James Chastek on Discerning Vocations

Mostly I am posting this because I greatly respect James Chastek and you can’t actually respond on his blog. I find his post on discerning vocations…not bad, exactly, but kind of strange. Give it a read:


To me it gets strange here:

Q: But what about your future vocation? If I’m a single guy, should I try to discern a vocation to some other state?

A: Why do you think you should?

Q: Because God has a plan for everyone’s life, and by discernment I should be able to figure it out.

Q: But shouldn’t we strive to know God’s will? What possible christianity could there be without this?

A: We should strive to know God’s will so far as we can know it, and we can’t know what it is years in advance before we are in a position to decide things one way or another. Your desire for discernment is more a desire for prophetic knowledge than for prudence, i.e. the virtue that acts well in the face of uncertainty. The desire for prophetic clarity is, in fact, a sort of vice against prudence so far as it has an immoderate aversion to the intrinsic uncertainty of life.

To me there is a jump here from “Striving to know God’s will insofar as our future path in life goes and whether or not we are called to a different state in life” and “A desire for prophetic knowledge.” Frankly I’m confused where he gets this from:

Your desire for discernment is more a desire for prophetic knowledge than for prudence

Huh? What? Who said anything about prophetic clarity about the future?

Discernment is about acknowledging that God may be calling you to various things and praying to ensure you are making the right decision insofar as your calling. Marriage and the Priesthood are certainly both things you can rush into rashly, and possibly mistakenly. Alternatively you may be called to one or the other and neglect to even consider the possibility – hence discernment.

When St. John Bosco tried to help young boys discover if they were suited to the Priesthood or not, was he seeking “prophetic knowledge” rather than prudence? If he was not, why not? And why does Mr. Chastek believe that modern discernment is any different than what the Saint was attempting to accomplish?

Mr. Chastek ends it with this:

Q: What is the point of all this discernment I’ve been told to do?

A: Much of it is probably just temptation. As soon as the devil sees you advancing in the spiritual life he will pester you to come up with answers to insoluble questions and try to convince you the answers are relevant to your relationship with God. The point is to generate anxiety and rob you of the joy of the Holy Spirit. It’s the same tactic he uses when he causes scruples.

Well, no, the point is to help you, through prayer and careful preparation, try to serve God as best you can. Scruples is a real issue, but I would posit it is probably not an issue most people in the modern world deal with, but rather the opposite – not taking sin, or your relationship with God, seriously ENOUGH.

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2 Responses to James Chastek on Discerning Vocations

  1. David says:

    Hello Malcolm,
    I often find Chastek’s stuff to go over my head, but I think I can find some insight in his posts on vocation and discernment.
    His other posts flesh out what was confusing me, and maybe you, about this post. He really does think that trying to ensure that you make the “right” decision is superstition and “prophecy.” I, at the very least, would not put it exactly like this, but I can understand it and think there is something to it.
    The basis of it is that, Providence and free will must “synergize” as the Orthodox say of Grace and free will. The total assurance that we are doing the “best” thing with regards to sacramental, life-changing vows is simply not something God really gives us, to Chastek. For there are Graces that the sacramental vows themselves give us, and they are something to be lived from the inside and cannot be either totally analyzed from the outside or “forced” on us by God.
    I think there is something in “modern discernment” advocated by at least some, that Chastek is accurately conveying. It at the very least has applied to my own past thinking. The idea that God definitely will’s me to take this vow rather than some other is the basis of it. Married life, the priesthood and religious life are all sacramentally willed by God, and He definitely thinks that in general celibacy is better. All will have disappointments and crosses to bear.
    I take your last point well, but there is something of an optimization problem to it. The moral law is not flexible, but our knowledge, including of ourselves, is limited and always must be. In general, it would be better for me to be prepared for whatever God will’s for me than to ask God to reveal what His will is in a sure and certain way. Whether this applies to “modern discernment” I am not completely sure, but it is what many Church Fathers and Doctors have taught.
    P.S. I hope by my quotes I show that I am not saying that the position Chastek, and I, are critiquing is exactly yours. I really enjoy your posts!

    • Thank you, that helps. I’m certainly open to thinking that I missed something with Chastek since he’s always worth reading.

      The idea that God definitely will’s me to take this vow rather than some other is the basis of it.

      I agree, but there seems to be a throwing out of the baby with the bathwater here, or at least it seems like it to me. The idea that discernment is *in itself* a bad thing strikes me as wrong, but maybe I’m the one up a creek.

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