Discernment

Be Not Afraid to Love Christ

By Fr. John Cihak & Fr. Derek Lappe

You are here at this website for a reason. Something has happened in your life to bring you here. I would guess that you are here because you have heard the voice of Jesus say something to you about what He wants you to do with your life. Deep inside a young man is a desire to do something important with his life, a desire to be heroic, and a desire to change the world. Hopefully, you are here to open up your heart even more to what He is saying to you and to the life to which He is calling you. Let us listen...

 

Presented below are the basic steps of vocational discernment. These steps, however, are not steps that are taken and finished. We are always engaging these steps at deeper levels, even after saying "yes" to our vocation. Sometimes these steps are going on at the same time and there is always more work we can do at each step.

You are here on this site because you are looking for happiness. But what is happiness? And more importantly, what will make you happy? Is it getting what you want? Getting all As? Winning a particular video game? Being with the "right" person? Becoming important or famous or powerful? These are the kinds of things the world tells us will make us happy, but it's obvious by watching the despair and out-of-control lives of certain rock stars, politicians, business executives, and celebrities that none of these things bring true and lasting happiness.

Ask yourself "What will make me happy?" If we really think about it, we don't really know what will make us happy. Our vision is clouded, even damaged, by original sin. Even so, we know that we are looking for something, that things aren't quite right, and that we were created for "something more." God has planted this unquenchable desire for happiness in our hearts because He wants us to search in this life and to keep striving for that something more. The "something more" that drives us on is the desire to become one with Him ultimately in Heaven.

Curiously, we don't really find Our Lord Jesus talking much about "happiness" in the Gospels. He does tell us, however, that His followers will be blessed, that He promises them everlasting life, to be counted as His friends, and to become children of our Heavenly Father. He also speaks of the joy and peace His followers will have.

Our Lord directs our attention especially to doing the will of His Father. He was wholly intent on doing the Father's will. This fundamental attitude of Our Lord reveals to us something about true happiness: Doing the will of the Father is what brings true happiness. Thus, if I want to discern God's will for my life, I must first surrender my idea of what will make me happy and become focused on doing the Father's will.

The Lord has loved you into being and, since the moment of your conception, He has had a plan for your life. He has created you totally unique. There is no one else in the world quite like you and he wanted you to be here in this world. You are not an add-on, an extra, an afterthought, or luggage in this world. You are essential, indispensable, and important. Jesus Christ has created you and you alone for some specific mission and wants to reveal it to you.

Jesus loves you so much that He invites you to help Him save the world. Of course, He alone is the Savior, but He opens up His life to us that we too may share in His mission of salvation. He is calling you. He is calling you to help him in His salvation of the world. This is what we mean by vocation. So the first step in discerning your vocation is to understand that God has created you out of love and in His love invites you to share in His work of saving the world.  Read the profound words about this step from Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman

The third step in discerning the vocation is to open yourself to the Lord's love. He told His apostles and now He is saying to you: "It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you."
In order to hear His call we have to receive his love. He asks you to accept His love in spite of your past mistakes, your weaknesses, your ignorance, your confusion...in spite of everything. He wants to overflow you heart with His love. Your task is to be open to receive. Without God's grace nothing good happens in this world and so we need to receive His grace. His grace enables us to say "yes" to his call.

Let Him free you so that you can say "yes" to His choice for your life. His choice for you is far better than any choice you can make for yourself. After all, He made you. He knows you better than you know yourself. He wants to make you happy and fulfilled and knows that only by doing His will can you be free, happy, fulfilled and at peace. As the great poet Dante wrote "In his will is our peace." This is often the step that is most challenging even to the faithful Christian. To say "yes" to God without conditions is to put our lives radically at His disposal. When we say, "Not my will but Your will be done," we are handing over to Him our plans, our ideas, our goals, our very selves. This can be frightening but it is only in His Will that we will find peace in this life and in the world to come.

His Presence in the Most Blessed Sacrament is a primary way in which we encounter and accept His love and then give ourselves in return. In every Eucharistic Celebration, He invites us to unite ourselves to Him. In the Liturgy of the Word, He cuts us open with His Word from Holy Scripture, which is "sharper than any two edged sword," so that He can pour His very self into us. In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we see the Word become Flesh before our very eyes and then we receive Him into our flesh in Holy Communion. In every Eucharistic Celebration, we join with our Blessed Lord in His act of sacrificing Himself for the salvation of the world and receive from the altar His very Body and Blood. The Eucharistic Celebration is the primary place where this giving and acceptance of His love happens. To find your vocation, celebrating the Eucharist faithfully and often is extremely important.

