In Which We Rewrite Everyone’s Vocation Discernment Programmes

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May 9, 2013 by lucieromarin

It’s easy to resent those who give one a disappointing formation, especially where vocation is involved. However, I’ve come to believe that there’s a real difference between those who are really bad at their jobs and those who did their best, but who, through no fault of their own, were just ill-equipped for their unenviable task. It’s like nursing; a high death rate in a private hospital during peacetime is not the same as high death rate in a tent beside a battlefield in which nurses must try to treat wounds that no one has ever seen before, because the weapons are so new.

So, I’m going to try to be fair to both the disappointed and the disappointing: instead of asking, “What do vocation discernment programmes do wrong?” I’ll ask, “What wounds have been presented to vocation educators that they can have little or no idea how to treat?”

Well, the first challenge – though it may seem odd to count it as a wound – is this: ours is the first generation in the history of the Church to have almost total freedom of choice when it comes to vocation. Yes, a vocation has always been known to be a call from God, but ours is the first generation in which that call is not considered expressed through such channels as the will of our parents or our social or economic circumstances. We need to remind ourselves that for vast portions of the Church’s history, your vocation was chosen by your parents – in particular, your father – who not only decided whether you entered religious life or marriage, but who, if he chose marriage for you, also chose your spouse. And this choice was not determined by what God told you in prayer, but by birth order and family finances. Certainly, there are saints who resisted or opposed their parents’ will – sometimes successfully – but they were the exception, not the rule. Ours is the first generation in which vocation is almost entirely considered the fruit of a personal conversation with God.

What’s the problem with this? The problem is that this puts an unnatural emphasis upon the experience of ‘hearing’ something. It trains people to think that they cannot make a decision – or even test a hunch – until some kind of unmistakeable interior voice has addressed them.

In other words, stressing the nature of vocation as a call from God is helpful if it reminds us to submit our hopes and our decisions to His Will. It’s not helpful if it stops us from making any decisions until we feel that He has made them for us with a voice comparable to the Voice heard by the greatest of saints. Those who preached to us about vocation preached to the first generation in the history of the Church that was paralysed by choice.

So, if I was rewriting a discernment programme, I would include these points: that the practice of universal private discernment is very new, so don’t talk as though it isn’t; that to ask God to remove all doubt or uncertainty from decision-making is to ask Him to make your decisions for you, and He is not going to do that, so; learn to read the natural expressions of God’s Will. No, I don’t mean a return to arranged marriage (!); I do mean something like knowing that if your religious retreat made you ill, you don’t have to wait for further information to come to you in the form of a locution. Likewise, you don’t have to be rapt in beautiful emotions throughout it in order to take it seriously; if you didn’t hate it, you can try it for longer!

The second challenge before vocation educators is this: the ability to make a commitment is a characteristic of adulthood. If a man says, “I’m not ready for marriage,” and he doesn’t mean, “Because my house burnt down and I’m rebuilding it,” you know it means “Because I’m immature.” However, today’s vocation guides have to extract an irrevocable, adult commitment from a generation that is lauded for not being adults. I do understand that much of the cult of youth has to do with helping young people feel welcome in church communities, but, like everything else, it’s a mixed good. The more you praise people for the mere fact of being young, the fewer reasons you give them for wishing to leave that youth behind. Worse, where people learn to associate youth with immaturity, they cling to that immaturity as a way of clinging to youth – so you end up with absurdities such as an invitation I once saw, for ‘Young People Aged 15-35,’ and 35-year-old saying, in all seriousness, “I’m keeping my options open,” because that is what he said when he was fifteen.

So, if I were writing a programme, I would include these points; that adulthood requires certain natural virtues, which can be achieved at a young age (that’s why there are young saints. They weren’t old, but they were mature); that the ability to keep a resolution is the chief of these virtues; that all the prayer in the world can’t help you with vocation if you lack this virtue; so get working on it!

There’s a third problem our poor vocation directors face. It is this – that people want to restore the dignity of marriage by reminding us that it can be a call from God. Why is this a problem? Because, in the light of the first point, it means that hundreds of people who, in any other era, would not have doubted their interest in marriage for one second, now put it off, because they can’t hear God telling them to pursue it.

Marriage is the default vocation. It is the natural vocation of every human being. Yes, it takes a sacrament and supernatural virtue to make it holy, but natural virtue alone is sufficient to ensure that any marriage – even a non-Catholic marriage, even an arranged marriage, and even a marriage between two persons who could have been religious – can be stable, loving, and happy. My ideal programme would not tell people to spend time asking if they are called to marriage; every adult should be so well-trained in the natural virtues that, given a spouse also trained in the natural virtues, marriage would be a success. Rather, assuming they’d acquired this level of virtue, my lucky candidates would ask whether or not they were called to renounce marriage, either for the sake of religious life or for the sake of an apostolate with which marriage is not really compatible.

Those people who inherited the difficult job of trying to get Catholics to marry or enter religious life again – after the seventies broke both institutions – are the first people in the history of the Church asked to extract a lifetime’s commitment from a generation trained to prefer youth to adulthood and with almost nothing to guide them in this decision-making other than a voice from God which neither their parents nor grandparents were expected to hear.

And we haven’t even mentioned the competing influences from the secular world! Is it any wonder it didn’t always go right?



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