Catholic literature about discernment often bespeaks the grand tapestry of God’s master plans and the irreplaceable role each of us will play. The Bible is replete with stories of heroes who work miracles and their dramatic leaps of faith that changed the world. Many of us living ordinary lives that don’t feel grand or special may wonder, Where’s my burning bush? How do I get about finding my “big thing?”
Many lifelong Catholics are never taught how to perceive God’s voice. When it comes to big decisions like discerning vocation, we then feel completely lost. In my case, I shared my vocational discernment story on the Lifetime Reality Docu-Series The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns. I’ve received hundreds of emails from fans of the show who related to my struggles. I was so stressed about discernment because it felt like trying to crack a secret code. I didn’t know where to begin or what to look for.
After nearly a decade in discernment ministry, I offer the following advice as a starting point to begin hearing God’s voice for the big decisions in your life: Be faithful in your smaller callings here and now, no matter how dull or ordinary. God is working in what is real: It is your gateway and training for your bigger callings. There is no alternate life that you are missing, and God has no secret code He wants you to crack.
Maybe you don’t see your current situation as a calling. If so, I encourage you to change that. There are several reasons for my point of view. First, consider the following passage from the parable of the talents:
“The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones” (Luke 16:10).
The few talents given to each servant and the time the master gave to invest them were not arbitrary; they were foundational necessities for the stewards to learn, sometimes through the school of hard knocks, how to prepare for their bigger callings ahead.
Second, in his masterful work Abandonment to Divine Providence (which I highly recommend adding to your reading list,) Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S.J. writes, “In reality sanctity can be reduced to one single practice, fidelity to the duties appointed by God…the active practice of fidelity consists in accomplishing the duties which devolve upon us whether imposed by the general laws of God and of the Church, or by the particular state that we may have embraced. Its passive exercise consists in the loving acceptance of all that God sends us at each moment.” Did you catch that? Sanctity is achieved by embracing all that God sends our way, and that includes the ordinary duties that fill each day. The Blessed Mother and Jesus Christ lived the vast majority of their lives doing carpentry, baking bread, and keeping house.
Your current situation is a calling because it is a training program. Carrying it out faithfully presents you with opportunities to receive grace and build virtue. Working as a waitress right out of college taught me responsibility with money and how to work patiently under pressure – both qualities I need daily in my vocation as a wife and mother.
Discernment never happens in a vacuum. The fast-food job you long to quit or the semester that feels like it will never end are teaching you something about yourself. The real question is, are your eyes open to learn the lessons being offered? Your circumstances may be teaching you what you don’t want, which is as valuable as knowing what you do want! I think of it as collecting data so that you have proof to back up your big decisions later. Who needs proof? God certainly doesn’t need it. But you do! Data about your likes, dislikes, passions, strengths and talents will give you confidence to choose well when the time comes.
When we’re seeking what God wants, we can tend to become hyper-focused on receiving an answer from God (ask me how I know!) We can torture ourselves trying to interpret potential signs from God and strain to hear a voice in prayer. As I approach a hundred episodes of my podcast Called and Caffeinated, I’ve learned through conversation with people much smarter than I that God works in more variable ways than we can imagine. Some of the most faithful people I know have never received a sign or heard a voice. And for those who do, God still reaches them in multiple ways according to the occasion. He is too much an adventurer to limit himself to one mode of communication.
And why is God so often silent in prayer? Is it perhaps because he often wants us to choose for ourselves? To learn slowly, through our daily tasks, what our big work will be? So often in my vocational discernment I tortured myself trying to decipher the one right answer. I finally learned I was looking at it wrongly. God looks at me as His child, and so He often wants me to be free to choose what I want. The problem isn’t that God isn’t answering me; the problem is that I don’t know myself well enough to make a definitive choice. Discernment in those instances means gaining self-knowledge through my daily tasks while continuously surrendering my desires in trust to God.
Take the example of me taking my children out for ice cream. I don’t want them to agonize as they eat their vanilla ice cream whether chocolate ice cream would have tasted better. Nor do I want them to become paralyzed by flavor choices so the experience becomes overwhelming and stressful. Nor do I have one perfect flavor picked out in my mind for them and they will upset me if they don’t choose it. I just want them to feel loved while spending quality time with me and enjoying a good thing together. Discernment can be similar. God in His love wants us to have confidence to make the best choice we can with the data we have. He prefers we try our best and not worry about what we don’t know.
God can speak to every one of us through faithful service in our current daily work. It teaches us about ourselves and it forms us in virtue to make us fit for heaven, the ultimate goal. The devil would like us always to be chasing after a big sign that definitively tells us what we’re called to. Don’t fall into his trap! Be the best waitress, the best student, or the best whatever-you-are-right-now. By faithfully fulfilling what is in front of you, you are being prepared to fulfill your magnum opus when it presents itself.