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Tips on Discernment

July 23, 2009

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4: 9-10)

We asked some of our partners and CoC alums what was helpful for them to respond to God’s love and calling in their lives. We’d like to start with four principles that Robin put together for a talk he gave on this year’s Days of Reflection.

1. Disciples of Jesus adopt a reflective approach toward the influences of culture and society
Discipleship calls us to reflect about what we allow to compel us and drive our decisions, about the often unnoticed impact that our society has on our ways of thinking and acting and allow them to interact with the vision of the Gospel.

2. Discerning God’s will requires that we become good listeners
In his book Spiritual Direction: Principles and Practices, Bishop Robert Morneau describes discernment as “a prayerful process by which experiences are interpreted in faith”. We reflect on what is happening in our lives – we ask, how God makes his presence known to me in and through the events of my life. Bishop Morneau’s most important question is: When are you most alive? When we are most alive tells us something important about God’s will for us. Discernment is cultivated in listening love. Listening to God means sifting through all the other voices, tendencies and desires and moving down to our deepest desires, to the center of our being – What is it that I really want? It is at the place of our deepest impulses, urges and longings that God’s desires for us and our own deepest desires intersect. There we are able to discern the voice of God.

3. We need the wisdom of other people who walk with us along the journey of faith
We need to find people who are willing to walk with us in the journey of faith, especially when we are discerning a vocation. We need people with wisdom and experience in life and in Christian discipleship.

4. There is a risk involved in every important decision, but we need to “act on our clarities”
In his chapter on discernment Bishop Morneau says this: “Discernment respects the nature of time and is willing to wait freely for a decision that has need of clarification, detachment and magnanimity.” We should never rush our decisions and we should not make an important life decision when we are too low or too high – too depressed and discouraged or too enthusiastic and excited. As he puts it: We should discern on level ground.
At the same time, Bishop Morneau says “Act on your clarities” – There comes a time when we begin to see more clearly and feel a certain rightness about a decision – an inner peace. And at that moment we are invited to act. It still requires a certain amount of courage and trust, but there is a time when we are invited to make a commitment, and not simply to stand on the sidelines. Most of the time we don’t get that 100% certitude, we won’t receive complete clarity. It is important to remember that God knows that better than we do. God knows that we are acting on our best insights, on the limited information we have. And when God knows that we are sincerely trying to make a decision in light of his grace, we can be confident in God’s faithfulness.

Robin Ryan, cp


The dictionary tells us that, from its roots, “to discern” means to separate, to distinguish, to sift. I find the image of “sifting” to be a very helpful way to think about discernment…it is a “sifting for the truth that is Love…that is God.” Equally helpful to remember is that discernment is also a process…it takes time! It would be nice if answers came with a quick “lightening bolt” of clarity, or some kind of obvious “sign”, or even a text message…I am sure that many of us have hoped that would be how God would respond! Rather, what I believe is that God actually delights in luring us into this very special and loving relationship through our prayer and reflective listening. Discernment, however, is definitely not a passive process. True discernment requires of us a courageous and generous heart; a deepening self-awareness and inner freedom; a trusting relationship in God grounded in a habit of prayer; a willingness to listen to the wisdom of others; and a freedom to step out in faith and be open to surprise! I believe God desires for us a life of true happiness and fulfillment…discernment is “a sifting for truth”… that prayerful searching for the deepest desire of one’s heart to live in love in the very heart of God.

Sr. Jenny Howard, SP (CoC Advisory Board Member)


I was watching my one-year old niece the other day striving to learn to walk, and it reminded me of what discernment can be like. She knew she wanted to get moving, to go somewhere, to climb something, to accomplish anything. I could see the determination in her face as she repeatedly rushed full-speed ahead. It took her two steps before falling again to the floor. Slowly but surely, she picked herself up more deliberately, steadied herself into a standing position, and took small yet more surefooted steps. How appropriate for discernment! We often find ourselves full of God’s love and the determination to bring about the Kingdom, yet we wonder how to go about it. We often rush into something only to find that it does not fit us the best. A little wiser and more experienced, we realize that we have to listen prayerfully and gradually to God’s will in order to steady ourselves. Asking for the grace of courage to follow though, we are then able take our first, sometimes feeble steps into our vocation. Instead of going it alone as in walking, though, we have the assurance of a hand to hold throughout our life’s entire discernment journey. The simple yet difficult task before us then is to completely trust in the direction and goodness of our God.

Dan Allen (2006 CoC alum)


I remember all too clearly. I just returned from a discernment weekend with my heart on fire and ready to search out my options. I arrived at Sister Maria's office with the Vision Guide and 100 postage stamps ready to write to congregations for more information. Her smile was as wide as could be when she very calmly, invited me to sit down and breathe. I explained my desire and enthusiasm for moving forward at this incredibly rapid pace, and she once again, smiled and spoke very gently as she asked me to explain these sudden movements in my heart and mind. I first found it easy to tell her all about the weekend retreat, but gradually, I began to see her wisdom permeating my conversation as I realized my head had not yet caught up with my heart. Discernment involves time to settle with our passions, our hopes, and dreams. In this fast paced culture, I wanted quick and easy answers, yet discernment is about letting God into your decision making. I was a self-sufficient and independent young adult. I was not used to waiting, pondering, and being. My vocation director was a patient mentor who helped me to sort out my feelings of joy and fear in moving forward in discernment. Now as a vocation director for my own congregation, I see many young adults echoing my own actions, and yet, it is now my turn to ask the inquirer to slow down enough let let God in. Pray, speak with a trusted vocation director, and take time to let your head understand the stirrings in your heart.

