01 Oct The Grace of Discernment
THE GRACE OF DISCERNMENT
“We should always remember that discernment is a grace.”
In Rome this Fall, Pope Francis is meeting with the Bishops from around the world as well as delegations of young people in a Synod to discuss the topic: “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.” It is a subject close to the Pontiffs heart. As a good Jesuit trained in the spirituality of his Founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Pope Francis brings up the idea of discernment frequently.
In his message for WYD 2018, which was celebrated at the diocesan level on Palm Sunday, March 25th, Pope Francis reminds young people that the discernment of one’s vocation in life is not just an exercise in introspection, but an opening of one’s self to God in prayerful silence.
“Discernment is indispensable when searching for one’s vocation in life. More often than not our vocation is not obvious or evident at first but rather something we come to understand gradually. Discernment, in this case, should not be seen as an individual effort at introspection, with the aim of better understanding our interior make-up so as to strengthen us and acquire some balance. In such instances the person can become stronger, but is still confined to the limited horizon of his or her possibilities and perspectives. Vocation, however, is a call from above, and discernment in this context principally means opening ourselves to the Other who calls. Prayerful silence is therefore required in order to hear the voice of God that resounds within our conscience. God knocks at the door of our hearts, as he did with Mary; he longs to establish friendship with us through the Sacred Scriptures, to offer us mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and to be one with us in the Eucharist… Welcome with joy this dialogue that God offers you, this appeal he makes to you, calling you by name.”
The important emphasis Pope Francis places on vocation as a call from above is crucial. He is underlining the fact that it is God who takes the initiative. But he also, like his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, has great confidence in young people to be courageous and generous in responding to God’s invitation by offering their lives for something great. Pope Emeritus Benedict once said: “Programs, plans and projects have their place; but the discernment of a vocation is above all the fruit of an intimate dialogue between the Lord and His disciples. Young people, if they know how to pray, can be trusted to know what to do with God’s call.”
In Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and be Glad), the entire last section is dedicated to the topic of discernment. The Pope again speaks of spiritual discernment as something that transcends a simple process of taking stock on a natural or scientific level. He calls discernment a supernatural gift, a grace.
“Even though it includes reason and prudence, it goes beyond them, for it seeks a glimpse of that unique and mysterious plan that God has for each of us, which takes shape amid so many varied situations and limitations. It involves more than my temporal wellbeing, my satisfaction at having accomplished something useful, or even my desire for peace of mind. It has to do with the meaning of my life before the Father who knows and loves me, with the real purpose of my life, which nobody knows better than he. Ultimately, discernment leads to the wellspring of undying life: to know the Father, the only true God, and the one whom he has sent, Jesus Christ (Cf Jn 17:3). It requires no special abilities, nor is it only for the more intelligent or better educated. The Father readily reveals himself to the lowly (cf. Mt. 11:25).” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 170)
The fact that no special abilities are required for authentic discernment is a source of encouragement (and relief!) when we are faced with what seems at times a daunting task: trying to figure out our vocation in life. But it is true that God, our loving Father does not make such important questions in life impossible riddles. To discover God’s call, nothing extraordinary is necessary. Yet, we must be willing to spend time in silence before the Lord. In n. 172 of Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis writes:
“Nonetheless, it is possible that, even in prayer itself, we could refuse to let ourselves be confronted by the freedom of the Spirit, who acts as he wills. We must remember that prayerful discernment must be born of a readiness to listen: to the Lord and to others, and to reality itself, which always challenges us in new ways. Only if we are prepared to listen, do we have the freedom to set aside our own partial or insufficient ideas, our usual habits and ways of seeing things. In this way, we become truly open to accepting a call that can shatter our security, but lead us to a better life. It is not enough that everyone be calm and peaceful. God may be offering us something more, but in our comfortable inadvertence, we do not recognize it.”
