HOW DO I KNOW WHAT GOD WANTS ME TO DO? WHAT IS GOD’S WILL FOR MY LIFE? WHERE DO I FIT IN THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH?
It seems few people sit down long enough to ponder the big questions; even fewer have the courage and presence of mind to seek the answers. The fact that you’re reading this suggests you’re one of those few.
The work of discernment takes many forms, and features in every facet of life: what to have for breakfast; what to say or do at any particular moment; whether or not to marry, and if so, whom; whether or not to enter into a deeper awareness of who you are in Christ, and what he would have you do in service to him.
The bigger questions are harder to answer because discernment is far more than just gaining enough information to be able to make a sensible decision. The work of discernment, especially the journey of discerning one’s calling, or vocation, is not at all straightforward due to the effects of sin; we see “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor 13:12). Christian discernment is as much if not more a matter of the heart than the head. Remember our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, especially Mt 5:8: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Authentic discernment begins through the Holy Spirit guiding us to an awareness of the truth through faith: the truth about God, the world, and the truth about oneself in Christ, as a member of his Body.
True Christian discernment involves 1) making a reasonable judgment on what is true in the light of faith, and 2) coming to an awareness of the inclinations or desires within us, and their relationship to that truth. If we’re to find our calling, our hopes and desires have to line up with what is true about us, and again, our tradition confesses this to be seen only through faith. True discernment cannot happen apart from humility, constant prayer, deep reflection, and close consultation with other discerning Christians who know us well. Only a clear mind aided by a loving heart can discern the love of God our Creator, and his loving intentions for us.
So Christian discernment begins in, is motivated by, and ends in love: in the love of God, in love for Christ and his Church, and in love of self, finding one’s place as a member of Christ’s body as one part grafted into the whole. This makes the search for one’s Christian vocation less an awareness of possible courses of action and identity, and more a search for the life God intends for us; our search is not simply for a life we think seems like a good idea at the time, but the right life. Christian freedom is not the ability to become whatever one wishes to become, to decide whether or not one wishes to be celibate or married, a deacon or a priest, or even ‘safely’ to remain a member of the laity; rather, Christian freedom is found in becoming who and what God created us to be, embracing the way in which he intended our lives to unfold in order to share in and testify to his saving purposes in the world through Christ. The Church cannot compel any individual person to any particular vocation; but a failure to discern and then embrace one’s vocation, whatever it might be, is a failure to embrace one’s well-being in Christ.
Different people begin to discern God calling them to Holy Orders in different ways. Some feel drawn to pastoral ministry from a very young age, others wake up to the idea at a more mature age, often when they’re well into a secular career. Some respond immediately to the call, some put it off for a few years, even decades, sometimes it goes an entire lifetime without action. Sometimes a parent or a spouse will begin to suspect their loved one might have a clerical vocation well before the one being called. A growing awareness of a vocation to ordained ministry can feel terrifying or invigorating, burdensome or like the sudden lifting of a weight. The reactions of family members and friends typically range anywhere from enthusiastic support to bitter opposition and everything in between.
Regardless of the variety of experiences we have due to our varied personalities and backgrounds, if you are indeed called to Holy Orders, there is nothing quite like moving towards the unity found in sharing a common identity with one’s ministerial colleagues and, ultimately, with Christ himself.
If you think your well-being in Christ might involve ordination as a Deacon or Priest, then you have a duty and a responsibility to Christ, the Church, and yourself to enter into a period of discernment with the Church. This process begins by talking with those closest to you, and eventually by having a conversation with your priest, who will guide you in any further steps, if any. Taking this first formal step requires courage; but if you’re becoming aware of a greater sense of calling to Christian service and ministry, there’s really no other way to find peace apart from entering a period of discernment with the Church. This discernment process might end in you being ordained; it might end in you finding a wonderful and engaging ministry as a member of the laity. Both are good. What matters is that you gain more clarity about who and what Christ has made you to be.