Having considered the two contrasting approaches to vocation, represented by St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Ignatius of Loyola, and a somewhat intermediate view represented by Pope John Paul II, let us now draw from these considerations some principles that can be used to gain, as far as is possible, the advantages of each approach.
(1) First, the aim of all considerations and choices should be to do the will of God and to draw close to him. Therefore also the decision to enter a state of life should be made in light of this aim, and in the presence of Christ, in prayer. However, normally God’s will is not immediately manifested to us, but it is the will of God, who created us as rational creatures, that we should decide our path using our mind and our heart.
(2) Thus, secondly, the ordinary means by which we should make a choice of a state of life is by a consideration of our situation, placed in the light of faith, and animated by love. “When a prudent man listens to his conscience,” which is a judgment about what to do in a concrete situation, “he can hear God speaking.”1 So it is also in the choice of a state of life: the Christian usually finds God’s will by means of loving and prudent reflection. (3) Among the circumstances involved in our situation, both subjective and objective factors are important, since the value of what we choose is important, and the attitude we have towards it is important. (4a) It is absolutely necessary that the state we choose be good and holy in itself, if our choice is to be good. (4b) But after this, the most important factor is the subjective attitude with which we are going to approach that state, i.e., how fully we will use that state as a means to the goal of doing God’s will, drawing close to him ourselves, and bringing others to him. (5) Of the various particular elements that affect how capable we are of devoting ourselves to a way of life, love is the most significant.
The beginning of our consideration, and the aim, should be God and his will.
The process for making a decision should be based on the facts about ourselves, God, and the needs and circumstances of the world in which we live.
Both subjective and objective factors are important, since the value of that which we choose is important, and also the attitude we have towards it.
Supposing that the objective choice is good, what is then most important is the ultimate subjective attitude—how fully we will be able to seek to serve God in the way of life.
Love is the greatest single determining factor in the ability to have this attitude of complete service.
Having considered the two great approaches to vocation, represented by St. Thomas and St. Ignatius, we can evaluate other more particular ways of determining a vocation, and see both the truth and value they contain, and at the same time their limitations and deficiencies. The simplified ways of discerning a vocation that we will here describe are not often proposed as though they were sufficient on their own for discerning a vocation, and rarely do those who are discerning a vocation limit themselves strictly to one of these ways. Nevertheless, the consideration of these specific ways, and of their weaknesses and deficiencies, will help us to avoid overemphasizing or misunderstanding a particular aspect of the way of discernment.
God calls each person to a way of life suited to him. Thus a plausible way of determining one’s vocation is simply to determine where one’s particular talents and strengths lie, to look for the way of life to which one is most suited.
The truth and value of this approach lies in its emphasis on one’s personal disposition; for as we said above, given that a way of life is good, the most important factor is the way that one lives it.
There are, however, two weaknesses, or possible weaknesses, of this approach. First, it overlooks the objective superiority of certain ways of life. To be a teacher, or to serve the poor, is in itself better than to do mathematics. And therefore, in order to decide to be a mathematician, one should have more than just a particular ability for doing mathematics. There should be reason to think, first of all, that one is more, or at least equally capable of seeking holiness as a mathematician; and secondly, that the subjective advantage in favor of doing mathematics outweighs the objective superiority of being a teacher, or devoting one’s life to the service of the poor.
The second possible weakness of this approach is that the subjective qualities that it considers may not be the most important. If the ability to live a way of life means the capacity to do something well, e.g., to be a good doctor or teacher, then it is important to have the ability—e.g., one should not be a doctor if he is unable to heal people—but having a greater or lesser ability is not the most important factor. Ultimately, a more important factor is the attitude one will have to the way of life. If this attitude is understood as included in one’s “ability” for the life, all is well. But if this attitude is not included as part of one’s “ability” for the life, then this approach is seriously deficient.
Another method that is used for deciding on a path in life, is that of following one’s inclinations. There are two different reasons that may be given for this. First, there is sometimes the idea that since one is not responsible for these inclinations, they are from God, and thus are the signs God uses to indicate the path one should follow. The other reason is based on what we noted above, that the most important thing in any vocation is to devote oneself to it wholeheartedly. The idea then, is that one will devote oneself most wholeheartedly to that to which one is innerly inclined.
