Life

What I Wish Students Knew About Vocational Discernment

Many college students get stressed out about their vocational discernment. Are you one of them? You don’t have to be. While some young Catholics spend years trying to figure out God’s will for their life, the whole process can actually be very straightforward. Let’s start at the beginning.

DEFINING VOCATIONAL DISCERNMENT

First of all, vocation is a Latin word meaning "call." God is calling each and every one of us to be a saint, to become the man or woman he made us to be according to our own unique individuality like St. Francis of Assisi, or John Paul the Great or Mother Teresa. And discernment is another way to say discovery, so vocational discernment is about discovering where God is calling you to be a saint and then living out that call. While the call to holiness is universal and at the same time unique for each one of us, we are called to live out that call in Christ's Church according to one of two states of life: marriage or consecration. We’ll explain that a little more in a minute.

THE TWO ESSENTIALS

You may have already heard that God has a plan for our lives because He said, “I alone know the plans I have for you, plans for good and not for woe, plans to give you a future full of hope” (Jer. 29:11). But how do we discover God’s plan for our lives? St. Ignatius of Loyola says that we start by making a real decision to follow Jesus Christ with our whole hearts. He tells us that finding out God’s plan for our lives begins with doing what we already know God wants us to do. That means two things:

  1. prayer
  2. freedom of heart

Prayer means

  • praying 20 minutes to an hour every day with Scripture or another spiritual book
  • going to Mass on Sunday
  • going to Confession at least once a month 
  • A true devotion to Mary and spiritual direction are also recommended

Freedom means

  • being free from any desire to commit mortal sins or even to purposely commit venial sins
  • healing or breaking off any unhealthy relationships whether they be with friends or family
  • being free of any romantic ties

Finally, Ignatius says it may not be a good idea to tell your family and friends right away because they can try to push you in one direction or another. The question is: Will this person help me be more free to do what God wants me to do?

THE TWO WAYS: MARRIAGE AND CONSECRATION

Before getting into all the details of what specifically God wants you to do, it can be a good idea to consider whether God may want you to be married or consecrated. This is known as your “state of life”. Your state of life is how you will give your life to God and serve others. As Jesus points out: while some are called to marriage, others are called to live out “celibacy for the Kingdom.” And just like marriage is about choosing to love one other person for life, celibacy is about embracing a unique relationship in which God fills your heart so that it is overflowing. (Note: priesthood in the Western Church and committed single life are both ways of living out celibacy for the Kingdom.) Signs that God is calling you to celibacy include:

  • a certain dissatisfaction in considering the married life
  • a great love of prayer
  • a great love of apostolate
  • a particular joy in the things of God: philosophy and theology, sacred art and music, the divine liturgy and the sacraments.

However the one true sign is attraction to a specific form of consecrated life and peace in living it out. This alone is "the sign" of a vocation.

THREE TIMES WHEN IT'S OK TO MAKE A DECISION

When can you know if marriage or consecration is right for you? Assuming you've reached the point of interior freedom where you can say, "Whatever you want God, I'll do it: You want me consecrated, ok. You want me married, ok," then there are three times when you can make this decision. The first is like a lightning bolt. It’s a flash of inspiration that comes to you so strongly there’s no way you can doubt it. Still it is good to bring this flash to your spiritual director or someone else you trust.

The second way is like a see-saw. While you pray about your vocation and your future you may begin to feel a deep and lasting peace about one way or the other. Then when you think about another possibility, you may not feel peace at all, or you may feel peace at first, but then it leaves a bad aftertaste. Obviously, you’ll want to choose whatever gives you a deep and lasting peace.

There is also a third time when you can decide which vocation you want to pursue, that is a time of peace. If you have a moment of peace in your life or can go away on a retreat or just get out of all the hustle and bustle of daily life, then there are two ways you can make a decision about your vocation. One requires you to weigh your options like on a scale while the other lets you use your imagination.

WAY OF REASON

To use the scale method, first grab four pieces of paper and a pen. Then you must always begin with the end in mind. The goal of your life is to become a saint, the man or woman God made you to be and so give glory to God and help build up His kingdom here on earth. To do that, there are two ways: marriage and consecration. On one piece of paper, you write all the pros of getting married: sharing your life with someone, chance to raise a family, to have your own home, etc. On the second sheet of paper you need to write all the cons of marriage: not having as much time to pray or to read God’s word, all the chores and responsibilities and pressures that come from raising a family like St. Paul says: “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord, but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife and his interests are divided. I say this not to lay a restraint upon you, but to promote the good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:32-35). On the third sheet of paper, you can write all the pros of being consecrated: more time for prayer and the sacraments, more availability to build up God’s Kingdom, more opportunities to learn about God and His plan for us, and so on. Finally on the fourth sheet of paper, write the cons of being consecrated: most especially the recognition that you will have to give up family life, but remember Jesus also said: “there is no man who hath left house or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, Who shall not receive an hundred times as much, now in this time; houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions: and in the world to come life everlasting” (Mt 19:29). Now you can weigh your options using your reason and then take your decision to God in prayer OR you can try the…

WAY OF IMAGINATION

Begin by imagining a young man or woman in your exact same situation. You don’t know this person, but you love them as your brother or sister in Christ. What would you tell them to do? Write that down. Now imagine you are in a rocking chair looking back on your life: how would you feel if you chose marriage? How would you feel if you chose consecration? Write down which brought more joy. Now take those decisions before God and see if there’s peace. Give it a shot and if the peace lasts, then there’s your answer. If not, then there’s your answer. Remember God wants you to be happy, to become a saint, to become the man or woman he made you to be. When you discover your vocation, you discover who you are and living that out is your joy.

So while some may be afraid of getting too close to God because they think He’ll make them do something they don’t want to do, the truth is that God is the good shepherd who brings you to green pastures and only asks you to do what is going to bring you more joy than you could ever have on your own.


This post is a apart of the “What I Wish College Students Knew” series. We wanted to get popular Catholic authors and speakers to write about topics that were close to the minds and hearts of college students across the country. To read more posts in this series, click on the links below. Feel free to give your input and join the conversation on these important topics.