Is “Vocational Discernment” Just a Fancy Term for Navel-Gazing?

Is “Vocational Discernment” Just a Fancy Term for Navel-Gazing? September 4, 2014

A Gay and Catholic extra post!

For a lot of people I think the language of vocation, and specifically the language of discerning one’s vocation, offers hope. It makes the future, which for gay Christians especially can easily seem like a giant scary blank, seem more like an adventure through a realm full of possibilities.

But for others this language seems to add pressure rather than relieving it. “In my day we didn’t *~*discern our vocation*~*. We just took care of people!” Or, “I’m okay with being told I’ve got to cope with my problems. But now you’re telling me I’ve also got to find a solution?” Vocational discernment can seem like something you have to do, not something you get to do; and it can seem like a luxury, the kind of thing which is only relevant to people who already have a high degree of choice and control over their personal lives.

I noticed this problem throughout the book, and kept trying to flag it and counteract it–but the language itself does seem to have this tendency, this weight which pulls it in a direction which overvalues choice and self-knowledge, and undervalues acceptance.

For most of us, some of our most important vocations will not be “discerned” in the sense that we’ll sit around and think real hard, and pray about what God wants for us. Many of our vocations will be forced on us by circumstances. I know so many people whose lives have been shaped and souls refined by the love and caretaking they gave and received as a result of unplanned pregnancy, familial illness, financial catastrophe which forced them to come home, and other events which we “discerned” the way you discern the headlights of an oncoming truck. And these vocations are just as real as any perceived special call from God–the circumstances themselves are the call.

Others of us won’t have obvious dramatic events like that, but we will find that we’re called to “love the one we’re with”: I write in the book about how thoroughly I’ve avoided any kind of active discernment in my friendships, which have always been things I just sort of ended up in, for better or for worse.

Most of us are called to serve at home. If your family has rejected you (obviously a problem for lots of gay people) or are abusive, etc, that might not mean your actual family of origin. But it might mean binding your life more deeply to the people you already know and live near, rather than seeking out “better” (easier to idealize, because more distant) objects of your attention.

It’s not usually best, I think, to imagine vocational discernment as a quest. It can be, for some people–but for most of us it will be a shift in perspective. You’ll look at the world you already inhabit, the loves you are already practicing in a tiny way, and ask how you can live out those loves in a much deeper way. What you “discern” here is the fact that these relationships are already places where you give and receive sacrificial love; your “yes” to these vocations consists in accepting them, not turning away from them, and asking how you can give more.


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