Chapter 2: Two Approaches to the Question of Vocation

St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas does not often use the term “vocation.” However, he speaks in several places about making the choice to enter religious life, which is one particular vocation. In the Summa Theologiae, at the very end of the treatise on the states of life, St. Thomas asks the question “whether it is praiseworthy for someone to enter religious life without long deliberation, and having taken counsel from many people.”1 He answers “yes,” with the following argument. Long deliberation is required for great and doubtful things, but not for things which are certain and determined. Now we can consider religious life in itself, or we can consider it in relation to an individual’s ability to live religious life. Since Christ counseled religious life, it is certain that considered in itself it is better to enter it.2 And since those who enter religious life look for the ability to live it not from themselves, but from God, there is also no reason in general for doubt concerning one’s ability to live that life. If someone has specific obstacles, such as bodily weakness, great debts, or similar things, then deliberation is required, and counsel from people who can be expected to help and not to hinder him. St. Thomas notes that even in this case long deliberation is not necessary. He adds that counsel may also be taken as to the manner of entering, and which religious order one should enter.

St. Thomas does not, then, place the idea of vocation at the heart of his consideration. Rather, the primary question is, “Is it good?” St. Thomas puts the question this way not because vocation is unimportant, but because it is secondary. A vocation is a means God uses to lead us to something good, so the most important thing is not the vocation itself, but the good to which he wants to lead us. In general, the vocation to holiness is subordinate to holiness; in particular, the vocation to religious life is subordinate to the religious life as a specific way of living the Christian life, and the vocation to marriage is subordinate to marriage as a specific way of living the Christian life.

The idea of vocation, though not the term itself, appears in one of the objections in this article. The claim is made that the desire and will to live the religious life is not always from God, and therefore one needs to examine this desire, to determine whether it is from God.

It is said, “Do not believe every spirit, but test whether the spirits are from God” (1 John 4:1). But sometimes the will to live the religious life is not from God, since frequently it is dissolved by leaving the religious life. For it is said, “If this plan or work is from God, you will not be able to dissolve it” (Acts 5:39). Therefore it seems that people should enter religious life only after much examination.3

St. Thomas’ response to this objection is basically that if one’s desire is sincere, then since it is for something good, it is certainly from God.

The saying, “Test whether the spirits are from God,” applies to things about which there is some doubt as to whether it is the Spirit of God [that is at work]. Thus those who are in religious life can have doubt as to whether he who offers himself for the religious life is led by the Spirit of God, or is merely pretending. But for him who seeks religious life, there can be no doubt as to whether the will to enter religious life that has arisen in his heart is from the Spirit of God, to whom it belongs to lead man to the right land (cf. Ps 143:10)... And therefore the will to enter religious life does not need to be tested to see whether it is from God; for “things that are certain do not need discussion,” as the Gloss says about the precept, “Test all things” (1 Thess. 5:21).4

Similarly in his defense of religious life, St. Thomas writes that there is no reason for doubting whether one’s desire to follow the evangelical counsels is from God; for although these counsels were given to particular men, they were intended for all men.

Our opponents say that the aforesaid certainty has place if someone is called by the words of the Lord himself; for then they admit that one should not delay, nor seek additional advice. But when a man is moved interiorly to enter religious life, then there is need of great deliberation and the advice of many people, so that he can discern whether this movement comes from God.

But this response is quite wrong. For we should take Christ’s words written in Sacred Scripture, as though we heard them from the mouth of the Lord himself. For he himself says, “What I say to you, I say to all: be watchful’; and in Romans it is said that “whatever was written, was written for our instruction.” And Chrysostom says, “If they had been said only for the sake of those men, they would not have been written; now however they have indeed been said for their sake, but they have been written for our sake.”...

