Vocational Discernment

February 8, 2022

head and shoulders of the Thinker sculptureThe idea that people have a vocation to a particular kind of life is a funny obsession of the modern Church. Though, this is not to say that it is a mistake. However, the Church in earlier times viewed the matter quite differently from the way we do. Without abandoning our basic assumptions, it is nevertheless probably true that we can learn something from how these earlier times viewed it.

In the Church of the first five centuries, one only spoke of the general vocation of all people to follow Christ. Priesthood was something the Church conferred on people regardless of their personal discernment of the matter. In fact, it was not something that occurred to them to discern on the personal level. Sometimes ‘discernment’ came in the form of a mob action, as has been the case with Ambrose, Augustine and many others; sometimes it came by way of the will of a bishop, in the case of Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, Athanasius, and many others. No one thought the answer to the question, “Am I called to be a priest?” was sufficient for anything. Neither do we today, officially speaking, anyway, but on the ground level, this is often treated as the only thing that matters.

In a lengthy letter Nazianzus left a fascinating glimpse into the way people thought about the vocation to the priesthood in the 4th Century. Part of the fascination lies in the fact that, despite not having sought out ordination, he did not assume that this constituted sufficient ground to refuse it.

When early Christians thought about a ‘special’ Christian call, more often than not they were talking about celibacy, not Holy Orders. For one, priests often married in those days, so becoming a priest did not often constitute much of a break from one’s previous kind of life, despite the urging of the holier bishops. Celibacy was the significant thing, and we could say to a lesser extent, the life of poverty and simplicity, which was usually, although not always, considered a part of the celibate life. Celibacy had huge consequences in a world where the family was essential to economic life.

The terms monk and nun were not coined first; these followed the fact that there were people living separate, celibate lives. Although scholars are not certain, it is assumed that the term monk was derived from the Greek root mono, which seems to suggest singleness of purpose, but perhaps not the singleness we associate with the life of the hermit, but perhaps so. Monk became a technical term in time, but before this usage was canonized, other terms fit the bill – almost always ‘virgin’ for someone we would refer to as a nun today (‘widow’ also often had a technical meaning closer to nun as well). A wider variety of terms were applied to the men, which were usually drawn from the vocabulary that referred to any serious Christian, such as someone engaged in the philosophical life, or philosopher, for short. In other words, Augustine’s (to us) unusual association of philosophical study and celibacy with baptism were not unusual in his time. He assumed that these two things were essential to the life of the Christian.

The Middle Ages were a much longer and varied time, and so to sum up the attitude to vocational discernment over that thousand years is a much harder thing to do. We might simply say that the Medieval position was halfway between that of the Early Church and ours. The equation of the serious, true Christian life with celibacy was almost universal. The difference was that, unlike in the Early Church, in the Middle Ages this ideal was universally applied to the priesthood too. Real Christians were celibate, case closed, more or less case closed. We cannot really get into the reasons for why this changed from then to now. We simply need to reflect upon what we’ve lost and gained in the transition.

We might think that considering celibacy a necessary part of spiritual seriousness of purpose is strange and a good thing for us to have now relegated to a particular kind of vocation only, but let me make a case for it. Let me make this case in light of my own experience. You might think that there is nothing to be said in defense for identifying Christian ministry with celibacy exclusively or at least predominately. However, given the fact that this was the basic assumption for well of a thousand years of Christianity, there may be something here worth pondering.

I become a convicted Christian rather late in my youth. Though raised loosely as a Protestant, at about sixteen I wanted to become, and so became, Catholic. I was intellectually predisposed. I was and am one for whom ideas are very important, for whom knowing about the big questions of life is crucial to my happiness. I knew that teaching and evangelization were to be a central part of my life in Christ. God wanted me to learn about Him so that I might teach others the liberating message of truth. I naturally eventually assumed that I would have to either become a secular priest or a member of a religious order. So I discerned. I talked to bishops, priests and other good Catholics, I even spent a year in a diocesan seminary. Every day I spent there I prayed. It felt like there was a great weight on my shoulders I needed to pray off, as if it were a very important matter to determine what God’s will was for me – to become a diocesan priest or a religious? The process often made me quite unhappy. I felt alternately like I was not listening to God, unable to listen to God and that I was (intentionally?) wasting time that could be better spent performing a more important function than I was performing in a seminary where I was not spreading the Word to anyone new.

Since I was not raised Catholic I had not initially associated celibacy with being a serious Christian evangelist. After reading a great deal of Christian history and the lives of the saints, I came to see its value. Eventually it became almost self-evident that a serious Christian would have to be celibate. I even started to look down on marriage. The stories of the Medieval married saints almost universally confirmed my new conviction: marriage almost always appeared in these stories as a mistake, or at least as a dismal, unelected duty, something thrust upon someone who was supposed to be celibate. In fact, probably unintentionally, the death of the spouse almost appeared as a blessing – now the hero was finally able to live the way God had intended.

