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What does discernment mean when we’re talking about vocation?

What we mean by discernment in this context is the effort we make to discover God’s particular will for us. What we need to do is pay close attention to our inner thoughts, desires and attractions. When you’re discerning you need to learn to tell the difference between desires and attractions which, though perhaps good in themselves, are not pointing towards God’s deepest desire for your own life. Also, some of the things that attract us may not be authentic or reliable, so a good process of discernment helps us to recognise this.

A handy definition of discernment might be: ‘The process of judging well’. When we say, for example, that ‘she has a discerning palate’ we mean that she is able to discriminate between good and less good food or wine. At the end of the day, vocational discernment is about finding out where God wants us to be.

In my own case, in my late teens, I felt a strong attraction to the Jesuits – their values and ideals and their way of life – and that attraction became so compelling that I knew for certain that God was calling me. The real test of the authenticity of these ‘interior movements’ is time: you know that your vocation is truly from God when over a long period – even a lifetime – you can still feel the spark of your initial conviction. And that conviction only gets stronger when you see the good you’ve been able to do – the difference you’ve been able to make.

Discernment is an approach to making good decisions. It’s not only for people thinking about religious life. Everyone has big decisions to make in their lives – choosing a career, buying a house, and of course getting married. When someone feels that they’ve met a person they would like to live the rest of their life with, they also have to discern, to distinguish between that particular attraction and all other similar attractions. If it really is the relationship they think it is they should get a deep sense that it is special, unique, different from other relationships.

So when it comes to discerning a religious vocation, there are three things you need to do most of all. Firstly, you have to pay close attention to your deepest thoughts and desires. Next, you should take time out to be alone with God, so that you can discern without distractions. And lastly, you need to talk to a reliable guide who can help you to reflect and process accurately what is happening in your inner life.

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