It really irks me when I hear someone ask a young person, “are you discerning a vocation”? This question, although well meant, is quite misguiding. It leads one to believe that only those called to religious life or the priesthood ought to pray about their future. It also usually elicits an answer of, “no”, as the young person is embarrassed to think that he/she might in fact be called to something different. That which is different is often not comfortable, as it would make him/her stand out. In order to understand the whole concept of vocations more deeply, we need to ask two questions: What is a vocation, after all, and how does one discern it?
Every single person on the face of the Earth has a vocation. The primary vocation of the human person is to love. As baptized Catholics, we further acknowledge three states of life, or three vocations, which are in accordance with our faith: priesthood (men only), consecrated life (men or women) and marriage (one man and one woman). Surprisingly, the Church does not acknowledge a vocation to be single (stay tuned for more on this). Many Catholic speakers have taught that the single life is an acceptable vocation, and yet it is not. This may be upsetting to some, but the Church has very good reasons for this.
First of all, what is a vocation? Simply put, a vocation is a “calling”. The Latin root of the word vocation literally means “to call”. At the moment of baptism, the soul receives the seed of a vocation, so to speak. Over time, this seed grows and matures. Ever planted a seed? If you have, you are aware of the process. As a seed germinates, it sends out a root. As the seed continues to grow, a tiny green blade appears above the ground. For most plants, this first blade is indistinguishable from other types of plants. The same is true of a vocation: at first, God causes the vocation to root itself in the soul. This is a hidden portion of the development of one’s calling. Next, the vocation begins to bring forth a tiny indication of itself, until eventually it comes to be revealed in the light. Sounds easy, right? Just sit back and wait for your vocation to pop up out of the ground and reveal itself! Well, truth is that no one really has that sort of a “ta-da” moment with vocational discernment. This is why young people are often asked if they are discerning their vocation.
Discernment is a necessary step in any person’s vocational search. God speaks to the human heart on a very personal level. This is why discernment is a process of prayer and reflection. Many people search out a spiritual director to help them through this often challenging phase of life. Remember the seed planted in baptism? Well, the Lord wants us to search out the tiny plant it produced, and to distinguish it from amongst a meadow of other plants! There are so many distractions (both good and evil) in our world: work, school, family life, hobbies, multi-slacking (come on, you know you do it!), and so on. All these put forth a plant in the meadow of life. But which plant is your vocation? Think of it this way: what are you willing to give your life for? Look at your own life, and identify the different things/activities that fill your day. Are you willing to give your life for any of them? Sadly, many people put work, school and Facebook before other priorities, thus making these things/actions their selected vocation. But a vocation requires more than an attitude of acceptance; it requires sacrifice. This is why the single life is not a recognized vocation in the Church. Let me clarify. As a single person, you have the freedom to do what you want, when you want and how you want. No one really grinds your rough edges with rules or ways of doing things. Yes, there are social constructs which dictate a certain code of behavior, but as a single person you don’t have to fight with your new spouse over the toilet seat being left up/down! I think we can all agree that is harder to live with others. The same is true of religious life (mens’ or womens’ communities); suddenly you are faced with not one, but several others who do things a particular (often quirky) way! And what of the priesthood? You get to serve an entire parish of quirky people! Putting aside the comical extremes, we come to realize that we need others. No, we don’t need them to drive us to the point of insanity. Rather, we need them to drive us to the point of holiness.
Holiness cannot be achieved in isolation. Our pilgrim way, which (God willing) leads to Heaven requires a testing of our virtues by our neighbor, as well as the witness of our neighbors to us, and our witness to them. This is not a popular thought, especially in an ego-centric culture. If I am to live in proximity to another person, it will require a certain level of sacrifice. So, why would anyone do such a thing? One answer alone suffices: love. Love demands a response, and that response is sacrifice. The greatest sacrifice we can make is the gift of our very self. This is what drives a young woman to abandon all her earthly possessions and enter a cloister. This is the same impetus that causes a young couple to vow their lives to each other. It is also this same self-gift that motivations a young man to accept the invitation to become conformed to Christ in a radical manner. Are you noticing how the single life is lacking? Just to clarify, by single life, I am referring to the self-centered and “unattached” life so many young people are choosing. It is one thing to be single for the Lord and quite another to just be single. Those who are single for the Lord, accept the radical call to chastity and/or celibacy for life. They make vows or promises to that effect, and these undertakings are accepted and approved by the Church (usually under the watchful care of the local bishop). Such single vocations include consecrated virginity and life in a society of apostolic life (for more on the different forms of vocations, see Vita Consecrata, written by St. John Paul II. Go on…it’s available online for free! Did you click on it yet?)
The human heart longs to give of itself in love. Without this outlet, the human person is unfulfilled. Think of the many false “loves” in the world today which try to fulfill this longing: promiscuous sex, drugs, pornography, etc. All these promise a sort of quasi-love, but without any effort on our part. Love, in order to be true, requires sacrifice. What sacrifice is there in selfishness? None. This is why we have to start asking our young people a different question. Instead of simply asking, “are you discerning a vocation?”, we need to challenge them by asking, “how is the Lord calling you to give of yourself?” or “how will you pour yourself out for others, out of love for Christ?”. This sort of question goes beyond the initial vocational discernment (e.g. am I called to religious life or to marriage?), and digs deeper into the daily life of the individual. Just because I am married, for instance, does not mean that my vocational discernment is complete! God help the family or community in which there exists such a though! Each day is a new challenge to find ways to love and to give of myself (even when it’s hard) for the sake of Christ. So, I ask you: how will you sacrifice yourself today, so that another soul may come to see Christ in you, and thus come one step closer to Heaven?