Response to a question on vocation discernment

In response to a parenthetical claim I made about vocation discernment being a ‘futurist superstition’, a commenter asked

I’m a young Catholic, and think I am definitely a “futurist superstitious.” What do you think is the best way to approach vocations?

Christi pax,

Socrates

Dear Socrates,

First, it might help to situate this problem in the culture in which we all now have to encounter it. In the contemporary West, various religious and consecrated lives are options for persons as young as 18 while marriage for the most part isn’t. Sure, it’s a legal possibility, but almost no one starts taking marriage as a live possibility till they are closer to 30. This leaves many persons in a no-man’s land where they are left having to consider a choice between two alternatives that they can see no examples of among their peers, and which they can therefore do little more than think about. On top of this problem, the process of religious formation takes a long time, and so you can’t look at your friends in the religious life and decide if it’s for you. Sure, you might have the odd friend here and there that gets married at 21 or ordained at 24, but there aren’t enough of them for you to abstract a clear pattern of what the life might be in general, and so give you a sense of what you’d be in for if you chose it. There’s the added problem that there are all sorts of powers that want to exploit benefits of both treating you as mature and keeping you a child (advertising, college, employers who want a slave-class) and all this cross-pressuring is perverse and confusing. The self presented by such institutions is essentially contradictory, and so constitutes a sort of anti-education in actually becoming mature, or even human.

One response to this confusion is the idea of vocation discernment. This can mean more than one thing, but in practice it seems to involve praying for a special revelation about God’s plan for your life. The (often unarticulated) theory behind all this is that God has decided in advance which of two vocations it is right for you to choose and that if you pray hard enough he will give you a special insight into which one he had in mind for you when he gave you your particular talents, skills, desires, etc. To be blunt, this whole theory is nonsense and superstition. The search for a special insight is the superstition, the idea that persons are determined by talents to one vocation or another is the nonsense. Leaving aside obvious impediments (like epilepsy for priests) vocations are not so determined that we can be sorted into them by diverse talents and desires. There are all kinds of possible priests, religious, and married persons. The very reason why these vocations are the dominant ones is because we aren’t sorted into them in advance by peculiar talents, desires, faults, etc. To riff off of Socrates, do whichever one you want: you’ll regret it either way, and you’ll become holier either way. Once you take your vow, chances are you’ll have the same diverse daily experiences of purpose, joy, confusion, despair that you have now, but you’ll have the added benefit of knowing that some way of life is your vocation after you take your vow to it. But you can never have the assurance before the vow, nor lose your assurance after it.

The proper response to the situation of the West is (a.) to stop thinking about vocation altogether until both options are live possibilities, by which I mean you believe it is a live possibility that you could either get engaged or enter an order and (b.) to roundly reject this stupid idea of “God’s plan for your life” with respect to vocations. God’s plan for your life is for you to exercise free will, not try to pray your way into getting some peek at his coaches’ clipboard where he supposedly has your whole life scripted out. If you ask God’s opinion on vocation, all you’ll ever get are the standard Scriptural answers, which, if stripped to their essentials are “the religious life is higher than the married” and “marriage is a good help for concupiscence” and “love God above all else” and “Both marriage and Orders convey grace”. Anyone who promises you anything more is trying to sell you something. The choice isn’t scripted. This is what freedom means.

It might be better to have a culture where we had more social help in making these decisions. It certainly seems like person had more help like this in the past. But in our present situation the proper response is one that stresses the freedom of the person to take his own vow. Where the vow is not practically possible, the practical thought of about it is unnecessary. Stop praying for a special insight and start praying in thanks that God leaves some decisions up to you.

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10 Comments

  1. mhumpher said,

    February 16, 2015 at 11:04 am

    In what sense is it then even called a “vocation” if it is a question left up to us? A way of life to which we are not called to but choose for better or worse?

    • February 16, 2015 at 11:16 am

      The mystery of providence, especially w/r/t/ freedom and secondary causes, has to be interpreted by metaphors, and the metaphors themselves can be taken either constructively or badly. My claim is that to take vocation as equivalent to a pre-scripted life is one such corruption of the metaphor. Scripture does not present vocation in this way – how would this make sense of “many are called but few are chosen?” The point is not the call, but the divine choice – which consists in the vow, not the discernment.

      Sure, there’s a call – a call to perfection, holiness, etc. and there are general truths about what life is better and which isn’t. But to want more than this, i.e. to think “the call” means figuring this all out for me in light of some special revelation specially tailored to my own peculiar life is a corruption. All sorts of quacks, cranks, and heretics have received calls in this sense.

