Always Discerning, Never Deciding

Yesterday I read a thoughtful article by Br Gabriel T. Mosher O.P. on the subject of the shortage of vocations and the kind of everlasting discernment process many engage in rather than coming to an actual decision (you can read it here). Inevitably, some commentators concentrated on what I took to be a secondary argument about the objective superiority of religious life (Br Gabriel’s a Dominican, so you’d expect that, wouldn’t you?) and, being unfamiliar with the precise terms the author used, took umbrage. So, I want to make it clear that what I am addressing is Br Gabriel’s main thesis: the way in which discerning a religious vocation becomes almost a way of life, with no final resolution.

I spend hours every week answering vocation questions. Some are perhaps rather trivial, but I try to take every one seriously because we all move at different speeds and what may seem minor to one may be quite major to another. As a community, we also ‘accompany’ people in their search for God. Some of those who are in regular contact have been discerning their vocation for years. I sometimes have the uneasy feeling that discerning has become — quite unintentionally — a way of avoiding commitment. If I am discerning, I do not have to face the ultimate test of placing myself and my sense of vocation in a concrete situation where others will judge whether I am called to this way of life or not. Moreover, if I am discerning, I can look for a community or rule of life that meets all my requirements/desiderata: I can take the risk out of commitment. The problem then is that no community on earth is ever likely to come up to my standards — they all seem to be full of cranks and crotchety old codgers I’d rather not have to deal with, and no situation is ever really risk-free. Finally, there is the fact that discerning can lead one into the trap of looking too much at oneself and forgetting the Lord. It is nice to talk about one’s soul with someone who is, or should be, sympathetic. I liked Br Gabriel’s snappy take on this, ‘Many will come and see . . . few will stay and pray.’

What can those of us who dwell in monasteries do to help people who find themselves endlessly discerning? Here at Howton Grove we are undertaking a major revision of our web sites and are keen to try one or two ideas which we hope will help those thinking about religious life. For example, we already insist on video conferencing before anyone makes the journey to Hereford to stay with the community for a period of discernment. If you are a young person, thinking about religious life, we’d be interested to know what you have found helpful, what has helped you towards a decision rather than just discerning. There is a kind of ‘vocational voyeurism’ that is unhelpful, both to the individual and the community. Our starting-point, however, is that people are full of goodwill and sincerity. We take discerners seriously because we take God seriously and we want to be of service. You can help us.

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20 thoughts on “Always Discerning, Never Deciding”

  1. Re: discerning as a way of avoiding commitment.

    This can be a circular path yet if we are truly seeking the Lord I think that He will always show us a way out of the rut that we can find ourselves in. I have found that this can take the form of paying attention to what is in front of us and getting on with whatever is getting in our way.

    • Yes and no. I think I see what you mean, but my blog post was entirely about those who are thinking about religious life. They tend to be caught up in many contradictory ideas, thoughts, feelings about God, the Church and themselves. It all takes some gentle teasing out. It is not that they are opposing God’s will, however one may define that, but that they want to do God’s will as perfectly as possible in a given form of life. It is a big decision, as big as marriage but without many of the supports that marriage gives.

  2. “…there is the fact that discerning can lead one into the trap of looking too much at oneself and forgetting the Lord. It is nice to talk about one’s soul with someone who is, or should be, sympathetic”. Ouch! And yes! And thank you!

  3. Thank you for clarifying Bro Gabriel’s text so well. I knew from our brief twitter exchange yesterday evening that there was more to it than a quick skim would give me.

    Somehow I got this mixed up with my own journey of discernment, which has for a while, appeared to be going nowhere, but it now actually becoming defined in a place and way that I’d not thought possible until very recently.

    It took a few kind words from a Parish Priest to move me on. Those words were, “You know that you have a place here if you want it” .

    I’d deliberately resisted that because my thoughts and ideas were on a single track, to serve in the parish that I joined when I returned to the Church. That was the correct path at the time as I was able to explore, to be formed and to grow and to gather some experience and even be thoroughly challenged and tested and rejected from the Ordination pathway, but still blinkered, I wanted to pursue the path I’d set my heart on. Whether God’s will or not. 🙁 It shows how wrong you can be.

    I continue to have issues on how my particular church deals with discernment, formation, selection and ultimately acceptance or rejection. If accepted, your path is smoothed and while there is much to do, ultimately you progress to the ministry you’ve discerned.

