Many people who make contact with the Dominican friars in Ireland often ask what vocational discernment is about. For most enquirers it is a completely new experience. So, in answer to those who ask what discernment of a vocation is, I will try to answer in a question and answer format. I hope readers will find it helpful.
What is a vocation?
Vocation comes from the Latin verb 'vocare' which means 'to call'. It is a calling from God who made us, loves us and has a plan for each of us. Vocational discernment then is not just about making a lifestyle choice or a career path - instead it starts in faith where God is acknowledged as the source of a vocation. Fundamentally, discernment of a vocation involves God in the decision making process in two ways: prayer and listening (to God's will).
Does God give vocations to everyone?
In brief, yes. It is important to state at the outset that God desires our happiness. Those trying to understand vocation can find this hard to believe - sometimes fearing that God will ask us to do something that we will either hate or will not be able to do. The church reminds us that we are fulfilled as human beings through self-giving. So, vocation is not just something given to us by God, but also something we freely give to God and to others.
Am I turning away from God if I do not follow my vocation?
Discernment of a vocation helps a person to understand that because a vocation is something we give to God, then we must be free to make this choice. In our lives, God gives us a multiplicity of choices - marriage, religious life and the single life. We have the freedom to pursue all sorts of career paths. If we are not in a place in life where we are free to commit to a vocation (for example because of immaturity, or fear, or addiction) then we must face up to that knowing that the Lord will help us through the process. It is important that we must not believe, as many people in discernment do, that God will reject us if we make the wrong choice. While God does really call us to vocation, God also respects our freedom and never abandons us.
How will I know that God is calling me?
Many of the great spiritual people in the history of the church, including the saints and others, remind us that spiritual growth begins in self-knowledge. God will make us holy through our vocation - in other words, God will sanctify us. Generally, the grace of our vocation will build upon this nature. When we become aware of our gifts and talents and our weaknesses - these can help us in our understanding and insight of what type of vocations are possible and those that we should not pursue. Also, through prayer and other means, it is important to listen to our hearts and to be attentive to those relationships and activities that give us both a sense of peace and joy. Our desires and motivations are also quite significant - they can sometimes be the manifestation of the Holy Spirit showing us how to respond to God's call.When we are attentive in prayer and when our hearts are open, then we will heard God calling us more clearly.
What is the best way to prepare for discernment?
Authentic Christian vocations are always rooted in Jesus Christ. In order to know as best as we can what God's will in our life is, it is of the highest importance that we first come to know Jesus Christ and begin to model our lives on Him. Those who wish to enter more fully into discernment must also encounter Jesus in the sacramental life of the church. So, regularly participating in the Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation are two ways in which to prepare for discernment. Before we are apostles, we need to be disciples!
Will my being active in the life of the church help discernment?
Yes. Very much so. It is of great benefit if an enquirer is involved in his/her faith community or parish or chaplaincy. It is by taking part in the life of the church that will inform, support and help a discerning person to naturally respond to the call of God.
Can I undertake vocational discernment alone?
No. You should really contact a vocations director - someone who has some training in assisting people discern their vocation. Also, friends and family members will always be able to give important insights and support. In fact, the more support the better in entering such an important process. Occasionally, the help of a spiritual director can also be helpful if deemed appropriate by the vocations director. Discerners should never forget calling on the saints in their prayer for assistance either!
Am I worthy?
This is the most frequent question posed by enquirers and those who enter into the process of vocational discernment. The simple answer is that nobody is. We are all very well aware of our sinfulness. The church reminds us and scripture tells us that whatever we have done in the past, God still can use us for his purposes. When you find yourself doubting and questioning your worthiness, consider who Jesus called around him. You will find yourself in good company!
When does vocational discernment end?
It ends when after a period of prayer, practical experience, information gathering, regular meeting with the vocations director and personal reflection have led a candidate to make a mature decision on whether to pursue a religious vocation or not. The majority of those who enter into vocational discernment do not end up entering religious life or seminaries - but the process of discernment leads them to a better understanding of where God is calling them to in their lives. For those who do opt to pursue their religious vocation, they enter into a process of admission into the order and congregation. Many who enter discernment do so looking for assurances, clarity and certainty. They will not find this but will find the necessary tools to help them come to an informed decision.
What topics are covered in vocational discernment and how long does it all take?
There are five primary areas that a vocations director should help you with. (1) Personal history and background. This will help and inform candidates and the order/congregation about the one who wishes to join. (2) Motivation - this is a wide area covering the spiritual, human, emotional, intellectual and psychological spheres. (3) Faith, God and the spiritual journey - this is a vast undertaking but is at the core of vocational discernment. (4) Information - the vocations director is responsible for making the Order/congregation known to the discerner by means of dissemination of information, regular visits to the communities and getting to know individual members and groups within the Order/congregation. (5) If discerning religious life, discernment will include an understanding of the vowed life and those core principles of religious life.
The time spent in discernment varies from person to person, but ordinarily it takes on year and occassionaly longer - depending on circumstances.
There are many other topics on discernment that could be dealt with, and I hope to address them in subsequent posts on this area.