Discerning and Not Discerning

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September 18, 2014 by lucieromarin

Historically, very few Catholics have discerned their vocations in the way that is now marketed as normal. The majority of Catholics had their vocations chosen for them by their parents or guardians, or by other external circumstances such as birth order, class and wealth.

This is not to say that no one ever experienced and followed a real prompting from the Holy Spirit; it’s clear from the lives of the saints that some did. However, this prompting was not par for the course. Our generation is the first generation in the history of the Church to be told that a vocation to marriage needs to be discerned; between around 33 A.D and the 1980s, it was taken for granted that any reasonable adult could and would enter into marriage barring either the influences of famine and war or the voluntary or involuntary renunciation of marriage for the sake of religious life. There have been Catholics who had the freedom to ask themselves ‘Is God calling me to the religious life?’ and who decided that He wasn’t. But no one, ever, was told that they had to ask themselves if they were called to marriage.

Confused older people might remark on the inability of young people to commit to a vocation. I can see why they do, and it is certainly true that this can be attributed at times to immaturity or selfishness. However, it has also to be borne in mind that young and youngish Catholics are being trained in an unprecedented style of vocation discernment. They can’t date, because they don’t know if they’re meant to be married, and they don’t know if they’re meant to be married, because they haven’t yet heard the Call that was once assumed to be heard only by a small number of persons, and only with reference to religious life. That is, they’re waiting for a particular interior grace, illumination or locution, because they’ve been taught to expect to hear it. And no one has mentioned to them that not one of their forebears was ever expected to hear this voice.

Of course none of us want to return to a system whereby parents choose the vocations of their children, or wherein poverty or class excludes a candidate from religious life. Which would be worse – an arranged marriage, or being placed in a religious order without your consent? Obviously this system had its flaws – not all arranged vocations were miserable, but some of them certainly were. No, we don’t want to return to these methods, but it’s important to remember that they existed. Why? First, it frees you from being beholden to the particular style of vocation discernment characteristic of your time. You don’t have to hear a voice; you can do what seems reasonable, and take your cues from around you, as thousands of people have done before you.

Second, once you realise that people made good lives for themselves in vocations not of their choosing, and that this was due to their own natural and supernatural virtue, you can see immediately that the best investment of your time is growing in virtue. Stop going to millions of vocations talks and scrutinizing your soul for something that seems to be God communicating with you; start investing time in mental prayer, in identifying and combatting your predominant faults, in exercising virtue in normal, daily life, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to end up a happier person, even if a vocation doesn’t appear. You don’t want to look back on your life and say, “Where was the call?” You want to look back and say, “Father was right! It does take about fifteen years to achieve contemplation – I had no idea that slog would be so satisfying!”

Third, it’s good to have proof that you can embark on a vocation, and live that vocation well, without the slightest hint of what we now take for a call. I know people who are attracted to religious life, but who won’t try it, because they Don’t Know for Certain that Its What God Wants. As soon as you realise that you don’t have to know anything for certain, (at least, not right this second!) you’re free to follow that attraction without the pressure of needing a particular conclusion. You don’t have to say ‘No’ to a guy who asks you out for coffee simply because you haven’t yet heard a voice telling you whether or not you’re meant to get married. You can go for the coffee and let the experience tell you.

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