    Those who are rejected are assured of continuing support, but the reality is that well meaning words and platitudes (promises of prayer) don’t help or heal the feeling having been ‘cast out’ which is how it actually seems to many. Some feel so disenfranchised that they can’t return to their home parish and many actually abandon the church altogether.

    • I realised the cry of pain was born of experience. Perhaps there are two separate issues. One is finding how we are to serve the Lord. It is wonderful when his will apparently coincides with our own, very tough when it doesn’t. I have known people quite unable to accept that because they wanted to do something it wasn’t necessarily the best thing they could do— and to be fair, they weren’t helped by the clumsy and sometimes hurtful way other people reacted. The second point concerns how the Church, Order, community or whatever deals with what we could call ‘after care’ although I don’t really like that phrase. We try to be as friendly and supportive as possible to those we’ve had to say ‘we don’t think this if for you’ because we know what a great shock it can be. That isn’t to say we always get it right, but it is an important part of being Christian and being community.

  4. Perhaps part of the problem is that ‘discernment’ is very much an insiders’ concept which makes the vocation-seeker part of an inclusive little club with all those secret codes and rituals. Outsiders – those of us in the secular world – do not ‘discern’. We try to figure stuff out, make decisions for our future path, work out what to do next with our lives. This process of discernment is like joining a club in itself, so once a person has joined, why do they need to go further?

    Christianity needs to redefine the range of vocational possibilities and educate people of all ages that these possibilities exist, in terms that can be understood by thoughtful people who do not have insider knowledge. The religious life is just one of a multitude of options in modern life. That’s the biggest difference between vocations now, and those in mediaeval Europe. I work with young adults, and they’re good intelligent souls making decisions about careers and relationships in a mature and considered way. I doubt if a religious vocation has occurred to even one of the several thousand I have taught in the past 25 years. Which is exactly as it should be. Young adults should, for the most part, be in the world and of the world. Except for a few very unusual cases, religion should be for the very young, to give them a moral foundation, and the olders who have gained experience and lived the life of reason who are equipped and ready to seek a more spiritual way. Speak to us, the later-life seekers, about the contemplative life, or the life of service. Give us a way to channel what we have learned. Help us to nurture and use the scraps of faith we have clung to despite everything we have experienced.

    • A discerning book collector or a discerning judge of wine might quibble with your idea that discernment is an ‘insiders’ concept’, but if you mean merely that every profession/trade has its jargon, and that ‘discernment’ is religious jargon, I have no problem with that. It is a shorthand usually readily understood by those who would describe themselves as practising Christians—and they form the vast majority of candidates for religious life. Where I would take issue with you is in your (as it seems to me) very functional view of religion as something for the very young or very old. A vocation is not about Christianity, it is about Christ— and that holds true for every age of life. Unless there is a strong, personal love of the Lord, or at least the desire to love him, we can’t even begin to talk of vocation. Again, the religious life isn’t one option among many, as though it were simply a job, it’s a whole life project which involves every aspect of a person’s being. Anyone who does have a vocation to religious life couldn’t be anything or anyone else.

  5. I have been blessed with the opportunity to follow Fr. Giussani’s vocational meditations in the 90’s. His method is based on the idea that if a person starts a path of vocational discernment, it is because he/she is so fascinated by Jesus Christ as to be willing to spend his/her life in His company and to devote to Him all his/her spiritual and physical resources. Vocation is not choosing a cloth that fits you, it is not a call to a particular way of life: first of all it is a call to virginity, virginity being the ideal of each way of life, also of married life. In this perspective the question is not “what vocation is suitable for me?” but rather “how can I better serve Jesus Christ my Love in his Church?”. His business is my own business. The matter of the choice of a particular order (or of married life) comes naturally, following the affinity that is found in friendship, better in “fellowship guided to destiny”. The proof of the the path is the ability to live everyday life, whatever your duty, with more intensity and a greater joy.

    • Thank you, Paola. While I agree entirely that a religious vocation is a vocation to follow Christ and intensely personal, I’m not sure that I would agree with you that the choice of order follows on from that. As a Benedictine, I would emphatically affirm that being a Benedictine is the way, the only way, I can respond to Him. My own call is a call to a particular way of life, and any Benedictine with whom I’ve discussed the matter has said the same. That, however, does not mean that there aren’t Benedictines who think differently!

