Discernment’s Fourth Rule: Learn from your preferences
Having emphasized the indispensable role in discernment of obedience to the Church, commitment to using one’s talents for God’s glory, and a life of prayer, we now come to discernment’s fourth rule. Expressed in the shortest sentence possible, rule four is “Trust your gut.” In a great many cases, this is all we have left once we have listened to the Church, sought the glory of God, and prayed steadily for light. Most of the decisions we make in life are not clearly dictated by God, neither by a clear voice nor by a supernatural sign. If we waited for such decisive signals, we would more often than not simply fail to act.
Within the context of the first three rules (see the previous rule for a list of all three), it is quite normal for God to move us through our own interests and affections. Nine times out of ten, our decision is rightly made because, having done our best to follow God’s lead, we become increasingly drawn to one path over others. Often the simple presence (or absence) of opportunity is a decisive factor. Ordinarily, we decide on almost everything this way: Our vocation, our field of study, the job we ultimately accept and keep, the apostolates in which we engage, the charitable works we perform, and so on, as our lives unfold and we come to make many decisions with increasingly “natural ease” within the pattern of our experience and the supernatural patterns represented by the first three rules.
As human persons, we are not justified in perpetually doubting our own interests, attractions and instincts about the various choices we encounter, in effect refusing to act unless we receive an unmistakable sign of God’s will. Ordinarily, we place ourselves firstly within the limits of Catholic spirituality and morality, seek secondly to give glory to God in all that we do, continue thirdly to pray for guidance in all things…and, fourthly, trust our gut.
Trial and retrial
Note that the subtitle above is not “trial and error”. We will often choose one course of study, or job, or relationship, or home type, or location, or charitable work, or hobby (and so on) only to find later that it does not turn out as expected. But this does not mean we have failed to discern God’s will, although of course that is possible. But either way, it means that God has intended from all eternity that we use the experience gained through these choices to prepare ourselves better for something else He has in mind. If we do our best in each situation to live what has been called “the sacrament of the present moment”, then we cannot consider that a decision that does not work out as we expected must have been a decision that failed to please God or failed to recognize God’s will.
Instead, God often permits us to go through a period of trying this or that, in accordance with our talents, interests, and opportunities, which are His normal ways of guiding prayerful souls. If an opportunity is closed off, we can be sure that it is not God’s will that we pursue it, at least at that time, but if we choose one of several opportunities and it does not turn out as we had hoped, it does not at all mean that it has not turned out as God had wanted. We grow from every experience, and insofar as our experiences result from a sincere desire to please God, each experience shapes us into a more useful tool in God’s hand.
For example, suppose that you have been trying to discern how you can best use your spare time to serve God in some particular way, but no particular way comes to mind as obviously best. What is to stop you from continuing to discern God’s will by trying various things—perhaps various organizations in your parish devoted to different apostolic works, or various other forms of volunteer activities—in order to learn by experience whether you can combine genuine Christian service with the genuine joy of serving in a particular way? This is a perfectly reasonable pattern of discernment, by trial and retrial.
Of course, this is not a satisfactory technique for discerning a vocation to marriage, to the priesthood, or to a vowed religious life. Fortunately, the appropriate “unit” of the Church will put you through a rigorous period of study and discernment before being ordained or taking final vows, which includes an opportunity for you to decide whether you are called to this vocation—and for a group of responsible others to form their own judgment. With marriage, the Church is not nearly so rigorous, but she does impose a period of preparation to at least aid in discernment. Vocational choices must not be made on the assumption of trial and retrial (or even trial and error).
But with a valid marriage or ordination, even if you come to believe you made a “mistake” about your vocation, God has now placed you in that vocation, and so the decision is now made for you: Doubts are no longer points of discernment but simply temptations. I can promise you that a great many husbands and wives have moments when they suddenly “realize” they should have been priests or nuns (or at least can joke about it), and I have no doubt that a great many priests and religious have moments when they seriously wonder if they did not mistake their call to matrimony (or at least can joke about it). Still, once committed, your spiritual duty is clear. Even if there are periods of relative tension or unhappiness, the spiritual rewards of perseverance are tremendous, both for yourself and for the Church.
On holding or folding
In less fixed and permanent matters, a reasonable perseverance also remains important. The initial joys of almost any commitment will dissipate in time, and only a gadabout instantly shifts commitments just because the first flush of enthusiasm has waned. No, in the absence of other obvious indicators, we must persevere in our commitments long enough to learn over a period of time whether we are doing what God has called us to do or not, and while we are doing it, we are bound to do it as well as we can. For example, it is one thing to decide for or against joining a particular organization or apostolate only after taking a little time to get acquainted with it; that’s just good sense. It is another to make an initial commitment, take on responsibility, and then cut and run just as soon as initial enthusiasm has waned.
So if we learn over time that we have a particularly flighty “gut”, then we need to beware of giving it such a strong say in our decisions. This is good cause for seeking spiritual direction. But if we have reached the point of habitually keeping our commitments once we have made them, then the “gut” principle is exceedingly sound, insofar as it is compatible with listening to the Church, giving glory to God, and persevering in prayer. For most decisions most of the time, that’s how even the best Christians make them.
So: Do not be afraid to try something based on what interests and appeals to you, and be attentive to how God leads you through that experience. Your path is yours alone. There are, after all, myriad ways to serve the Lord.
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