Let us see specifically whether the advice that the Lord gave to the young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell all that you have, and give to the poor” (Mt. 19:21), was given to him alone, or also to all. We can find the answer from what follows; for when Peter said to him, “Behold we have left all things and have followed you,” he assigns a reward universally for all: “Everyone who leaves house or brothers etc...., for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will possess eternal life.” Therefore this advice should be followed by any particular person no less than if it were given personally to him by the mouth of our Lord himself.5

Here too, then, St. Thomas looks at the matter objectively. In other words, he argues that the desire to follow the evangelical counsels is good, and can be immediately carried out, because this desire corresponds to the counsel of Christ, which he gave generally to men as a means for attaining perfection—an objective standard, by which our desires can be measured.

On the other hand, in the very same passage, St. Thomas also speaks of the Holy Spirit speaking interiorly, as contrasted with Christ’s advice, which is given to us through Holy Scripture.

There is also another way in which God speaks interiorly to man, as the Psalm says, “I will hear what the Lord God speaks within me,” and this speaking is superior to any external speaking.... Therefore if one should immediately obey the voice of the Creator uttered externally, as they themselves say, much more should no one resist the interior speaking, by which the Holy Spirit moves the mind, but should obey without hesitation. As is said by the mouth of the prophet, or rather of Christ himself, “the Lord God opened an ear to me,” namely by inspiring him interiorly, “and I did not contradict, I did not go back,” as though “forgetting what lies behind, stretching forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:13). The Apostle also says that “they who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom 8:14), on which Augustine’s Gloss says, “not because they do nothing, but because they are led by the impulse of grace.” But he who resists or delays is not led by the impulse of the Holy Spirit. Therefore it is characteristic of the sons of God to be led by the impulse of grace to better things, without awaiting advice.... The Apostle teaches that this impulse should be followed: “Walk by the Spirit”; and again, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”... He also says: “Do not extinguish the Spirit” (1 Thess 5:19), on which the Gloss says, “If the Holy Spirit reveals something to someone at the present moment, do not prevent him from speaking.” Now the Holy Spirit reveals not only by teaching what a man should say, but also by suggesting what a man should do, as is said in John 14. Therefore when a man is moved by the impulse of the Spirit to enter religious life, he should not put it off for the sake of seeking human counsel, but should immediately follow the impulse of the Holy Spirit.6

Thus it seems that the fact that a desire to live religious life is in conformity with Christ’s objective advice, does not necessarily mean that this desire is from the Holy Spirit.

There are two solutions to this apparent difficulty. First, the movement of the Holy Spirit is distinct from, but not opposed to other motives, such as the fact that Christ advises something in the Scriptures. Indeed, whenever man is enlightened to see spiritual truth, and moved to spiritual good, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is ultimately God alone who enlightens one to see the truth, and moves one to love and choose the good. For this reason, St. Thomas concludes that if a man sincerely desires to enter religious life in order to grow in the love of God, he can be confident that this desire is from God.

The saying which is brought forward in the third place, “Test whether the spirits are from God,” does not prove the point. For testing is necessary where there is not certainty; hence on the text “test all things,” the Gloss says, “Things that are certain do not need discussion.” Now to those who are in a position of accepting others into religious life, there may be doubt about in what spirit these persons come to religious life, namely whether they come out of a desire for spiritual progress, or as is sometimes happens, they come for investigating or evildoing; or there may be doubt about whether those who come are fit for religious life. And therefore a testing of those who are to be received, is appointed both by the Church’s ordinance and by the religious rule. But to those who pursue the intention of taking up religious life, there can be no doubt regarding with what intention they do it. Hence no necessity of deliberating lies upon them, especially if they are confident about their bodily strength, for examining which a year of testing is granted to those who enter religious life.7

It does not matter whether God is the immediate source of the movement, or employs instruments to draw someone to religious life. Indeed, even if the devil himself were a source of the movement, the movement itself would be for good, and would be ultimately from God.

