Discerning Your Personal Vocation

I came across an interesting article by Fr. Peter Ryan, How to Discern Elements of Your Personal Vocation. [No longer accessible at the original address].

The article is a bit disorganized, jumping back and forth between points, but it is thought provoking, and raises some interesting questions, which I'll address in upcoming blogposts.

He gives several points to bear in mind when preparing to discern your vocation (or anything else for that matter), which I'll summarize here:

(1) Discernment pertains to morally acceptable options, so we should eliminate options that are simply wrong, before making discernment. (this is not strictly true; the most important discernment we do is to discern or distinguish good options from bad options, in order to choose the good. See the post on the object of discernment: what do we discern – JB.)
(2) It is possible to discern one's personal vocation. God has a preference regarding what he wants us to do: he wants us to do the very best thing. God would not have a plan for us, yet keep us from discovering it, so it must be possible to discern this plan.
(3) One must be motivated to discern one's personal vocation. He gives three reasons for discerning one's vocation: (1) the first and least helpful reason, is that we are morally obliged to do so (I comment on this statement in a later post: Commandments and Counsels – JB); (2) it is in our own interest to discern; (3) discerning our vocation is pleasing to God.
(4) The proper disposition for discerning one's vocation presupposes that one is detached from any agenda of one's own. Having such an agenda hinders the discernment of God's plan, and also the acceptance of that plan. (See the post Detachment and Discernment – JB)
(5) As regards the future, we cannot discern whether we should do something, but only whether we should try to do it.
(6) Nothing is wasted in God's providence. Even when what we judged God was calling us to seek does not work out, this attempt has a place in God's plan.
(7) Discerning one's personal vocation is not accomplished once and for all, but is ongoing. Even a major commitment such as that of marriage or religious life does not settle or eliminate all future questions and discernment.

The process of discernment of vocation Fr. Peter gives is based on the third time for discernment given by St. Ignatius Loyola.

(1) We should seek only what God wants, and ask him to make us see what he wants us to do.
(2) We should look at our gifts and experience, and relate them to the world around us, considering all our options, and the pros and cons of each option. If one option remains as clearly the best, the discernment may end there.
(3) If several options remain, and are not settled by the consideration of pros and cons, then we should look at our affective response to them, our how heart moves in regard to them. We must distinguish those movements that are in us, but are not really integrated into our "converted selves", from those which arise from our converted hearts, and be moved in our discernment only by the latter kind of desires.

Questions for those discerning a religious vocation

Fr. Philip Powell gives some good practical points, and questions that those discerning a religious vocation should ask themselves. These questions to ask when discerning a vocation may be found, together with comments on the Anti-Christ, and the difference between magic and prayer, at his blog Domine, da mihi hanc aquam!

Christmas poem

Waiting and watching, in my inner heart's room–
Vigils and silence, let troubled thoughts cease.
For soon he shall come, as the heavenly groom.
And I must decrease, that he may increase.

At this great mystery, my heart fails within me;
What all-surpassing, wondrous love is this:
Greater than the mountains, deeper than the sea,
When by God's own word, heaven the earth does kiss.

Mightiest of angels, bearing a great sword
To clear the darkness, darkness of our sin,
Your grace and mercy, upon the world you poured;
From a fallen race, lovers you did win.

Still with the Father, in your Divinity,
Here on this earth, with human feet you trod.
We praise and worship Incarnate Majesty,
Wholly man like us, and yet wholly God!

A child is born to us

nativity of jesus

"Puer natus est nobis, et filius datus est nobis!"

Today a child is born to us, a son is given us!

These words upon the joyful Mass of Christmas day, in which we recall the birth of our Lord into the world, and into our hearts. The God who is above all stoops down in humility and love, manifesting his glory in the little child of Bethlehem. Born from the Father from all Eternity, he was born in time in Bethlehem, so that he might be born in our hearts.

Pope Benedict XVI's homily for the Midnight Mass and the Urbi and Orbi address.

