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God’s will for you

January 16, AD 2012 7 Comments

In keeping with my tradition of quoting other people in order to come up with a blog post, I want to discuss a piece someone else wrote on the subject of your “personal vocation.” If you’ve ever participated in a high school youth group, a college-level religious club, or even a casual discernment retreat, the phrase is familiar. But we might all disagree about what it means.

So the piece, by Michael Hannon on First Things, bears the clever title “Love God and Do What You Will: Avoiding Over-Devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Discernment.” Here’s the heart of it:

God does not tell each of us exactly what to do all the time. In fact, he does not necessarily even tell us what to do with regards to major life choices, including choices between religious and secular life. He gifts us with any number of good and virtuous options, and then leaves the decision to us. As a mantra classically attributed to St. Augustine puts it, “Love God and do what you will.”

And the main conclusion: “The Christian ought to make major life decisions as he ought to make all decisions: by evaluating how he can serve God, by choosing a course of action accordingly, and by having the courage to follow through and do it.”

Mr. Hannon’s analysis definitely applies, in my mind, to most life choices: what college to attend, what career to pursue, what city to live in, what charity to support. You could receive a good education and live as a faithful Catholic at just about any college; you could serve God as a doctor, a plumber, an artist, or a full-time parent; you could help the poor by supporting crisis pregnancy centers or soup kitchens. We can’t all do everything: that’s why there’s many parts in the one Body of Christ. Aside from moral questions, God lets us choose what to do with our lives — and that’s a great thing! A bit daunting, but still pretty cool.

When it comes to religious vs secular life, however, I’m not certain Mr. Hannon is right.

My older sister, to take an illustrative example, had long planned on getting married and having kids someday. In college, she became even more serious about her faith and began attending daily Mass and receiving spiritual direction. Several months after graduation, she entered the Sisters of Life, where she is now a very happy novice. Her experience of discernment made her confident that God calls every individual to a specific course in life. I’ve heard a lot of similar vocation stories from priests (and religious) who believed that God personally called them at a certain point in their lives to enter a certain diocese (or order) as a candidate for ordination (or religious vows).

I would guess, however, that many laypeople never felt specifically called to the lay life. Rather, if I’m normal, we laypeople interpret the apparent absence of a call to the religious life as a call to the lay life. Then if we fall in love with someone, we feel called to marriage.

That means some people who neither feel called to religious life and nor (at the moment) to marriage can feel like they’re stuck between the two major vocations of religious life and married life, waiting and waiting for God to reveal their personal vocation, even if they’re obeying the universal call to holiness. This doesn’t seem right.

So have we put too much stock in the “personal vocation” idea, as Mr. Hannon suggests in the piece I mentioned? Or does God call different people in different ways — some individually to particular vocations, and others to pursue holiness as they see fit?

Got any enlightening thoughts or experiences on the subject? Have you felt called, as an individual, to what you’re doing, or do you tend to think of God’s will as a general (rather than particular) guide to life? I’d especially love to hear from priests, religious, and married people who have committed to a certain vocation already.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Anna Williams is an editorial page intern at a major newspaper and a recent graduate of Hillsdale College. She likes reading books, writing letters, and exploring all things Catholic.[/author_info] [/author]

About the Author:

Anna Williams is a junior fellow at First Things magazine, a former Collegiate Network fellow at USA TODAY, and a recent graduate of Hillsdale College.

  • Kim

    Dear Anna

    If a person in this life feel the need to fulfill a vocation it is I believe to be the movement of Holy Spirit. We are all called to be Christ like whether lay person or vocation!

