Jack Nicholson on discernment for Salt & Iron: Seasoned Writing

Discernment, Vocation, and the Lies We Tell Ourselves

As far as our language around vocation is concerned, we as Christians so often get it wrong. We do not understand what it is all about. Our idea of “discerning” a “vocation” can all too easily mask anxiety about the future, which is of this world. We cannot escape it any more than we can escape anxiety itself.

We derive our understanding of vocation from a belief endemic to the “age of meritocracy” in which we live: that the decisions we make matter because we are free to go where our talents take us, free of constraints like class. We all have talent of some kind. If we happen to be unfulfilled in any way, it is because we have made the wrong decisions and have failed to take the opportunity to unleash our true potential. We have not discerned our true vocation and acted on it. It is our fault.

To think along these lines is the result of bad theology, of course. It assumes that life’s satisfaction depends upon our own reflectiveness, and the decisions that we make, as opposed to the operation of God’s grace. It reflects the belief that we can find what we seek in a straightforward answer to the question, “What will I do with this life of mine?” This is an important question, but we ought not reduce discernment to answering it.

Workaday Triviality

In War and Peace, a central character named Pierre Bezukhov has an epiphany in which he asks himself precisely that question. “What comes next, then? What am I going to do?” Pierre’s answer is instructive: “Nothing. I’m just going to live.” His response is born of a change he has experienced. “T]he one thing that had tormented him in earlier days, the constant search for a purpose in life, had ceased to exist… And it was the lack of any purpose that gave him the complete and joyous sense of freedom underlying his present happiness.” This may sound nihilistic, but nihilistic it is not. It is rather a recognition that “workaday triviality,” the things which we set up as idols, cannot possibly capture the infinite majesty of God.

It is all too tempting to conflate having a vocation with one finite purpose, even and especially ordained ministry in the Church. We should recognize that discernment is about more than the one call, not imagine it as telephone conversation from which we can hang up. It is, to quote the Anglican priest R. M. Benson, about “the voice of God which called us at the first…calling us on,” and so “we must ever be listening.” “God never ceases to speak.” He just goes on giving.

We should not privilege one form of life above another as far as vocation is concerned. A religious form of life is simply a framework in which we may discern the one true vocation—to follow Christ—with ever increasing clarity. God’s grace operates in a community, the body of Christ. We are not alone.

Launch Out Into the Deep

Discernment is not, as a priest once grumbled to me, an unhelpful, “churchy word.” It expresses a sublime truth at the heart of our faith, which is God’s presence in the world. Discernment is as much about saying “yes” to a cup of tea with a friend in need, as it is about choosing what I will do with this life of mine.

The choice is whether one will respond to the summons of God. Fulton J. Sheen, the prominent Catholic leader, wrote of his own discernment of vocation in these terms. Like Saint Peter on the Sea of Galilee, he suggested, we should forever “launch out into the deep” again. Repent because of unworthiness, and enjoy a “long chain of generous beginnings, the rowing out again into the sea” in which you are really free. See where that takes you.

To launch out into the deep, to forego the finite, and to boldly say, “I’m just going to live”—that is what this business of discernment is all about.

Author: Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson is a student of nineteenth century British political history, although as an Anglican he has also a keen a interest in the intersection between theology and historical study. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, cooking for friends, walking in the countryside, and now writing which he sees as an extension of the life of prayer and an important means by which, if called, we come alive in God.

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