What is proposed fourthly, that Satan transforms himself into an angel of light, and many times suggests good things with the intention of deceiving, is true. But as the Gloss on that passage says, “when the devil deceives the bodily sense, but does not move the mind from true and right judgment, by which each one leads a faithful life, there is no danger in religious life; or when pretending to be good, he either does or says those things that are fitting to good angels, even if he is believed to be a good angel, it is not a dangerous or unhealthy error.”... Therefore given that the devil incited someone to enter religious life, this would be a good work, and fitting to the good angels. Hence there would not be a danger if someone consented to him in this; but he would have to be watchful to resist him when he began to [try to] lead him to pride or to other vices. For it frequently happens that God uses the malice of demons for the good of the saints... Yet it should be known that if the devil suggests to someone that he enter religious life, or if another man suggests this to him, this suggestion has no efficacy unless he is drawn interiorly by God; for by entering religious life, one sets out to follow Christ, [and no one can come to Christ unless the Father draws him].8

The first solution, then, is that one and the same movement may have an origin both in the Holy Spirit, and in the counsels of Christ. In fact, in this sense the movement of the Holy Spirit is an internal element of every true vocation.

There is also another response to this difficulty, namely that there are two different legitimate ways of choosing a way of life. The first way of choosing, which St. Thomas presents as the normal way, consists in making a choice on the basis of a judgment about the way of life itself. In this case, one would judge one’s inclination to a way of life, on the basis of a judgment about the value of that way of life and one’s fitness for it. Since the way of life is good, and one is fit to live it, one can conclude that the will to live it is from the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, however, one may be able in a certain sense to judge directly that an inclination or movement of the will is from the Holy Spirit, without judging it on the basis of its object. And for this reason St. Thomas distinguishes internal from external calling, as though different instances of vocation.

It is therefore not praiseworthy, but rather blameworthy, after an internal or external calling, made either in words or in the Scriptures, to put it off and to seek counsel as though about a doubtful matter.9

Of course, there is a danger of our thinking that a desire is inspired by the Holy Spirit when it in fact simply arises from our own inclinations. And for this reason a choice made on the basis of such a perceived inspiration should generally be confirmed or backed up by other reasons, such as those based on the objective character and circumstances of that which is chosen.

St. Ignatius of Loyola

According to many of the followers of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Spiritual Exercises include radical innovations, at least in comparison to the practice of the earlier medieval age. According to P. Everard Mercurian, who later became Superior General of the Society of Jesus, the Spiritual Exercises contain many “unheard of” innovations.

Our spiritual exercises, in the matter of election, encompass everything that can be found about that matter in all the doctors and saints; indeed many new and unheard of things are proposed there, especially where they concern the threefold time for making a choice.10

Hans Urs von Balthasar, an influential twentieth century theologian who was ordained as a Jesuit priest, does not go quite so far as to say “unheard of,” but does stress the newness of St. Ignatius’ approach at least in comparison with the medieval approach: “The Book of the Exercises by St. Ignatius of Loyola, looking back to the Gospel, was the first to uncover a new yet decisive dimension, to effect a revolution.”11

In his explanatory notes to the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius describes what these exercises are: “Every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after it is rid of them, of seeking and finding the divine will as to the management of one’s life for the salvation of one’s soul, we call Spiritual Exercises.”12 After removing disordered tendencies, that is, clearing away obstacles to the goal, the positive aspect of the goal is described as “seeking and finding the divine will.” In accordance with this aim, he prescribes that the one who is giving the exercises should not, in regard to a state or way of life, influence the one who is making them, but should leave all the action up to God.

He who is giving the Exercises ought not to urge him who is receiving them more to poverty or to a promise than to their opposites, nor more to one state or way of life than to another. For although outside the Exercises, we can lawfully and meritoriously urge every one who is probably fit, to choose continence, virginity, the religious life, and all manner of evangelical perfection, still in the Spiritual Exercises, in seeking the divine will, it is more fitting and much better that the Creator and Lord Himself should communicate Himself to his devout soul, inflaming it with his love and praise, and disposing it for the way in which it will be better able to serve him in the future. So he who is giving the Exercises should not turn or incline to one side or the other, but standing in the center like a balance, should allow the Creator to act immediately with the creature, and the creature with its Creator and Lord.13

