Vocation & Discernment

A vocation is a work that I feel I am meant to do. The calling may be challenging to you, but, if it is truly our Lord who is calling, then have courage.

What is Vocation?

A vocation is not a career or a job.

A job is employment that puts bread on the table.

A career is something I want to do because it looks rewarding.

A vocation is something else.

A vocation is a work that I feel I am meant to do. It’s a work of service. And something deep in me says, ‘you should offer yourself for this service’, or ‘this work is for you.’ Quite likely the work will not appeal to you. It might even frighten you or sicken you. There are many stories of great people who have tried to escape this ‘voice’ inside them. But the feeling will not leave them alone. There is no peace until at last they surrender and decide to follow where it leads.

This is the experience of many many ordinary men and women who have ‘tried’ or ‘tested’ their vocation. They come tentatively and unsure, only because they feel they must. A vocation is a ‘call’ from within me, from God who is within me. It’s a call that needs to be answered – if I want to regain my inner peace.

To be a priest (either diocesan or religious), a sister or a brother, is without doubt, a vocation.

The calling may be challenging to you, but, if it is truly our Lord who is calling, then have courage. He doesn’t mess us around. Little by little, you will find a life full of meaning, profound ‘rightness’, peace and satisfaction awaiting you. Have you ever sung a hymn, ‘Here I am Lord’? These four words are from the bible. They are the best response. It’s a good beginning.

What is Discernment?

Daily life today is busy.

Finding out whether God is calling me to a vocation takes time. This is called discernment. It is best done with the help of a priest or guide who has experience in this field.

Discernment is the art of listening to God and gently coming to a decision.

My experiences are revealing, so I learn to notice my thoughts and feelings. I test them to see if they are from God, and then I make choices and decisions trying to follow what God wants of me.

The following is supplementary material you may find useful. Or otherwise, approach a priest to help you as every person is different.

Optional Supplementary Material

People with experience in the spiritual life, give some simple advice to those trying to listen to God: “Be alert to your thoughts.” Our thoughts have the potential to lead us toward God or away from God. Cassian, a Monk who lived in the desert in the 400’s, taught his disciples to watch for this pattern.

First a thought will enter, you will start a conversation with the thought, a suggestion will be made to you, a temptation will follow, a struggle will begin and then ‘victory or consent.’ Hidden within this normal experience is the desire for God, versus what is not of God, trying to work themselves out within us.

Its interesting to note how we sometimes feel sad and confused (or happy and peaceful) and we wonder why. We even use the phrase “what got into me today?”

Spiritual Sleepwalking

Often we don’t notice what is going on within and around us. We become blind to God because we are inattentive to our inner life. Cassian gives some further advice:

Stand guard at the door of your heart, and ask every suggestion that presents itself, “Are you one of ours, or from the opposing camp?”

One young man, after thinking about this, replied with a question, ‘Does this mean I have to examine every single thought that I have?’ Not quite. Those thoughts worth checking are when we are lonely or sad, worried or angry. At these times particular thoughts will begin to play on us. It is at these times that Cassian would urge us to be particularly watchful.

Cassian encourages becoming watchful and self aware, so as to develop an instinctual awareness of what is happening in our spiritual life – to be like a wine-taster sniffing the bouquet of a wine. To “sniff” an experience or thought is to test it.  Is it a good? Could it come from God?  We then ask ourselves a basic question of discernment: How do I know when some of my thoughts and feelings are from God or not from God?

Characteristic Signs of God

How do I know which thoughts and feelings come  from God and which do not? St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, teaches us how to understand the characteristic signs of God working in our life.

Tracking Back

As a way of understanding ups and downs in our lives, Ignatius suggests a person examine carefully their own experiences to reveal what causes such emotions as anxiety, sadness, confusion or, as he called it, feeling ‘scattered’. Ignatius taught people to track feelings and thoughts backward to see where and how they began. In practicing this, people become aware that there is a spiritual element even in the ordinary events of one’s life.

Beginning, Middle, End

When wanting to make a decision in line with God’s plan, Ignatius encourages us to look at the beginning, middle and end of our thoughts and ideas. If from beginning to end, my attention has been focused on what is good and  what will lead me closer to Christ, then I can be sure that it is God’s spirit who has been guiding me. However,  if I started well, but my thoughts and actions gradually began to get twisted towards self-interest and greed, I realize that I have been led away from God. I have left his accompanying spirit somewhere along the way.

Characteristic Signs

Once I have practiced “tracking back” I can recognize the good and negative influences at work in me. Letting myself be guided by God’s good impulses leaves me with an feeling of peace, courage, and quiet. On the other hand, suppressing that ‘voice’ within me, leaves me with the feeling of being ‘scattered’ and uneasy. Often we don’t have a lot of time to sit down and think things through quietly. Our choices and decisions have to be made quickly. Ignatius realized this and gave some helpful images and ways to test thoughts and desires, to see if they are from God or not.

Am I drawn or driven?

The Lord’s spirit draws a person gently toward goodness and doing God’s will. It increases a person’s freedom and brings a peacefulness in choices made. On the other hand, St Ignatius speaks of a contrary spirit or voice which, if followed, typically drives a person to greater busy-ness. The person is left tired and unsatisfied.

Gentle or disturbing?

For a person whose life is directed towards God, good and negative influences are felt in different ways. Ignatius uses the image of the gentle way a drop of water penetrates a sponge, in contrast to the violent way a waterfall splashes onto a rock ledge below.