If a vocation is a "calling" from God, then we must attune ourselves to His Voice so that we can hear His call.

Prayer

Prayer is how we primarily listen to the Lord's Voice. Oftentimes, we know we should pray, but don't know how or even how to start to pray. Please click here to learn how to start a regular prayer life. If you don't know how to pray, don't worry. The Lord longs to be with you in prayer and will help you. He has already helped us through His Church by showing us the primary ingredients to a life of prayer. The first is liturgical prayer. Liturgical prayer is the public prayer of the Church, the greatest expression of which is the Eucharistic Celebration. All of the Sacraments, like the Sacrament of Reconciliation, are liturgical prayer. Other examples of liturgical prayer are the Liturgy of the Hours, sometimes called the "Divine Office" and Eucharistic Adoration. We also need to develop habits of personal prayer, especially meditation (e.g. lectio divina). Prayer which honors Our Blessed Lady is indispensable for finding your vocation. The Church and the saints for centuries have strongly recommended the prayer of the Rosary.

Attuning ourselves to the Voice of the Lord also means becoming aware of the obstacles to hearing His Voice. Sin and noise are the two major obstacles which get in the way of hearing His Voice.

Sin

Sin is perhaps the most obvious obstacle because sin means turning away from Him. Thus sin can never be seen as just the breaking of rules. Sin harms and can even destroy our relationship with the God who created us, hung on the Cross for us, and who is calling us to our mission. In discernment, sin is like mud that gets in our spiritual eyes and ears making us blind and deaf to the Lord.

To answer God's call in life we must be free from our sins. We are not born free nor can we become free on our own. Only Jesus can free us. Freedom from sin is accomplished primarily through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will never know your vocation and be able to respond generously and freely to God without receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation regularly. It is strongly recommended that during discernment you should go to confession at least every two weeks and never less often than once a month. Through this sacrament, God not only forgives your sins, but also pours sanctifying grace into your soul. This sanctifying grace is Jesus' own divine life. Being saturated with sanctifying grace will go a long way in helping you discern your vocation.

A very good exercise during discernment is a General Confession. Making a General Confession can greatly aid the acceptance of forgiveness and allowing Jesus to help us put the past to rest. This practice is especially recommended by one of the Church's greatest spiritual directors, St. Francis de Sales. A General Confession is a spiritual exercise in which one goes through his entire life and confesses every sin he can remember. The purpose is not to re-forgive those sins (once a sin is forgiven it is always forgiven) or beat oneself up about them. Rather the exercise helps one to let go of the past and to trust Jesus even more deeply. General Confession can take an hour and so it is advisable to set up an appointment with one's confessor in advance.

After we have allowed Him to free us from mortal or serious sins, then we have the ongoing work of dealing with venial sins and our attachments to sin. Attachments to sin are those desires to sin even if we don't follow through on the evil act. It's wishing you could get away with it. St. Francis de Sales likens attachment to sin as the Israelites in the desert who sometimes longed for the life of Egypt (especially the melons and "flesh pots", that is, decent food) even though it was the place of their slavery. Those attachments, even if they don't spawn sin, keep us back spiritually. Those things though seemingly small, keep us from being totally attached to Jesus and His beautiful will.

Noise

Noise is another obvious obstacle. We live in a world of noise. Often when we come to discern we are already immersed in noise: habits of watching a lot of television, idle conversations with others, video or computer games, listening to music all the time, etc. Rarely do we have silence (exterior or interior) in our day. In fact when we are silent, we can start to get fidgety or even begin to freak out. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the spiritual master of discernment, said, "It's true that the voice of God, having once fully penetrated the heart, becomes strong as the tempest and loud as the thunder, but before reaching the heart, it is as weak as a light breath which scarcely agitates the air. It shrinks from noise and is silent amid agitation." Therefore, if you want to know your vocation, begin to develop habits of silence. The first way to develop silence is to limit your time on television, video and computer games, the Internet, and using music as incessant background noise. I think a good rule of thumb is that one should not spend more than two hours a day total on those activities. The only way to do this is TURN IT OFF. Those things are not evil in themselves, but without using them with the virtue of moderation, they create spiritual static in our hearts and dull our spiritual sensitivity. The second way to develop silence is to develop habits of quiet prayer, reading (especially the works of our spiritual tradition), and just thinking and pondering.

Step three dealt with beginning to attune ourselves to His Voice. But even after we know of His love and choice for us and have begun to attune ourselves to His Voice, we may soon realize that we are not completely free to give ourselves to Him. Perhaps there are things inside us that make us hesitate or even pull away from His call. So as we consider His love and choice for us, we must also consider "Am I free to say ‘yes' to Him?" What keeps us from giving our entire selves over in love to Him?