St. Ignatius wants to remove from the soul any excessive attachment that would move it to choose one way of life rather than another, whether that be an attachment to selfish inclinations, or an attachment to the opinions of others. This is necessary because a vocation comes from God: “Every divine vocation is always pure and clear, without mixture of flesh, or of any other inordinate attachment.”14 Yet St. Ignatius does not want to remove all preference for one way of life over another, but only all preferences that could be an impediment to the greater service of God, that is, preferences for things that in themselves are less good, which we call “attachments.” Indeed, “the greater a good is, the readier we should be to choose it.”15 Consequently, St. Ignatius sees it as most desirable for a person to prefer the way of the counsels, as being more in conformity with Christ’s counsels and examples. In his Directory for the Elections he writes:

It must first of all be insisted that a person entering upon the elections do so with total resignation of will; and if possible, that he reach the third degree of humility, in which for his own part he is more inclined, should it be for the equal service of God, toward that which is most in accord with the counsels and example of Christ our Lord.16

While the choice to be made in the spiritual exercises can be any choice that is for the greater glory of God, the primary intention of the exercises as a whole is to make the choice of a state of life. Thus in the third time of making a choice, St. Ignatius speaks of choosing “a life or state.”17 And in his Directory for the exercises, he describes the order of making choices in the following manner, clearly expecting that the choice to be made would usually be the choice of a state or way of life:

The matter proposed for deliberation is: first, whether the counsels or the commandments; secondly, if the counsels, then whether inside or outside a religious institute; thirdly, if in a religious institute, which one; fourthly, after that, when and how. If it is the commandments, then in what station or manner of life, etc.18

St. Ignatius gives three “times” in which one may choose a state of life. The first depends entirely on God’s movement. “The first time is when God our Lord so moves and attracts the will that without doubting, or being able to doubt, the devout soul follows what is shown it, as St. Paul and St. Matthew did in following Christ our Lord.”19

The second time when one may make a choice of a state of life is when one’s spiritual experience is sufficient to form a judgment, “when one gets enough light and knowledge by experience of consolations and desolations, and by the experience of the discernment of various spirits.”20 The basis of judgment in this second time is not directly the objective character of the choice in question, but the causes inclining us to the choice.

The third time when one may make a choice is when one deliberates about what means will best help him to achieve the goal of the glory of God and the salvation of his soul. “The third time is quiet, when one considers, first, for what purpose man is born—namely, to praise God our Lord and to save his soul—and desiring this, chooses as a means to this end, a life or state within the limits of the Church, in order that he may be helped in the service of his Lord and the salvation of his soul.”21

In this third time there are two ways of making a choice. The first way consists in first putting oneself in an attitude of indifference, and then setting out all of the advantages and disadvantages involved in the choice, and deciding by reason whether the choice furthers the end, namely “to praise God our Lord” and save one’s soul.22

The second way consists in taking the psychological means that will allow one to make a true and objective judgment about the matter, rather than a judgment influenced by emotion or self-love. First, the desire for the thing should arise out of love for God. “That love which moves me and makes me choose such a thing should descend from above, from the love of God, in such a manner that he who chooses feels first in himself that that love, more or less, which he has for the thing which he chooses, is only for his Creator and Lord.”23 (The purpose of this rule is to remove the influence of self-love.) Secondly, we should choose for ourselves the same thing we would advise someone else in the same circumstances to choose. (The purpose of this rule is to keep us from being influenced by our personal attachments.) Third and fourth, we should choose now that which we would prefer to have chosen when we die, and on the Day of Judgment. (The purpose of these rules is to help us judge according to the ultimate value of the choice, and not its immediate attraction.)24

Discernment of spirits

Let us now consider in more detail the second time presented by St. Ignatius, which relies upon the experience of consolation and desolation, and the discernment of various spirits. Some thoughts and desires come from ourselves, some from God, and some from the demons. “I presuppose that there are three kinds of thoughts in me, namely: one which is my own, which springs from my mere liberty and will; and two others, which come from without, one from the good spirit, and the other from the bad.”25

The movements that arise from God can be discerned by their origin, by their nature, and by their effects. They can be discerned by their origin, because God alone can work immediately in the soul.26 St. Ignatius explains this characteristic of the divine activity in the soul:

