Fr. Charbel gives us an insight on how to be guided by God without giving up the responsibility he gives us to take choices for our lives.

How to listen to his voice?

As a priest, I have heard many times from young men and women something on the lines of ‘Father, I wonder if God calls me to consecrate my life to him…’ Usually, this kind of questioning lasts for a few months and then gradually fades away. It is like in the parable of the sower, ‘the seed fell in the midst of thorn bushes’ and then, it cannot grow as it is choked by ‘the cares of the world and the seductions of riches’[1]. Many Catholics whom God is actually calling to consecrated life, pressurized as they are by the race to social success (to get into the best school, the best college, the best career, the wealthiest kind of life) do not even have the necessary ‘space’ for listening to God, for hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd.

‘Vocation’ is the Latin word for ‘calling’; if Jesus is calling, he needs to be listened to. So the first challenge of ‘vocation discernment’ is to give space to God in my life: by giving time daily for personal prayer (especially silent prayer) and by reading the Holy Scripture (especially the gospel), by observing maybe one day of recollection every month, getting ready to take up a few months of mission experience at the end of one’s studies before entering into professional life etc. So many ways are there, the purpose being always the same: ‘to give space to God in my life.’ The Good Shepherd speaks to us in the gospel; he speaks to us through the people whom we meet, in the events of our life, in our hearts by the action of his Spirit.  But are we listening?

God’s plan?

Let us be careful here! To say, that does not answer the question of how to discern; it only shows our need for discernment. I’ve heard so many times this kind of statement ‘I do not know what the plan of God for me is, so I let myself be guided by him;’ which is often followed after a few years by ‘this or that happened in my life. It was God’s plan.’ Very often, the first of these two statements could be translated in plain English as ‘I do not know what God wants. It seems to me unclear and risky; I am scared and too lazy to take any decision for myself, so I let the outward circumstances of my life direct me and I avoid asking too many questions.’ The challenge here is to enter into a real attitude of surrender into the hands of God and not into a kind of spiritual sloth. To baptize all that happens in my life as ‘God’s plan’ can lead to a very dangerous illusion. There is a dangerous presumption in claiming to know what God’s plan is. ‘As high is the heaven above the earth so high are his ways from our ways.’

I should not forget the responsibility which lies on my side; Jesus wants me to follow him by taking the way of love, the way of the cross that he took; but every day of my life I have the choice to take his path or not, to do his will or not…

The genuine surrender to God’s providence, to his will,

  • is based on faith: God wants the best for me because he loves me. This kind of faith accepts to be surprised, to let our own plans to be disturbed.
  • is rather active than passive: it demands to be a seeker, to ask God every day ‘What do you expect from me? Please guide me by your Spirit.’
  • demands not only to be attentive to the way God speaks but to take initiatives, steps, to take decisions while being in the darkness of faith, under the eyes of God and not under the eyes of the world, to love ‘in deeds and truth’.
  • demands discernment for being able to make out the difference between ‘the voice of the Shepherd’ and ‘the voice of strangers’ (our ego, the devil, those advising us in a worldly way…)

What are the practical means of discernment?

Three things are needed: prayer, the gospel and spiritual direction. Spiritual direction should not be misunderstood: A spiritual father will not tell me ‘your vocation is this.’ but he will help me look at my life the way Jesus is looking at it; he will help me discern the signs that God gives me and thus will enable me to make the choice to follow Jesus in this or that vocation and implement the choice. Some people go to a so-called ‘charismatic counselor’ with the wrong intention. They refuse to take responsibility for their lives, they are afraid to make choices and so go to someone asking ‘tell me what to do and I will do it’. Such counselors when they have enough common sense and sensus fidei (the sense of faith) will refuse to satisfy this undue expectation. This is not the way God usually guides people. God leads us in the darkness of faith. God does not make choices on our behalf. He calls us, gives us signs and the grace to answer. But the process of listening to his voice, discerning theses signs, and choosing to answer the calling with the help of the Spirit of counsel is our responsibility. The call is personal, every vocation is personal and the answer to it can only be personal because it is a call of love, because whatever the vocation of each one of us is, it is to follow Jesus, to be his friend, to respond to his personal love for me.

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Fr Charbel, originally from France and from the community of St John, is currently living in Pondicherry, India. He goes around preaching retreats and actively supporting youth and young families, especially with marriage issues and discerning vocation. He is currently the Chaplain for JY Tamilnadu.