How to discern a Vocation

Do I have a vocation? One must have clear ideas on this subject. Otherwise, many of those who are called will not respond, and the souls that they were meant to save will perhaps not be saved. But how I am to know if I am called?

St. Ignatius does not pose the question in the abstract form: “Do I have a vocation?”

A vocation comes from God

This is true firstly, because often one only certainly knows the answer afterwards, since God has the right to ask of whomever He wishes for the sacrifice of Abraham (God asked Abraham to sacrifice to Him his son Isaac and, at the moment when the father was about to thrust in the knife, an Angel stopped him. God was content with his obedience).

Thus:

  • St. Camille entered the Capuchins twice and was obliged to leave twice; God reserved him to found the Order of Camillians.
  • St. Benedict Labre entered the Trappists … and left.
  • And Mr. Martin, the future father of St. Thérèse, did he not go to knock at the door of St. Bernard monastery to ask admittance? And he was refused it. God had other plans. But his generous act remains.

With every vocation comes a risk

How many young people have entered the Seminary or the Convent and (we do not speak here of the soft souls) have lawfully left? Not only have they no need to be ashamed, but on the Day of Judgment they will be astonished at the eternal and extraordinary recompense that they will then receive for having, one day when they were young, made this gesture of willingness to leave all for Christ. It is a gesture with which the Master is content.

God has willed that, with every vocation, there should be some risk. There is a great deal of risk in a marriage, in every enlistment of a marine or a soldier! Why would one wish that there be no risk for the sake of Christ?

Regardless, be certain that this risk will always have its recompense. Hence, St. Ignatius does not pose the question as: “Do I have a vocation?” He asks it in a manner more concrete: “What should I do, I myself, today?”

The problem, phrased in this way, is more easily soluble. A man of good will, who reflects even a little bit, comes easily to know what God wants him to do, at least for the moment. This is because the answer to the question: “What should I do today?” is made clear by theological principles and providential events that show us the will of God, which we should always want to follow.

Sometimes God’s will is manifested suddenly and very clearly. At other times, the ways of Providence will be shown progressively over time. God requires our good will, our inquiry. The game is worth the price of playing!

Hear Pope Paul VI in the allocution already cited:

“Most of the time, in reality, the vocation to embrace the priestly life is not revealed in itself, directly, but it must be detected as if it were the pearl of the Gospel that is buried in the field. In effect, God, Who reserves to Himself the calling of those whom He chooses, nevertheless asks for the collaboration of the sacred ministers so that the young men may become aware of the action that divine grace operates and that they might bring to maturity the divine seed placed in their souls.”

It is God who calls

“You have not chosen Me: but I have chosen you!” (Jn. 15:16)

A vocation firstly comes from God. It does not come from us. The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word “vocare,” to call. It is God who calls. It is not uncommon, even in a Christian family, to observe an early misdirection in a child who is asked the question: “My dear child, what do you want to be when you grow up?” If the child has been struck in the preceding days by the sight of a bishop or of a military pilot or of a mailman, he will answer: “I want to be a Bishop... a Pilot... a Mailman...”, etc.

St. Ignatius, in the preamble for the consideration of the states of life (Spiritual Exercises, n. 135), says to the retreatant:

“We will begin, in contemplating His life [Our Lord Jesus Christ] to look for and to ask from God in what state or kind of life His Divine Majesty will deign to make use of us.”

The perspective changes. It is not for us in the first place to choose, but for God to choose us. We must not forget that.

His Holiness Paul VI says:

“This vocation depends totally on a mysterious decision of God following the very word of the Redeemer: ‘You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you.'” (Jn. 15:16).

It is thus not a question only of knowing whether this or that pleases me, but if God calls me. It is a question of searching out “where God will deign to make use of me” during my short earthly pilgrimage whose end is “to praise, honor, and serve Him” here below “and by this means save my soul” (n. 23). We have there a light which will help us to see the will of God for us.

Hence, St. Ignatius says it will be a matter of “choosing only that which better brings us to the end for which we have been created” (n. 23). The question is becoming clearer. Let us move on.

Response to God's call

“But God requires that man respond to His invitation by the free consent of his will,” continues Paul VI; “in other words, the divine vocation requires that a man listen.”

Without a doubt, it will be necessary “to provide to the faithful, and to the souls of the young in particular, the Secondary Elements so that those souls might be able to hear the divine word and that they might know how to respond to God...” “In all this, it will be necessary,” the Pope adds, “to respect the action of God and the liberty of the candidates.”

In the 19th chapter of St. Matthew, we see Our Lord give us a master lesson on this question:

A young man accosts Jesus:

"And behold one came and said to him: Good master, what good shall I do that I may have life everlasting? Who said to him: Why asketh thou me concerning good? One is good, God. But if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He said to him: Which? And Jesus said: Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, [...] The young man saith to him: All these I have kept from my youth, what is yet wanting to me? Jesus saith to him: If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me.

(Matthew, 19: 17-21)

Jesus looked at him and loved him, remarks St. Mark. The young man is suitable. The Lord has considered him with his response. He sends forth the call:
— “Si vis!” There only remains for him to will.
— “If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come! Follow Me!”

“If thou wilt!” God respects free will: “Si vis!” ...

Alas! This young man walked away sad, instead of answering the call. The reflection that Jesus made after this leaves one doubting of the young man’s salvation. Thus:

Up to now, we have considered two elements of a vocation:

  1. The call of God. It is a call which will be made definite by the Bishop or the ecclesiastical Superior in charge of admitting candidates to a state of Perfection in the name of the Church.
  2. The free will of the candidate: “SI VIS! If thou wilt!”

It remains now to look at the other elements. They will permit the Superior to pronounce the call and the candidate to answer, to present himself for the call... to leave all, in order to give himself totally to God in this or that higher state of life, or “Vocation.”

How do I know?

  • “But how do I know if I am called?”
  • “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth!”

In order to know, we must first of all pray. A vocation requires many prayers in order:

  • to see clearly and
  • to dispose oneself properly.

Say with Saint Paul: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6); say with young Samuel: “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth” (1 Kings 3:10); invoke Our Lady of Good Counsel, pray to St. Joseph, patron of vocations, to your Guardian Angel, to your baptismal saint, etc. And make the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

The Spiritual Exercises

The Holy Father, in his talk on vocations does not explicitly name the Spiritual Exercises but he asks us to prefer the conditions which will help and dispose the adolescent to hear the Word of God. Now, the conditions listed by the Holy Father are found assembled, in fact and above all, in the retreat of the Spiritual Exercises:

“In the first place, interior silence… for their thoughts (those of young people) … assailed by a great deal of external excitement, often vain and empty, sometimes even wicked and pernicious, prevent them from conceiving and meditating on the idea of the perfect life, the value and beauty of this life... Moments of silence, of recollection… meditation on eternal realities… will be very profitable for them… as well as thanksgiving after Mass. It is above all through this latter devotion that they might unite themselves to God and that God Himself might unveil to them by stages His mysterious Will; and… that the adolescents might understand better if they are called to the priesthood or what role God is confiding to them."