Vocation and Discernment

Before ending this series on vocation, we need to look at the all-important topic of spiritual discernment. It’s all well and good for us to talk about what we believe God is calling us to do with our lives, but that kind of confidence can easily lead to delusion — with dire consequences for us and the world — if we have not taken great care to discern that calling and put it to the test. On the flip side, discernment is also important because the path of vocation is rarely an easy one. There are going to be strange turns, sudden reversals, and lengthy delays that put our sense of vocation to the test. Taking the care and due diligence required for honest discernment can give us the peace of mind and heart we need to persevere when our road seems particularly dark, lonely, or dangerous. But what does discernment look like? And how can we do it well?

First let’s remind ourselves of some of the common threads that have emerged about vocation in this series:

  1. Vocation can emerge in many ways; sometimes it’s obvious, but at others it requires time, care, and consideration.
  2. Vocation is a persistent expression of our truest self and is therefore connected to our purpose, values, desires, and abilities
  3. Vocation produces in us the character of God.
  4. Vocation doesn’t puff up our ego, but serves the needs of the community.
  5. Vocation is best understood in conversation between our deepest self and the community.
  6. Vocation can be expressed in many different ways depending on the person and context.

All of these characteristics can help us in our discernment process. Let’s now look at each in turn.

Vocation is pervasive but that doesn’t mean it’s obvious. Very few of us will get an audible call like Abraham or get thrown from a horse like Paul. For some of the rest of us, though still not many, we’ll know without a doubt what we are to do, what our lives are about and what God is about in them. But, for most of us, vocation takes a lot of discernment, and discernment takes time. This is what the exercises in the section below are all about: they are tools to help us take the needed time and care to sit with our lives and with God to discern our path. They aren’t miraculous how-to guides: they can provide helpful guidance for process, but in order for them to be meaningful, we also need the correct posture before God. We have to approach them with openness, curiosity, vulnerability, love, and prayer. About the need to approach discernment with openness to God, Parker Palmer writes:

Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about — quite apart from what I would like it to be about — or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions. That insight is hidden in the word vocation itself, which is rooted in the Latin for “voice.” Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling the who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live-but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life. (Let Your Life Speak)

While the ‘correct’ spiritual posture for discernment cannot be manufactured — it is after all about the heart — I find it helpful to start a discernment process with meditation or contemplative prayer, or praying an appropriate office or liturgy of the hours. These help to calm the mind and open the heart to God. I also find it beneficial to undertake an examination of conscience, whether the traditional Ignatian Examen or another. These practices are great at identifying areas of concern or even hidden motivations or secondary issues that need to be dealt with apart from bigger questions of vocation. (Just a couple weekends ago, I was doing a bit of a ‘vocational bootcamp’ and in my Examen I realized that a lot of my immediate dissatisfaction was related to a specific issue at work I needed to address. It was really helpful to identify that at the start so it didn’t confuse the rest of the process!)

Second, vocation is a persistent expression of our truest and best self and is connected to our purpose, values, desires, and abilities. This puts it in conflict with both our communities, which often want us to fulfill predetermined roles, and with our culture of immediate gratification and FOMO, the fear of missing out, which are so loud it’s difficult for us to hear the often quieter persistence of vocation. So we have to be intentional about hearing this voice from our deepest and truest self. This section is about creativity and idea-generation. When it comes to vocation, many of us don’t know where to start. Discernment between two or three paths is hard enough; having no paths before us from which to choose makes discernment impossible! Here are some tools we can do to help us :

  • Abilities: Make a list, as honest as you can (if you struggle with this, get a trusted friend to do this too), of the things you do well, both natural abilities and learned skills. To help with the list, think about the subjects you did the best at at school, the things you’ve done or created that make you the most proud, and what your ‘ideal job’ would look like. It might also help to identify the things you aren’t skilled at; as Parker Palmer put it, “there is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does” (Let Your Life Speak). If you’d like, you can also take one of the many online ‘spiritual gifts inventory’ quizzes to help you see where you might fit in terms of the gifts specifically mentioned in the Bible.
  • Desires: Make a list of the things you’d most like to do and be. (If you’re more of a visual person, a ‘vision board’ might be a helpful alternative to a list.) Don’t be afraid to use your imagination as you do this. At this point, don’t worry about whether these desires measure up to what you think of as ‘holy’ or even ‘good’. Just brainstorm.
  • Values: Identify your values. (If you’re not sure where to start, I covered a values-identification exercise in my old series on sacred practices.) As you do this, keep an eye out for ones that have been important to you for a long time, and those that are newly emerging. In their own ways, both sets can be illuminating.
  • Purpose: Putting all of the things in the lists you’ve created together, along with the outcomes of the exercises in the sections below, what emerges as a purpose or mission statement? Make it as succinct as possible.

The third and fourth points lead us to the heart of true vocational discernment, or what Ignatian spirituality calls ‘the discernment of spirits.’ Our vocation is from God and rooted in our desires, but that does not mean that all desires are vocational or from God. When it comes to discernment, by far my favorite guides are Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au and their wonderful book, The Discerning Heart. They define discernment as “to refine the acoustics of our heart,” and “to stay with the discordant notes of our lives with alertness and sensitivity until we are able to grasp the theme of what God is about with us” (19). They suggest four principles that can help us discern the difference between a fleeting desire and one we should pay attention to:

  • Authentic desires are consistent with the fruit of the Spirit. (i.e., when faced with contradictory desires to forgive and to enact revenge, forgiveness is clearly the more authentic desire)
  • Authentic desires are vocational. (This seems like a bit of a circular argument — our vocation is grounded in our desires but authentic desires are vocational — but I think this chicken-and-egg problem is a legitimate part of the discernment process. Here, the question before us is, Does doing this express something from my deepest, most authentic self?)
  • Authentic desires bring us closer to God. (This is similar to the first point, but I think it’s more visceral — does doing this make me feel awkward in my relationship to God, or does it make me want to celebrate with God?)
  • Authentic desires are public, that is, they serve a need in the broader community.

