Through prayer and the assistance of wise counsel, it seems to me that there are two primary ways that young women are discerning a vocation to the consecrated life these days. Both are effective and fruitful, but my experience tells me the second is the healthier approach most in line with the thinking of the Church.
1). The first way of discernment is often the most common, because it is intuitive: a young woman will spend time researching religious communities, eventually making a retreat, and finally making a leap of faith by joining a community or society, hoping that everything will work out.
The young woman will usually say something like, “I don’t know which community I like most. There are too many to choose from.” And so she tries to narrow down the thousands of options by creating a list of criteria of what she likes about each one. Over time, the list slims and expands as she discerns which ones might work, only to stumble upon another option.
In short: the first way of discernment focuses on selecting a community first, and self-understanding second.
In my opinion, this way of discernment can be frustrating and overwhelming. A hundred years ago, when travel was minimal and options were limited to the convent in-town or the convent in-the-town-over, a girl could say “yes” more easily. Nowadays, endless options complicate discernment. Perhaps there is a more refined way…
2). The second way of discernment involves a good deal of reflection and self-understanding before discerning which community to join. Through prayer, a young woman discerns what “charism” the Lord has given her to share with the Church. Then she looks around for a community that shares the same charism, eventually attending retreats, and then making the leap of faith by entering as a postulant in order to further discern the charism.
The Church believes that the Lord calls certain women from among the lay faithful to be icons of a particular virtue (charism) of Jesus. The Lord gives them a charism that grows in strength as they mature. And when the time is right, the Lord helps them find where that charism is to be lived out.
A charism is a virtue about Jesus that the Father wishes to highlight for the sake of the Church: e.g., Jesus the prayer. Jesus the healer, Jesus the preacher, or Jesus in solidarity with the poor. Thus, someone discerning the consecrated life should be praying about what charism Jesus wishes her to highlight about who He is. If she is called to the consecrated life, the Lord will want to use her to tell the world about His Son. It is a little bit like picking up a book that someone else has already read and marked with a highlighter. We see what was highlighted and may find it inspiring, leading us to understand something in a more profound way. Likewise, when people see a Sister or Nun living out the mission God called her to, they may be inspired to think about the Lord in a more profound way. The Sister is a highlight of Jesus.
For example, the Carmelites highlight holiness through interior prayer; the Benedictines highlight holiness through work and prayer; the Dominicans highlight holiness through preaching and teaching of the gospel; the Franciscans highlight holiness in poverty and the poor; etc.
If a young woman feels drawn to spend all day praying for others, then she is likely experiencing a charism to join a contemplative community. If she feels drawn to be a teacher, then she may have a charism to teach. If she feels drawn to minister to the poor, then she may have a charism as a missionary.
While she is discerning the charism, the young woman may begin looking at communities that have the same charism(s). There are thousands of communities throughout the world, so she will be able to narrow the list down to those that are like her. She should not be surprised that the Lord may have had her grow up not far from where that community or society is, nor that the Lord may ask her to move to another part of the country or world in order to be where He wants her.
In short: the second way of discernment focuses on first identifying what charism God has given us, and then asking the question “Where does the Lord want me to go?”
In my opinion, this is a healthier form of discernment. It recognizes that God has a specific calling for each of us. We do not need to randomly search for a place that will accept us. Instead, once we have a sense of who we are we can then look for a community that shares the same charism. When the Sisters talk about themselves and their way of life, in our heart we will be saying something like, “It feels like they are talking about me!” If that is the case, then the next step is to join them as a postulant, to live the charism with them. If we are to be somewhere else, the Lord will make His will known and provide the means to make it happen.
God is the one who calls
Again, the above ways of discernment are the ones I have found most common among those discerning consecrated life. Ultimately, God is the one who calls, so whatever means the Lord uses and whatever path we walk, if we are praying, God will get us there. No two vocation stories are alike, which should remind us that God knows how to tailor-fit our lives into His plan.
Be not afraid to say YES!
Fr. Aaron Kuhn
Priest of the Diocese of St. Cloud, MN. Ordained in 2007. Currently finishing a licentiate in canon law from The Catholic University of America.