… The call of the Lord usually comes to us in a more subtle and indirect manner … left up to us, with the assistance of divine grace, to discern whether we are being called to the priesthood or consecrated life.
Christ calling Peter to come to him
When a soldier receives his military assignment, it’s clearly spelled out—what his duties are, who his superiors will be, where he is to report. There is no mystery, and no need for guessing; every soldier is clear on his mission, and the commander’s intent. His safety, and the safety of others, demands such clarity. Although, in this life, we are engaged in spiritual warfare, and we call the Church on earth the “Church Militant,” believers cannot expect the same clarity when it comes to knowing if they are called to the priesthood or the consecrated life.
Many of the predominant figures in Sacred Scripture have been blessed with great clarity when discerning their vocation because God chose to speak to them in a direct and, often, very startling manner. The Lord spoke to Moses from the burning bush. The archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would be the Mother of the Messiah. St. Paul encountered the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. These dramatic encounters changed the direction of their lives, leaving them with a concrete certainty of the Lord’s call.
However, for the majority of humanity, the divine prerogative has ordained that individual vocations normally be revealed less explicitly. Rarely does the Lord’s voice bellow from a thunderhead, or does Christ appear in his risen majesty to reveal his will to us. Instead, the call of the Lord usually comes to us in a more subtle and indirect manner. It is then left up to us, with the assistance of divine grace, to discern whether we are being called to the priesthood or consecrated life.
This can be especially frustrating for many people discerning a potential vocation because they seem to be searching for an absolute certainty that they are called before they are willing to follow or act upon it. Waiting for this certainty, they hesitate, and are unable to move forward and enter into a program of formation. They want a near 100 percent guarantee that they are called before they will say “yes,” but the reality is that we don’t receive that level of certainty when it comes to knowing and discerning our vocation. If we have discerned properly, what we can receive is a moral certitude that we are called. It is not 100 percent, but it is enough to make a prudential decision, and to act in good conscience, and enter the seminary or convent.
This search for a perfect, almost scientific, certitude that one is called can lead to a delay, or a perpetual postponement of entering formation. But what’s worse is that it can be a source of great anxiety. The lack of peace this search for certainty tends to cause is surely not of God, and can lead to further problems in the process of discernment. It can sow seeds of doubt that can end up negatively impacting other areas of the individual’s faith life. The doubt that wracks the minds and souls of so many, and leaves them almost paralyzed, does not have its source in God. The Lord’s will, and his voice, always bring a sense of peace. Surely, there might be an element of fear regarding what Christ may be calling you to, but that fear never manifests itself in anxiety or crippling doubt. If you experience this, you can know that is not from God, and it is either from yourself, or the Evil One, and then you can renounce it with surety. The Evil One knows well if an individual is called to do great things by following Jesus in a more radical way, and will do all that he can to derail that vocation even before it starts.
Why do people tend to desire such complete certainty when it comes to vocational discernment? There are several main reasons. First, many people are waiting for God to speak to them directly, like he does in Scripture. As we said, throughout history, God has spoken to people in these ways; however, it is far from the norm. The Lord does speak to us, but his voice is usually mediated. In the Old Testament, the Lord normally speaks to his people through the prophets. In the New Testament, he speaks through the apostles. Today, it is the same; God normally mediates his voice through people and things. Benedict XVI, writing before his election as pope, in the book, God and the World, says, “God speaks quietly. But he gives us all kinds of signs. In retrospect, especially, we can see that he has given us a little nudge through a friend, through a book, or through what we see as a failure—even through ‘accidents.’ Life is actually full of these silent indications. If I remain alert, then slowly they piece together a consistent whole, and I begin to feel how God is guiding me.” God usually speaks in a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12), rather than in thunder and earthquakes. But if we are expecting for him to speak to us in that direct and bold manner, then we may not be capable of hearing his voice.
The risk is that we can end up making the process of discernment too much like figuring out a puzzle or a secret code. There can be an underlying assumption that God does not want to communicate with us clearly, and might even be trying to trick us, or make the process difficult. This is simply not the truth. Too often, we are the ones who complicate the situation. We look for signs that either are not there, or are evident to others. And somehow, we are unable—or unwilling—to see them.
Second, the desire for certainty in understanding and knowing God’s will when discerning a vocation can often come from a hidden desire to control. Fr. Jacques Philippe writes in his book, Interior Freedom, “The desire (to understand God’s will) may also spring from another source that is far from pure: insecurity. In this case, understanding means reassuring ourselves, seeking security in the sense that we can control the situation if we understand it.” Here, we have an unwillingness to live in the present moment, and hand the future over to God’s will. Sometimes, we feel that if we understand perfectly what God wants for us, we will be in control, instead of relinquishing control, and having the faith to follow. Examples in Scripture abound of individuals who “let go” to follow the Lord: Abraham, Esther, Hosea, Joseph, Mary, Peter, Matthew. They show that following the Lord’s will does not entail clairvoyance or a perfect understanding of his will.