It is only in this fundamental stance of prayerful listening in complete openness that we will be able to undertake the authentic process of the discernment of a vocation. And what precisely are we trying to discover in this process? What is my God-given mission in life? With regard to a call to the consecrated life, there are fundamentally two elements that must be discerned. These are: 1) the divine invitation and 2) the human response. Pope St. John Paul II taught in Raemptionis Donum that God’s call “always appeals to human freedom. Christ says: ‘if you wish…’ And the response to this call is, therefore, a free choice.” The divine invitation is the primary element initiated by God, the human response is the secondary element motivated by divine grace working in the individual. The human response is simply the act of the will or voluntary resolve motivated by grace to accept the invitation given by our Lord. God does not oblige anyone to enter the religious state, we can say: ‘no, thank you’ and decline the invitation, but one should ponder well the possibility of embracing the religious life and the great graces it affords before passing it by. In God’s plan we each have a mission to fulfill and it is precisely in that mission that we will find the abundance of life, love and happiness that God wishes to give us. God has created us free, and there is no mistake that we can make that He cannot redeem. Yet it is in God’s plan for us that we will find all the superabundant graces and helps to do His will and reach our final destination, Eternal happiness! Our initial ‘yes’ to God’s invitation must certainly be sustained by subsequent ‘yesses’ all throughout life but remember, “God is ready to give the grace to those who want it. A generous soul, sincere in his intentions can proceed unafraid”!’
Pope Francis also refers to generosity as an essential element in our response when he writes in paragraph n. 174 of Gaudete et Exsultate:
“Generosity too is demanded, for it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Discernment is not about discovering what more we can get out of this life, but about recognizing how we can better accomplish the mission entrusted to us at our baptism. This entails a readiness to make sacrifices, even to sacrificing everything. For happiness is a paradox. We experience it most when we accept the mysterious logic that is not of this world: “This is our logic”, says Saint Bonaventure, pointing to the cross. Once we enter into this dynamic, we will not let our consciences be numbed and we will open ourselves generously to discernment.
When, in God’s presence, we examine our life’s journey, no areas can be off limits. In all aspects of life we can continue to grow and offer something greater to God, even in those areas we find most difficult. We need, though, to ask the Holy Spirit to liberate us and to expel the fear that makes us ban him from certain parts of our lives. God asks everything of us, yet he also gives everything to us. He does not want to enter into our lives to cripple or diminish them, but to bring them to fulfillment. Discernment, then, is not a solipsistic self-analysis or a form of egotistical introspection, but an authentic process of leaving ourselves behind in order to approach the mystery of God, who helps us to carry out the mission to which he has called us for the good of our brothers and sisters.”
This is basically the same logic of the Gospel simply put: anyone who wishes to save his life must lose it. When we leave ourselves behind we gain everything. It is paradoxical, but the greatest human fulfillment comes from giving our lives away as a total gift. Yet, sometimes we have doubts and fear great losses should we decide to follow Christ radically.
Pope Francis, in his March 25th WYD Message writes:
“Indeed, even those who have accepted the gift of faith and seek their vocation seriously are not exempt from fears. Some think: ‘perhaps God is asking or will ask too much of me; perhaps, by following the road he has marked out for me, I will not be truly happy, or I will not be able to do what he asks of me. Others think: if I follow the path that God shows me, who can guarantee that I will be able to follow it through? Will I become discouraged? Will I lose my enthusiasm? Will I be able to persevere for the whole of my life?… For us Christians in particular, fear must never have the last word but rather should be an occasion to make an act of faith in God… and in life! This means believing in the fundamental goodness of the existence that God has given us and trusting that he will lead us to a good end, even through circumstances and vicissitudes which often bewilder us. Yet if we harbor fears, we will become inward-looking and closed off to defend ourselves from everything and everyone, and we will remain paralyzed. We have to act! Never close yourself in!… The continuous presence of divine grace encourages us to embrace our vocation with confidence; our vocation demands a commitment of faithfulness that needs to be renewed each day. Our vocational path is not without its crosses: not only our initial doubts, but also the frequent temptations that crop up along the way. The feeling of inadequacy accompanies Christ’s disciple to the end. Yet he or she knows the help of God’s grace.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his address on April 24, 2005, assured young people with an exhortation similar to the thought expressed by Pope Francis above: “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away and gives everything!”
Want to know some practical signs of a vocation to the Religious Life? Read on!
So what are some of the elements that would indicate that God’s grace is moving a soul to respond? In considering the soul’s response, we must, in each individual case, examine whether the existing elements are positive and indicate fitness or suitability, or negative, indicating impediments or unfitness.
The positive elements with which God endows a soul who is called to the religious life are the necessary physical, intellectual, emotional and moral qualifications; the ability to sustain the rigors of the religious life and to do the work proper to the institute; and the right intention or proper disposition. A good question to ask is: could I find myself at home here? If the answer is yes that is a positive sign.
