4. Examine the script of life you’re working from.
I used to think that I’d do fine in life if someone would just hand me the script. I’d know what to say and what my cues were. Everything would be in the hands of the playwright and the judgment of the casting director.
What an irresponsible way to wish to live! What I learned is that, based on habits of thinking and acting learned over the years, I was already working from a script. Facing that fact meant applying the ancient philosophical dictum: “Know thyself.” And with that self-knowledge comes the capacity to take responsibility and, where necessary, forgive thyself.
The tradition that St. Francis initiated is often called a “wisdom tradition.” While certainly a tradition of service, Franciscan life—indeed, all Christian life—is founded on a commitment to self-reflection and ongoing conversion. Who am I, Lord? And who are you? Francis repeated these words in his nightly prayer (as reported by a nosy brother who spied on him).
In more contemporary terms, we might ask ourselves: How have I learned to live? How have I learned to make decisions, form relationships, and make commitments?Who modeled these things for me? Are those models still working?
Some of the wisest people I’ve met in vocational discernment are grounded in Twelve Step spirituality?connecting core Christian principles to the recovery model of Alcoholics Anonymous. The practice of making a periodic moral inventory is central to this spirituality. This translates into a careful examination of how we have learned our basic habits of relating to God, to ourselves, and to others.
It’s not surprising that similar inventories are standard requirements for couples seeking marriage in the Catholic Church. The key is to make such reflection an ongoing life practice—with the help of trusted (and honest) friends, spiritual directors, Twelve Step sponsors, or mentors.
5. Return God’s loving embrace.
Pedro Arrupe, SJ, the great 20th-century Jesuit, famously counseled his fellow Jesuits: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.” The converse is sadly true: our relationships, service, and practice of the faith will derail very quickly if we lose the spark of love. St. Francis’ spirituality was founded on his deep experience of Jesus’ message in John’s Gospel: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love” (15:9).
A friend recently shared her experience of falling in love when she was a student some 27 years ago. She sought the counsel of a beloved Franciscan professor. “I’ll never forget his response to me,” she said, “how he smiled and delighted with me in the wonder and beauty of the experience. He invited me to tell him all about it. It was only after this affirmation that he posed the question: Where do you want to be in 10 years?”
My friend’s story reminded me of advice I’d also received from a beloved professor: “Always affirm, never deny. Always expand, never restrict the scope of the conversation.” We return God’s embrace when we allow ourselves to explore experiences of God’s love in our lives and extend this freedom and invitation to others.
GOD’S WILL, OUR JOY
Whatever the context of our vocational discernment—whether we’re discerning marriage, single or religious life, or ordained ministry—we can be assured that, as disciples of Jesus Christ, where two or more are gathered, there he is in our midst, ready to confound, delight, and orient us in the direction of our deepest joy.
In the end, blessed hungers or holy longings will lead us to where God wants us to be. Daily prayer, facing our fears, and being honest about our own habits of thinking and acting are fundamental in approaching life decisions. When they’re rooted in a personal assurance of God’s loving embrace, they can lead to life choices that reflect God’s will in our lives.
Active discernment means putting the questions of your heart into play—in writing and in conversation.
1. Find a spiritual director and meet regularly. If “spiritual director” sounds daunting, find a trusted friend, mentor, or Twelve Step sponsor to serve as your discernment companion. Work up questions together, such as Where do I want to be in 10 years? What captures my imagination? What activities, settings, and possibilities make my heart sing?
2. Write a spiritual autobiography. Include your earliest experiences of God’s presence, your spiritual heroes and role models, and how your image of God has changed over the years.
3. Join a group of others who are also discerning their vocations.
4. Check in with a career counselor or join a career renewal group. Networking is key.
5. Interview those who are doing the kind of work or living the kind of life you’re attracted to. As you do this, don’t be surprised by the good people placed in your path.
WISE WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT
A 13th-century exchange of letters shows St. Clare assisting the discernment of Agnes of Prague:
“May you always rejoice in the Lord. And may neither bitterness nor a cloud of sadness overwhelm you. Place your mind before the mirror of eternity! Place your soul in the brilliance of glory! Place your heart in the figure of the divine! And transform your whole being into the image of God through contemplation! So that you too may feel what God’s friends feel as they taste the hidden sweetness that God has reserved from the beginning for those who love him.”
–based on third letter of St. Clare to Agnes of Prague