One thing I am grateful for is the fact that we live in, what I call, a “Discernment Culture.” An emphasis on discernment and a focus on living your life in accordance with the Divine is fantastic. I love that many youth groups and catechists focus on this and attempt to help those in their spiritual care to grow in knowledge of God’s will. No doubt, openness to God’s Will will better our world and help us grow in holiness, which is the point.
However, as is the case with all good things, there are elements of our discernment culture that, in best-case scenarios, leave something to be desired, and in worst-case scenarios, backfire on this wonderful culture of openness to God’s will.
One of the problems with Discernment Culture is the pressure it puts on the discerner. How many times have we heard something like “God has a plan for your life” and “if you discern your vocation, God will take care of the rest.” That sure puts a lot of pressure on the discerner! The negative effects from this pressure then present themselves in a variety of ways and levels of severity. From the panic of “What if I miss my calling?!” to a distorted understanding of the nature of desire, the over-emphasis on God’s plan for your life and your duty to discern it sets people up not to discern God’s plan and, moreover, not to be open to it when they do discern it.
Why? I think it’s because discernment culture leads the discerner to discern about discerning. I know this makes little sense, hang with me for a second. When we emphasize the importance of discerning God’s will through prayer, we place such an emphasis on it that those discerning can easily become scared away from it. The sacredness of discerning holds such prominence, that they have almost too much respect for it. Or, such fear is created that one might “miss their vocation,” that rather than begin discerning and risk missing their vocation, the discerner takes it especially slow in order that he won’t miss anything.
Thus, rather than enter active discernment, discerners find themselves praying about whether or not they should discern. This lends itself to postponing active discernment and replacing fruitful prayer with furtive over-thinking. By focusing on discernment, we’ve done the exact opposite of what we were trying to do. We haven’t encouraged a deep relationship with Lord, instead we’ve told the discerner “what are you going to do? Have you figured it out yet?” thereby taking the focus off of God and placing it entirely on the shoulders of the discerner. Perhaps, we should emphasize less praying for discernment and more praying that God’s will be done.
When we pray that God’s will be done, then stuff begins to happen. We allow the Lord to increase in our lives, and thus truly allowing the Lord to work in and through us in the world, which is the point after all. Moreover, when we get stuck in our heads simply praying over and over, we give God less ways of making His will known to us. We are physical creatures, after all, and more than that, we are co-creators, co-operative individuals in God’s work in the world. If that’s the case, then we rely on the physical world to experience and discern the Lord in our lives, and if we get stuck entirely in our heads, we cut off the main ways the Lord helps us to know His will.
What does this mean? It means, we need to create a better balance of work and prayer. We need to take to action the fruit of our contemplation, not take to contemplation more contemplation. If in prayer, a vocation presents itself, rather than praying on it for months, channel your inner St. Joseph and act on it. Don’t spend days over-thinking whether or not to go on that discernment retreat or visit that convent, just go. The Lord will give you greater clarity in your experience of that retreat or visit than if you sit at home thinking about it.
We also need to re-order our understanding of desire. We’re constantly bombarded with stories of saints who gave up all of their earthly loves to follow the Lord’s will. This easily leads the discerner to believe that if he desires something, he must abandon it if he is to do God’s will. Yet God does not give us desires solely to laugh in our face when they are not fulfilled. Rather, we can come to know ourselves and God’s working in our lives better through those desires. We psych ourselves out half the time when we say to ourselves “I want to marry this person” or “I want to be a priest,” and take that as a sign that it is not what we are meant to do.
Yet that is not how the Lord works, and our emphasis on these saints is an incomplete record of their life and decisions. Sure, saints gave up stuff in order to do the Lord’s will, but it was always a decision of love. They gave up a secondary love for a primary love, or, in other terms, they gave up something they loved less for that which they loved the most. And surely, we all do that periodically. I give up ice cream for dinner every night because I love my health more, and I give up snapping at my husband out of anger because I love him and our marriage more than showing my anger.
That is the sort of sacrificial love the Lord asks of us. Sometimes it requires us truly to delve into our passions and the ordering of our loves, but it never – or should never – ask us to give up something we love more, because really, we should love the Lord the most.
Basically, let us not see discernment as a mental game. The Lord does not play those sorts of games with us and we get ourselves into trouble by playing them with ourselves. We should take action when an interest in a vocation presents itself to us, we should see vocation as an outgrowth from that which we love, and we should place the emphasis not on us figuring out this vague plan God has for us, but on us opening ourselves to become handmaidens of the Lord. If we let it be done to us according to His will, then we truly have nothing to worry about.