      • Of course I understand your uncertainty about the choice of a particular order coming naturally by following a fellowship guided to destiny. It is very difficult to summarize in a sentence the core of this concept that is one of the leading ideas of Fr. Giussani’s genius: friendship is a “virtue”. So I am sure that if you have a chance to examine in depth what I tried to explain “in a tweet”, you will discover a vast horizon in which you will find a new light to enlighten your own experience.

  6. So happy you have come across Br. Gabriel, a wonderful friar from our West Coast (U.S.) Dominican province of the Holy Name. I just met him last year and was so impressed by his wisdom and knowledge, not to mention his obvious piety, and how it all comes together in one of the happiest and joyful people I have ever met. I like very much the article and your take on it, which I think is bang on. Though, I ask myself if I might not be one of these very people about whom he writes… Oh my!

  7. I think Paola says the truth.
    We are all in the Catholic Church but the Church isn’t only Benedectine.
    How to serve the Lord?
    Holy Spirit guides some saints to be prists and nuns, other to be kings and queens, etc.
    With us is the same!
    All the good way are the way of God. Choose in relation to the talents that God has given you

    • If you have followed this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I have often addressed the subject of vocation in general. That was not my intention here. This post is specifically about vocation to the religious life, particularly Benedictine monastic life. If you read Br Gabriel’s article, you’ll see that he was writing about religious life, too, not vocation in general.
      I think the temptation to ignore the parameters of an argument, while it can be illuminating, can also mean that the difficulty the argument addresses is never really taken on board—which is part of the problem Br Gabriel and I have tried to identify.

  8. I wonder if there isn’t a flip side to people “endlessly discerning,” if that is in fact a trend, in the ever-extending time it seems to take religious communities to commit to a candidate and accept their full participation and membership. It’s my impression that what took a couple of years in the last century, and maybe five when I was a young woman, can now routinely take a decade. That is a very long time to be on probation, especially when those who enter are rarely sixteen anymore. Perhaps that kind of extreme, even excessive, caution is mirrored in the tentativeness of those trying to choose a place to try their call.

    • I’ve no experience of that myself, nor have I heard of any monastic community with that kind of policy (though I imagine you must be able to name some). With us, as with our predecessors, it’s five and a half years (six years in my case) before solemn profession. There are degrees of welcome into the community: as a postulant, as a novice, as a junior, as solemnly professed. Each stage marks a new commitment on both sides, so to say, but I don’t think novices habitually go around wondering whether they will be accepted for solemn profession. If they do, I’d argue that the community isn’t doing a very good job of concentrating on the here and now.

  9. My thoughs on religious vocation… from my own experiences (bearing in mind that my journey was diocesen rather than monastic).. is a bit like being asked to drive down a particular road into a community that is different and structured outside our present cultural norm with a focus to search if you are meant to stop and park in a particular place to serve (be Christ like) in a particular way. Our society tends to be very “me” goal oriented, and the difficult change of mind heart and soul to realize that where ever you are as long as you “throw yourself” in the arms of Christ, is the right place to be. This abandonment to trust, live in the moment and see where Christ leads is really at the heart of all discernment, but in particular with religious discernment. From my observation of a lot of the “process”, there seems to be a lot of worry about the steps, structure, place, fit, and other “do” items; which isn’t to be dismissed since it is a key part, but sometimes in these structures the relational trust in Christ is given unintended second focus. This is not surprising since our present culture values control and individualism wihout realizing that we can only truly be who we are when we abandon our lives to Christ. With this in mind it is no wonder that committment is low, for it seems to me directly tied to trust. Sometimes the journey down the road of discernment leads to great fruition even when it does not succeed in a particular expected goal – as long as all of the steps are focused towards meeting and trusting Christ; which is what I personally see as the particular focus of everyone involved in the process of religious vocation… a much more important goal than the details of a good fit.

  10. I think your blogging does most out of your media to drive a sense of what it means to have a vocation, and where discernment starts and ends. I always quite liked the idea of being a nun, know exactly what i’d want to do all if I were nun, and I think by this point it is already pretty clear I am not meant to be a nun. Indeed, when my partner of many years proposed

  11. I did not hesitate a moment before agreeing to marriage. So that cleared that up.

    By sharing what it means to be a nun, and live out that decision, your community makes it quite easy to see distinguish the idea and the reality.

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