There is some truth to both of these ideas. However, it is a mistake either to consider inclinations in general as positive signs of God’s will, or to consider such inclinations as necessary for choosing a way of life as one’s vocation.
In regard to inclinations as signs of God’s will, there are some inclinations that proceed more or less directly from God, either without anything intervening, or through the judgment that derives from the intimate union with God caused by charity.2 The recognition of these inclinations belongs to the discernment of spirits described by St. Ignatius, and ideally, it is on the basis of inclinations of this kind that one makes a decision in the “second time” of St. Ignatius. These inclinations are always for our good, and ordered to God. Therefore, since God’s will is for our good, these inclinations are signs of God’s will. However, most of our feelings and inclinations are not of this sort, but are based on our natural and acquired character, and on our conscious and unconscious imaginations and thoughts. Hence they are not always for our good, nor always ordered to God, and so cannot be taken as signs of God’s will.
The second reason for looking to one’s inclinations, namely that an inner inclination to a way of life is necessary in order to embrace that way of life wholeheartedly, requires a similar distinction. In most cases, some inclination to the particular way of life should be present. However, there is no need for this inclination to be sensible rather than intellectual and spiritual. (See Error: Reference source not found, p. Error: Reference source not found ff.) Indeed, a sensible attraction to a way of life can present the danger that one chooses the life for natural or selfish reasons. Moreover, even a spiritual love or inclination towards the way of life considered in itself is not absolutely required. The love that ought to move someone to choose a way of life is not so much love for that way of life, as love for God. And for this reason it is possible for someone to embrace a way of life such as religious life, simply because it is a better way of serving God, and against his or her inclinations. St. Teresa of Avila did this: “Though I did not succeed to incline my will to being a nun, I saw that this was the best and safest state, and so, little by little, I determined to force myself to embrace it.”3 Though we should not advise everyone to follow her example, we should also not be quick to discourage others from imitating her. The Church gives us the general rule: “Let no one who is unwilling be driven to the pursuit of this kind of consecrated life; but, if one wishes it, let there be no one who will dissuade him, much less prevent him from undertaking it.”4
The idea of waiting for a more or less miraculous sign, or asking God for one, usually arises from the principle that we ought to choose the way of life that God wills for us, when this principle is separated from an understanding that God’s will is manifested in the commandments and the counsels, in ordinary events, in the judgment of conscience, and in the inclinations of “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Choosing a way of life on the basis of special signs has the possible advantage of proceeding less from one’s own will, and more from God’s will.
This advantage of being based entirely on God’s will may however be only apparent, if the choice of “signs” or the interpretation of them is colored by one’s own desires—if one asks as “signs” from God things that one secretly, perhaps half-unconsciously, thinks are likely to happen; or again, if one interprets ordinary events as the fulfillment of signs. For example, a man might ask for a rose as a sign that he should propose marriage to a certain woman. If he does not ask for a specific way of getting a rose, it may already be too likely an event to be taken as in itself a sign from God. But if he then interprets the mere sight of a bouquet of roses as the fulfillment of the sign, it is evidently because he wants the “sign”; he is simply choosing what he really wants, and imagining or inventing the justification he is seeking, namely the sign from God.
The main problem with this approach does not lie in this possibility of self-deception, but in the fact that God does not usually give such extraordinary signs of his will. In regard to the priestly vocation, for example, we are told that “the voice of the Lord who is calling should not in the least be expected to come to the ears of a future priest in some extraordinary manner.”5 Such extraordinary signs of God’s will are in effect sensible manifestations of God’s mind, and are thus equivalent to a sensible voice from God. And while God does sometimes speak in this way to indicate his will, it is not the ordinary way. “We must not wait for the Divine Majesty to speak to us in some sensible way or that he send from heaven some Angel to point out his will for us.”6 Rather, the way God speaks to our heart is by giving it the ability to see and to cling fast to what is good. “If we always try to keep our will very firm in wanting to discover the good that has been shown to us, God will not fail to make all redound to his glory.”7 God’s calling is not something external; God speaks within a person’s will itself, moving it to a way of life by which that person may draw near to him. “A true vocation is nothing other than a strong, unchanging will that the person who is called possesses, so as to want to serve God in the way and in the place where the Divine Majesty calls her.”8
Another method used for discerning a vocation, which is related to the previous method, is that of examining the particular events in our life, in order to see where providence is leading us. The great advantage of this approach is that it helps us see the whole of our life as a continuous dialogue with God. God speaks to us in all of the events of our life, and we speak to him in all of the choices we make. And this approach is actually a good one as long as it is rightly understood.
