Last month, my college mentor, Dr. Don Briel, passed away. But not before he taught me perhaps his greatest lesson of all, just a few days before his death.
In an interview, he was asked about the greatest joy of his life’s work. He responded, “I’m deeply impressed by [Blessed John Henry] Newman’s sense that each of us has a vocation in life: We may not know it in this life, but we’ll know within the next.”
Perhaps a younger me would have been frustrated by these words. Here I had spent years of my life trying to discern my vocation, and my mentor was saying that I may not know what that is until I die! Instead, I found myself nodding along. The truth is, to this day, I still haven’t heard a thunderous voice from the clouds or seen a sign in the sky declaring my true vocation. But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t calling me to do great things — perhaps even right now.
If you’re like me and have tried to figure out God’s will and then, well, still haven’t figured it out quite yet, it’s worth reflecting on Newman’s understanding of vocation — and it starts with not worrying so much about figuring it out.
For most of my formative years, I was taught that an essential part of the Catholic faith is discerning a vocation, to the point that I felt as if I needed to drop everything and figure out what God was calling me to do with my life. So I did: I joined the college seminary.
I thought that figuring out God’s will would be fairly quick and easy, especially when it came to discerning the priesthood.
Imagine my surprise, then, when my experience of seminary led me to kind of want to become a priest — something I’d never experienced before — and yet seemed to also grow my desire for marriage and family. It seemed this discernment thing wasn’t going to be as efficient as I had hoped.
In fact, it took me four years to conclude that I didn’t feel enough of a calling to continue with the last four years of seminary and ordination, although I haven’t completely eliminated the priesthood as my vocation. I had come to seminary looking for an obvious ‘yes’ (or at least an obvious ‘no’), and in some ways I left with a less clear idea about what I was called to do than before.
Since then, I’ve sometimes been tempted to think that God has been silent when I’ve asked him to reveal my vocation to me. I’ve wondered whether I missed some sort of sign that would have had me married by now or that would have told me to be a priest. I’m tempted to think that I have been simply treading water over the last number of years when I could have been really doing His will.
But I also know that a loving and all-powerful Father would never leave me without his grace and providence for me to simply fend for myself. I also know that, in hindsight, God has been working rather clearly in my life, even as I continue to search for my ultimate vocation in life.
I think again to Dr. Briel’s reflections on Newman and his thoughts on God’s will being clearest in hindsight: “This means not simply that we set out to accomplish something or to do something, but that we have to be attentive to the graces which come to us, which invite us to take on a work which we would never have anticipated or understood.”
Thanks to Dr. Briel’s [and Newman’s] wisdom, I’m thinking that I might have had this whole vocational discernment thing wrong. Instead of feeling like I needed to know my vocation before I was to live it, perhaps it’s the other way around: it’s in living for God and trying to do His will wherever we find ourselves that we find out what God had in mind all along.
Considering Newman’s take on discernment, he’d probably have much to say to a 20-something Catholic trying to figure out God’s will today. Maybe something like this:
1. Do continue living your life, even without absolute certainty.
Take some time to discern God’s will with the help of a mentor, spiritual director, or even a seminary or convent. Then, with the help of that data, proceed with your best guess of what God is calling you to, even if it’s not totally clear. Don’t wait until you have absolute certainty to begin the rest of your life, because you might never get that.
2. Don’t over-discern.
Constantly looking for signs and being overly introspective can drive you crazy and probably won’t get you any closer to your vocation. Even in the seminary, we were taught to really discern only twice a year: Advent and Lent. The rest of the time we were to focus on, well, everything else, like studying and prayer and little things like making your bed. And often it was when we weren’t obsessing over discernment that some of the best insights came.
3. Don’t over-spiritualize it.
Sure, God sometimes speaks in a clear voice from the clouds. But most of us will learn God’s will in more subtle ways. Seek out trusted mentors who know you (and God) and can help you see the natural signs with practical wisdom.
4. Notice God working in your life here and now.
So you don’t know what you’re supposed to do for the rest of your life? Join the club. In the meantime, take stock in what God has been doing in your life already. Ask him to reveal it to you in prayer, and if you need more help, ask a mentor or a friend to help you.
Blessed Newman suggests that God’s will is often best understood in hindsight, and even that some of us may never have a clear and obvious sense of what to God is specifically calling us to do.
So instead of just waiting around for a sign from God to determine what we should do with our lives, we are still called to appraise our gifts and talents and put them to use for the good of others — and trust that God will lead us from there.