Past Hurts

Past hurts can be complicated and complicating in the discernment process. Sometimes our sins are not the problem, but the sins of someone else who has hurt us. Past hurts can impair our ability to trust and, saying "yes" to Jesus, requires a lot of trust. These past hurts can take the form of some sort of abuse, the neglect or absence of a father or mother, rejection by a girlfriend, etc. Past hurts not only hurt our ability to trust, but they can also interfere with our ability to receive love and to give love in return. Past hurts have a way of creating an environment of anger and fear in our lives. Past hurts can be difficult to forgive and any lack of forgiveness prevents us from giving ourselves over completely to Jesus. We may find forgiveness difficult because we haven't yet dealt with the just anger we have about it. The good news is that Jesus is conqueror of sin and death and longs to heal anyone who has been hurt so that they can receive His love and give love in return. It doesn't matter what has happened, Jesus declares loudly to us in Revelation, "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21:5).

Practically, a few things can be done. First, have confidence in Jesus who comes to free you and make things new in your life. I would suggest finding a priest you can trust and open up the pain to him. Just talking through it privately with someone trustworthy can bring an enormous amount of healing and he can pray with you and offer counsel. Secondly, I often suggest that a person who has been hurt in the past make a list of people with whom he has "unfinished business." Then write a letter to each person saying what that person did and the bad impact it has had on his life.  Of course, they won't send the letter. This exercise helps to get the hurt and the anger out so that Jesus' love and forgiveness can be poured in, thereby making the heart more liberated to forgive and to say "yes" to Jesus. Sharing such letters with that trustworthy priest can bring even more healing.

Fear

Fear also inhibits our complete gift of self in love to Jesus. The fear I'm talking about is not the awe and wonder of holy fear, but rather a crippling fear. Crippling fear is never from God, but from the devil and we are asked to resist it and allow Jesus to cast it out of us. A person cannot discern in fear. The fears can be varied and many: "I hear Him knocking at the door of my heart and I'm scared to say ‘yes' to Him." "I'm afraid to move away from home and my family." "Will I be happy as a priest?" "I've done too many terrible things to be a priest." "My parents want grandchildren and they won't have any if I become a priest." "What will be left of me if I give myself totally over to Him?" "My friends think I'm crazy for thinking about it."

Jesus says over and over again, "Be not afraid!" Our late Holy Father, John Paul II echoed this line frequently and Pope Benedict XVI has continued it because it is so needed. We live in a world of fear. St. John tells us, "There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out fear" (1Jn. 4:18). Jesus casts out fear.  He can put fears to rest. He can do this when together with Him we face them with courage and bring them to prayer. I would suggest sitting before the Blessed Sacrament and simply list the fears on a piece of paper. Then go over that list with Him in prayer and ask Him conquer them in you. I would also suggest discussing these fears with a confessor or spiritual director.

Dealing with sin, past hurts, and fear will free us and purify our love for Him so that His Voice can begin to resonate deep within our hearts. It will help to clear stuff away to that we can begin to see our radiant, risen Lord Jesus with our vocation in His hands. When we hear His voice and fill our eyes with His presence before us, we will be in a position to say, "Yes, Lord Jesus. I say ‘Yes'. Be it done unto me according to Your will. Yes Lord, send me."

The next step then is to respond to that love with all that we are. We seek to give ourselves entirely to Jesus. Receiving His love and striving to get ourselves back to Him in love is called a "personal relationship" with Jesus. In order to understand the meaning of your life and what you are supposed to do with your life requires a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Another way of putting it is to ask yourself, "Do I know Jesus or do I only know about Him?" It is in this relationship with Him as Lord, as Redeemer, and as His intimate friend, that we can hear His call to us. Many have found that reading My Other Self and I Believe in Love really helped them to understand and develop that personal relationship.

Loving Jesus means to strive after holiness. Holiness is our first vocation which was given to us at Baptism. Holiness means to live the life of God here and now. Within this call to holiness emerges the more specific call of the state of life in the Church: marriage, priesthood, or religious/consecrated life. The life of holiness involves prayer (contemplating God) and virtue (living God's life) and asceticism (opening up oneself to God's life).

Sacraments

The Sacraments give us sanctifying grace. This is God's own power and life at work within us. The Sacraments communicate God's own life to our souls. In discernment we focus especially on the Sacraments we can receive more than once: Reconciliation and Holy Communion. It is vitally important during discernment that one receives Holy Communion as often as possible. Daily communion is ideal. Reconciliation, as mentioned above, is essential and needs to be more than once a month. It can be especially helpful to go to confession to the same priest so that he gets to know your soul and can offer more specific advice.