Before beginning a discernment process, the Aus also helpfully suggest that we ask ourselves some good self-knowledge questions: Are there any ties that connect the times I’ve made good decisions? When I went off track, what went wrong? Am I prone to overemphasize either reason or emotion in my decision-making? Do I tend to rush in or procrastinate? Do I rely too much on others’ opinions, or not enough?

It is the Aus’ belief — and I’m convinced they’re right — that genuine spiritual discernment involves the whole person. We are, as they put it, “Spirit-led in many ways” (73). Thus we need to listen not only to our heads and hearts, but also our bodies, our imaginations, and our dreams. (In my own life, I’ve come especially to appreciate the importance of the body for discernment. When I was on the path to ordained ministry a number of years ago, my head and heart were convinced it was the right path for me, but it never felt right in my body, and that feeling got more and more intense as the ‘big day’ approached. I decided to listen to my body and put the process on hold (and eventually I withdrew) and I have never regretted it!) Because discernment involves so many ‘parts’ of ourselves, and because each of us might tend to rely on one or another more than the rest, there can be no one-size-fits-all discernment process, only tools that may be more or less helpful to help us in our discernment. Some of these include:

If the goal of the practices in the last section was to generate as many ideas as possible, the goal here is to separate the wheat from the chaff — to create a tighter list of ideas that meet the four criteria of authentic desires.

The fifth point about discernment is that it ideally involves an honest and mutual process of discernment between the person and their community. As we saw in the last post, this can be hard, since communities aren’t always healthy enough to engage with their members’ vocational discernment openheartedly. Depending on our cultural context, the community have play a greater or lesser role (for example, in many Indigenous cultures, a community’s elders take the lead in vocational discernment for younger members), but it’s always an important part of discernment even in the most individualistic contexts. This is because we often need an outside perspective to help us understand what it is we’re feeling or thinking. One way this has worked out in the Christian tradition is the Ignatian practice of spiritual direction. This is a relationship, whether short-term, like on a week- or month-long retreat, or longer term, in which a director formally walks alongside someone to guide their discernment process. Whether through formal spiritual exercises (such as Examen or Gospel Contemplation), or simply by mirroring back or reframing the person’s own words, the director is present in the person’s discernment process to help them “refine the acoustics of the heart.”  Another way Christian communities have formally participated in discernment is the Quaker tradition of ‘clearness committees.’ Here, a person facing a decision will call together a group of people to facilitate discernment. As described by Parker Palmer (see Let Your Life Speak and A Hidden Wholeness), the group does not give advice or opinions, but only listens and asks probing questions. The goal is not to sway the discernment process, but to help the person clarify their own thoughts and feelings:

You take a personal issue to this small group of people who are prohibited from suggesting ‘fixes’ or giving you advice but who for three hours pose honest, open questions to help you discover your inner truth. Communal processes of this sort are supportive but not invasive. They help us probe questions and possibilities but forbid us from rendering judgment, allowing us to serve as midwives to a birth of consciousness that can only come from within. (Let Your Life Speak)

Finally, the sixth point about vocation is that we will express it in different ways, not only from person to person, but also in different seasons of one’s own life. This means that vocational discernment is not a one-time deal, but a recurring — even constant — process throughout one’s life. This is particularly true in our own context, which combines rapid social and technological change and long lifespans of generally good health. In some ways, this should take the pressure off of our discernment process: choosing ‘wrong’ is not a lifetime sentence. This doesn’t mean that vocation changes over time — it can, but from what I’ve experienced and seen, one’s overall purpose in life is pretty constant — but that we can express our vocation in myriad ways.

When we discern our vocation, therefore, or even the particular ways we will live it out in any given season, we need to account for the reality of our circumstances. What is the state of my mind? My body? My heart? (These are particularly important questions as we age.) What is the state of the people around me? And, what are the ‘facts on the ground’? When discerning our path, we have to accept the answers to these questions honestly: If you feel called down a particular road but it’s closed due to forest fires (whether literal or spiritual), you will need to discern again! As the Aus put it:

The fluid nature of reality can bring about unexpected changes that require us to alter our original plans …. If we give into disillusionment or resist these changes, our suffering is compounded, but if we can look at what is happening with the eyes of faith, we will be open to the inherent call of God in the midst of our pain and struggle. (The Discerning Heart, 22)

Such shifting circumstances require us to call an ‘audible’, a changed play called in the moment. At the end of 2020, I introduced a framework for resilient planning that takes such realities into account. And I think it’s a helpful way to look at vocation and the different ways it is expressed. It has three to four levels of descending importance and stability: 1. Vision — the overall purpose or overarching theme, which for our purposes today we can call ‘vocation’; 2. Objectives — these answer the question, ‘How will I know I’ve achieved my vision?’; 3. Strategies — the ways I will accomplish the objectives; and 4. Techniques — the specific things I will do to enact the strategies. As we go through our adult life in faith, the top level of vocation is probably going to be pretty stable, but the lower levels are almost certainly going to be variable.

To my mind, vocational discernment is one of the most important parts of the life of faith. We are called in many ways but often need to shut out the background noise of our lives and develop ears to hear what God is saying. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this, but I hope this post has provided you with a number of tools that you can use in your own discernment process.

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