Given these sorts of impressions, when I fell in love a few years later, I experienced a real crisis. I cannot really say that this crisis was settled until after I was married. It is strange to say that I even spent a fair amount of time during that first year wondering whether I had done the right thing in getting married, or whether I had, in fact, disobeyed God by taking on a life of ‘compromise.’ Of course, I no longer wonder whether my marriage was God’s will, but, even now, I am still forced to reckon with a related matter, that of the apostolate of the lay theologian. Is this even possible?

I wonder if I had unwittingly bought into the propaganda about the “Church of the laity,” that—consciously at least—I had considered part of the anti-clericalism of ‘progressives’ – their idea that lay people could do almost everything the clergy could do. Sometimes even when you are dead-set against something you can still be influenced by it. What made me believe that one could be a theologian and a layman anyway? Lay theologians sort of existed in the Early Church, but this was essentially considered an oxymoron in the Medieval. Theological acumen always implied that you at least held one of the lower clerical orders. One reason for this was that, up until the Late Middle Ages anyway, theological training was essentially confined to monasteries. But in my seminary one of the professors was a layman. Sure, he taught philosophy, not theology, but I didn’t see what difference that made.

Without getting into too many specifics, I can just say that the Church isn’t really set up to accommodate lay theologians, let alone lay evangelists of other stripes. Why this is so and what should be done about it are questions important enough to merit serious examination, but we certainly can’t do that here.

Do I feel like I am doing what God has called me to do, when He bothered to reveal Himself to me in a way that I assume He has not bothered to do to others (at least in quite the same way, for quite the same reason)? Of course, feelings are feelings and facts are facts. I knew a couple who believed that it was God’s will for them to have their wedding on a Sunday, but, of course, that is not the Church’s practice. In other words, we can believe a whole lot of things about God’s will for us, but that does not make it so.

Do I feel like I am doing enough for God? Is anyone ever doing enough for God? Of course not. But can we ever arrive at some kind of certainty, at least, that we are where we should be and doing what we should be doing? Yes. I am utterly certain that, first, I am meant to evangelize my children and love my wife. Everything else is second to that. That does not mean that no other thing I do out there is important, but it does mean that no obligation weighs more heavily upon me than my obligation to my family. At one time I wanted to be a great evangelist, rather than just an evangelist. Today I am more tempted towards being a financially successful evangelist (for sake of my family), rather than being tempted to being a great one. God, of course, does not want me to attach any of these adjectives to the simple term, evangelist. Financially viable, successful, great – these concerns are not from God. Only commitment to the Word is from Him.

We can always feel things about our ministry, about its exact trajectory, its fruitfulness, its effectiveness, our cooperation with grace – and we should have feelings about these things. But we cannot become obsessed with them. Success does not mean we are being obedient, nor does lack of success mean we are being disobedient. Fruitfulness, fidelity, obedience, these are things that only God is able to judge.

Everyone has a call to holiness. Everyone has a call to moderation, obedience, service to the Church and our neighbour, and to chastity. The Church of the Ancient, the Medieval and the Modern world all agreed on this. People should always be giving more and more to God; no one should ever stay still. However, I would say that what the Church of the pre-modern time has to teach us, has to remind us of, is that vocation is not a personal matter; it is the Church’s. No one has a right to say yes or no. One has a right to discern with the Church (because you too are a member of the Church), but no one has a right to discern independently of it. I think that this is a liberating truth. All the weight is not on your shoulders. I think we need to borrow one more thing from the Church of earlier times: a realization that life is short, eternity is forever, and that nothing that happens in this world is all that important. I think the thing that stifles vocations—and yes, we can fail to heed God’s call—is the nagging feeling that we would have to to give up too much important stuff to follow it.

I believe that some of us think do too much vocational discernment, despite the fact that most people do not think about it enough. There is much a thing as too much: serious Catholics are often guilty of doing too much. Some of us, like me, thought about the matter on too grand a scale. I was obsessed with finding my ‘great’ vocation, rather than finding my path to the greatest fidelity, stability and obedience. For this what mattered was a sober assessment of my character and my gifts. Not much else. Everything else was far secondary, including waiting for that voice from the sky. Certainly comes from self-knowledge. Rarely does it require extraordinary divine intervention. The ability to soberly assess one’s character and gifts is the voice of God we should be listening for.

colin-kerrColin Kerr

Colin wrote this Article for the Knights of the Holy Eucharist. He has been married to Anne-Marie since 1999, and they are proud to raise their six children, in a small town in Ontario, Canada. Colin has a PhD in Theology and works tirelessly to promote the Gospel. “Just share the Word,” is what he believes the Lord says to him – and so he does. He recently founded The Catholic Review of Books, a printed journal and website dedicated to “all things books” from the perspectives of faithful Catholics. He is fascinated by the concept of chivalry as it applies to being a man and a father in today’s crazy world.


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