Predestination and hope in St. Paul

I've recently had the occasion, in working with a student on predestination, to consider once again the role of predestination in St. Paul's letter to the Romans. It seems to some that the doctrine of predestination is at best useless, and at worst a dangerous doctrine, which tends to produce either presumption or despair. There are perhaps some grounds for that. When predestination is interpreted to mean that what one does is irrelevant to whether or not one is saved, or that God chooses out men for damnation, and makes them sin so that they will be damned. I give here an example of such an interpretation by a man named Darwin Fish. I don't give a link to the website because as a whole it's not particularly worth reading.

Although it is true that God loves both the wicked and the righteous (Matthew 5:43-45; John 3:16), it is also true that before the world was created, God chose to love only a few people and destine them to eternal life in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:13-14; Romans 9:6-23; Ephesians 1:4). He chose to hate the rest of mankind and destine them to hell for eternity (Matthew 7:13-14; Romans 9:6-23). This choice was not based on any action on the part of those whom God chose (Romans 9:11, 16, 18), but rather it was based on God's own good pleasure and purpose (Ephesians 1:4-5). It was not based on works (Romans 9:11, 20-23; Ephesians 1:5; Philippians 2:13; Psalm 115:3).

It is not surprising that this way of interpreting and describing predestination can lead to spiritual apathy or despair!

Predestination in St. Paul

But how does St. Paul see predestination? As the eternal plan of the loving God, the fundamental initiative in our salvation by God, who "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," Paul sees predestination as a cause for humility before the God who grants us all the good we have, even whatever good is in our own wills–"Do not become proud, but stand in awe" (Romans 11:20)–but also as a reason for confidence, gratitude, and spiritual activity.

God's gift does not remove human freedom, but calls for human cooperation

To emphasize that God's good will and grace precedes everything good we do, St. Paul says "by grace you have been saved through faith; this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:8), but to show the connection between God's initiative and man's cooperation, he says: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil 2:13) The fact that God is at work even in our very wills is no reason for apathy, but rather a reason to earnestly cooperate with him. Since God "wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:4), his chief work in the human spirit is "faith working through love" (Gal 5:6); one who would refuse or neglect to "work out his salvation" would thus be closing himself to God's movement. The more God works in us, the more (not less) necessary is our own willing and working.

Predestination brings confidence and trust

St. Paul does not only see the priority of God's work over ours as an incentive to cooperate with God, he also sees it as a cause of confidence. Because God loves us far more than we love ourselves (Cf. Rom 5:6-10), and his wisdom infinitely surpasses ours (Cf. Rom 11:33-34), St. Paul's teaching that it is always God who has the initiative in salvation is intended to, and ought to inspire a great confidence in God. Having recalled the working out of God's foreknowledge and predestination in calling, justifying, and glorifying, Paul goes on to say: "If God is for us, who is against us?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Rom 8:31, 35, 37). If we had to rely upon ourselves, we would surely be in a sorry state. But we have an infinitely more sure foundation on which to rely, God himself. From God's side, his love and grace will never fail; he will never fail nor forsake us (Cf. Heb 13:5), and will never permit us to be tempted beyond our strength (1 Cor 10:13). The only thing that can separate us from Christ is our own refusal to accept and bring his love into our lives; only "if we deny him, he also will deny us" (2 Tim 2:12)

It is true, as St. Peter says, that in the writings of St. Paul "There are some things hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16). But when we rightly understand the doctrine of predestination, it is a source of humility, simplicity, trust, and gratitude towards God.

Naturally this post is not intended to explain all aspects of predestination, but only to point out some of the spiritual benefits the doctrine is meant to bring.

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit according to Thomas Aquinas

All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Romans 8:14)
If you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:18)

What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and what do they do? This post proposes an interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas's teaching on "being led by the Spirit", and of the way that the gifts of the Spirit are active in Christian life.

The Seven Gifts of the Spirit

In Isaiah 11:1-3, we read "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord."

The last part, according to the Latin tradition, reads "the spirit of knowledge and of piety [pietas], and the Spirit of the fear of the Lord shall fill him."

From this text derives the tradition of the Church regarding the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not say much about the gifts. The main text is in numbers 1830 & 1831.

1830 The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
1831 The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.