It belongs to God our Lord alone to give consolation to the soul without any preceding cause, for it is the property of the Creator to enter, go out, and cause movements in the soul, bringing it all into love of his Divine Majesty. I say without cause, that is, without any previous perception or knowledge of any object through which such consolation would come, through one’s acts of understanding and will.27

They can be discerned by their nature, since these movements are good. “It is proper to God and to his Angels in their movements to give true gladness and spiritual joy, taking away all sadness and disturbance which the enemy causes.”28 On the other hand, to the enemy “it is proper to fight against such spiritual gladness and consolation, bringing apparent reasons, subtleties and continual deceptions.”29

They can be discerned by their effects, since God works in us for our good, whereas the demons work in us for our harm. If a movement ultimately leads us to something good, it is a sign that it is from God; on the other hand, if it leads us to something bad, or to something less good than the good which we previously intended or possessed, it is a sign that it is from the devil. St. Ignatius explains:

We ought to note well the course of our thoughts, and if the beginning, middle and end is all good, inclined to all good, it is a sign of the good Angel; but if in the course of the thoughts which he brings it ends in something bad, of a distracting tendency, or less good than what the soul had previously proposed to do, or if it weakens or disquiets or disturbs the soul, taking away the peace, tranquility and quiet which it had before, it is a clear sign that it proceeds from the evil spirit, enemy of our progress and eternal salvation.30

There is of course the possibility of deception with regard to any of these signs. The cause of our feeling of joy may be hidden from us, and so we may believe that it must come from God, though it in fact arises from our own dispositions. Emotional excitement, or pride in a new undertaking may be taken for spiritual joy. And because the nature of certain feelings may be hidden from us, we may fail to perceive the evil to which they are tending. For example, a married woman may be led into a harmful and dangerous friendship with a man through a basically sincere belief that her pleasure in his company is due to purely spiritual motives (as may in fact be true in the beginning).

Summary and comparison of the Three Times

The three times when one may make a decision for a state of life, can be briefly described as follows (1): when one has an immediate experience about which there can be no doubt as to its divine source, and which directs one to a state of life; (2) when by much experience and discernment of the working of the Holy Spirit, one perceives that the Spirit by its movement is inviting or pointing one to a state of life, or that the desire for a state of life originates from the Holy Spirit; (3) when, beginning from an attitude of detachment to all created goods, and if possible, with a preference for what in general conforms more to God’s will, one makes a prudent choice of a state of life as a means of serving God and saving one’s soul.

In the first two times, the choice of a state of life is based on the perception of God’s movement or inspiration of the will. In the third time, on the other hand, the choice is based on the usefulness of the means for attaining the end, namely the glory of God and the salvation of our soul, or on other similar comparisons—e.g., comparisons between one’s love for God and one’s love for the means, or between oneself and someone else whom one would advise.

The first two times of choosing a state of life, when one perceives that one’s inclination is from the Holy Spirit, and thereby makes a judgment on the goodness of the object of the inclination, seems to be what St. Thomas has in mind when he speaks of the internal vocation effected through the Holy Spirit, not merely as the internal element of every true vocation, but as a distinct instance of vocation. (See above, p. 4 ff.) The third time, when one weighs by reason the advantages of a way or state of life, corresponds with the way St. Thomas generally considers the question of choosing a state of life, inasmuch as it proceeds by means of an objective judgment of the matter.

Because the way of making a choice in the first two times depends more immediately upon God’s action, it is considered to be in itself a better way of choosing. Accordingly, St. Ignatius says: “If election is not made in the first or the second time, there follow two ways for making it in this third.”31

On the other hand, because of the possibilities for deception noted above, the second time is a more dangerous way of deciding, while the third time is “usually safer.”32 And in his own directory, St. Ignatius says that one should proceed to the third time not only if no choice is made in the second time, but also if a choice is made in the second time, yet does not seem to be a good choice.

When no decision has been reached in the second mode, or one that is not good in the opinion of the one giving the Exercises (whose task it is to help discern the effects of the good and evil spirit), then the third manner should be resorted to—that of the discursive intellect by means of the six points.33

These two points, namely the superiority of the first two times, and the greater security of the third, are summed up in the officially approved directory for the Exercises.

