The month of November is, among other things, a month dedicated to the promotion of Jesuit vocations. While I’m glad we have a month to encourage interested and available young men to consider our way of life, it’s also worth remembering that vocation – being called – is for everyone. Many young people are looking to discover their vocation, and we at TJP want to help in that kind of discovery. So, here are five steps for anyone trying to discover their own call, Jesuit or otherwise.
1. Put all possibilities on the table:
Many people repress legitimate vocational desires by closing doors on themselves. Start by opening those doors. Eliminate the phrase “I could never be a…” from your vocabulary (except, of course, for actual impossibilities – “I could never be an NBA center,” for example). Imagine all of the inspiring people you know – writers, artists, teachers, activists, advocates, etc. – perhaps some are religious sisters or priests; some are married, some are single. Remember that, at some point, they all had to risk staking their life on a particular path. Most of our heroes lived joyful lives of generosity and prophetic witness by having first opened themselves to unlikely possibilities.
Young adult Catholic? Put religious life on the table. Trust me, at first I didn’t think so either. The point here is to include all possibilities, however countercultural or unthinkable, and to see what happens inside of you as you consider them. There is no true vocation without real freedom, and one way of understanding ‘real freedom’ is to say that you’re not ‘really free’ to do something unless you’re also free not to do it. You’re free to get married, for example, but accepting that call in real freedom means you’ve seriously considered other options. When considering a vocation, put all possibilities on the table and then see where your deepest desires find the freedom to expand. When you follow real freedom it generally leads to self-giving acts of love. Freedom? Generosity? Love? That’s vocation.
2. Experiment with experience:
Dedicate a year or two to test your deepest desires in real-life experiences. Identify concrete experiences that will help reveal more doors, even as they appear to close others. Make a weekend retreat (or longer!) to reflect on your vocation in prayerful conversation with God. Commit to a year of service or consider a part-time job or internship that stretches your field of vision. Don’t just live with the fantasy of who your heroes are. Experiment with the reality of their heroic way of being in the world. These experiences will give you actual ‘data-points’ to refer to as you make your own vocational decisions.
A very low-risk version of this experimentation is to simply pretend that you’ve already made a choice: Spend a month telling yourself that you’re going to be a parent (or a nun or a writer or what have you). ‘Live’ with that decision, and then talk with God about the hopes and fears you have around that choice. Try another month imagining another call and note any differences. Does one leave you more or less excited? More courageous? More curious? More alive? That’s vocation.
3. Phone a Friend:
A call, by definition, involves voices and perspectives other than our own. Talk to a friend about what you’re considering and ask them to check-in with you about it from time to time. Good friends won’t tell you what to do, but they will reflect back to you your own hopes and frustrations. A trusted friend can help to affirm or encourage you when they see you blooming or wilting. Good friends recognize your joy and they can help you follow its lead by their encouragement and their support.
It’s also good to remember that sometimes a ‘good friend’ might be a ‘professional stranger’. We use therapy to heal wounds or overcome fears. Similarly, spiritual direction or pastoral counseling can be a place to explore vocational possibilities. Use these supportive conversations to identify desires, to clarify how God has been moving in your life, and to sort out where you might be called to move next.1 Listening to trusted voices of love? That’s vocation.
4. Make a Commitment:
Trust that it’s alright to accept a call even with bits of uncertainty still lying around. Any authentic vocation will always lead to a place where you will be asked to do things you never imagined yourself capable of doing. Sometimes the support you need is made available or visible only after you make a commitment. God doesn’t coerce us into a vocation with constant hand-holding or protection from all potential suffering. God does promise fidelity and accompaniment as we make our way in a life of self-giving love.
Commitment invests us in a mutual relationship where the one who calls us helps us to fulfill that call. Eventually, we come to realize that we can’t have it all — and that’s actually a liberating thing. This realization frees us to do the one thing we’re called to do with all of our heart. Vocation is a gift. It’s personal in the best sense: not private, but profoundly yours. Once you feel sufficiently clear that a particular path might be your path, make a commitment, gently let go of other options and take seriously the gift of your particular call. That’s vocation.
5. Keep your heart open
Once you’ve made a commitment, stick with it, look for confirmation over time, and be patient. Anything worth committing to takes a while to adjust to. We often regret decisions immediately after we make them — unsure about whether we made the right choice or grieving all the other possibilities we’ve left behind. In time, however, we come to realize that many of our best decisions involved a fair amount of risk and struggle early on.
In general, we can trust the Spirit that led us to commitment. We can trust the friends who accompanied us along the way. And we can trust that, come what may, we are never abandoned by the God who called us into being in the first place. In loving fully, courageously, and completely, nothing is lost. An open heart is a listening heart. And a life of open-hearted decision-making and self-giving love? That’s vocation.