Physical and mental health sufficient for the conditions of the apostolate and community life are required. A balanced personality free of serious disorders and emotional maturity proportionate to one’s age and the ability to grow without static deficiencies will also be necessary in order to persevere. A sufficient intellectual capacity for an intelligent understanding of the religious life, its obligations and duties and a normal capacity for learning is requisite. By moral qualifications we do not mean the complete absence of moral defects. One need not already be a saint to enter religious life. One enters the religious life with a desire to become holy. The religious state in itself is a state of penance and one needs only a sincere will, manifested in an honest effort at conversion and an earnest use of the salutary means provided in religious life. Furthermore, one need not doubt one’s strength to undertake the rigors of religious life because that strength comes from divine assistance and not from our human efforts alone. Habitual moral deviations however, would constitute an impediment.
Now, the importance of right intention, cannot be underestimated. A right intention is characterized by a deliberate act of the will with the intention of using means necessary to achieve the desired end. It is not enough therefore, to say “I want to save my soul and help save the souls of others.” This is the necessary and normal desire of every devout Christian. The question is: do I intend to attain this purpose by these particular means of religious life? Furthermore one must be ready to use these means as they are proposed by the institute and approved by the Church, not as they are practiced by particular religious or as one would prefer them to be. This is exceedingly important!!! It will also show whether the candidate possesses the right spirit of the institute.
Before examining some negative elements that would indicate the absence of a vocation it is worth mentioning that everything that happens to a person to make them who they are happens within God’s providence and He sometimes uses even the negative influences of the world as well as the positive inspirations as occasions to move a soul. Natural circumstances, occasions, environment, temperament, talents, example, advice – all play a part in influencing the resolve to enter religious life. St. Thomas says: “Those whom God chooses for something, He prepares and disposes so that they will be found fit for that for which they are selected.”
Now for some impediments. These can be of different types: canonical, physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual or moral.
The impediments cited in Canon Law are as follows:
One is invalidly admitted to the novitiate:
- Who has not yet completed the 17th year of age.
- Who is a spouse, during a marriage.
- Who is presently held by a sacred bond with any institute of consecrated life or who is incorporated in any society of apostolic life, with due regard for the prescription of Canon 684 which allows transferring from one religious institute to another with the permission of the supreme moderator of each institute given with the consent of their respective councils.
- Who enters the institute as a result of force, grave fear or fraud, or whom the Abbess receives induced in the same way.
- Who has concealed her incorporation in any institute of consecrated life or society of apostolic life.
6) Who has committed the delict of apostasy, heresy or schism (only the Holy See can dispense from these impediments.)
Significant psychological or emotional imbalances are an impediment as well. There are some character defects and negative personality traits which can be overcome by counseling, conversion, the practice of virtue, etc… However, certain deficiencies which are great and static and are normally a counter indication to a religious vocation where life in community and under obedience would only serve to aggravate and propagate the problem. Eccentricity, affectation and egotism are signs of self-centredness which signals and imbalance of personality.
Physical and moral suitability have already been touched upon above.
Finally, something must be said regarding the acquisition of the knowledge of a vocation. How do we know? Knowledge of a call is gained by trial or experience and by formation.
- By experience: The candidate studies the institute to see whether or not it responds to her aspirations, her will and her intentions. And the Institute observes the candidate to ascertain whether or not she is suitable, that is, whether she has the specific vocation and spirit of the Institute.
- From formation: Formation seeks to develop the signs of the vocation and the required qualifications, so that it may be seen whether the candidate has the capacity necessary for persevering and growing in holiness by the means indicated. As a consequence of this formation the candidate acquires a greater fitness for the works of the apostolate and the spiritual works of the Institute. It is not sufficient to simply see if these elements are already there, they must be developed and cultivated. Every Institute has a particular charism that determines its place in the Church; therefore, it is necessary that the vocation of the candidate coincide with the spirit of the Institute. In each stage of formation the candidate and the Institute must cooperate in the work of formation.
For further reading we recommend Discerning Religious Life, by Sr. Clare Matthias, CFR, published by Vianney Vocations, Valdosta, Georgia, 2017.
1 Cf. Fr. Richard Butler, O.P., Religious Vocation: an unnecessary mystery.