As the new vocations director for the diocese I’ve had to think a lot about discernment. People ask me how to discern, what it means to discern, how it’s done well, etc. Most of the time it’s in the context of knowing how to decide rightly one’s vocation; however, we can and should have a discerning heart even about things not connected to the decision for celibacy or for married life.
Discernment also involves deciding about careers, family life, and really, we should have a discerning heart that considers Christ in every decision. This consideration should free us, not stop us in our tracks with anxiety. Let’s see how this might be possible.
Discernment can be paralyzing if it isn’t connected to reality. If our discernment doesn’t take into account all relevant factors, it becomes about begging God to shoot down a lightning bolt of clarity and a paralyzing fear when said lightning bolt doesn’t strike.
So, what are all the relevant factors for good discernment?
Prayer is key. There is nothing to discern if we are not at least attempting to pray well. While this is a key component, I also want to move past the trite advice to “just pray more,” as if God were simply not convinced of your sincerity and so is hiding his plan from you a little longer.
Here are some other components I’ve found to be important as well:
First, look at one’s own natural gifts. Each of us is given gifts from God to be used for his glory and at the service of his Kingdom. We should take seriously the natural gifts and abilities gifted to us and see how God is calling us through them. This is helpful for discerning educational choices or career paths. If a student is particularly gifted in math, it would make more sense for them to pursue a career in the sciences than a career in music.
Second, a component that can be helpful for discernment is our circumstances. Not everyone has gifts that are so clear so as to arrive at a certainty about what to do with them, and so our circumstances must be considered as well.
For instance, say that an athlete with Division 1 talent rightfully pursues scholarships and schools he would have otherwise never considered. Imagine then that he loses his ability to walk in a car accident. His circumstances have changed and he must now consider a new path.
This is a rather tragic example, but remember that even when circumstances lead us away from previously desired paths, we must always know that our happiness does not depend on worldly success but on our service to the Kingdom of God. One can give great glory to God frying chicken wings, paving roads or even in a nursing home bed. If circumstance is united to Christ, it is for God’s glory.
Finally, it is legitimate to look around and ask, “What does the world need? What does the Church need?” Needs change, and so our responses from one generation to the next can change, too. Where is the need greatest right now? It seems possible to me that maybe the need is everywhere. Married life, priesthood and religious life are all in need of men and women united to Christ in radical faithfulness.
Good discernment should take into consideration all of reality. Spiritual lightning bolts aren’t guaranteed to us all, and so it is helpful to look at all aspects of one’s gifts, circumstances and the needs that surround us.
And finally, if none of this is helpful at all, one last exhortation: do not be afraid. The hymn below from newly sainted John Henry Newman is a beautiful gift.
Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead me Thou on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step is enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Savior, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.
-Saint John Henry Newman