“Don’t let anyone know”

The anxiety we can feel to keep thoughts or choices secret is not typical of the Lord’s spirit at work. Keeping everything secret and hidden leaves a person with a constant feeling of agitation, and vulnerable to discouragement. It is healthy to discuss what we are thinking about with a trustworthy and wise older person, like a priest.  A typical sign of the Holy Spirit at work, is that people are led into the truth, to live in the light, and to experience a peacefulness and joy in doing what is right.

How to Make Decisions

Often when we are making decisions we want to know what God wants us to do. Sometimes we can get confused and worried. Apart from ‘listening to God’, knowing the ‘characteristics of God’, and praying, there is a simple method St Ignatius offers for trying to “work it out”.

Five attitudes

  • Trust that God is at work in your hopes and desires
  • Believe that God works through your daily events and people
  • Try to be free and not lean toward a particular choice
  • Give time and energy to “working it out”
  • Have a basic commitment to following God’s will as it becomes clear to you

Working it out

  • Be clear about what you are deciding about
  • Seek advice and information
  • List and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each option
  • Try to notice which option seems to bring either peacefulness or uneasiness
  • Make a decision and have God confirm it in prayer

Scripture for Reflection

It is in times of quiet contemplation of the Scriptures that you are most likely to hear ‘the call’ of God. Compare your experiences of call with those of the people of the Scriptures. Be guided and comforted and inspired and challenged by their dreams, their fears, their struggles, their prayers and their wholehearted responses.

Listed below are the references in Scripture where different experiences of the call can be found. They may prove helpful to you.

‘Calls’ in Old Testament

  • Adam and Eve: Genesis 1:26-31; 2:4-25
  • Abraham and Sarah: Genesis 12:1-6; chapters 15, 17, 18
  • Isaac and Rebecca: Genesis 21:1-8; 22:1-9; chapter 24
  • Jacob/Israel and Leah and Rachel: Genesis 25:19-34; chapters 27-33
  • Joseph: Genesis 37; chapters 39-50
  • Moses: Exodus 2-4
  • Joshua: Joshua 1
  • Deborah: Judges 4-5
  • Ruth: Ruth 1:1-18
  • Samuel: 1 Samuel 3:1-10
  • David: 1 Samuel 16:1-12; 2 Samuel 7
  • Elijah: 1 Kings 17-19
  • Elisha: 1 Kings 19:19-21; 2 Kings 2;13:14-25
  • Amos: Amos 7-9
  • Hosea: Hosea 1-2
  • Isaiah: Isaiah 6 and 40
  • Suffering Servant: Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13-53
  • Jeremiah: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 15:10-21; 20:7-9
  • Ezekiel: Ezekiel 1-3
  • Daniel: Daniel 6
  • Judith: Judith 8
  • Esther: Esther 4; 9:20-32
  • Tobit: Tobit 1-3
  • Nehemiah: Nehemiah 1-2
  • Jonah: Jonah 1-3
  • Matthias: 1 Maccabees 1-2
  • Job: Job 1 and chapters 38, 39 and 42
  • Psalmist: Psalm 139
  • Sirach: Sirach 44-51

‘Calls’ in New Testament

  • John the Baptist: Luke 1:5-25, 57-80; 3:1-20; Mark 1:1-8; Matthew 3:1-12
  • John: 1:19-34; 3:22-36
  • Mary: Luke 1:26-56
  • Joseph: Matthew 1:19-24
  • Jesus’ Baptism: Mark 1:9-13; Matthew 3:13-4:11; Luke 3:21-22 and 4:1-31
  • Disciples at the Lake: Mark 1:16-20 and 2:13-17
  • First Disciples: Matthew 4: 18-22 and 9:9-13; Luke 5:1-11 and 5:27-32; John 1:35-51
  • Disciples on the Mount: Mark 3:13-19; family response 3:20-35
  • Commissioning Disciples: Matthew 9:35-10:5; Luke 6:12-16; John 15:9-17; entire last discourse chapters 13-17
  • Instructions to Disciples: Matthew 10:6-11:1; Luke 9:1-6 and 10:1-20
  • Rich Young Man: Mark 10:17-31; Matthew 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30
  • Penitent Woman: Luke 7:36-50
  • Zacchaeus: Luke 19:1-20
  • Nicodemus: John 3:1-21
  • Woman at the Well: John 4:1-42
  • Women at the Tomb: Mark 16:1-8; Matthew 28:1-10; Luke 24: 1-12; John 20:1-18
  • Matthias: Acts 1:15-26
  • Stephen: Acts 6-7
  • Paul: Acts 9:1-25; 22:3-16; 26:12-18
  • Timothy: 2 Timothy 1:1-14
  • Titus: Titus 1-2
  • Philemon: Philemon
  • Jesus the High Priest: Hebrews 4:14-5:10

Our Calling

  • Who is Jesus? Mark 8:27-38; 9:30-32; 10:32-34; Matthew 16:13-28;17:22-23; 20:17-19; Luke 9:18-36; 9:43-45; 18:31-34
  • Who are Followers? Luke 9:57-62
  • Prodigal Son: Luke 15:1-32
  • Ten Lepers: Luke 17:11-19
  • Rich and poor: Luke 16: 19-32
  • Last judgment: Matthew 25:31-46
  • God’s people: Deuteronomy 6:1-7; 11
  • Called by name: Isaiah 43 and 49
  • Baptized in Christ: Romans 6
  • No boasting: 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
  • Understand fully: Ephesians 1 and 4
  • Imitate Christ: Philippians 2:1-18 and chapter 3
  • We proclaim: 1 John 1:1-14

Do not dwell on the past or dwell on what happened long ago. Watch for the new thing I am going to do it is happening already, you can see it now! I will make a road through the wilderness for you and give you streams of water there. – Isaiah 43:18-19