August 1, 2004

Steps to Vocation

Step 1: Prayer

You ask. God responds. Then what do you say?

It sometimes happens that you pray and ask for an answer from God but seem to receive no response. This makes you wonder why: is it because it is too late to be asking the question? Is it because the path you already are on is the correct one? Is it a question of your motivation?

I don’t know the exact answer to this, but let me ask you and then do some imagining: what kind of an answer are you expecting to your prayers? How do you think the answer is going to come to you?

At times we expect our prayers to be answered in the form of some unmistakable visible sign (like someone who does a novena to discover his vocation, and tells God to send him someone to give him an answer. Then, as soon as he finishes it, a perfect stranger asks him if he is going to be a priest... ). It is not good to look for this type of sign, because by doing so we are setting out conditions for God to fulfill. That’s not the way it works.

God, of course can send us a sign like this if he wants. But we shouldn’t be counting on it, and much less stipulate it.

Other times we expect our prayers to be answered by an almost overwhelming interior illumination. We expect to be flooded with an absolute conviction in answer to our prayers, and no longer have any doubt whatsoever about the path to follow.

This is not good either. It is too subjective. It begs the question: couldn’t this be just my imagination, some sudden euphoria; how can I be sure it really is God’s answer?

So, how do we know what God is saying in answer to our prayers?

Remember what Jesus tells us, in essence: “your Father knows what you need even before you ask him for it. If he loves you, will he hold back anything that you need? You wouldn’t do that to someone you love, and he loves you much more.”

Jesus also tells us how to pray, “seek first the Kingdom of God, and then you will receive all else as well.”

The important thing in prayer is not so much to ask, but to change. Often when we pray to find our way in life we say, “Lord, tell me if it’s A or B.” Then we don’t seem to get a clear answer. Could be it really is C, or maybe even D. So to get our answer we have to change: not limit him to the choices we see, but to tell him we are willing to do anything he wants us to do. When we start praying we are usually looking for what is good for us (of course, for all the right motives, but we are still looking out for ourselves). The outcome of prayer is that we begin to look out for what is best for his Kingdom.

As you pray better, certain convictions will take root in your life. You will be more sensitive to the needs of the Church and to the unique gift God gave us by giving us life; you will grow in the sense of how little this life can compare to the next, and how short life really is. All of this will affect your attitude towards the way you are going to live yours, and the choices you make. You will see God’s hand and providence in your life more easily. You will have more of a ‘sense’ of what he wants you to do.

But it will never be absolutely clear. You will still need some prudent advice and direction from a spiritual director.

How to Get Started in Prayer

There are several good prayer books, but let me suggest this. Get a copy of a Daily Missal (for example, the ‘Vatican II Missal’ published by the Daughters of St Paul). Check the index to make sure it has a section called ‘A Treasury of Prayers’ or something similar, usually in the back. It will include prayers before and after Mass, morning and night prayers, popular devotions, prayers for special intentions, etc....

The reason for my suggestion is this: if you want to cultivate your prayer life, and especially if you think God might be calling you, you will want to go to Mass more frequently, and you will want to prepare and participate in the Mass more fully. The missal will help you do both.

On the days you cannot go to Mass you will be able to read the scripture readings from Mass on your own, and the missal I mentioned has short, helpful reflections for each day’s readings that I am sure you will find useful.

After you read through the Treasury of Prayers a few times you are going to have a few favorites that you like to pray every day. That is usually a good sign for your spiritual life.

Step 2: A Rule of Life

The ‘Rule of Life’ is a very practical way of getting your life organized according to your priorities. You could say that it is just a religious name for time management which also takes into account your spiritual growth, and I would not limit its usefulness only to vocational discernment - it is a great way to get a handle on your life.

The handiest way to do it is to take pen to paper. Take a notebook you will use just for this and stick a few tabs giving a dozen or so pages to a tab. Mark them: priorities, problems, goals, getting there.

Under "priorities," list what is really important to you (character traits, qualities to develop, things you are going to do everyday, the things you really want to do in each area of your life).

List also your problem areas. Your time wasters (Internet, phone, TV...), your weaknesses (such as inconstancy, impatience, vulnerable to peer-pressure, etc.), the things you are sorry you did yet keep on doing. This takes time, and it will help if you journal a little.

Once you have done the above you will need to state your goal. If you don’t have a purpose (it is amazing how many of us have only a vague goal in life) you need to think it over: What type of a person do you want to be? What do you want to get out of life?

Now you need to make a list of the concrete things you need to do in order to achieve these goals in your daily occupations. For example, if you want to overcome laziness you are going to have to go to bed and get up at regular times, you are going to have to make your bed each day... If you want to develop a prayer-life you have to set time apart each day for prayer and devotions. If you want to know your faith you will have to take certain classes, or read certain books... The great thing about writing it down is that it makes you be very clear and concrete.

Next you need to distribute your time, a daily routine, a weekly routine. Schedule in enough recreation.

I can only mention some general things here, but if you have someone who knows you that you trust that, talk these things over with him or her in order to make this more concrete.