  2. GeoffSmith said,

    February 16, 2015 at 11:34 am

    I’m guessing that you’re aware that this problem is really at a crisis level in Protestant life as well. I would say that for the current era in history, at least as far as Protestant set-ups go, the more important vocation is not “the religious life” but rather the life of “secular employment.”

    In some sense (of course, the sacraments aren’t so central) any engineer, garbage man, or stay at home mom can learn Greek and Hebrew in order to help make disciples. But very few “professional ministers” can support themselves financially or care for the poor and sick the way a doctor, nurse, or small business owner could.

    Is it possible that considering the position of one’s church family vis a vis the moment in history is an important aspect of choosing a vocation and even choosing a more specific career?

    I see lots of young people who merely have an interest in being a disciple of Jesus pushed into the ministerial fields by college leaders and uncritical pastors. I find it a bit sad.

    • Neil said,

      February 16, 2015 at 11:47 am

      “I see lots of young people who merely have an interest in being a disciple of Jesus pushed into the ministerial fields by college leaders and uncritical pastors. I find it a bit sad.”

      Sheesh, write my life’s story, why don’t you?

      • GeoffSmith said,

        February 16, 2015 at 2:45 pm

        Sorry man, it’s just true. What’s sad is that those ministerial positions could have born as much or more fruit if they were entered by a man or woman who learned to follow Jesus by owning a shop, being an engineer, or repairing air conditioners while they saved money for seminary and studied classical Greek alongside their Bibles to get ready for Koine and Hebrew.

  3. Socrates said,

    February 16, 2015 at 2:52 pm

    In a culture like the United States, where marriage isn’t something one seriously considers until around 30, many young Catholics do not know how to deal with the lusts that comes in early adulthood. On one hand, the culture encourages pornography and fornication to “handle” sexual temptation, and on the other hand, the Church basically follows St. Paul regarding concupiscence, “get married as quickly as possible.” To me, and many young Catholics, it seems like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    And then, for those who have a natural resistance to concupiscence or are just Graced to be able to resist strong temptations, the Priesthood comes off as more of a bureaucratic manager who charms old ladies (although my opinion is improving from my time spent at an Oratory).

    And I didn’t go to Catholic school, so I’m fairly new to the monk’s lifestyle.

    Thank you for your thoughts on vocations. Newman groups often talk all about vocations, including bringing in couples and priests who are often twice our age, even presenting couples who dissent from Church teaching (these sort of couples always like to make this known, for some reason), without actually explaining how we should approach our callings. One couple talked about how the husband met his wife while she was filling out her application to join a Convent. These stories all make vocation like a direct revelation, something you “just know” when the time comes.

    However, you seem to be of the opinion that this sort of thinking is superstitious.

    Christi pax,

    Socrates

    • Janet said,

      February 17, 2015 at 7:13 pm

      Socrates,

      I hope I’m not jumping in too late here, but, for what it’s worth, here’s one opinion from one of those twice-your-age married women…

      I have to agree with our host: it’s foolish to think that God has exactly one precise plan for us, from all eternity. He has one destination for us, but not one single path. Consider: if you’re driving across country to my house, the trip will be very different if you take I-10 or I-20… but you’re still going to end up at my house. Or, perhaps a better metaphor: God’s a brilliant musician and composer, but what He’s asking us to play is improv jazz, not a rigid part in a symphony. And like all brilliant jazz artists, he’s able to take advantage of happenstance, and even our mistakes, to make a new riff.

      So don’t worry: God’s got the big picture. If God has some specific thing He wants you to do, He’ll make it totally unambiguous. If there’s some decision that you’re trying to take, and it truly doesn’t fit into His providence, then He’ll arrange it so you can’t actually succeed at the choice– opponents will appear out of nowhere, the computer will eat your data, deadlines will move without you realizing it, everyone will misunderstand you on just this one matter, etc.

      God’s got the big picture. All you have to do is be faithful in what appears moment by moment. Don’t worry about how you’re going to be chaste for 15 years; just worry about keeping yourself out of the near occasions of sins now, today– watching your media intake, staying sober, keep good friends, cultivating your prayer life, etc.

      What people are talking about when they say that a vocation is a clear call, is that, when it’s time to take the next step, the idea will be calmly and repetitively presented to your attention– that’s what he means by a “live” option. You don’t have a call to “marriage” so much as “to marry Anna,” and if so, then marriage to Anna will present itself to your mind at quite unexpected moments. Ditto the difference between a call to “the priesthood” and the call to “live at this monastery.”

