Discerning a vocation is a daunting yet necessary component of being human. And yet, the rhetoric which governs many conversations pertaining to vocational discernment betrays a certain fear of choice and anxiety about the results. Perhaps you’ve participated in conversations containing such standards as these:
“I think I’m called to marriage, but I’m not sure.”
“Maybe I’m supposed to be a priest, but I don’t know whether to go diocesan or religious.”
“If religious, then which order?”
“But how do I know if I’m called to that?”
We’re all out to make the “right” decision, and we’re not at a lack for good options; yet, the plunge remains to be taken. In its stead, one finds paralysis. A number of really impressive young people are profoundly uncertain of what to do and what God might want them to do. Raw voluntarism is one option, but not a consoling one. This could be called the “Nike approach.” The slogan “just do it” is a helpful corrective that could get you started down a particular road. Perhaps once you’re there (in a relationship, in the seminary, etc.), things would sort themselves out as you found happiness or unhappiness in the chosen path. However, this seems insufficient, and a little too close to roulette or Pelagianism.
I suspect that at least one facet of the problem is this: that we’re all Cartesian discerners. It is not our fault—we didn’t choose to be born in an era very much affected by the thought of this particular seventeenth-century French philosopher—but it is our problem. Descartes began the task of rational thought from a stance of radical doubt: “But now my reason convinces me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false, it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt.”
Descartes wanted certainty at any cost. To put it briefly, he located the real (what philosophy is concerned with) in the mind, and not in the rocks, walruses, and hummingbirds outside our minds. He did not deem trustworthy anything we perceived with our senses in the external world. Our appropriation of this mindset in the realm of discernment could take the form of a syllogism like this: I want to know God’s will for my life. Knowing God’s will requires praying in the chapel alone, still, silent, and with my eyes closed. Therefore, my vocation will arrive in this scheduled time of silent prayer.
Just as a caveat, don’t think that I’m criticizing silent prayer; I’m not. I’m simply saying this is not the only way of praying. The Catholic tradition is broad enough to include the shockingly physical nine ways of prayer of St. Dominic. This method of prayer has been meditated on by Vladimir Koukelka, O.P., and beautifully translated by my confrere Br. Pier Giorgio in the most recent edition of Dominicana Journal. We do happen to live, as I indicated above, in a very introspective age. It might be better to get out of our heads (though God is certainly present even in that dark, scary place) and into the external world. Take a second look at something in the world around you. We were trained from youth to take in an enormous amount of information quickly and process it all: articles, images, audio clips, sensations, etc. As a little exercise, try taking a long, hard, possibly even boring look at something outside. Keep looking at it until it appears slightly different from when you first looked at it. Then you’ll have a better idea of how the ancients thought about thinking: they didn’t think about their own thought the way Descartes got us to do; they thought about things out there. Wonder might even be reawakened. That is a way of looking at the world recommended by such diverse characters as Aristotle, Jesus, G.K. Chesterton, and Luigi Giussani.
The first of those four characters defined prudence as “right reason in action.” And it is necessary to be prudent in order to discern a vocation. However, there is the “action” part of “right reason in action.” Sure, there are doubts, but if you wait around in your head too long, you might miss something that’s been right in front of you the whole time.
Image: Caravaggio, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew