One of the blessings of teaching religion to high schoolers is that I get to witness to how God has transformed my life. This comes up in various ways through a myriad of lessons in all the grades I teach. Over the years, one particular topic, one special piece of advice, has resurfaced in various contexts: discerning one’s vocation. Everyone must go through this process, so guiding young people in discerning God’s voice in their lives is that much more necessary.
The advice I’ve found helpful, and in turn given to my students, is not original to me, nor is it unique to our modern age. These are timeless pieces of advice, drawn from our Tradition and the Scriptures, from saints as well as everyday people. Different writers might word these points differently, or might add reflections of their own. My comments will not be exhaustive either, and readers are encouraged to read into the lives of saints and modern vocation stories to gain further spiritual insights about the discernment process.
Tip #1: Deepen your prayer life.
Every relationship, be it a friendship, a romance, in families, or businesses, depends on communication. We cannot love our friends or family if we never talk to them. So also with our relationship with God. This is the importance of prayer. When we pray, we talk to God, conversing with He who has a plan for our lives. We draw our strength from these conversations, and if we pray more, we will be able to hear what God is saying to us.
Praying more is not just praying more frequently; it is praying with an open heart to listen to what God is trying to tell us. We know that a conversation among people fails if only one side is doing the talking. A lecture is not a discussion. So it is with prayer. We should devote at least some of our prayer to listening to God. He will probably not speak in a booming voice from Heaven; not everyone finds their vocation like St. Paul did on the road to Damascus. However, we need to listen to what God says to us no matter how he speaks to us.
Tip #2: Live the life you have now
This point is often described this way: you have a vocation now, in the life you are currently living. If you are student, then your vocation now is to be the best student you can be. If you are working in politics, then your vocation now is to be the best public servant you can be. It is important to remember that throughout history, God has called men in the midst of their daily life. Scripture abounds with examples of this. Abraham received his calling in the midst of living in the thriving city of Ur (Genesis 12). Moses received his calling while tending his flocks (Exodus 3). Most of the Apostles received their callings in the midst of their work: Matthew was at his tax collecting booth (Matthew 9:9) and Peter, Andrew, James, and John were all fishing (Luke 5:1-11).
The calling of Peter in particular is telling, because Jesus calls Peter on what must have been his most successful day of fishing. God calls us when we are living the life we have now, often in the midst of our successes. In other words, don’t just sit around waiting for God to talk to you. Chances are he’s already been trying to get your attention in the everyday life you live.
Tip #3: Remove distractions
Having trouble hearing God in your everyday life, even though you pray? It probably means that your life is filled with distractions, things that keep you from focusing on God. These could be sinful distractions, like pornography, drunkenness, or drug abuse, or they could be morally neutral distractions, like music, movies, or television. Sometimes distractions are good. We might use music, for example, to help us focus on our work by blocking out other sounds around us. However, even good distractions might block out the voice of God. What we need to do is find time to embrace silence. It is hard to hear God’s voice in our lives if we have so many other voices fighting for our attention. Only in silence can we focus on His words.
Once, the prophet Elijah went to wait for God in a cave. A fierce wind, a fire, and an earthquake came, and Elijah listened but did not hear God’s voice in the cacophony. Then there was a quiet voice, a soft whisper. Elijah hid his face, because he knew God was speaking. Then God commissioned him to return to Israel and be His prophet there (see 1 Kings 19). If Elijah had not listened in the quiet, he would not have heard God’s voice. So must we if we are to know what God has in store for our lives.
Tip #4: Have some sort of spiritual director
How can we interpret God’s words to us? It feels like, even when we think we’re hearing God’s voice, we don’t know what He’s saying. We feel like the prophets, viewing some bizarre vision in need of angelic interpretation. Sometimes God is blunt when He calls people. “Come follow me,” Christ said to the Apostles, and they got up and followed Him. However, when our vocation isn’t so clearly discernable, we need help from others.
We should have someone to turn to, a person or group of people that we can talk to honestly about our lives. Most often this is a priest you know, either a parish priest or another priest friend. However, someone close to you, someone with whom you can be honest about the most important aspect of your life, can also help guide you in understanding what God is telling you. No man is an island, and that is particularly true when discerning your vocation.
Discernment is not an exact science. There is no mathematical formula to finding out what God has in store for your life. However, by speaking with God, listening to Him, living the life you have now, removing distractions so that you can hear Him clearly, and getting help from others, you can better understand what God is saying to you. This lesson is not just for teenagers, but for all of us. Each of us is, after all, an adopted son of God.