In so many Christian contexts today, it is almost impossible to avoid hearing about the importance of discerning one’s “personal vocation.” This label, apparently, is meant to denote the specific calling God gives to each individual, through which each is to live out his own particular call to holiness. Yet this language reflects only a half-truth. We are indeed meant to follow the will of God in all that we do. But such popular talk of one’s “calling” also betrays a crucial misunderstanding of discernment, a cardinal error that is entirely foreign to the great tradition of the Church.
The confusion is rooted in the oft-overlooked sin of presumption. For when a Christian goes to prayer with the expectation that God will reveal to him a personalized plan for his life, he presumes that God will make him the recipient of a miraculous private revelation. Now, our Christian history has seen numerous instances of his doing exactly that, particularly with some of the Church’s most venerable mystic saints. But God is under no constraints to act in this way, and far be it for me to deem myself worthy to receive so extraordinary a message from Our Lord.
But if a Christian is not to presume that God will supernaturally reveal his “personal vocation” to him, how then is he to know God’s will for his life? I would contend that, if he has been going to church on a weekly basis and has received at least average catechesis along the way, he probably already does know his will for his life. God summarizes it succinctly in the Ten Commandments, and even more succinctly in Matthew 22: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. That, further informed by the ordinances of the Church, is all the instruction we need to achieve our fulfillment and arrive at salvation.
In a recent documentary on Eastern Christian monasticism, NYU’s Norris Chumley asked a monk in the Ukraine if God speaks to him in prayer. “He does not speak to me,” the monk answered, “because he has already said everything, through the Gospel and through the works of the Holy Fathers, of the saints.” Such a response might sound borderline blasphemous to contemporary Christians. And yet, this answer reflects perfectly the consensus of the Church over the past 2,000 years. In general, it seems that God provides the graces people need to serve him in whatever station of life they occupy.
So God does not tell each of us exactly what to do all the time. In fact, he does not necessarily even tell us what to do with regards to major life choices, including choices between religious and secular life. He gifts us with any number of good and virtuous options, and then leaves the decision to us. As a mantra classically attributed to St. Augustine puts it, “Love God and do what you will.”
This attitude obviously flies in the face of most of today’s popular literature on vocation, wherein “discerners” are told to look within themselves to see if their desires indicate that God has singled them out to live a religious life. So, in addition to the prideful presumption lurking within that common strategy, this typical modern message about discernment also sows a dangerous confusion about the nature of a religious vocation.
The religious life is a higher calling, not an esoteric, separate one. Just as giving an extra hundred dollars to the collection plate is not as good as giving an extra thousand, still both are goods, and there is no immorality in opting out of the heroically generous higher option. That is an ancient doctrine of the faith, but too often today people shy away from it and try to mitigate the revealed truth that a religious vocation is more perfect than any secular life can be. The message of Our Lord and St. Paul in the Scriptures, and that of the Church’s tradition throughout history, is simply this: “Let those who can take religious life take it.”
God tells Jeremiah that he knows well the plans he has made for him, “plans for his welfare and not for his woe.” What he does not say is that Jeremiah will likewise know these plans before they come to fruition. God promises never to abandon the Christian in his pilgrimage towards Heaven, but not that the path ahead will be made clear to him before he walks it. Does this seemingly radical rejection of “personal vocation” mean that God does not care what I do with my life? Of course it does not. It simply means that God does not condemn all ways but one.
The Christian ought to make major life decisions as he ought to make all decisions: by evaluating how he can serve God, by choosing a course of action accordingly, and by having the courage to follow through and do it. As Pope Benedict XVI writes, “If I listen to [God] and walk with Him, I become truly myself. What counts is not the fulfillment of my desires, but of his will. In this way life becomes authentic.” May we each have the courage to live such an authentic life, free from the unnecessary burdens we impose on ourselves by becoming too preoccupied with what one of my friends refers to as “an over-devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Discernment.”
Michael Hannon studies philosophy, religion, and medieval studies at Columbia University.
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