Since all things are under the governance of God’s providence, in order to consider that God’s providence is guiding us to a certain choice, we must do one of two things. First, we may look for miracles of providence—i.e., things that are so improbable that they can be considered miraculous—which somehow signify that we ought to make a particular choice. This is then in effect the same way as the previous way; we are looking for something that externally expresses God’s will for us. And so this way also has the same weaknesses and dangers as that way does.
Another way of taking guidance from divine providence, is to try to see what is good in the various possibilities presented by providence, or even determined by providence. For example, if we happen to meet repeatedly the same religious community or the same person (whom we might consider marrying), to consider whether it might be good to join that community, or marry that person. Or again, if we find ourselves for a long time unable to pursue the course that we had wanted to pursue, to consider whether it might be better to do something else. This approach is good, as long as we bear in mind that it does not determine what the better thing to do is (unless only one good and possible choice remains), but only draws our attention in certain directions, so that we can think and pray about those possibilities. Often God would like us to persevere in spite of difficulties, or to look beyond the good possibilities being immediately presented to us, so that we can make an even greater gift of ourselves. It is true that we should always live in the present, in the sense that we should seek to do and to act well now, but this often means having our eyes and hearts open for more than what is presently proposed to us.
If, on the other hand, we want to be led by divine providence in the sense that our judgment about what is good is to be determined simply by providence, then we will most likely end up being led by our feelings. For it is in fact impossible to depend only on providence, since our perception of what is being presented is necessarily mediated through our understanding. E.g., someone with a well-formed moral conscience, who falls in love with a woman, could see the good to pursue as the good of marriage—while someone with a poorly-formed conscience, could see the good to pursue simply as sexual intimacy. Thus, to seek to have our judgment be determined in this way by providence, will ultimately mean removing rational considerations—except for general considerations, or when something is clearly seen to be bad—and basing ourselves primarily upon feelings and emotions. For matters of importance, this is not a good way of making a decision.
On the other hand, when it comes to relatively unimportant decisions, it is right for our decision to be determined more by feelings than by reasons. In such matters it is not worth attempting to make a rational discernment of what is better. We may decide simply for what strikes us as good at the moment. St. Francis de Sales gives this as the solution for those who are tempted to doubt “whether it is God’s will for them to do one thing rather than another: as for example, whether or not they should eat with a friend... whether they should fast on Friday or on Saturday, whether they should take recreation or abstain from it.”9 He explains:
We should not weigh every little action to know whether it is of more value than others... It is not good service to a master to spend as much time in considering what is to be done, as in doing the things which are needful. We are to proportion our attention to the importance of what we undertake.... To what end should I put myself out to learn whether God would prefer me to say the Rosary or Our Lady’s Office... to go to visit the sick in the hospital rather than to Vespers, to go to a sermon rather than to a church where there is an indulgence? Generally there is no such noteworthy importance in the one more than the other that it is needful to make any great deliberation. We must walk in good faith and without minute consideration in such matters, and, as S. Basil says, freely choose what seems to us good, so as not to weary our spirit, lose time, and put ourselves in danger of disquiet, scruples, and superstition. But I mean always where there is no great disproportion between the two works, and where there is no considerable circumstance on one side more than on the other.10
“Above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col 3:14) Every choice of a state of life, every discernment of a particular vocation, should be placed in the context of the goal of Christian life, which is the perfection of the love of God and neighbor.