      Lastly, I’d suggest that if you’re not feeling that, then I’d ask whether there’s something else you need to do first. That is, I’d urge you to think about how you will make good come of your present circumstances, how you’ll do good to the actual people God has placed in your life now, rather than an imaginary life with an imaginary wife at some vague time in the future. In other words, invest the one talent that God has given you, at least with the bankers, so that you will be ready when He comes back with His rewards.

      • Socrates said,

        February 18, 2015 at 7:21 am

        Ok, I better understand. My parents have always described me as being “in my own little world.” I have a strong imagination, but that often causes me to act for the imaginary future rather than the real present.

        But, I’m thinking that this advice still seems a little passive. I know that girls can just practically exist at key places, waiting for men to ask them out. But for men, we have to go out actively and ask a girl out. Same thing with a monastery. Should I just wait until something unexpected happens, with me ending up at a monastery, or should I actively search for one? Most of the monasteries I know of are nunneries.

        Are you saying that when you think you are ready, choose a path and go with it? If it isn’t the right choice, you figure it out eventually, right? I might just be impatient.

        I’m reminded by Christ’s words in Matthew Chapter 6:

        “Do not fret, then, over to-morrow; leave to-morrow to fret over its own needs; for to-day, to-day’s troubles are enough.”

        Christi pax,

        Socrates

  4. Janet said,

    February 18, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    Socrates, I don’t mean that you should be passive. On the contrary, you should be fully active– but active on the things that God is actually asking you to do today. Mostly, that’s determined by the duties of your state of life, and your responsibilities to the actual people in your life. God gave you a brain, and He expects you to use it; you should take prudent actions for the future. But don’t worry about the results; God doesn’t ask you for results, he asks you for faithful actions at the current moment in time. If something is truly NOT in God’s plan for you, then it will be strangely impossible for it to actually come to pass (the order will turn down your application, your fiancee will panic and run off, whatever).

    More to my point: since you’ve noticed that the issue of your vocation and state in life have been brought to your mind repetitively, and specifically your attention is being drawn to the fact that you don’t have enough information to go on– I would interpret that as a sign that you should take some actions now to seek out what is missing. I would further suggest that basically ANY tangible actions you take now, with the intention of honestly discovering what God wants you to know, will ultimately be crafted into success by the Spirit, that is, into learning what you need to know.

    So, I would encourage two lines of action: one is to look into marriage, by meeting and talking to marriageable young women. And you meet them when and where they’re out living their ordinary lives: you meet barflies at bars, scholars at study groups, competitive athletes and athletic competitions, friendly women through friends, etc. So, choose your place to go appropriately, be friendly and helpful, and learn about what’s appealing and not about people’s personalities, goals, attitudes, etc.. There are plenty of things that aren’t moral issues, but still would make a big factor in a marriage (like, how ambitious she is, or how much novelty she wants in her life, or how compatible your and her life goals are). At worst, you’ll find some new good friends. (PS: a woman who expects men to line up like they’re at a bus stop or something, waiting for her to pick another one out… is not one you want in your life. Just sayin’.)

    Second, you’ve mentioned monasteries repeatedly also, so I would also suggest you look into that as a possibility. Typically, this is done by having a retreat at the house, to get a feel for the charism of the place. (Religious houses are all very different; there are also lay communities like Madonna House and Catholic Worker Houses.) So, what I would recommend is that you ask one of the priests or religious women you know to suggest a place that you could go to take a retreat, then go from there. A retreat is a good idea anyway; and the impulse you’re feeling might not be a religious vocation, but rather the Spirit wanting to introduce you to a type of spirituality, or meet a spiritual advisor.

    Don’t worry about either the woman or the monastery being “THE ONE” but rather just look at it as a process of gathering information. This is a series of many steps, over multiple years, before you make any kind of commitment. And I’ll be praying for you, this Lent, as well. I do remember how exhausting and confusing it was to be perpetually swimming against the tide of the culture, when I was your age.

    • Socrates said,

      February 19, 2015 at 8:47 am

      Thank you! I’ll meditate on this. The best help always seems to come from “one of those twice-your-age married women…” I’ll try to find a spiritual director or go one a retreat to help guide me.

      I don’t want to turn this thread into a one-on-one help session.

      Dominus noster et Deus Christus Iesus vobiscum sit semper,

      Socrates


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