Discovering vocation through discernment

January 15, 2019

In light of the Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” many of our campus ministry programs this year have and will focus on how to discern one’s vocation. The two main questions asked by all students during their university experience are: “What will I study?” and “What am I going to do with my life after graduation?”

Vocation comes from the Latin vocare, “to call.” On the most fundamental level, our vocation is our call to holiness. Each of us is called to holiness, to love God and to love others well. This is our primary vocation. The ways in which we are called to love God and love others that are unique to each of us are our particular vocations. 

I find Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation helpful in conversations with students: “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meet’s the world’s deep need.” There are two key elements here. First, our gifts, talents, joys and passions are gifts from God, who speaks through these deep desires of our hearts. Second, our God-given gifts are given to be shared with others. We ask ourselves: What are the needs of my neighbors, community, city, world and how might my gifts meet those? Our vocation is ultimately the way in which we make of ourselves a gift to others. 

There are many paths to holiness and love, and so discovering God’s call for our lives involves discernment, the process of choosing between two (or more) goods. In conversations with students, I often describe the discernment process in four steps: prayer, gathering data, action and testing the fruits. 

First, discernment begins with and is sustained in prayer. We must spend time with God in order to recognize God’s voice and hear how God speaks to us. Talk to God about the decision you are being invited to make, ask for God’s will to be done, and listen.

Second, gather data. Think through the decision and possible outcomes, process with people who know you well, ask for counsel from a trusted mentor. One exercise that I have found helpful in this stage of discernment is reflecting on the questions: “What will I leave behind sadly? Gladly?” “What will I take with me sadly? Gladly?”

Third, act. At some point in the process of prayer and gathering data, we must come to a decision and act. If we are to discern anything, we must “try it on.” Ask someone on a date. Spend a day shadowing someone in the career field you’re interested in. Talk to a priest or sister and visit his/her community. This is often the scariest part of discernment, so we remind ourselves that crippling fear is not of God!

Fourth, test the fruits. The fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) are a litmus test for the movement of God in our lives. Where do I experience an increase of faith, hope and love, and all other fruits of the Spirit? There lies our vocation.

Nicole Labadie, MDiv., is the campus minister at the University of St. Thomas.