This understanding of the gifts follows the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, as he is usually understood. I would like, however, to propose a more radical interpretation of Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas on the Gifts of Holy Spirit

Selections from the text of Aquinas himself:

Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 68, a. 1

Human virtues perfect man insofar as man is naturally moved by reason in the things that he does within or without. Higher perfections must therefore be in man, by which he is disposed to be moved by God. And these perfections are called gifts, not only because they are infused by God, but also because by them, man is disposed and made more ready to be moved by the divine inspiration, as is said in Is 50:5: “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward.”

Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 68, a. 2

Hence, in those things in which the impulse of reason is not sufficient, but the impulse of the Holy Spirit is necessary, then a gift is also necessary.
Now man’s reason is in two ways perfected by God: first, with a natural perfection, namely the natural light of reason; secondly, with a supernatural perfection, by the theological virtues, as was said above. And although this second perfection is greater than the first, nevertheless man possesses the first perfection in a more perfect way than he possesses the second perfection. For man possesses the first perfection as his full possession, while he possesses the second as an imperfect possession; for we imperfectly love and know God. Now it is manifest that everything which perfectly possesses a nature or form or power, can of itself act according to it—though not apart from God’s action, who acts interiorly in every nature and will. But that which has a nature or form or power imperfectly, cannot act of itself, if it is not moved by another. Thus the sun, which is perfectly bright, can give light of itself, while the moon, which has the nature of light only imperfectly, cannot give light unless it is illuminated [by the sun]. Again, a doctor, who perfectly knows the medical art, can act on his own; but his student, who is not yet fully instructed, cannot act on his own, but only with the guidance of his instructor.
Thus, with regard to the things that are subject to human reason, i.e., in relationship to man’s natural end, man can act by the judgment of reason. If in this action, man is nevertheless helped by God by means of a special impulse, this will pertain to God’s superabundant goodness. Hence according to the Philosophers, not everyone who has the acquired moral virtues, has heroic or divine virtues. But in relationship to the last supernatural end, to which reason moves us insofar as it is in in a certain manner, and imperfectly, formed by the theological virtues, the motion of reason itself is not sufficient, unless the impulse and movement of the Holy Spirit comes from above, according to Rom 8:14, 17, “They who are led by the Spirit of God, are sons of God,” and “if you are sons, then also heirs.” And in Ps 142:10 it is said, “Your good Spirit will lead me into the right land,” i.e., because no one can arrive at the inheritance of the land of the blessed, unless he is moved and led by the Holy Spirit. And therefore in order to attain that end, a man must have the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In response to the objection that the theological virtues enable us to reach out to God, believing his word, trusting in him, and loving him, St. Thomas responds: “The theological and moral virtues do not perfect man in relationship to the last end, in such a way that he does not always need to be moved by a certain higher impulse of the Holy Spirit, for the reason just stated.” [emphasis added]

Garrgiou-Lagrange interpreting the “always” says the following:

To say that the gifts of the Holy Ghost must intervene in every meritorious act, even though it be imperfect (remissus et quantumvis remissus), would be to confound ordinary actual grace with the special inspiration to which the gifts render us docile. In the text which we have just quoted, St. Thomas means that man is not perfected to such a degree by the theological virtues that he does not always need to be inspired by the interior Master (semper not pro-semper), as we say: "I always need this hat," not however from morning until night, or from night until morning. Similarly a medical student not so well instructed that he does not always need the assistance of his master for certain operations. The need we experience is not transitory but permanent; all of which goes to show that the gifts should be not transitory inspirations, like the grace of prophecy, but permanent infused dispositions. (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, "The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit", footnote n. 33)

A text that lends support to reading the “always” as referring to every moment, however, may be found in the Secunda Secundae. St. Thomas says: "The gifts of the Holy Spirit are the principles of the intellectual and moral virtues, as was said above" (II-II 19:9 ad 4). He seems to have in mind his treatment in I-II q. 68, although in that article he does not thus articulate it. But if the gifts of the Holy Spirit are principles of the infused intellectual and moral virtues, and not just perfective and supporting of them, then the movement of the Spirit through the gifts seems to be presupposed to all the acts of the virtues, to all acts of Christian life.