Finally, people want complete certainty that they are called before they will act because they fear making the wrong decision. In my work with individuals discerning a possible vocation, this is the most common issue holding people back. They want to do God’s will, but they fear making the wrong decision and, resultantly, they hesitate and never make a choice. Discernment does not mean always making the right decision immediately, rather it is more a process, a growing in learning to listen to the voice of the Lord, trusting and acting in faith. What lies at the heart, though, is the desire to do God’s will and give yourself to him in a radical way.
There is a radical difference between deliberately acting against the directly expressed will of God, and acting in good faith desiring to do the Lord’s will, even if you may be wrong about exactly what God’s will is. The Lord sees the heart, and the good intention, and desire to do his will, and will graciously guide you in the right direction. Thomas Merton’s “Prayer of Abandonment” beautifully expresses this tension between our uncertainty and God’s loving providence.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you
and I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.
And I know that if I do this,
you will lead me by the right road although I may know nothing about it.
Therefore, will I trust you always
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death,
I will not fear, for you are ever with me
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Besides the initial “yes” one gives is to enter a program of formation—not to make lifelong vows. The person believes that the Lord might be calling him, and he wants to do his will, so he says “yes” to a period of formation that will entail more serious and focused discernment. During the time in formation and more intense prayer and spiritual direction, the call—if it is present—will become clearer. The individual is then better prepared to give a total “yes” to Christ. But during that time of formation, many come to realize that they are not called.
In my years of formation, and my years as a priest, I have seen numerous young men and women enter and leave the seminary or convent because they discerned that this was not their vocation. I have yet to meet one of these who has regretted the initial decision to enter a program of formation. They all speak about what a blessed time it was, and that if they had not have entered formation, they would have never had certainty of their vocation. Now, they are free to pursue marriage, knowing that the priesthood or consecrated life was not God’s will for them. They stepped out in faith and the desire to follow God’s will, and the Lord provided for them, and guided them along the path to their state in life as a married person.
This desire for almost complete certainty in knowing if one is called to the priesthood or consecrated life before they will say “yes” and enter a program of formation has muddied the waters of discernment for many. It is necessary to simplify things and to rely more on faith, and the good intentions of the Lord, for our lives. St. Francis de Sales explains:
To know whether God will have a person become a religious it is not to be expected that God himself should speak, or send an angel from heaven to signify his will. It is not necessary that ten or twelve confessors should examine whether the vocation is to be followed. But it is necessary to correspond with the first movement of the inspiration, and to cultivate it, and then not to grow weary if disgust or coldness should come on. If a person acts thus, God will not fail to make all succeed to his glory. Nor ought we to care much from what quarter the first movement comes. The Lord has many ways of calling his servants.
Whenever I am working with someone who is wrestling with a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated lifeh and is looking for an unrealistic certainty that they are called before entering the seminary or convent, I will often pose two questions to them that often help them clarify their desire to do God’s will. First, “What is the deepest desire of your heart?” and second, “What makes you the happiest?” If they respond to both questions with answers that focus on Jesus, prayer, evangelization, etc., I will then ask them what is to stop them from following that desire and looking for the happiness that comes only from following Christ.
Too often people are looking for a specific reason to follow Christ by renouncing marriage for the sake of the kingdom; they want a concrete answer to the question of whether Jesus is calling them. But instead maybe it is wiser to ask, “Why not?” follow Christ in celibacy, especially if the deepest desire of your heart and your true happiness comes in serving him? Why would Jesus chastise or punish you for wanting to follow him in such a radical way? Maybe you read the signs wrong, or maybe you didn’t hear his voice correctly—but Jesus sees the heart and will always guide you to the proper end.
Jesus will always guide and support us in our vocation, but we must be willing to take that first step in following him. In Searching for and Maintaining Peace, Fr. Jacques Philippe uses the example of the parachute to illustrate this point:
As long as a person who must jump with a parachute does not jump out into the void, he cannot feel that the cords of the parachute will support him, because the parachute has not yet had a chance to open. One must first jump and it is only later that one feels carried.
If we hesitate to jump out of the plane because we are looking for perfect certainty that this is what God really wants us to do with our lives, or a certainty that he will guide us so that we will land safely, we will never jump out of the plane and, thus, never feel the tug of the parachute opening.
The call to follow Christ in renouncing marriage for the sake of the kingdom takes a great amount of faith, even in those initial steps. We can have a reasonable certitude through prayer and discernment that Jesus is calling us, so we take the step towards a life of total self gift through a life of celibacy. It is a lot like Peter on that dark and windy night when he saw Christ walking on the water, and called out to him (cf. Matthew 14). He wasn’t sure if that was really Jesus on the water telling him to step out of the boat, but he took that step in faith, and the Lord supported him. Peter didn’t have perfect certainty, but he still stepped out in faith, and as long as he kept his eyes fixed on Christ, he was able to walk on water.
If you think Jesus is calling you to the priesthood or religious life, do not be afraid to step out of the boat. Jesus will not let you sink.