Discerning to Death; Tapering One’s Discernment Towards Its Conclusion

by Therese Ivers, JCL

Way back in September, I was asked to help with an upcoming retreat for women discerning their vocations and who feel like they’re beating their heads on the wall “discerning to death”.  This topic really resonated with me, and as I continue to prepare for this weekend’s retreat, I am seeing more and more how although there is plenty of literature giving pieces of information about the discernment process, there is hardly anything out there that talks about how to bring it to a peaceful conclusion.  The goal of discernment is to figure out God’s will in one’s life, most particularly whether God is calling one to assume a lifelong commitment by virtue of ordination, vow, or consecration.  In theory figuring out one’s vocation sounds pretty straightforward, but plenty of folks agonize over it, and some have never reached a practical conclusion as to whether there is a state in life they should pursue.  How exactly does a person go from the beginning to the middle and then reach the end of vocational discernment?

Vocations and the Fairy Tale

Good fairy tales touch upon the deep desires of human beings.  Some are about wealth as the reward of virtue and valor, a concept that even Our Lord uses in speaking about the reward of eternal life.  Others talk about longevity and an absence from the ordinary woes of life (think immortality and the properties of risen bodies).  The majority, however, are about romantic love in which after trial, the princess and the prince happily live together ever after.  Again, this reflects the eternal betrothal between Christ and His Church…

Yet, it never ceases to amaze me when I am judging marriage annulment cases and we get someone under oath testifying that they thought that once they got married, everything would turn out great (despite the fact their spouse was abusively beating them daily during their courtship, they were both high on drugs most of the time, that they had two or three children before they decided to get officially hitched…) simply and solely because getting married in the Church was somehow going to magically make things different!  It gets worse when they blame people in the Church for their failed marriage (why didn’t the priest stop us?)!  How is it that the fairy tale of living happily ever after gets drummed into people’s minds when it comes to vocational choices?  I will be forever happy if I marry that person…  I will automatically be holy if I become a priest…  As soon as I slip on that habit or religious life emblem, I’m gonna be floating around in prayer…  It seems to me that good discernment starts with understanding that fairy tales are just that.  Fairy tales.

The process of discerning a vocation starts with the realization that the process usually takes knowledge, dedication, and work.  Knowledge is necessary to make informed choices.  How much do you as a discerner know about the vocations open to you in the Church?  It takes dedication to following the will of God.  It also takes effort, or work.

One can say that the time of courtship, discernment for the seminary, convent, or other form of consecrated life, is normally a time of mutual discovery.  It takes work, both on the part of the person making the decision to pursue a particular path or narrow it down to a path, and of the person(s) who admit that person into vows (think marriage, religious life, diocesan hermit life, and secular institutes), consecration (consecrated virgins) and ordination (diaconate, priesthood, and episcopacy).  One who is discerning should work not only at improving knowledge about vocations, but self-knowledge so that obstacles and fears may be evaluated and addressed.

The Goal

The final goal of vocational discernment is to make vows, be consecrated or be ordained if this should be the Lord’s will.  Yet, the immediate goal of the discerner should be to do what it takes to determine which path (if any) to which one seems to have a genuine call and make a decision to pursue it in a prudent fashion. That way, one can peacefully but purposefully pursue a possible call and offer oneself to a concrete person, diocese, order, or institute if one prudently and prayerfully determines they could be a fit.  Of course a person should be “open” in that the other person, diocese, order, or institute may determine that it is not their vocation to be united with you in their particular path to holiness.

(c) 2009 by Therese Ivers, JCL and www.DoIHaveAVocation.com.

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