Prayer

Prayer is our vital, daily, and intimate contact with the Lord. It entails the lifting of our hearts and minds to Him who is with us throughout the day. Prayer is more about listening than speaking to Him, but it involves both. A man must be praying if he wants to know his vocation. An entire page on this website is devoted to developing a habit and daily routine of prayer. Only committed, daily prayer which would include Mass, Reconciliation, the Rosary and Scriptural meditation leads to one's vocation. Much can be learned about prayer in the Catechism. Examples of prayer are Eucharistic Adoration, Lectio divina with Holy Scripture, the Rosary, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, etc. But the most important thing about prayer is to JUST DO IT.

A personal relationship is built upon personal prayer. Therefore you must make time in your day to be with Him exclusively and not just when it is convenient. We make time for friends and important people and there is no one else who is a better friend or more important person in your life than Jesus Christ.

Virtue

Virtue is a habit of doing good. It comes from the Latin word vir meaning "man" and is also used to convey "manliness" or "power." Virtue is a habit.  It is not something we do now and again, but something we do regularly even without thinking about it. Part of the life of virtue is that we strive to live according to His commandments and to develop habits that will help us keep His commandments. Jesus said, "If you love me, keep my commandments."

Asceticsim ("Making Sacrifices")

Asceticism helps to open up our human nature to receive the Lord's life. Asceticism also sharpens our spiritual senses. To love means to give yourself and giving yourselves in love involves sacrifice. When two people love each other they do things for each other and make sacrifices for one another. Sacrifices are not made just for the sake of "giving up" things, but are gifts given out of love. In its most basic sense, asceticism means to thwart one's own will in order to embrace the Lord's will.

Asceticism means curbing our earthly desires (pleasure, things, having my own way, etc.) in order to open up our spiritual desires (prayer, good works, etc.). The most important sacrifice to offer the Lord is the sacrifice of our will of doing good when we don't feel like doing good. This type of sacrifice can take the form of doing chores around the house with a smile, taking on an extra chore, or helping a brother with his homework. The sacrifice can mean letting a brother or sister have his or her way or allowing him or her to play with or use one of your possessions.

Every time we resist temptation and avoid sin we are practicing asceticism. Resisting temptation can be quite painful, yet offering that suffering to the Lord with love is very pleasing to Him. Always remember, the more hidden the asceticism is, the more effective it is. A good way to begin practicing asceticism is unplugging from all the noise mentioned above and limiting your time with TV or computer games. It is important to remember that asceticism is not an end in itself. Asceticism is only good insofar as it opens us up to love and leads us to be more loving to Jesus and our neighbor. It's also important to remember that we don't do ascetical works to earn Jesus' love or grace.  We do it to accept more deeply the love and grace He already offers. Asceticism will help to sharpen our sensitivity to Him and His Voice.

In the process of discernment, we can become aware of four voices and learning to distinguish them from one another helps tremendously in discernment. The four voices are the Lord's, our own, the world's, and the devil's. By attuning ourselves to the Lord's voice, we can begin to tell these other voices from each other which is why steps 1-5 are important. Those steps attune us to the Voice of the Lord. It is not always easy to tell these voices apart from one another.  Discernment requires time, patience, struggle, and perseverance. Confusion, frustration and sometimes even outright rebellion can be part of the discernment process. Nevertheless, Jesus tells us, "Be not afraid. I am here." His love can conquer everything and, if we open ourselves to the power of His grace, we will come to find our vocation. Jesus' desire to tell us is infinitely greater than our desire to know. We only need confidence in Him.

The Voice of the Lord

The Lord's Voice is that which communicates His constant and unfailing love to us. We hear His Voice in His Divine Revelation, in Holy Scripture and in Holy Tradition, and in the Magisterium of His Church. We hear His Voice urging us to do good in our actions, to trust in Him, to sacrifice out of love. Discouragement and confusion are never the Voice of Jesus even when we sin. His voice always communicates confidence and hope in Him. His Voice is always saying, "I love you no matter what." His Voice is also challenging because He is always calling us to a deeper conversion to Him.

With regard to your vocation, you can be sure that He is calling you, as a man, to the vocation of marriage, the priesthood or consecrated life (religious life or consecrated virginity in the world). His Voice is never deceptive nor does He play games. Therefore, you can be confident that to whichever vocation He calls you, He will also give you the graces to accomplish it and the desire to do it. Sometimes we are tempted to think that Jesus will call us to a life that we do not want or cannot accomplish. This is not the Voice of Jesus. Within His call lies all the graces and desires to live that vocation.