Hence, what we must strive for above all, prior to “discerning” our vocation, or “deciding” on a state of life, is to purify our heart, to truly love and to seek God above all and in all things, and to carry this attitude of love into our choice of a state of life. This purity of heart is the key to making a good choice. If we possess this purity of heart, we can be confident of choosing well, of finding God’s will for us; if we do not possess it, we are in danger of settling upon our own will in place of God’s will. St. Alphonsus states:
It is necessary for you to pray diligently to God to make you know his will as to what state he wants you in. But take notice that to have this light, you must pray to him with indifference. He who prays to God to enlighten him in regard to a state of life, but without indifference, and who, instead of conforming to the divine will, would sooner have God conform to his will, is like a pilot that pretends to wish his ship to advance, but in reality does not want it to: he throws his anchor into the sea, and then unfurls his sails. God neither gives light nor speaks his word to such persons. But if you entreat him with indifference and resolution to follow his will, God will make you know clearly what state is better for you.11
But after striving to purify our heart, and asking God to guide and enlighten our choice, we must then take the means necessary to make a good choice. For God does not usually enlighten us in such a way as to make it unnecessary for us to deliberate about what we choose, but rather enlightens us precisely in our deliberation about the choice we are to make.
We can here distinguish three general means for making this choice, three ways of determining which way of life is the best way for us to grow in love of God and neighbor, and to bring others closer to God: (1) Reason; (2) Love; (3) Providence.
The first means for determining a way of life is the prudent consideration of reason, weighing the various factors and the various possibilities, and making a judgment as to which possibility provides the best means for living love and growing in it in one’s concrete circumstances and conditions. This way of making a decision includes the second and third, inasmuch as this consideration takes into account the loves one possesses, just as it takes into account one’s other dispositions, and it takes into account the workings of providence, just as it takes into account particular events and circumstances in one’s life and in the world. Because it includes the second and third ways, and because a choice not made through prudence has a greater danger of being erroneous, when, and to the extent that it is possible to make a decision in this first way, it is the preferable way.
Sometimes one can make a judgment that some general form or way of life is the better means, but cannot make a concrete conclusion—and so this judgment leads to an intention, but not yet to the choice of a particular way of life. For example, one may judge that religious life is the best way for one, while one is still unable to judge which religious order one should enter. Or one might judge that he should marry, but not yet know whom he should marry.
The second means for determining a way of life is love; when one is unable to make a judgment of reason as to the best way of life, and when the inability to come to a conclusion based on reason cannot be reasonably resolved by the advice of a wiser person, then a choice can be made on the basis of love. One may and normally should choose that which he loves more. Other things being equal, he will be able to devote himself more perfectly and intensely to that which he loves more, and therefore will live that way of life better. Often the concrete choice of a particular religious order is made almost entirely on the basis of love, and even more so the choice of a particular man or woman in marriage.
The third means for determining a way of life is divine providence. Now, as noted above, there are several ways in which divine providence can play a role in choosing a way of life. (See page 6 ff.) First, one relies on divine providence when one makes a choice by one of the first two means. In this case, one is primarily trusting in divine providence to bring the right evidence to one’s attention, or to direct one’s love, rather than considering the path of divine providence itself.
A second way in which a way of life may be found by divine providence is when providence determines the way of life. Thus, if one believed that one was called to religious life, but due to an incurable case of severe depression, one was unable to enter religious life, then one should accept this as God’s will, and turn one’s attention to other ways of life. Or again, someone might believe that he should marry, but find himself unable to do so. In such a case, he could then accept the situation as appointed by divine providence, and embrace the single state as a means of serving God and neighbor. Thus Pope Pius XII, speaking of the various ways in which a vocation to virginity may be experienced, includes the example of a woman who wants to marry, but is unable to do so.
