it.  They are wrong of course.  Like Benedict Joseph Labre, I never had the temperament for it.  I really do know that now.

That said, I don't really know how one discerns a vocation.  It seems to me a vocation happens - like falling in love.  But I'm a romantic.  Some people just seem to be able to make a decision and stick to it.


  1. Hi Terry,

    this is something I'm still figuring out. There is a strong desire on my part that wants throw myself over to the monastery, to give myself completely to a life of prayer. This "holy hatred" is good and all, but what I'm discerning at this point is:

    Do I have the physical + mental constitution to endure?
    Do I have the will to persevere?

    ... Then, well-aware of my miseries, I say NO! And then I come across a story such as Leonie Martin, St. Therese's sister... then I think maybe God's wants me to learn something before entering or I have "unfinished business" to do... in other words it's back to square 1.

  2. Terry,

    A really great post. This part is my favorite:

    "That said, I don't really know how one discerns a vocation. It seems to me a vocation happens - like falling in love. But I'm a romantic. Some people just seem to be able to make a decision and stick to it."

    I met men in community who said that they knew from the first day they were there that they were in the right place. That they felt that was where God wanted them to be. I thought WOW...what a grace. but maybe it's all about being able to a just "make a decision and stick to it" Maybe that really is the key.

    Marian Devotee said,

    "Do I have the physical + mental constitution to endure?
    Do I have the will to persevere?"

    I can very well echo those questions. I ask myself that all the time. Sometimes I can answer in the affirmative and at other times I'm scared to death that I wouldn't be able to perservere. Though I believe with God's grace all things are possible. I pray for a greater confidence and trust in GOD and His plan for my life. Whatever it is.

  3. I thought this was a great post too, and am grateful to have it to reflect upon.

    If anyone is currently discerning, I thought I'd share a link to an audio series that has been particularly helpful to me; and while it's specifically directed towards men wondering if God is calling them to be priests, I think the principles of discernment entailed therein could be beneficial with any discernment that one is making:

  4. Terry, and Patrick, as you know, I find the question scared to death.

    I have never been drawn to the priesthood or religious life, but I always wonder "what if I am supposed to be?"

    And I think of how one of St. Therese's sisters went into the convent but didn't really want to, and how Therese said that was better than having a vocation - I feel like that traps me.

    Or how St. Ignatius and a few other saints seemed to believe that one needed an excuse to NOT go into religious life, that religious life should be the default for Christians. St. Theresa of Avila certainly seemed to believe that she would have certainly gone to hell if she hadn't become a religious. And she's not the only one. What strikes me is that these people are always better and more pious than me BEFORE they go into religious life, and yet they think they'd go to Hell, or are explicitly told by God that they'd do so, without it.

    And there are estimates by any number of saints - St. Bernard thought 1 in 3 Catholic men had vocations, St. John Bosco 1 in 10; and there is no end to the religious sainst who more or less mocked marriage in their praise of religious life: "why be married to some crappy and frail man or woman if you can marry Jesus - it's almost madness to marry a human when you can marry Him" - one sees this attitude even in Therese.

    And there is also the concept that everyone has a religious vocation, but due to certain circumstances, people fall short of it. Terry, I believe this attitude is expressed by a blog you referenced recently to me in an e-mail (S.O., if that means anything).

    What kills me is that I have no desire, no affectation, for the religious life. I just fear that if I do not consider it, and sometimes I fear that if I do not accept it, I will go to hell. Yes, the Church teaches that it must be something freely and generously taken on and accepted, but the tradition of the church seems to be: real Christians go into religious life, and those who do not are simply too weak or spiritually retarded.

    Hence, my "belief" that seeking marriage and really wanting a wife can only get me further from God.

  5. Mercury, have you discerned your vocation? I don't mean discerning a religious vocation, but discerning what state in life you're supposed to be in, other than your normal state of distress. I know I've told you to go hang out with the Blessed Sacrament, in or out of the tabernacle, but go. Ask Him what your state in life is meant to be. Tell Him you'll accept it, whatever He wants. Then do.

    Don't worry yourself into a frenzy. Let Him worry about your state in life. If He wants you to be married, He'll find you the right wife; if He wants you to be single, He'll let you know. If he wants you for himself, He'll tell you.

    You have to be in a quiet state to hear though.

  6. Mercury,

    I don't think these questions can be answered in the abstract. No matter how much we may reflect on what others have said about discernment and vocations, it has to be something concrete, real, subjective for the one discerning. I believe that the focal point of discernment shouldn't be trying to figure these things out as if they presented a problem to be solved, but to grow in the realization of God's love for you (for the one discerning) and for the discerner to grow in his or her love of God.

    Fear, in my opinion, is a misguided motivation for embracing a vocation. And I think this is in line with the Church's general thinking as to how to judge if one is moving towards greater love of God: if fear (imperfect contrition) is gradually evolving into love of God (perfect contrition).

    And with a vocation, we're not talking about something essentially 'negative' - as in avoiding sins. We're talking about something essentially 'positive' - as in embracing a life that God is calling us to. The whole dynamic of a vocation is growth, development, interior freedom. It's also a move, I think, away from - literally - self-centeredness and into God-centeredness, where the consciousness becomes: who am I to be for God?, how has God been good to me?, what is God doing in my life?, who am I in the eyes of God?

    "The aim of most men esteemed conscientious and, to all appearance, not how to please God, but how to please themselves without displeasing Him."

    Ven. John Henry Newman, Sermon 2: Obedience Without Love, as Instanced in the Character of Balaam."

    Even in trying to "please God," I think there may be a sense that we're keeping Him at a distance, that He is to be satisfied and that's the whole point. Of course, we should want to 'satisfy' God, but the ultimate satisfaction for God is our love, our intimacy with Him, communion. He thirsts for our love. When such becomes the focal point of one's discernment, I think real growth can occur and the vocation one is called to embrace can become clearer over time.


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