Looking back over my discernment, I wished there was something to help me walk through some of that confusion. On one of my hour-long walks home from work, it came to me. I was praying the rosary and in an instant of clarity I could see that Mary had already walked this vocation path better than anyone. As I prayed the Joyous Mysteries that night, swerving around blind corners through the park to get back home, it became clear that in her hidden life with Jesus, Mary left us a sort of model of the process of discernment, with Jesus being the personification of her vocation. I hope this Discernment Survival Guide will help others who are discerning the big “V” vocational call to a particular state of life in the Church or the small “v” call to make a decision that will change the course of their life.
First Joyous Mystery: “The Annunciation” aka “Just Say Yes, Let God Do the Rest”
Any spiritual calling is unsettling. It is invariably a call to change, to move out of one’s comfort zone. For me, this was the worst part. I felt like I had to respond, that this call was from God and that it was the most important thing in my life and yet, I didn’t know exactly what God was calling me to do. I spent a lot of time agonizing over what the call meant, what I was supposed to do, and how and when I was supposed to do it once I figured it all out. It took me a long time to discover that my role in the discernment process is just to say yes, to be willing to take the next step in humility and joy, just as Mary did when she proclaims her beautiful Fiat, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38). Just like Mary at the Annunciation, I am not meant to see the whole picture. I am only asked to be willing to put myself at the service of God’s call as it presents itself to me in that moment. Any vocation from God is a cause for celebration. No matter how large or small the issue being discerned, the fact that God has moved us is a powerful sign of His presence and love and, above all, His sense of humour.
Second Joyous Mystery: “The Visitation” aka “Don’t Go It Alone”
Mary sharing her vocation with Elizabeth
What is the first action Mary takes after she learns she is to be the Mother of God? She takes to the road, to visit her cousin Elizabeth (Lk 1:39). At their meeting, Mary again expresses her humility and joy at God’s gift of vocation in her Magnificat, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my saviour. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Lk 1:46-49). Most important for my discernment was the confirmation she receives from Elizabeth in the leaping of John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb and her exclamation, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Lk 1:45) . I found out by trial and error that a huge part of the discernment process is talking to others about it and sharing it with a variety of people with different vantage points: friends, family, my parish priest, other priests and religious, Vocation Directors, co-workers, unbelievers, whoever will listen. My first instinct was to keep my vocation call to myself, to protect it, afraid that others would not understand it or would reject it. Of course, all that happened and it was all good for me to hear. It forced me to constantly remind myself to let go. God is in control, and He will speak to me through both positive and negative feedback, but I have to be willing to share my call in humility and see it as a gift from God that must be given away order to be truly received.
Third Joyous Mystery: “The Nativity” aka “In God’s Time, Not Yours”
I can imagine the anxiety Mary and Joseph must have felt as Mary approached her labour with no lodging (Lk 2:7). After the announcement that Mary would give birth to the Son of God, it must have seemed to both of them like they had taken a wrong turn somewhere, that maybe Mary had misunderstood the call. At many points in my discernment and even now, it often looks as if my life is headed in the opposite direction from what I am discerning to be God’s intention for me. Rather than second guess my discernment, I have learned to assume that the call is correct and that the circumstances of my life just haven’t caught up to it yet. Mary’s vocation to be the Mother of God started in the unlikeliest of places: a manger in Bethlehem. This was God’s intent all along, not an oversight but a fulfilment, a part of a larger providential plan that is difficult to see when you are living it out on the ground. I have to constantly try to step away from my circumstances to see as God sees, not from my blind-corner perspective in space and time, but in the grand trajectory of God’s love and mercy that unfolds gradually over a lifetime of saying yes to his invitations.
Fourth Joyous Mystery: “The Presentation” aka “Don’t Get Cold Feet”
Mary offering her vocation to God
Mary has given birth to Jesus, the personification of her vocation as the Mother of God. She has nurtured Jesus, protected Him, spoke to Him, and watched Him grow in her arms. The message of an angel becomes the reality of a baby and the time has come in a wonderfully numinous moment to formally present the Son of God to God the Father (Lk 2:22). A similar moment occurred in my vocation. In each conversation with a Vocation Director, every email and lunch meeting, and every visit to a community to “come and see”, my vocation gradually stopped being an idea and started to take shape as a way of life, a decision and action I could take that would shape the course of my life and my growth as a person. Finally, with the Carmelites, that action became concrete, an invitation to submit my application to the Order. That moment is exciting and terrifying at the same time. Discernment tells me what I am called to do, but only I can agree to do it. God will not force me to answer His call; such is his love and respect for my dignity as His child that He will never give me “an offer I can’t refuse”. He only invites and waits for me to respond. It is up to me to decide if it will be love or fear that will drive my response.
Fifth Joyous Mystery: “Finding in the Temple” aka “Leave the Results to God”
When Mary and Joseph “lose” Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem, it is easy to imagine how frantic they would be and how powerless they must have felt (Lk 2: 43-45). How will they ever find a little boy amidst the thousands that have come to worship and trade throughout the city? It is reasonable to assume that they might even have blamed themselves for losing the Son of God, their vocation, who was entrusted to them to protect. I see this mystery as a warning for me to remember that even when I say yes to my vocation; it does not mean that everything that follows will necessarily be a happy ending. There will be countless times when I “lose” my vocation; it may seem that I have made the wrong decision because things are not going as I thought they would or because things don’t seem to be going at all. I have to remember that because my vocation comes from God it will always return to God, just as Jesus, Mary’s vocation, did in returning to the Temple (Lk 2:49). Regardless of how my vocation plays out in the end, once I say yes to it, the living out of my decision is always I gift that I am giving back to God, for His own purposes, according to His own design.