When one thinks upon the maidens and the women who voluntarily renounce marriage in order to consecrate themselves to a higher life of contemplation, of sacrifice, and of charity, a luminous word comes immediately to the lips: vocation!... This vocation, this call of love, makes itself felt in very diverse manners... But also the young Christian woman, remaining unmarried in spite of herself, who nevertheless trusts in the providence of the heavenly Father, recognizes in the vicissitudes of life the voice of the Master: “Magister adest et vocat te” (John 11:28); It is the master, and he is calling you! She responds, she renounces the beloved dream of her adolescence and her youth: to have a faithful companion in life, to form a family! And in the impossibility of marriage she recognizes her vocation; then, with a broken but submissive heart, she also gives her whole self to more noble and diverse good works.12
The third way in which providence may guide one to a way of life, is when one’s way is not determined by providence, but one makes one’s choice directly on the basis of divine providence. E.g., someone might make a specific choice because in God’s providence, that choice is presented to him here and now, or because it has been presented to him several times through unusual coincidences. Perhaps several people, without any apparent reason, have suggested the same course to a person: that he enter a seminary, or that he consider marriage. Or perhaps he once thought of joining a religious community, and over a period of years, happens simply by chance to meet different members of that community in various circumstances. If these events are used simply as occasions for considering such a possible way of life, or are simply occasions when one realizes how much one wants to pursue such a way of life, then one would fundamentally be making the choice in one of the first two ways, by thought or by love. But what we are now considering is the case in which one chooses a way or state of life precisely because he sees it as presented to him by providence, the case in which a person would, for example, finally make up his mind to enter a community or seminary, just because of coincidences such as these.
Generally speaking, this third way of using providence to make an important choice should be employed only to the extent that the other ways are insufficient. For since everything is finally to be attributed to divine providence, that which is particularly attributed to divine providence is restricted to that which has no created cause, or in other words, that which happens by chance. Hence, to look to divine providence alone in order to make one’s choice, would be analogous to making a decision by throwing dice. And therefore this should also be done with similar reasons and in a way similar to the way in which one would make a decision by chance, asking God to guide the chance event. Regarding the process of making a decision by means of something that in itself happens by chance, St. Thomas Aquinas lays down four cautions:
[If the outcome of lots] is expected from God... then using lots in this way is not evil in itself, as Augustine says. Nevertheless this may be sinful in four ways. First, if one have recourse to lots without any necessity, for this seems to be a way of putting God to the test....
Secondly, even when there is a necessity, if someone uses lots without reverence. Hence Bede says, “If compelled by some necessity, people think that God should be consulted by means of lots, following the example of the Apostles, let them note that the Apostles did not do this except after gathering together the assembly of the brethren and pouring out prayers to God” (Super Act. Apost. i).
Thirdly, if divine oracles are used for earthly affairs...
Fourthly, if people use lots in ecclesiastical elections, which should be made by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Hence, as Bede says, “before Pentecost, Matthias was chosen by lot to be ordained,” namely because the fullness of the Holy Spirit was not yet poured out in the Church, “while the seven deacons were afterwards ordained not by lot, but by the choice of the disciples.”... But if necessity presses, then it is licit to implore the divine judgment with lots, keeping due reverence.13
Similarly, a decision should be made directly on the basis of providence only when it is an important decision for a spiritual good, only when it is necessary, that is, when a decision cannot be made in other ways; and it should be made in prayer.
As to the ways of making a decision on the basis of providence, there are different ways of doing so, as we noted above. Any one of these ways may be used, as long as one does not choose the way of making a choice so as to determine in advance a particular outcome. If one is to be guided simply by providence in making a choice, then one cannot do so in such a way as to give oneself an answer actually predetermined by oneself.
As was noted above in the section “Devotion to the Lord” (p. Error: Reference source not found ff.), an essential factor in one’s vocation is the dedication or commitment with which one commits oneself to a way of life, how wholeheartedly one devotes oneself to the practice of the love of God and neighbor in that way of life. For this reason, it is important that a strong and firm intention follow upon one’s choice. The perception of this firm intention for the service of God in a way of life results in a certain peace. And for this reason, the possession of peace in one’s heart in regard to a particular choice is often considered the confirming sign of the correctness of one’s choice. Inner peace may even be called the sign of a vocation.
One caution, however, should be made about the use of peace as a confirmation of one’s vocation, or the lack of peace as an indication that one should not pursue a particular way of life. On the one hand, there can be a superficial peace that is the result of blindness deriving from one’s emotions. For example, a Catholic woman who falls in love with a Christian man who is strongly opposed to the Catholic Church, may feel peace at the idea of marrying him, even when it would be unwise for her to do so. The emotions connected with spousal love are powerful, and can strongly influence one’s judgment. On the other hand, one can feel a certain disquiet and lack of peace even when one is doing one’s best to act according to one’s conscience. For example, a employee may finally feel obliged in conscience to refuse to perform dishonest business practices; he may be worried about being fired, and how he will support his family. And especially if it is not clear beyond all possible doubt that the questionable practices are ultimately dishonest, he may feel torn inside, wondering whether he made the right decision. This kind of lack of peace is not necessarily a sign that one is not following God’s will.
