By Rev. Hau Vu
The English verb “to discern” comes from the Latin “discernere” which means to distinguish, sift out, or to separate. This is the very action one takes when a man or a woman is being called to a particular vocation. Often, a person doesn’t immediately know God’s will for them because there are many different “voices,” desires, feelings, and thoughts that he or she has to confront within and outside of themselves. That is why a person is in much need of this ability of being able to distinguish and separate what is in his or her heart and mind, and what particular voices (Satan, the World, or God) influence them. This time of Lent is extremely helpful to discerning one’s vocation, by entering into the desert with Jesus.
“At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights and afterwards was hungry.” (Matt 4:1-2).
Jesus enters the desert not merely to be tempted by Satan, but in doing so, he reveals to us how to discern our vocation. Discernment is focused upon our ability to be in tune with God’s voice, God’s movement of our heart, and God’s stirring of our Spirit. Jesus being led into the desert reveals to us that in order to discern God’s will, we too have to enter into the spiritual desert of discernment.
A spiritual desert is a place where we lack our usual resources and material comfort. It is where we often find it difficult to know in what direction we are going, since everything looks the same. And we know that in the desert we are not in control of anything; we are at the mercy of nature and its unpredictability. The desert seems scary, but the good part, and this is the sense and the experience of the desert in the Bible, is that there we can rely on God. The way we enter the desert in discernment is through prayer. “What did Jesus do for 40 days in the desert?” He prayed. Prayer, as St. Theresa Avila defines it, “is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.” (Life 8:7). Jesus’ prayer in the desert was a prayer of total surrender, relying only on His Father who loves Him. Just like Jesus, we are called to do the same when discerning a vocation, to humble ourselves and trust in God.
It is when we enter into mental prayer that we recognize we are not in control. When we close our eyes everything looks the same, there is no sense of direction. It is not until we focus our mind and heart to God that we find security and peace. Prayer allows us to surrender our wants and desires for control, and to listen to God’s voice and what he has in store for us.
“Is praying easy?” I wish it was. Just like Jesus who was tempted by Satan, we too are tempted in prayer. Sometimes we are tempted by our hunger for worldly things. Other times we are tempted by the things we see in life, and we may desire money, power, and fame. And there are times when we are tempted to fall into being prideful. These three temptations, and more, are what can distract us during prayer, or worse, it can prevent us from praying. That is why we must remember that in those moments of temptations and distractions, we turn completely to God.
What can help with our prayer during discernment is having the Bible, the Word of God, next to us, in order to guide our attention back to Jesus. Jesus reminds us, in his response to being tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread, that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt 4:4). Therefore, what will guide a person as they discern and pray, is the very Word of God that will nourish them and show to them God’s will.
It is when we have come to God continually, in the desert of our discernment in prayer, that we deepen our familiarity with God, our friendship with Jesus, and our ability to hear His voice. That is what is truly essential as we discern our vocation. Why do you think it is so hard for many people to discern God’s will? It is because many people think they can know it by praying just a few times. But prayer is a continual relationship that asks of us trust, humility, and commitment. Like any loving and fruitful relationship, we must be open to dialogue and speaking with the other person, in order to know his or her wants, likes and dislikes, character, aspirations, emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Likewise, God is wanting the same for us. He knows us completely, but He wants us to know Him completely as well. The only way we can do that, is if we listen to Him speak to us in prayer.
Perhaps this Lent, rather than focusing on what we’re giving up, we could focus on adding something to our life. This Lent we could discern our vocation and God’s will, by getting to know God in prayer, which is the desert of discernment.
Fr. Hau Vu is Associate Director of Vocations in the Diocese of San Bernardino.