Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

ABD: Always Be Discerning

Back in our college days at Orthodox U., there was a process called "discernment", most commonly embarked upon by men or women trying to weasel out of awkward relationships. Actually, that's not fully accurate: I heard tell of men and women edging toward marriage who also invoked the discernment process in order to spark some romantic urgency in the other half of the relationship.

And then there were those who insisted on signs and wonders, rose petals being the most popular, to confirm their vocational biases. Perhaps I am not the right person to analyze this phenomenon; I'm no romantic. In any case, the lack of a sign was rarely taken as clear evidence of divine disapproval, but as an indicator that the petitioner needed more discernment, as if the good Lord had not provided his children with such apparatus as senses, reasoning faculties, family, friends, and good old gut instinct to help them make momentous life decisions.

Brandon rejects the current infatuation with "discernment" as a state of life, rather than as an means to an end. He provides a handy checklist for those focused on the point of discernment: "to come to a clear decision on the basis of the kind of information that's needed for a good decision. For some people this will take some time, yes, but for others it won't. What people don't need are stupid exercises and long drawn out excuses; they need good, clear information in the form in which they can best understand it. That's it."
Here's a checklist on how to decide if your vocation is marriage: 
1. There's no fundamental impediment to getting married.2. You've met someone really great.3. You think you'd like to be married to them.4. They think you're really great.5. They think they'd like to be married to you.6. You could meet your responsibilities as a married person and they could meet theirs.7. It wouldn't be an act of stupidity in general or a harm for yourself or the other person for you to marry them. 
Here's another checklist on how to decide if your vocation is priesthood:
1. There's no fundamental impediment to ordination.2. You are interested in being a priest.3. You could fulfill the responsibilities of a priest without scandal.4. You are willing to commit to putting other people's good above your own, and especially God above yourself.5. It wouldn't be an act of stupidity in general or a harm for yourself and others for you to become a priest.
Of course, these aren't even universal; there have been arranged marriages and there have been times and places where congregations forced promising young men to be priests. But, again, it's really not that difficult to make decisions.
This is slightly tongue-in-cheek, but the point holds that any one of these points being negative is a pretty clear sign that this vocation is not for you. And discernment has to involve taking the practical steps to determine whether one is able to live out a vocation.

Back at Orthodox U., those who were serious about pursuing a religious vocation generally tested that call by trying to live as authentic a Catholic life as possible in their current state. Their discernment process was one of deep prayer, of course, but was also a matter of intense practicality: do I have what it takes to live as a priest or a nun? Can I meet the obligations of this life? Do I want this enough to spend the years it will take before I can make the final commitment? Those who had a desire to be married first had to navigate through the perils and pitfalls of a relationship with an actual other, and take the practical steps to determine whether that particular other was someone with whom they could live, for better and for worse. Each step of the journey involved prayer, but also the information gathering that allowed people to confront a decision, and then make a decision. That's what discernment is about.


Tom Simon said...

What if you don’t fulfil either set of criteria, for marriage or the priesthood? Bearing in mind that the priesthood is always there, but that every married person has a time in his or her life before he or she met the prospective spouse and fulfilled items 2–5.

Believe it or not, I am asking this seriously, as a Catholic who would like to be married but simply does not meet any eligible women. What vocation is there left for me?

JMB said...

These are good points. In my case, I wanted to get married and have a family. My brother (who is a priest) never desired those things. His idea of a good time in his late twenties was delivering meals on wheels and trekking around the world solo. Nobody in the family was surprised when he became a priest at 36.

MrsDarwin said...

Tom, I think that's an excellent point, and one that Brandon addresses over at his post. Every baptized person has the vocation to live out Christ's teachings according to their current state in life, whether married, single, or consecrated.

A year ago, I wrote a post In Praise of the Single Man, in honor of the guys I know who are in your situation. (Since that time, one of my brothers, in his thirties, has gotten engaged to a wonderful woman he met on It may not be for everyone, but boy, it worked for him.)

I've said this several times in various places, but one simply can't discern a vocation to marriage in the abstract. It's a vocation that has to be considered in the light of a particular other person with whom one wants to enter the state.

Brandon said...

Being pretty much in Tom's situation -- temperamentally unsuited for the priesthood and not having found anyone I could seriously see myself marrying -- I confess I find it rather freeing; either obstacle could dissolve at some point, at which case the decision would have to be revisited, but in the meantime, I've been given the lighter load. I've occasionally met Catholics who get bent out of shape about the fact that not everyone has a higher calling (or even, more baffling, that not everyone has a higher calling from the beginning); I have never understood it. Marriage and the priesthood are higher callings than anything I've been called to (at least yet), but they are higher precisely because so much more hinges on them, and because of that they come with massive burdens. They are certainly worth the extra burden, if you can reasonably get them; and most people who are really well-suited to them don't feel the extra weight at least most of the time. But the burdens are so great God had to make them sacraments to give people the grace to do all that He wanted from them. As long as it's not itself made an excuse for shirking the decision, I've never seen why people fret about the fact that the world's weight has not yet been put on their shoulders.

And in the meantime, as MrsDarwin says, we all have the vocation of our baptism, and a very important and precious one it is, too; even the vocations of marriage and priesthood are just more concentrated forms of it.

Matthew Lickona said...

What if you are Bertie Wooster? Also, I totally dare you start a school called Orthodox U. Or maybe International Orthodox U.

MrsDarwin said...

Jeeves does all the discerning for Bertie Wooster.

International Orthodox U. has nothing on the Catholic University of North Texas, now does it?

Lordy, I hope no one is still reading this post.

Matthew Lickona said...

Nope, not a soul.