Our Own Voice

Our own voice is expressed in the deepest desires of our heart. Part of growing up is becoming aware of who we are and what are the deepest desires of our heart. Hopefully, as a young man you have a desire to be heroic, a desire to change the world, a desire to love and serve the Lord Jesus with all that you are. However, it is not always so easy. Sometimes our deepest desires are in conflict. Our own sinfulness, that part of ourselves that is still under the dominion of Satan, can clamor loudly. Sometimes our voice is in conflict with the Voice of the Lord. Sometimes the conflict can lie in choosing between two good things: "I want to be a priest, and I want to be married." Our voice always stands in need of more conversion.

Your truest self are those desires which have been placed there by Jesus and are in harmony with the desires that Jesus has for you. One way to become attune to your own voice is to become aware of what you think about when your mind is free. When you have a moment to yourself, what do you think about? Is there something that comes to mind often or even constantly? That is a beginning indication of your own voice. After becoming aware of what you think about during the day, ask Jesus and yourself, "Why do I think about those things? What is the motivation behind those things?"

The Voice of the World

The voice of the world is a voice that is under the dominion of the devil and thus could be considered an extension of the voice of Satan. The voice of the world calls us to put our trust in the things of this world: prestige, money, fame, relationships, a money-making career. It is the voice we hear in advertising, on TV shows, and in much of the music.  The "noise" that is mentioned above is part of the voice of the world. This voice tempts us to forget about Heaven, our salvation, and the Lord's call in our life. It tries to drown out the Voice of Jesus and His love.

The Voice of the Devil

The voice of the devil is that voice that is always trying to lead us away from Jesus and to remain slave to him. His voice always tells us to doubt the Lord's goodness and not to trust in Him. It is the voice that says "I know better than He does." It is the voice that tells us to say "no" to Jesus. The most obvious example of the voice of the devil is the temptation to sin but he can be very cunning and, as St. Paul says, can appear as an angel of light. If the devil cannot get us to listen to sin, then he will try to get us to choose something good, but which is not the good that Jesus wants for us. In other words, the devil's voice can try to make us choose a lesser good over the greater good that Jesus has for us. Always remember that the devil is a liar and a murderer and can be very cunning. In the discernment process it can be confusing to figure out whose voice is whose. Sometimes there is so much confusion in the heart because we have not yet been able to distinguish the Lord's voice from our own voice or the devil's voice.

Great progress is made in finding your vocation when you can begin to distinguish these four voices with regard to the vocational choice. By turning away from and ruling out the voices of the world and the devil, greater clarity and less confusion are gained. One is ready to make the free choice of the specific vocation when the Voice of the Lord sounds one vocation and your own voice echoes the same vocation.

I would say that for the most part, we cannot distinguish these voices very well without the help of a spiritual director. You may find that a regular confessor (going to the same priest every time you make your confession) can also help you distinguish the voices. A spiritual director is one who is familiar with the spiritual life and who also leads a life of conversion and prayer in his vocation. By finding a spiritual director and meeting regularly with him, you can go a long way in recognizing and distinguishing the four voices so that you can choose whatever the Lord's Voice is saying to you.

Proper discernment leads us to hear and understand which vocation the Lord Jesus would like us to choose for His greater glory and the salvation of our soul and the souls of others. At some point the discernment about your vocation is supposed to end and you are asked by Jesus to make a life-long choice for a state of life. This is the natural progression of discernment. The saints and all those seeking to follow Christ have been doing this for millennia. You and I are not the first Christians to have to make a life-long choice.

Facing such a choice can make us afraid, especially during these times when people are scared about making a life-long commitment. This can be especially difficult if you come from a family broken by divorce or filled with dysfunction or resentment. There are many examples around us of people breaking their life-long commitments or being unfaithful to them. However, we should look not to the broken examples but rather to the saints - they are our model for how to live well in this life. To commit ourselves entirely to Jesus necessarily involves a life-long commitment. Love commits itself; true love cannot give itself only temporarily or half-heartedly. Love wants to commit itself. Love longs to unite the lover with the beloved. We may avoid making such a choice but the choice not to commit is a choice not to love.

It may seem obvious, but we aren't supposed to remain in a state of perpetual discernment of our vocation. Of course, we are always discerning the will of God in our daily lives, but the choice for our state of life in the Church should come to an end. In making a choice, we move from discerning our vocation to preparing for our vocation. The choice brings the discernment to an end and with that comes a new found freedom to begin living with clarity and hope. There is no other way to serve the Lord than by stepping out in courage and proper discernment and by making a definitive choice for your life. We become holy and happy through commitment.