Four and a half years ago, a friend and I had just arrived in Rome and needed to board a train that would take us to Bari where we would meet up with a friend living in a nearby town. While trying to find out where the train would arrive, we noticed Bari marked as one of the stops at a terminal 3 rows down from us. To be sure, we wanted to check the others. After all, there could be other trains going to Bari, and we couldn’t be sure that we had a ticket particularly for that train. We realized that the one we first noticed was the only train going to Bari and had left Rome half an hour beforehand while we were wasting our time reading the other signs. Missing our chance for a three-day tour of southern Italy, we stayed in Rome and waited to see Dario and his family the next week.
This tale of a station echos many a tale of vocations. “Vocation” is a popular enough word. In most dioceses, it isn’t difficult to find material in any given parish vestibule, hear a talk on vocations at a young adult program, or find a seminary or convent willing to host someone for a “Come-and-See” weekend (shameless plug). Year after year at retreats, conferences, and quasi-liturgical events, countless men and women acknowledge that may have a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. So why the hesitancy still from so many?
There may be as many reasons why someone doesn’t give the seminary or religious life a shot as there are people who decide against it. Self-centered sins are obvious reasons, but there may be more subtle ones that begin from what is innocuous, even necessary at the outset, and only later get out of hand and discourage even the mere consideration of such a life.
“Discernment” may be the biggest reason a vocation is left unrealized. If discernment means a disposition to selflessly listen to and follow the Divine Will, then discern away! But when the word starts to signify an attitude of telling God, “Don’t worry about me and what I’m going to do in life. I’ll let you know how I decide to serve you once I figure it out. I’ve got this,” then it kills any possibility of our life taking a positive turn toward God’s plan for us. It’s hard to imagine great saints like Benedict, Dominic, Francis, John of the Cross, or Catherine of Siena delaying their service for the Lord because they needed more personal time to “discern their vocation.” Discernment is not discovering on one’s own power what path to take. It’s thanking God for the grace to follow him and then doing so.
In the case of trying to read all the signs or just hopping on the train in hopes that it’s going where you need to be, there seems to be a fine line between prudence in making a decision and scrupulosity which leads to further deferment. When one can’t decide which order to join, whether or not to enter the seminary, or whether to buy an engagement ring or date yet another year, there is the dangerously imminent temptation of not making a decision at all and subsequently being left behind.
Life won’t pause for us, so when it comes to a vocation, there’s room for investigating and seeking counsel, but there’s no room for stalling. We work with Christ’s teachings, listen to his Catholic Church, practice frequently the sacraments, pray diligently, get the guidance of a wise priest and family members and friends—and then we get on with our decision. Placing our lives in perpetual neutral so we can “discern” only allows the rest of the world to move along while we become stuck in a sort of vocational limbo. It’s doubtful whether anyone would say that every life decision before getting ordained or married was a good one in and of itself, but certainly either later in this life or in the next we’ll be able to see God’s providence in it all. A difficult acknowledgment must be made that an ‘imperfect’ decision is perhaps better than no decision at all. After all, a vocation is about following God, so when we genuinely seek his will, we have to trust that he will bless the act made in faith and charity. Hop on.
Image: Lagrange Station, 1932