To be a young, serious Catholic is to spend a lot of time hearing about discernment and a fair amount of time practicing it. We are encouraged to think about priesthood or religious life (far too little encouragement is given to married life as something discerned rather than defaulted to) and, should we feel a call to something, we must discern within that call. This order or that order, religious or diocesan priest, etc. We ask others to pray for us, perhaps secure the assistance of a spiritual director, but we tend to think we make our own decisions. The truth is, no discernment is done only by the individual.
Let me provide some examples. If I enter the seminary, believing I am called to the priesthood, the final act of discernment does not belong to me alone. My vocation director, formation faculty, and finally bishop are all involved. If any one has firmly discerned that I am not called to the priesthood I am not getting ordained, my own convictions notwithstanding. Likewise, marriage takes the discernment of at least two individuals (and hopefully their families). She and he must both discern the same marriage or it will not happen.
It is all too easy in today’s individualistic, self-obsessed culture to see discernment as a singular activity that one must do for oneself. While in a sense it is true that no one else can discern for me, the inverse is equally true. Every vocation is a vocation to community and requires discernment by all who form this community. A man and a woman discern together their calling to marriage but the community does not end with them. Each is, after a fashion, entering into the other’s family and there is discernment there as well. What kind of horror would it be to marry someone and set them in opposition to their own family? (This presumes that there is not already opposition.)
Discernment is greater than the individual because a vocation is greater. I discern God’s calling not simply because it is better for me, but because it is better for my community. I enter then into their discernment for me and contribute my discernment for them, each appropriate according to our knowledge and authority (the nice church lady who, upon meeting a seminarian, is quick to inform him that he;d make a great priest is unhelpful. Either he is aware she has no knowledge to make that statement and disregards it or he accepts it—incorrectly—as confirming his vocation). In his great letter on obedience St. Ignatius of Loyola says “they who are wise judge it to be true prudence not to rely on their own judgement even in other affairs of life, and especially when personal interests are at stake, in which men as a rule, because of their lack of self-control, are not good judges.” We ought not to simply rely on other’s advice, but actually let them, when appropriate, make true decisions for us. St. Ignatius here is speaking about specifically religious superiors, but it is equally true when applicable outside of the religious life.
The question of the authority of family must here be addressed, specifically as regards marriage. It is not the authority of a superior; parents, once their child has grown (at whatever point that is culturally, legally, etc.) no longer have veto power in their life. They cannot forbid their son or daughter from marrying. But our culture has gone too far. We have developed the trope of love conquers all, that once we’ve fallen in love there is nothing that should stand in our way (I remember one person utterly flabbergasted that religious belief could ever trump ‘love’). Thus we consider our parents opinions to be of little value once we’re in love. Yet who knows us better, and when are “personal interests” at stake more than here? There are thousands of stories of parents realizing that their child’s love is actually fine for them after initial opposition and almost no stories about the child realizing that their parents are, in fact, right. We need to learn, again, to “follow the judgement of another . . . rather than our own in matters concerning ourselves” (St. Ignatius). When a relationship collapses it is not hard to find an elder who warned us of the very origin of its collapse some time before.
This isn’t, of course, an absolute precedence. Sometimes parents and others are very biased and interested in only their own good. This is why, barring a singular obedience owed, one ought to listen to several voices. But one should listen. Discernment can be done better by those who are disinterested (or distantly interested). They want your good and are able to see farther than your desires. We must learn to trust them. My vocation can always be decided by another: a bishop can choose not to ordain, a superior can send away, a woman can refuse her hand.
This lack of control ought not be frightening or even concerning. For whenever the power is out of our hands we ought to place our trust in God who is the foundation of any true discernment. I may not know what another will discern for my future, but I know that God shall work it out for my good, whatever the outcome, whether I or they discern rightly or not.
Justin Burgard is interested in discerning well and helping others discern well. His theological interests lie particularly in the area of love, marriage, and the priesthood.