Discernment as an experience of the Holy Spirit

Discernment as an experience of the Holy Spirit

By Quentin Hackenwerth SM, c

Among the most moving experiences in life is the moment of recognizing that the Holy Spirit is indeed at work within one’s inner life. Many people never become aware of the movements of God within them, and therefore miss the experience of living the energy of the Spirit in their life. Discernment of one’s vocation can be done in such a way that it becomes an experience of the Spirit of God giving meaning and direction to one’s life. That is the point I will attempt to make in this article.

Before saying anything more, I suggest the reader review the excellent article by Leonard Altilia, SJ in the Winter 2002 issue of HORIZON entitled, “Discernment with and for adolescents.” In that article, Father Altilia makes some very helpful distinctions in the discernment process. I will use one of his distinctions as my starting point.

Father Altilia says:

It is important to distinguish between discernment and decision-making. The latter is an intellectual process of weighing alternatives and assessing the relative strengths and weaknesses of various options. While discernment includes this, it goes well beyond it. The process of discernment is a spiritual process that is built upon and utterly dependent on a regular and well developed prayer life. The skills of decision-making can help in the discernment process, but without prayer, genuine spiritual discernment is impossible.

The point is that in the discernment process there are two levels of activity: the human level of our intellect, will and sentiments, and the spiritual level of the movements of the Holy Spirit. As Father Altilia says, the movements of the Holy Spirit take place in our human process but go beyond it. The Spirit adds some- thing distinctly different to it. But since the Spirit works in the human process, it is easy to focus only on the human process and thus miss the experience of what the Spirit is doing. This is where the vocation director, accompanying someone discerning his or her vocation, plays an essential role. The vocation director will probably have to teach the one discerning how to “focus in faith” on the discernment process in order to live the experience of the Holy Spirit.

A focus in faith means that we look at the human process of discernment with certain beliefs, with certain convictions. If the vocation director has these convictions of faith, it is possible to communicate them to the one discerning vocation. I believe this falls within the “developed prayer life” of Father Altilia, because I think it is safe to say that without an active focus of faith, “genuine spiritual discernment is impossible.” One will not experience the action of the Holy Spirit, but only one’s own human movements.

God chooses and invites

Let’s look at four faith convictions that help give shape to what one experiences in the discernment process. First is the conviction that God chooses certain persons and invites them to a new way of life. If this happens to someone, it is because Jesus loves him or her as he loved the young man in the Gospel. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing....’” What motivated Jesus to call this particular young man was his love for him. The call is a new way of God being present in one’s life and a new way of experiencing God that one did not know before. Now God’s love for that person can be experienced in the sense of being called to a particular way of life or to some mission.

To focus on the action of the Spirit, we ask: How does the one discerning feel when he or she reflects on such a call? Sad, like the young man in the Gospel who lived only his human reaction, or a certain joy that comes from believing that God loves me enough to give me a special call? If the one discerning can live this love of God within, he or she will probably feel an eagerness to move ahead in the discernment process with a certain sense of God being present in his or her life. This presence sharpens the sense of being called at the same time that it cultivates an incipient call.

The Spirit possesses us

A second important faith conviction is that when God chooses someone, the Spirit takes possession of his or her life. That person now belongs to God in a new way. As God says through Isaiah: “I have called you by name: you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). In calling someone, God so makes a person his own that one feels his or her existence is being altered. God sometimes changed the name of those called in order to manifest their new state. “You will be called by a new name, one which the mouth of Yahweh will confer,” God said to Isaiah (Isaiah 62:2). In the book of Revelation (2:17), the Spirit says that those who persevere in following Jesus will receive “a stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who received it.” The new name signifies a new life, an altered existence.

In discerning one’s vocation, it is important to picture concretely some of the ways in which one’s life will change radically. One will take on a new lifestyle and by that fact will become a symbol for others of certain Gospel values. One’s life will become centered in a mission, which requires leaving aside all that does not contribute to that mission. Jesus will become the central presence in one’s life. When thinking about these changes in one’s way of living, what are the reactions inside? Is there a certain excitement to take up the challenge, even if there is some fear and anxiety? Is there a certain eagerness to make the sacrifices involved, even though it hurts? Those feelings would be movements of the Holy Spirit to be lived fully at the same time that they are confirmations of a call from God.