  • HermitTalker

    The starting poits are: Jesus is Lord. Faith is a gift, not all are offered it and not all accept it. That sadly includes “born Catholics” who never decide to accept personal faith and resposibility as bricks in Christ’s Building, the Church. There is no robotic programme for us to decide to be a “butcher or baker” so we discern. We look around, check our talents, our grades, likes and dislikes and decide. A vocation to prriesthood and religious life, and the specific one to be a Sister for life or a contemplative Carmelite, a monk or missionary overseas. Retreats, holy hours before the Sacrament or sitting quietly with no noise, simply listening, Bible and spiritual reading with some help from a spiritual director, extra daily Mass, and choosing good quality friends are all important. That and the process we follow leads us to make wise choices, avoid temptations which even best friends can urge, ” you are tolo young, too pretty/handsome, that is so boooooooooring!

  • I have heard much from both sides of this coin, those who believe that there is a specific, individual call for everyone, and those who say that God gives us a range of options and asks us to choose. As someone who is still not committed to either, I have come to think of the call as more of an invitation. God invites some to the priesthood or the religious life. He has given them the gifts and abilities they would need, and placed some desire for it in their hearts (although maybe they can’t see that). He stands ready to make them happy and holy. If we refuse that invitation it is our loss. We really would have been happier and holier. It is a loss to everyone else. We really would have done more good. But the choice is still ours and God will use every choice we make for love of Him for good, even if that love is still imperfect. If we choose not to accept that invitation, God will still go with us wherever we go.

    As to how to discern that invitation? I don’t know. At times I am absolutely convinced one way. At times I am absolutely terrified the other way. Both states seem like the answer at the time. I do know that God has led me where I am. I didn’t know that I was making the right choice then, but I was. Because of that I say, God doesn’t need me to be certain. He only needs me to trust in Him. He is certain enough for both of us.

    Make your choice, and let God worry about how to reconcile it with His omnipotence.

  • Perinatal Loss Nurse

    I am 47 and have a very active vocation and now look back at how God lead me in many many ways to find my path. I care for women and families at times of pregnancy loss and infant death. Much of my job is very very hard, but like most hard things, God gives us graces to do it and I have had very specific (you might call them “lightening bolt”) moments when God clearly told me that I was in exactly the right spot doing exactly what He intended for me to do.

    I now see how seemingly insignificant and unrelated things added to inborn traits added to interests and career opportunities were all woven together in to the tapestry that my vocation now is. Being a parent has hugely helped me…I dont think I could do this work otherwise. I have learned that God can use everything about you to build your vocation. Its rather an exciting journey!!!

  • Thanks to all of you for your reflections! I like Ryan’s last line, “Make your choice, and let God worry about how to reconcile it with His omnipotence.” We don’t reach 100% certainty about our vocations until after we’re pursuing them, I guess.

    Perinatal loss nurse – Wow, that sounds like an incredibly difficult job! What a blessing for families to have someone devoted to helping them through their suffering. My dad has had a similar experience of seeing how beautifully various minor choices (or even setbacks) led him to his career and vocation. I like to think of seeing the whole grand design (of our lives and those of others) revealed in Heaven.

  • Mark Herwaldt

    I believe that when God ‘knits’ us together in our mother’s womb that he knows what we are going to do. He gives us the the gifts and talents that we will need to accomplish those things. If we ask, I believe he will reveal. But for most people it is revealed through our desires that come from inside of us. The problem – most people never ask. In fact, the question should be asked continually throughout our lives. “God what do you want me to do?” I took several jobs out of college -sales, management etc. I asked each time. “God what do you want me to do?” I believe that He had me do each job. Looking back, each of those jobs were divine appointments. They prepared me for what I do today – youth and young adult ministry. I believe God is preparing me now for something in the future that I don’t see. I think back to the words spoken to the prophet Jeremiah “I dedicated you to be a prophet to the nations” I believe each of us is dedicated for some work whether that is a father, mother, priest, sister/brother. I believe that God knew that I would be the father of five children when I was created and he gave me the tools that I would need to accomplish that task at the moment of my conception.

  • HermitTalker

    Great post MH. We are in a dance with God who does not programme us for a specific path but gives us the talents and grace if we wish to cooperate. He does appparently as Jesus indicated provide a specific call to priesthood (and by extension religious life).