The role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit according to this reading of Thomas Aquinas

If we follow this reading, we can explain the need for and role played by the gifts of the Holy Spirit as follows: first, we need to be constantly moved and led by God; yet because we are not merely moved passively by God, like limp dolls, but are ourselves involved in our own actions, and thus can be either open or closed, ready for or resistant to God's movement, we need the gifts to make us open and ready to receive God's movement and guidance.

We need God's movement because the divine love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit is essentially a participation in God's own living love, just as grace is essentially a participation in God's own nature. Thus I cannot simply take my share of God's knowledge and God's love that I receive in the gifts of faith, hope, love, and run with them, as it were—i.e., simply make use on my own of these abilities by my empowered nature. If I were to do this, it would no longer be God's love present within me, but a mere parody of it; no longer a share in God's knowledge, but my own notions and whims.

This way of looking at the gifts of the Spirit would explain why St. Thomas calls them principles of the moral virtues. To have theological virtues and moral virtues without gifts would mean that I have no problem putting into practice the way I determine and choose to shape my life in accord with Christ. But I would still be living according to precisely my choice. Without an openness to “Christ who lives in me”, without an openness to being guided by God in living out divine life, my determination and readiness to carry out what seems to me to be fitting to Christian love would not be truly virtue simply speaking, but only in a limited respect. Thus the gifts are principles of the moral virtues insofar as they are virtues.

This interpretation of the gifts, which would hold the gifts to be active all the time, in making us open to the constant leading of the Holy Spirit, does not necessarily exclude an understanding of the gifts as making us ready to receive special inspirations of the Spirit, given only in times of special need or difficulty. We could understand the gifts as opening us up to all movement of the Spirit, whether (1) the movement of the Spirit involved in all activity of the children of God; (2) the special help of the Spirit when we especially need it; (3) and even in a certain way charismatic graces (though the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not necessary in order to receive charismatic graces, which can be had without charity).

Francis on the Special Virtues of Particular Saints

This post continues the theme from the previous post, on the unique character of each saint, who is distinguished by particular virtues. St. Francis de Sales has the same understanding. "We say some were saved by faith, others by giving alms, others by temperance, prayer, humility, hope, chastity, because the acts of these virtues shown forth in these saints" (Treatise on the Love of God, Book 11, Ch. 4). Of course, each virtue is valued to the degree that the divine love shines in it: "After we have extolled these particular virtues we must refer all their honor to divine love, which gives to each of them all the sanctity they have."

St. Francis recommends the practice generally of choosing a virtue at which especially to aim, though naturally not to the exclusion of other: "It is well for everybody to select some special virtue at which to aim, not as neglecting any others, but as an object and pursuit to the mind" (Introduction to the Devout Life, Book III, ch. 1). He then gives various examples of saints who were devoted particularly to the practice of certain virtues: Saint John, bishop of Alexandria, who had a vision "in which he knew that it was pity for the poor which God commended to him, and from that time he gave himself so heartily to practice it"; Saint Louis, who visited hospitals; Saint Francis, who loved poverty above all; Saint Gregory, who received pilgrims, after the example of Abraham, and who, like Abraham, received the Lord himself under the guise of a pilgrim.

And so some of God’s servants devote themselves to nursing the sick, helping the poor, teaching little children in the faith, reclaiming the fallen, building churches, and adorning the altar, making peace among men. In this they resemble embroidresses who work all manner of silks, gold and silver on various grounds, and thus produce beautiful flowers. In the same way the pious souls who undertake some special devout practice use it as the ground of their spiritual embroidery, and frame all kinds of other graces upon it, ordering their actions and affections better by means of this chief thread which runs through all of them.

Read the full text of these two works by St. Francis de Sales.

Every saint is unique

Virgin Mary and saints
St. Catherine of Sienna in her Treatise of Divine Providence keeps to the teaching that the virtues are connected, i.e., that whoever has one virtue, must have all of them. Nevertheless she teaches that God gives to each person one particular virtue as principal: to one he gives principally love, to another justice, to another humility, to another faith, to another prudence, to another patience, etc. It is then especially by the exercise of this virtue that the person grows in all the virtues, due to their being connected in love. (In another words, it is chiefly in the one principal virtue God gives the person that the divine love is expressed and actualized, and yet because it is truly divine love that shines forth and is exercised in this virtue, this love is deepened and increases, and thus gives greater strength and vitality to all the virtues, of which it is the heart.)