Thus, peace can be used as a sign that one has made the right choice, or is following the right path, but it must be rightly understood. The peace one should have is the quiet of the heart that follows upon a trust in God together with the conviction that one is acting for God and in accordance with God’s will, to the extent that it is possible for a particular person to have this conviction in a particular situation. Some persons are by nature and upbringing disposed to question what they have done and are doing; such persons will not generally experience so complete a feeling of peace, even when they are acting well, and have made the right decision. Again, some situations do not allow for a strong feeling of certainty, and in these situations the conviction of acting well, and therefore the corresponding peace will tend to be less perceptible.
A good spiritual director can be of much help in distinguishing such a true and deep peace from a superficial peace, and generally, in guiding us as we decide upon our path in life. He can often see things which we would not notice on our own, and assist us in hearing and following the voice of the true spiritual director, Jesus. For this reason, though in many cases it is not easy, we should make a real effort to find a holy and wise person who is willing to be our spiritual director.
In summary, we should begin by considering God’s eternal love, and how to respond to that love. If after thinking about and reflecting on all the relevant factors, we can see what the best means is for practicing love and growing in it, then we should choose that means. Otherwise, among the various means that we can see would be good means for practicing love and growing in it, we should choose the means to which we are more inclined—not according to a quickly passing inclination, but a deep or abiding inclination, that is, according to true love. If this too is insufficient, then we may look at the situation in which we happen to find ourselves, or the coincidences that suggest a choice to us, and from among the possible good choices, choose that which seems most of all suggested.
As we reflect and choose a way of life, we should always bear in mind that the path we choose is in the end not a path of our own invention, but is part of God’s design; each of us is in a particular place in the world, so that we may choose a particular path to God. And so, after choosing a path for our life, we should gratefully give thanks to God for his love, and the opportunity and invitation to love him that he has offered to us.
The method of finding one’s vocation that has been presented here, should not be taken as a hard and fast rule for how to proceed in deciding upon one’s path in life. It is meant as a kind of help, not something that needs to be rigorously adhered to in every case. Between the way of proceeding presented by St. Thomas, to that presented by St. Ignatius, there are many different intermediary ways that one may follow. What matters most is purifying our hearts, sincerely striving for an ever greater love, and while always being obedient to the teachings and precepts of the Church and observing Christian prudence, being at the same time open to the movements of the Holy Spirit, wherever he may lead us. Seeking and pursuing our vocation should be neither a mechanical nor an anxiety-filled procedure, but a living and joyful journey with God! “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20).
1Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1777.
2See ST II 45:2–4.
3St. Teresa of Avila, Autobiography, Ch. 3.
4Pope Pius XII, Annus Sacer, December 8, 1950, AAS 43 (1951), 31. This rule was later taken into the general statutes for religious life; see The General Statutes annexed to the Apostolic Constitution Sedes Sapientiae from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1957), Art. 32, p. 45.
5Vatican Council II, Presbyterorum Ordinis n. 11.
6St. Francis de Sales, Les vrays entretiens spirituels, 313; cf. Pope John Paul II, Homily in Benguela, June 9, 1992.
7St. Francis de Sales, Les vrays entretiens spirituels, 314.
8St. Francis de Sales, Les vrays entretiens spirituels, 312.
9Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. 8, Ch. 14.
11St. Alphonsus, “Sull'utilità degli esercizi spirituali fatti in solitudine,” Opere Ascetiche, Vol. 3 (Torino: Pier Giacinto Marietti), 616.
12Pope Pius XII, Address to Italian Women, October 21, 1945, AAS 37 (1945), 287.
13ST II-II 95:8.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Two Approaches to Vocation
Chapter 1: Principles of Christian Life
Chapter 2: Aquinas and Ignatius
Chapter 3: Comparison of Aquinas and Ignatius
Chapter 4: Pope John Paul II on Vocation
Chapter 4, Part II: Pope Benedict XVI on vocation
Chapter 5: Conclusions for Vocation Discernment