What is a vocation? How does one discover it? Where does it lead? What has it to do with free will?
These are puzzling questions to anyone considering what to do with the rest of his or her life. Ordinarily they are questions facing a person in teen-age or early adult life but many reoccur at other times. Many women face such questions after their family is raised. A married man, his wife and family may very suddenly face the unexpected possibility of a vocation to the permanent diaconate.
Vocation, of course, does not refer exclusively to religious life or priesthood: these, however, are so unusual that frequently in Catholic circles they alone are called “vocations.”
The word vocation means “a calling”; it is extremely important to keep this in mind. We are called by the providential arrangement of circumstances, by the realities of life, by our own limitations and potential, by the historical moment, and by our own emotional, intellectual and psychological needs. If one follows the teachings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church in this regard, one comes to accept that a vocation is found in the providential arrangement of significant aspects of life and also by the grace which we receive to make the best of these situations.
The loss of awareness of this providential aspect of vocation is one of the things that leads to an immense insecurity in modern life. When people forget the divine and providential element in their lives, they try desperately to find a course through life like a man on a raft with neither rudder nor map.
It has been a consistent belief of Christians that the Lord gives each of us something to do, some work to perform that makes us an essential link in the chain of life. Parents pass on life to their children and, by good examples, instruction, encouragement and membership in the Church contribute to their growth in the life of grace.
Single people, including priests and religious, pass on life in a psychological and spiritual way by being a help to those around them. This passing on of life and grace is the ultimate vocation of the Christian. Cardinal Newman sums it up well when he says: “I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. God has not created me for nothing. I shall do good; I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth, in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments.”
The idea of God’s special purpose in our life is what gives the individual an awareness of his dignity and importance. Among great numbers of people we frequently feel like atoms, little and meaningless. As Newman says, "God has created me to do Him some definite service: He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next."
If one is convinced of being singled out by the Lord for some work in this life, how is that work discovered? First, we quietly discern or observe our potentials and needs and try to fit them into what we can do best. Often in such a process, God leads us by interior inspiration, by an attraction to do this or that work, to follow this person, or to marry that one. We will be attracted by a certain kind of work because it fits our capacity and because it opens to us possibilities of security or fulfillment.
The need for inspiration and divine guidance in any vocation cannot be overstressed. The Lord has led many people in mysterious ways. The only Trappist ever canonized, St. Benedict Joseph Labre, was led to his strange vocation not to be a monk but to be a hobo, by going from one monastery to another, vainly trying to fit in because of psychological difficulties.
St. Catherine of Genoa found herself married to the wrong man as a result of a political alliance of her family. Faced with such a situation, she relied on God and spent the rest of her life working with her husband in the service of the poor and sick.
From such experiences at least two rules emerge for discovering one’s vocation. Both come from Holy Scripture: “If today you hear His voice, harden not your heart” (Psalm 95); and Our Lord’s own admonition: "He who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not worthy of the kingdom of heaven."