How to Discern Your Vocation
Thinking about the future made me super excited as a kid. I wanted to be a scientist, and then a paleontologist, until I wanted to be a movie director and… That zeal eventually ran out as I grew up. I learned about how every career I wanted was competitive and uncertain. I instead longed for something more abstract and basic - a life of meaning, purpose, adventure, and honor. I wanted a simpler and humbler way of life, one where I could grow in my relationship with God and help others. And, here I am discerning the priesthood now!
Although I don’t have all of the answers, these last few months have taught me so much.
I learned first and foremost that our vocations are not primarily about us. Our lives are a divinely written story. God is directing us towards holiness, towards intimacy and union with Him. Our vocations are how God has willed that we attain holiness, meaning He has tailored us to different stations or ways of life. Although, rather than determining the story for us and stripping away our freedom, God desires that we genuinely pursue what He has planted in us.
I also learned that discernment, and growing up in general, forces you to confront your insecurities and wounds. Regardless if we are discerning marriage, the priesthood, religious life, or blessed singleness, our unmet emotional needs will continue tugging. Our intense desire to be loved, noticed, wanted, and understood is supposed to ache us into pursuing meaning - to pursue God! But, along the way, sin distorts how we view ourselves and our purpose. Discernment is therefore a reordering or reshaping our lives into the divine vision that God has for us. “Growing up” is actually learning how to be a better child of our Father.
The third thing I learned was that you have to take things one step at a time. As much as I wish this were true, Fr. Gale and Fr. Drew can’t tell me the future or see alternate realities. I wish I could plan my life around the future, knowing what grad school applications are worth submitting or comparing if I would be happier married or celibate.
Fr. Gale, however, has told me to pursue things day by day. He often compares discernment to putting one foot into a passing stream and then having a stone catch your step at the last second - doing this over and over until you arrive at your destination. A priest told me the other day that I don’t have to have everything figured out now and that’s okay. I just need to go to sleep tonight, finishing what I needed to do today, thinking only a little about tomorrow. You do this everyday until you are eventually where you’re meant to be.
Here are some practical tips for discernment. It is crucial to spend time with other discerners and learn from people who have successfully discerned. The other discerners will help you stay accountable and not feel isolated during lows, while the successful discerners provide a window into the beauty and challenges of whatever your calling might be.
The last piece of practical advice I can offer is to begin doing things (within reason and virtue) that push you outside of your comfort zone. God might be calling you to the priesthood, even though you really want to get married. Perhaps all of your girlfriends are planning their weddings, but you feel a tug to the sisterhood. You cannot dismiss God’s gentle tugs on your heart, especially since God rarely knocks us off our horse in order to redirect our lives. God does not speak through terror and anxiety. God speaks to us in our moments of faith and honesty. He speaks to us during Mass and Adoration. He speaks words of life to our old wounds if we patiently listen. Begin pushing yourself to pray more and confront old insecurities.
For example, before I became Catholic, I decided to deal with my hair insecurities by dyeing it! I went to a Salon I had never visited before, entrusting my head to a total stranger, and watched as my black hair turned silver (and eventually blonde). When the pandemic worsened, I shaved my hair off entirely and continued being bald for a few months. Although I’ve grown my hair out, those experiences broke me out of my shell, and I eventually noticed that I stopped caring about how people viewed me. I started caring more about the genuineness of my friends, and if I was growing in devotion to Christ, the true lover of my soul. These radical acts of trust are sometimes painful and awkward, but God does not forget them. I’m sure God saw that small act as a leap forward in me trusting Him.
So, I encourage you to grow up into the best child you can be! As Catholics, our childhood has not ended but only begun. The intense hungering of our hearts for purpose is how God will, if we let Him, make us into saints.
Suan Sonna is a philosophy student at Kansas State University and a protestant convert to Catholicism.