During the first and second times of election it is the will that takes the lead, with the intellect following and being led by the will, without any reasoning of its own or hesitation. In the third time, on the other hand, the intellect takes the lead, proposing numerous reasons to the will in order to arouse and impel it to the side it judges to be better. And granted that the movement comes directly from God, there is no doubt that the higher and more excellent way is when it is the will which, under God’s illumination, takes the lead and draws the intellect after it... On the other hand, the third way by means of reflection and reasoning is safer and more secure.34

Because the third way is a surer way, it is advised as a way of confirming a choice made in the second way. The official directory recommends this as the usual course.

These two methods that mark the third time, are to be employed not only when no conclusion has been reached in the second time; but also when a choice has been made, the third time contributes to strengthen and confirm it. For if the soul were certain that the movement of the second time were from God, then without doubt it would have no need to look any further. But since the angel of Satan sometimes transforms himself into an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14), this should be the general rule, that it is very dangerous, when a man wishes to govern himself only by movements of the will, and certain inner feelings, without adding appropriate consideration. And therefore there should be a testing and examination by means of the light; for as the Apostle says, “all that is made manifest, is light.” Now this light, after the light of faith, is also human reason itself (helped and enlightened, of course, by the light of faith), which is itself from God, and one cannot contradict the other, since truth is necessarily consistent with truth.35

In other words, we should not proceed heedlessly, even when led by feelings of devotion, but should reflect upon what we choose to do, in order to avoid being deceived by feelings that are apparently good, but ultimately misleading.

1ST II-II 189:10.

2The term “religious life” does not come from Christ himself, but Christ did establish this form of life, and gave the three counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience, upon which religious life is based. See Pope John Paul II, Redemptionis Donum, n. 3, as well as his General Audience of December 7, 1994.

3ST II-II 189:10 obj. 1.

4ST II-II 189:10 ad 1.

5Contra Doctrinam Retrahentium, ch. 9. Some saints have done quite literally what St. Thomas describes here. St. Anthony of the desert, for example, heard in church the words, “If you would be perfect, go sell what you have, etc.,” and followed them as though spoken personally to him.


7Ibid., ch. 10.

8Ibid., ch. 10.

9Ibid., ch. 9.

10Directoria Exercitiorum Spiritualium, Monumenta Ignatiana, Series 2, Vol. 2. (Rome: Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu, 1955), 269 (Hereafter cited as Directoria.)

11Von Balthasar, Christlicher Stand, 317.

12St. Ignatius of Loyola, Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 1, Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu, Series 2, Vol. 1 (Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu, 1969), 140–42. (This work will be hereafter cited as Exercitia Spiritualia.)

13Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 15.

14Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 172.

15St. Ignatius of Loyola, Letter 131, in Letters of St. Ignatius of Loyola, translated by William J. Young, S.J. (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1959), 98.

16Directoria Ignatiana Autographa, n. 17, Directoria, pp. 74–76.

17Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 177.

18Directoria Ignatiana Autographa, n. 22, Directoria, pp. 76–78.

19Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 175.

20Ibid., n. 176.

21Ibid., n. 177.

22Ibid., n. 175.

23Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 184.

24Ibid., nn. 185–87.

25Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 32.

26Cf. ST I 111:2.

27Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 330.

28Ibid., n. 329.


30Ibid., n. 333.

31Ibid., n. 178 (emphasis added).

32Annotationes P. Dávila, Directoria, 518; see also the Directorium de Polanco, ibid., 314–16; Directoria P. Miró, ibid., 401–2; Vermeersch, De Religiosis Institutis et Personis, vol. 1, nn. 124 & 128; Fr. John Hardon, All My Liberty, Ch. 7.

33Directoria Ignatiana Autographa, Directoria, 76.

34Directorium Definitive Approbatum, n. 190, Directoria, 701.

35Directorium Definitive Approbatum, n. 203, Directoria, 707–8; cf. Annotationes P. Dávila, nn. 134–35; Directoria, 519–20.

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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