Modern life perhaps offers unique challenges to the process of discerning a vocation—to our capacity to sift through and identify what is most worthy of our time and dedication. In the first part of this series, we explored the ways in which the noise and values of modern culture might influence how people approach the task of discovering God’s calling on their lives.

In this next instalment, we hear from Veronika Winkels, a mother, editor and writer who wonders whether a modern culture of anxiety has some bearing on discernment, especially when it comes to the calling of marriage and family. We also hear from Fr Paul Rowse OP, who believes that in the modern world people tend to grow up a bit later than in the past, with profound implications for when, how and why we engage in discernment.

Veronika Winkels: Anxiety, control and faith

Veronika Winkels is a mother of four and founding editor of Mathilde, a high-quality biannual women’s publication aimed at restoring an appreciation of what Pope John Paul II called the ‘feminine genius’.

In her opinion, we live in ‘an anxious age’, which has a profound influence on discernment, especially when it comes to ‘making a life-altering choice on the scale of something like marriage.’ The reason is that ‘stress is anathema to putting a decisive foot forward. It’s paralysing.’

To cope with this, many of us entertain ideas that actually work against the calling to give ourselves totally in something like a vow. ‘I think there is a fairly pervasive culture of seeking to control as many aspects of one’s life as possible, as a way to grapple with this endemic restlessness and loneliness,’ she says. ‘But when you’re seeking control on the one hand, yet considering the possibility of joining your life to another person, who has their own freedom and agency, it’s an ideological impossibility.’

When you’re single, this notion being able to control one’s life is much easier to prop up, but marriage compromises it. ‘And that’s terrifying,’ she says.

The mantra too, being repeated in our ear, that ‘you can be anything you want to be’ is also incredibly unhelpful. It’s another great way to paralyse people from seeking the beauty in an ‘ordinary’ life, because they’re told they can choose from a limitless choice of destinies.

But the heart of vocation is also faith: the willingness to go beyond what you think or know or can control to experience the life that God knows is best for us. ‘You will never know beyond a doubt that the step you’re about to take is the one you are called to,’ she says. ‘I think exercising faith to such a radical degree is the calling.’

Antidotes: Practice the leap

‘It’s one of Catholicism’s best-kept secrets (even to most Catholics) that to make a vow—a promise that cannot be unmade—is a liberating thing to do,’ Veronika says.

But we cannot discern marriage in the abstract, without a prospective spouse in mind. When there's no particular person in view, the first port of call is always ‘to deepen and strengthen your relationship with God first, asking what can you do to serve him, and in which capacity, then go about trying to do just that.’ As this happens, ‘everyone who enters your life assumes a new level of significance.’

It’s always that moment you relinquish your own desire and surrender to God that he usually plonks the answer before you, and the grace needed to grab life by the proverbial.

Being attentive to these moments of grace is a critical part of discernment. It’s these moments that become opportunities to take leaps of faith: ‘You’ve got to take the leap. We’re out of practice at leaping.’

Pray for wisdom, seek advice, and be honest with yourself and your partner, and ask the hard questions sooner rather than later … Then, in faith, go for it! You cannot know what freedom and peace that wins you until you do.

‘I think people have an innate yearning to share life’s journey with someone,’ she says, ‘whether that’s with Christ himself in a religious vocation, or with someone who will weather the storms with you, cry when you cry, and rejoice when you rejoice. And the world needs this because it needs hope. Marriage is an act of courage and hope for the future.’

Fr Paul Rowse OP: The challenge of growing up later

Fr Paul Rowse is a Dominican friar and lecturer at Catholic Theological College, specialising in the theology of St Paul. Interestingly, he believes, the challenges to ‘successful’ vocational discernment tend to be the same over time, though ‘with differing intensity, depending on a variety of societal factors.’ For example, a key challenge people encounter when it comes to exploring vocational pathways is resistance within their own families, something that might take on a unique intensity in our own time because most families are notably smaller.

‘Similarly, there have long been individuals who are indecisive or distracted by the affairs of the day,’ he says, but even this has a unique inflection today. ‘Our day has people who are well into early middle age, busy, and yet to begin their adult life in earnest.

Sadly, it can be too hard for some people to lift themselves out of the flow of external demands to give themselves generously to God.

Basically, he is saying, we grow up much later these days, and this affects our ability to discern maturely the promptings of God. It affects our ability to sift through the many demands on our time and attention and to discover the God who calls us to great and generous lives. One remedy to this challenge, therefore, involves being able to develop ‘a high degree of self-awareness early in adult life.’

That self-awareness comes through personal devotion to private prayer, attention to wisdom from disinterested but concerned others, and successful negotiation through adverse circumstances. In short, discerning people could do well to pray to God, listen to wisdom and grow in courage.

Antidotes: Trust your desires, exhaust the possibilities

Three things are important for discerning one’s vocation, Fr Paul says. First, we need to believe our vocation is actually quite specific. ‘God has a particular plan of life which requires discovery, testing and acceptance,’ he says. So we must explore the different avenues open to us and exhaust them one at a time before moving on to the next one. For this, he says, we must trust our interests.

What God is asking you to discover will make you happier than anything else. Thus, it is important that the first avenue you try is the one which more closely corresponds to your own desires.’

Second, we must recognise that discernment involves degrees of commitment depending on where we currently find ourselves. No one is asking us to commit absolutely from the outset. ‘When you reach out, you are committing to the next stage with the intention of exploring later ones,’ he explains. What we need until the time of vows is generosity: generosity and courage to keep exploring and going further if we sense it is right. For this reason, until a person makes the vows, their journey will always be ‘a mixture of discernment and formation’.

Third, Fr Paul encourages people to finish what they have started. Even though the place we are in right now is not the state of life God ultimately calls us to, it will inevitably form us in vital ways for the rest of our life, especially in the virtues of perseverance and courage.

It is vital for any future ministry or commitment that you are alert to the dangers of trying to escape and procrastination. Finishing your course is going to make you grow.