In regards to your spiritual life look at the goals you have set for yourself (for example: steady life of grace, openness to what God wants, etc) and then the means (for example: more frequent confession, more personal discipline, more frequent Communion, etc.), and then see how you are going to fit each on in your day and week (when confession is available, time of day I can go to Mass, the prayer I need to do each day, etc.). Your friend can help you here to see you are not trying to do too much too soon, and that you are not doing too little too late, either.

Then look at your duties (studies, work, health, your obligations towards your parents, children, etc), your goals and needs and how you spread them out over your week.

Then look at what you want to do for others (teach catechism, coach younger kids, boy-scouts, altar-servers, minister to the sick, meals on wheels...).

As regards your vocation, I would recommend that you gather the information you need, set time aside for a retreat, plan on visiting the places you are interested in, take care of obstacles (work to clear up your debts, for example), look into the practical implications (when the entrance date is, the application process..). It is relatively simple to set deadlines on a calendar, and post it where you can see it.

It won’t work out perfect the first time, but as you try it you will get to know yourself better and will improve. Some people have more of a knack for organization than the rest of us. If you have a friend like that get his or her help.

One final, very practical point: once you make a rule of life don’t file it away. Stick it where you can check it at least once a day. I suggest somewhere not too visible because if it is always there you will end up not seeing it, it will no longer register even if it’s there in front of you. Try the back of the door of a closet. Set a time (usually good first thing in the morning) to check on what you have to do today, and then one (usually towards the night) to see how you did.

You can include that in a short daily examination of conscience.

Step 3: Get a Spiritual Director

How can you find a spiritual director? Usually it is a safe bet to look for a priest.

Usually you come across a good spiritual director by reference - either through the recommendation of someone you know, or you hear him preach, or you read something he wrote... and that moves you to ask him.

He has to be someone you already trust, and, in your case, who loves and understands people. Look for a priest whose preaching really reaches you (substance, but practical and helpful), or one who spends a lot of time hearing confessions, or a chaplain in a school who does a lot of spiritual work with the kids (preaching, teaching, retreats, confessions).

What you want is someone prudent and practical, balanced himself, and who has knowledge - although he doesn’t need to be a genius. It usually helps if he is energetic and generally tends to be optimistic, and not afraid of the truth.

At times we expect the spiritual director to do everything for us, do all the thinking and just tell us what we are to do. Normally he listens a lot more than he speaks to see what God is doing in your life, prodding you, making sure you are being honest, making you think and reflect, testing your conclusions. He will help you see the truth, but will not make your decisions for you.

Remember, the role of a spiritual director is not to tell you what to do ‘no questions’, but to help you discover what God is asking of you so that you can understand, accept and do it. You have to actively participate in the spiritual direction and contribute your ideas and reflections. He needs to know what you perceive in prayer, what your inclinations are, what you honestly believe God is asking of you and why. His role is to shed light on these things, test them to see if they are valid and if they have the signs of coming form God, and let you know why if they don’t. He is trying to help you understand and follow the ways of God.

Don’t forget as you do your search for a spiritual director that ‘your heavenly Father knows what you need even before you ask him.’ So pray with trust and confidence for the right person to help you.

Step 4: Sacrifice for Love

Asceticism is voluntary sacrifice. Anybody who is really in love does it - you love someone and you try to please him, you put that person first, it’s natural. At times you listen to that person’s type of music, and not your own; you put up with some of his weaknesses; you take care of him when he is in need... and all the time you know, and see, he does the same for you.

Your Christian, Catholic way of life and your vocation is a love story.

You try to show Christ you love him above all things, that you are grateful for all he has done for you, so you do things that someone who is not in love with Christ does not understand. You make time for him, you stick to your principles even though some of the other kids might laugh at you, you do good to others because he said whatever we do to others we do to him.

This is all quite clear. The problem arises when we understand by asceticism those huge, external penances that some of the great saints did (fasting, scourging, etc...). These penances are only of value when done out of love. We know that the Church is like a body, and the good that each one does benefits everyone else in the body. So these saints, and there are many today who still do the same, did these penances to make up for their own sins, and to help spiritually in the conversion of those who are still far from Christ.

With their penances they unite themselves to Christ on the Cross, and they intercede for sinners. We owe a lot of the graces we receive to those Catholics who pray and offer sacrifices for us.

Main Entry: as·cet·ic
Pronunciation: &-'se-tik, a-
Variant(s): also as·cet·i·cal /-ti-k&l/
Function: adjective
Etymology: Greek askEtikos, literally, laborious, from askEtEs one that exercises, hermit, from askein to work, exercise
Date: 1646
1 : practicing strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline
2 : austere in appearance, manner, or attitude
synonym see SEVERE
- ascetic noun
- as·cet·i·cal·ly /-ti-k(&-)lE/ adverb
- as·cet·i·cism /-'se-t&-"si-z&m/ noun
The first step in praying well is to realize to whom you are speaking – God who is your Father – and ask for what you need. In discernment, what you need is God’s light to discover his plans for your life. Ask him with the confidence a child has in his mother or father when he asks for something that is truly good for him. How many times did Our Lord tell the Apostles the basic step of asking in prayer for what they needed? Faith and asking in prayer for what we need are two threads woven throughout the Gospel.

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