The love of God and neighbor, while it elevates and ennobles all human faculties, and while it does require a struggle against the baser inclinations of nature, does not destroy or level out different characters or personalities, but perfects them. Every saint thus has his own unique character, by which he grows in and lives out the holy love of God and neighbor. We will only fully appreciate this in heaven, where we will see the full beauty and harmony of how all the different saints show forth in their own special ways the glory of God's love.

Feast of all the Saints

Crucifixion with saints by Fra Angelico
On the feast of All Saints, we honor all the saints who lived in the divine love, both the known saints and those who are unknown or forgotten. There are too many saints for every one of them to have his or her own feast, and there are many saints who were not recognized as such here on earth, or if they were recognized, only by a few. May this "great cloud of witnesses" also spur us on in recalling that we too are called to be holy as our Lord is holy, we are called to take up our cross, to give our lives, to follow after him in love. Leon Bloy wrote, "There is but one tragedy: not to be a saint." Likewise there is only one real "success" in life: to be a saint.

In this image by Fra Angelico, the saints are depicted in adoration before Christ on the crucifix, who is the source of all holiness. The saints also in heaven worship the "Lamb who was slain."

Levels of love of neighbor

This is a summary of Aquinas's division of love of neighbor in his work On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life. His aim here is explaining the perfection of the religious state and the episcopal state.

Necessary love of neighbor
The basic commandments is "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." From these follows three points regarding the love of our neighbor we must have:

First, it must be true love, that is, we must love him or her not in the sense that we may love chocolate or wine. When we love these we refer them to ourselves, whom we properly love. We must love our neighbors so as to will them good for their own sake, and not only inasmuch as they are pleasant or helpful to use.

Secondly, we must love our neighbor with an ordered love. Everyone loves his spiritual nature more than his bodily nature. This is evident from the fact that no one would prefer being an idiot to being blind. So also we must love the spiritual good of our neighbor more than his bodily good, and again, we must love his bodily good more than his external goods.

Thirdly, we must love our neighbors with a holy love, inasmuch as we must love both ourselves and them as made in the likeness of God, as ordered to God, and as called to communion with him. Since what is ordered to God is called holy, loving our neighbor for God's sake is a holy love.

Fourthly, we must love our neighbor with an efficacious love, that is, a love that proves itself by deeds, as St. John says, "let us not love in word or in speech, but in deed and in truth."

Perfect love of neighbor that is counseled
Love of neighbor can be perfect in three ways which are not obligatory

1. Love can be perfect with respect to its extensiveness, when we show love to all men, even when we are not strictly required to do so. Aquinas distinguishes three degrees of love with respect to extension: (1) the lowest degree is when we love only those who are close to us; (2) the second degree is when we love not only those who are relatives or are close to us in some other way, but men and women everywhere; (3) the third degree is when we show love even to our enemies, to those who hurt us–even when we wouldn't be obliged to show a particular love for them. E.g., when we could with justice wait for them to make amends, to go out of our way to seek reconciliation.

2. Love of neighbor can be perfect with respect to its intensity. This perfection is shown by what a person is ready to give up for the sake of his neighbor. Thomas distinguishes three levels here, corresponding to the three evangelical counsels: (1) some give up possessions for the sake of their fellow men and women; (2) some expose their body labor and fatigue, or to persecution for the sake of others; (3) some lay down their life for others; the closest thing to this dying for others is giving up one's own will for the sake of others. For since to be alive means to act on one's own, to give up one's will is like a kind of death.

3. Love of neighbor can be perfect with respect to its works. (1) Some procure the bodily good of others, by feeding them, clothing them, or healing them; (2) some procure the spiritual good of others, as by teaching, but such spiritual good as is on man's own level; (3) some procure the spiritual good of others that is on a divine level–giving them the divine teaching, bestowing the sacraments, etc. This belongs above all to bishops.