Discerning A Call
Are you exploring the call to religious life? Canonical Novice S. Whitney Schieltz gives us a glimpse into the steps of formation through the eyes of our young Sisters.
What should I do? What is God’s will? How do I know?
“The solution of your uncertainty is a matter that must be resolved between God and yourself. Continue to pray for God’s inspiration about what you are to do.”
These words of St. Vincent de Paul are a good starting point for understanding discernment. Discernment isn’t just for those who wonder if they are called to religious life or priesthood. All disciples of Jesus Christ seek to open their decision-making processes to the light of the Holy Spirit whom he promised to send to enlighten our minds and hearts. In any significant life decision, we turn to the Spirit for direction and for the courage to act in accordance with it.
The purpose of discernment is to search in truth for a response that is consistent with the Gospel. To enter this process is itself a holy act, which can give us Christ’s peace even when our decisions lead us to new questions, new works and new beginnings.
Discernment of a religious vocation is a process that unfolds over the course of months and years. It starts with the initial question, “Am I called to have God as the primary relationship of my life?” This is a startling question! Religious life is a commitment that orders every other relationship – family, friends, co-workers, community members – in the context of one’s relationship with God. In dialogue with a particular religious congregation, discernment becomes a mutual process. The vocation and formation directors as well as congregational leadership enter into prayerful listening and careful consideration of factors that indicate a call to the particular charism, life and ministry of the community. In prayer, in self-understanding, and in dialogue with others one explores the call at ever-deeper levels through years of initial formation leading to profession of perpetual vows. Both the one discerning a religious vocation and persons designated by the congregation have a role in the discernment process, a pattern that continues throughout the vowed life.
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A Process of Initial Discernment
1. Create spaces of quiet for reflection.
To hear the voice of the Spirit one needs to make listening in prayer a priority. Spend some time with God each day in a quiet place. Before the Blessed Sacrament is ideal, but any quiet, uninterrupted place will do. A crucifix, a candle, a picture or icon may be a helpful focal point for your listening.
Visit the Prayer and Reflection page to explore different forms of prayer and to grow in your relationship with God.
Ask questions like:
- What in my experience, recently or over a longer period of time, brings me to this point of reflection? What is motivating me? What do I resist?
- What have others said that raise the possibility of religious vocation for me?
- What do I feel when I read the call stories of Scripture? (Moses – Exodus 3: 1-12; Samuel - 1Samuel 3:1-10; Jeremiah - Jeremiah 1:4-10; Mary - Luke 1:26-38; the first apostles - John 1:35-42; Paul - Acts 9:3-19)
- What are the deepest longings of my heart?
2. Identify what you know about the situation.
Listening in reflective prayer is only one-half of discernment. You also need to gather information and explore your options.
Ask questions like:
- What are my gifts and skills, and how am I best suited to serve?
- What obstacles do I need to address?
- What else do I need to know to make a decision? What information is missing or incomplete?
Seek guidance from a vocation director, spiritual director, pastor or trusted friend. Seek information about religious life through reading, on the Internet, and through visits and experiences with religious congregations.
3. Identify feelings you have about the information you have gathered.
Take time to process the information and feedback you have received.
Ask questions like:
- What feelings, emotions (pleasant and unpleasant) arise as you consider the choice?
- What option would lead you to more fruitfulness, freedom, consolation?
- Imagine yourself living each possibility. What thoughts, feelings, concerns and consolations arise?
At this point it is helpful to journal these reflections. Share them with a vocation or spiritual director who can help you sift through your insights and motivations. The vocation director can also offer an objective assessment that adds the mutuality needed for a decision about a particular religious congregation.
4. Choose what you believe to be God’s will.
At some point you must trust that you have listened in prayer, gathered information, reflected on all you have learned and heard. Now is the time to make your decision. Trusting that you are making the best decision you can in light of the information you have, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, make your choice.
Take time to live with the decision. As Mary “guarded these things in her heart,” hold your decision as a treasure. Look for confirmation of your choice: in your physical and emotional state, in prayer, in the reactions of trusted others.
Ask questions like:
- Do you feel strengthened by your decision? Do you feel “more yourself” having made this choice? Or do you feel uneasy? Do you feel jittery, irritable or anxious?
- How is your prayer affected by this decision? Is there a sense of peace, of joy? Is there disappointment or distraction or remorse?
- Communicate with the appropriate people. What are their reactions? How do you feel when they express affirmation? How do you feel when they express concern or try to dissuade you?
Discernment is an ongoing process. Living in the light of God’s guiding love and providence is one of the disciplines of the spiritual life. We desire to grow in our ability to listen for the voice of the Spirit and to be docile to God’s direction. May you be blessed on your journey of discipleship.
“May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ give you a spirit of wisdom and perception of what is revealed, to bring you to full knowledge of God. May God enlighten the eyes of your mind so you can see what hope God’s call holds for you…” Ephesians 1:17-18
For more information on the discernment process, check out the following Web sites:
The following books also are recommended:
Kiechle, Stefan. The Art of Discernment: Making Good Decisions in your World of Choices. Ave Maria Press, 2005.
Au, Wilkie. By Way of the Heart. SJ, Paulist Press, 1989.
Barry, SJ, William. Paying attention to God: Discernment in Prayer. Ave Maria Press 1990.
Wolff, Pierre. Discernment: The Art of Choosing Sell. Triumph Books, 1993.
Bryant, RSC, Kathleen. Vocations Anonymous: A handbook for Adults Discerning Priesthood and Religious Life. The National Coalition for Church Vocations.
Luke 11:1-13; John 1: 35-39; John 4:1-26; John 15:26-27;
1 Corinthians 1:4-9; I Corinthians 2:6-16; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11