Monday, 28 October 2013

The Art of Discernment: An Insider's Perspective

I've been reading lots of really great blog posts and articles recently about how discernment has become trendy (see here or here). I think it is true that often discernment is used as an excuse to not make a decision about life (i.e. the Perpetual Discerners), however I think there's a lot of stuff we need to battle with during the discernment process. In this post I wanted to share an insider's perspective to discernment, from my time discerning priesthood in the seminary and now as I discern what's next for my life.

Young men discerning their next step on the VOCadventure Fiji Program

I want to start with an analogy though. See, I think our lives are like a story (I know, cliche right?) and our vocation is the part where our story gets wrapped up into history/His-story. Discernment is the bridging chapter, the part where our plot line gets drawn into the plot of salvation history. I think the problem a lot of people face when discerning is that sub-plots can arise; sub-plots which are often distracting, destructive  or restrictive. These sub-plots can take our focus away from the main plot.

What are these sub-plots? Some of these sub-plots are things we need to work through before making a deeper commitment: family breakdowns, past relationship hurts, abuse, trauma, even all of the above. However, there are a lot of the sub-plots that come up that are lies or perceptions which just aren't true. These are blockages to discernment that need to be removed. Let's take some time to look at these lies.

Lie # 1 - "But, what if I'm called somewhere else?"
Before I went to seminary I used to ask the question, "but what if I go to seminary and I'm called to married life instead?" The grass always looks greener on the other side! The word discernment actually comes from the Latin "to seperate apart". We discern to cut away options, either I am called to this so I don't need to discern anything else; or, I'm not called to this so I can cut this option away. My time discerning priesthood became far more fruitful when I focused in on that vocation. Now I can say peacefully that I discerned that vocation well and was able to cut it away. Instead of asking "but what if I'm called elsewhere?" ask: "but what if I am called here?" It's a far better question.

Lie # 2 - "My family and friends will think I'm crazy!"
Another big road block in discernment is how our family or friends will perceive our decision. These are important relationships and a decision shouldn't be made without considering the impact on these people. However, we shouldn't be off-put by their potential disapproval. Remember, even Jesus' family thought he was crazy (Mk 3:20-35) and while he was teaching one day they came to take him away! Often, families and friends disapprove because they don't understand (especially in the case of priesthood or religious life). We can help them to understand by involving them in the discernment process: explain to them about why we feel drawn to a certain vocation. They might not come around immediately, but give them time. There are many great stories of families and friends growing more supportive as they saw their loved one grow in their vocation.

Lie # 3 - "I owe it to God or to the Church, it's my duty."
I come from a culture where the eldest son has a lot of responsibilities, the idea of duty resounds strongly within me. So when I began to grow in my faith and I began to fall more in love with the Church, I began to feel strongly a sense of duty towards the Church and I thought this had to be as a priest. But, as someone pointed out to me once: a) you don't owe God or the Church anything, they'll be fine with whatever choice you make; and b) if you're so passionate about serving God and the Church, you'll fulfil that duty as a priest, religious or lay person. Now, this isn't an excuse to not discern priesthood or religious life! Rather, I highlight this lie because it frees up the discernment process. When I realised that God didn't expect anything of me, it allowed me to discern freely. It took away a lot of the pressure I perceived and I was able to be excited about a life of service to God, however that may look.

As someone said to me when I decided to apply for the seminary: "Discerning a vocation is an exciting time in one's life. Enjoy it!" The discernment period isn't just a means to an ends, but is an experience in itself. It can be an interesting time full of self-revelation, when one's faith and knowledge grow substantially. It can be a time of figuring things out and letting things go. Some days it can seem clear where God is directing us, other times you just don't know. It is always a time of grace: when God becomes more present in our lives. 

Dare to ask the question: "God, what do you call me to do?" More importantly, dare to listen to the answer. God only knows where you'll end up.

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