Sr. Debbie Borneman, SS.C.M. (CoC partner)


I find Bishop Morneau's advice most helpful about acting on your clarities. You must know who you are before you make any major move toward a change of vocational lifestyle. I feel it's helpful to know myself by asking, "What is not negotiable?" or "What will I keep doing no matter where I live or with whom I live?" or "What do I do that makes me feel free?" Once I sense these things, I also sense God has made certain parts of my identity non-negotiable for a reason. I then understand that as a clue to my destiny - the future which our loving God knows is best for the heart he has given me. The most important thing to do after this understanding is to be patient in waiting for clarity. If it still seems like a decision, one may act out of stress. But if it seems like a desire that is not negotiable, there the calling lies.

Steph Bronner (2006 CoC alum)


In his Discernment of Spirits: A Practical Vocation Guide (Chicago: National Religious Vocation Conference), Fr. Warren Sazama, SJ suggests some attitudes and some steps which are important for discernment. Reflecting upon these attitudes and steps can be helpful in the process of making life decisions.

Seven attitudes required for authentic discernment:

Openness – an open mind and heart, which means that we try not to place limits or conditions on the freedom we need to respond to God’s call.

Generosity – a largeness of heart, which Sazama likens to allowing God to write a signed blank check, letting God fill in the amount and content of the check.

Courage – being willing to let go of control and trust God implicitly.

Interior freedom – a disposition in which we desire to do God’s will with no conditions attached.

Prayerful reflection on one’ experience – a practice that helps us to listen to God’s voice in our lives.

Having one’s priorities straight – recognizing that the ultimate goal of life is to serve God.

Not confusing ends with means – means putting God first in our lives and letting all other things fall in line in light of our first priority.

Seven Steps to a Good Decision

Putting one’s priorities in order - keeping before our minds the purpose for which God created us.

Prayer, paying attention to inner desires, and entering spiritual direction – these are essential in the discernment of one’s vocation.

Considering the options and exploring various lifestyles, careers and communities

Exploring personal experiences with the options to which we are drawn and with which we identify most closely.

Getting a feel for which option is the best fit – discovering where it is we find a sense of belonging and the best opportunity to serve.

Making the decision – we do this with the recognition that deciding entails a leap of faith and with the trust that we are in God’s caring hands.

Looking to see if God blesses us with a sense of inner peace and rightness over time – this means watching for confirmation of the decision.


Two major things that were helpful for me as I discerned were my studies and other people. When I graduated from High School I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. It wasn’t until I started taking a variety of classes that I started to narrow down what I was interested in. As I studied, it became clear that social science and the humanities were my biggest interests. I started to apply this information and think about the variety of jobs and lifestyles that existed in these areas. Along with deep thought and prayer, I started to test out a few ideas. I took internships and summer jobs that helped me decide with more information. Studies are definitely not the “be all end all” of a vocational formation but they can help you to know more about what it is you are good at and what you enjoy.

Other people also played a big role in helping me discern. Not only did my school advisors help, but my friends, ministers, and coworkers. I told my story to anyone who would listen. People will give you advice from all different perspectives. I started to sort out what made sense and what challenged me. I took note of praise and I also listened closely to the criticisms of my work. I heard other people’s stories and recognized a piece of myself in them. I told my family over and over as things developed. This really helped me feel confident, I think. If you can explain yourself to so many people, then you really want it!

My vocation is as a lay woman ecclesial minister. First of all, I didn’t know what that was when I started this journey but I have learned it over time. Also, this is not set in stone. At this time I understand my vocation this way but it will likely change and grow further. This is how God works- in any way that we will take notice!

Megan Mio (CoC alum and partner)


I meet a lot of young adults who wonder if God has one particular plan in mind for their life. Perhaps there is some mysterious treasure map hidden somewhere? And if I could just find this treasure map I would know which way to go. I would know the person I am supposed to marry, the job I am supposed to accept, and the city in which I am destined to live. For many of us, there is undue pressure to find the one right thing. The Christian principle of discernment – intentional and prayerful decision making – requires a tremendous amount of openness. We trust that God will give us clarity to make good decisions, while leaving the outcome open and in God’s hands. Our calling might look different than what we first expected. Discernment involves gathering information, using our imagination and sense of humor; engaging in conversation; and asking a lot of questions. It takes patience and prayer, and perhaps a good mentor or spiritual guide. We need to be open, willing, and able to move in whatever direction the Spirit calls us. Give yourself permission to be a beginner and be willing to make mistakes. Rarely is there one particular path in life; rather there are many good alternatives. Discernment helps us to respond freely to God’s deep love for us. The best decision is one that is made in fidelity and trust. God gives us the freedom to follow our true calling in life, and God promises to remain with us no matter which option we choose.

Beth Knobbe, Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University (CoC Partner)

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