God’s call includes a mission

A third faith conviction is that God’s call always includes a mission, a sense that Jesus wants to accomplish something through the one called. This is not a sense of ego-centered self-importance or of being made more important than others. It is a sense of humble gratitude that Jesus loves me so much that he intends to do some of his works of salvation through me. It is not necessary that the one discerning have a clear sense of exactly what he or she is to do, but only that God wants to do good through one according to the guidance of the Spirit. God’s divine providence will present the needs and opportunities that will make the mission concrete in God’s own time. This conviction of mission fosters a sense of responsibility in the one discerning and the feeling of the absolute need of God’s grace to accomplish the mission. At the same time, it is a confidence that the Spirit will guide one’s life as part of Jesus’ work to save the world and is, in fact, already guiding it. This sense of mission leads one to be attentive to the inner inspirations and providential signs as indications of the Spirit to “do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). This action of the Spirit within gives the one discerning a sense of purpose in life, a purpose that will be lived often in pure trust in the Spirit.

God gives what we need for the call

There is yet a fourth faith conviction to be lived in the discernment of one’s vocation. It is the conviction that, in choosing us, God will become the source of everything we need to live our call. There is danger that once one feels called to a radical life or to a mission, one feels burdened because one is trying to follow the call with only his or her own resources. There is a temptation to establish one’s own importance or look for self-worth in the approval of others. But God calls to a life far greater than the possibilities of one’s own resources, and therefore the Spirit offers to become the source of everything. When God calls, the Spirit gives all that is necessary to follow that call. “Jesus called the 12 together and gave them power and authority…” (Luke 9:1). Jesus was the source of all they needed. However, to experience fully that new power and authority, the 12 had to leave aside their own way of accomplishing things. “Take nothing for the journey…” (Luke 9:3). They had to be careful that their own attachments, their own way of doing things, even their own resources, would not be obstacles to experiencing the power of the Spirit at work in them. This leads the one discerning a vocation to a great trust that the Spirit is providing whatever he or she needs. At the Last Supper, Jesus said to the 12: “When I sent you out without purse or haversack or sandals, were you short of anything? No, they said” (Luke 22:35). What a beautiful reality was at work in them! As this fourth conviction operates in the discernment process, the one discerning can begin to live that same experience of God’s providence giving him or her all that is needed to carry out God’s call.

So, then, discernment of vocation is not just an exercise of the mind and good judgment. It is that, of course, but it is more. As the faith focus becomes active in the discernment process, the one discerning begins to sense the presence of the Spirit within. In the discernment process itself, the one discerning is already beginning to live the basic elements that form a vocation. One becomes more aware of the personal love that moves God to call one and that waits for a response of personal love, a sense of freedom in responding to that love. One begins to sense that the call is already orienting one’s concerns and desires toward a life that is radically different and that will require changes. Perhaps one is already forming an attitude toward making those changes. One might already feel a certain sense of being responsible for acting in the name of Jesus. Even though the mission is not yet clear, one begins to live the attitudes necessary for accepting a mission and carrying it out. Certainly one can begin to feel the providence of God shaping one’s life in a way compatible with the call one is discerning. If one does not begin to experience and live some of these basic spiritual elements of vocation, most probably that person is not being called or is not open to receive a call. The discernment process itself, with a faith focus, will cultivate the incipient call from God.

Cross is part of the call

Even if one experiences something of each of the four elements mentioned, how does one recognize that the experience is more than human projection? Vocation is always a matter of walking on water with pure faith and confidence in God. However, there is one sign that is a trademark of God’s call: paradoxically, it is the cross. Young people often tend to think that they have a vocation when everything goes well in regard to their call. But when all goes well and according to one’s likes and desires, there is indeed a possibility that the desired vocation is a product of one’s own liking. If one’s desire to follow a call continues in spite of difficulties or opposition, there is most probably a grace present beyond one’s human fashioning. If one is inclined to follow a call when it means sacrificing things that human nature tends to cling to, it indicates that the inclination comes from beyond one’s human nature. In a sense, the cross is necessary to validate that a call is from God and to protect it from the deception of egoism and self-indulgence. Jesus said that if anyone wishes to accept his call, he or she must “take up the cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). The cross will always accompany God’s call, but the grace of the Spirit will likewise be present and will be experienced as overcoming the adversity of the cross. Instead of being a denial of vocation, the cross becomes a confirmation of the presence of a special grace in one’s life. A young woman discerning her vocation was having many difficulties during her formation year. But she was convinced that she had a vocation to religious life. When I asked her why she thought so, she said simply: “I’m still here. That’s a sign.”

It is not the cross itself that is the sign of a call from God, but rather the reaction of the person experiencing the cross. Enthusiasm in spite of setbacks, desire to serve when it costs the ego, urge to continue when one has good reasons to quit: all are indications that a grace is at work beyond normal human resources. An important part of the discernment process is the paradoxical sign of the cross which confirms the work of the Spirit in the one being called.

Quentin Hackenewerth, SM has been novice master of the Marianists for the sector of Mexico since 1996. Since 1965 he has been involved in formation on the local, provincial and general levels.

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