Spring 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 47-58.

Edward C. Sellner:Discernment of Vocation for Pastoral Ministry
      Discernment of Vocation for Pastoral Ministry

As a new, broader understanding of vocation spreads throughout the church today, we need to become aware of the various ways in which God calls us to acknowledge and share gifts.

Dr. Sellner teaches pastoral theology and coordinates the pastoral ministry program at the College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, Minnesota.

ELIE Wiesel, in his book Night, tells the story of a young Jewish boy growing up in Sighet, a little town in Transylvania. At an early age, the boy, Eliezer, searches for someone to guide him in his studies of the cabala. Initially discouraged by his father's warning about the risk of venturing too soon into that "perilous world of mysticism," he still continues his search and eventually finds a guide, Moché the Beadle. Moché mysteriously begins their relationship with an affirmation of the value of asking questions. "Every question," he tells Eliezer, "possesses a power that does not necessarily lie in the answer," and "man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him."

That is the true dialogue. Man questions God and God answers. . . You will find the true answers, Eliezer, only within yourself!. There are a thousand and one gates leading into the orchard of mystical truth. Every human being has his own gate. We must never make the mistake of wanting to enter the orchard by any gate but our own.(1)

Like Eliezer, each of us experiences questions in our lives which will not go away, no matter how hard we may attempt to deny them. To listen to these questions, to take them seriously as Moché encouraged Eliezer to do, is open to discover the beginning of a vocation. A word once associated almost exclusively with the call to priesthood or to religious life, vocation is being rediscovered in our contemporary church. It is also being redefined as that calling which all people share, especially baptized Christians, to become who they are meant to be, a calling rooted in the simple, yet very complex question: Who am I? From the perspective of a pastoral theologian, this calling is intimately related to two other questions as well: Whose am I? and: Whom am I called to serve? Though, as the poet Rilke advises, we need patience with the questions themselves, which often seem like "locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign language;" though we need to "live the questions now" so that we might gradually "live along some distant day into the answer,"(2) the discovery of some answers to those questions can change our lives dramatically. The actual discernment of vocation, however, can come to us in a variety of ways.


Sometimes that sense of "calling" or, as some experience it, that sense of "being sent" comes to us through our reading of Scripture and reflection upon it -- as it did for St. Augustine when, before his conversion, he heard the voice of a child in a garden telling him to "take up and read."(3) Sometimes it may come to us in a dream, as it did St. Patrick, when, as he movingly tells us: "I saw, in the bosom of the night, a man coming as itwere from Ireland . . . with letters . . . and he gave one of them to me. And I read the beginning of the letter containing 'the voice of the Irish' . . . and they cried out then as if with one voice, 'We entreat thee, holy youth, that thou come, and henceafter walk among US.'"(4) Sometimes the sense of vocation comes through an experience of "long loneliness," as described by Dorothy Day in an autobiography by that name. Sometimes we recognize the calling, as did the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, in our discernment of social injustices and of our own callow foolishness which allowed us to see the world in a very naive and idealistic way. Sometimes, like Thomas Merton, our hunger for ideas, convictions, and meaning lead us to an ever-deepening desire to give ourselves totally to God in some explicit way. Sometimes we discover our true vocaon only after years of searching and many career changes, as Ann Boisen, the "father" of Clinical Pastoral Education, describes in his autobiography, Out of the Depths. As the recognition of a vocation comes to us in differing ways, so also our responses to that discernment can vary greatly. For certain people, such a discovery is an exhilarating and sometimes totally unforseen experience. Russell Baker, for example, in his autobiography, Growing Up, tells us of the feeling of ecstasy when his essay on "The Art of Eating Spaghetti" was unexpectedly read aloud by his teacher to his classmates:

My words! He was reading my words out loud to the entire class. What's more, the entire class was listening. Listening attentively. Then somebody laughed, then the entire class was laughing, not in contempt and ridicule, but with openhearted enjoyment .... I did my best to avoid showing pleasure, but what I was feeling was pure ecstasy at this startling demonstration that my words had the power to make people laugh. In the eleventh grade, at the eleventh hour as it were, I had discovered a calling. It was the happiest moment of my entire school career .... For the first time, light shone on a possibility!(5)

For others, the discovery of a vocation is associated with a great deal of ambivalence, especially when it comes to us in the loneliness of discerning who we are not meant to be. Stephen Dedalus, in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is asked the question by a Jesuit priest, his spiritual director at a boys' school, "Have you ever felt that you had a vocation (that is, a vocation to the priesthood)?" The question disturbs and haunts Stephen, but it also eventually helps him clarity that he is not meant f0 be a priest. In a statement reflecting his own life story, Joyce writes about Stephen:

He would never swing the thurible before the tabernacle as a priest. His destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders . . . . He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world.
With this affirmation of who he was and who he was not, Stephen's "heart trembled; his breath came faster and a wild spirit passed over his limbs as though he were soaring sunward. His heart trembled in an ecstasy of fear and his soul was in flight." For him, evidently, a frightening yet ecstatic experience, the discernment of his vocation, as Joyce profoundly says, "was the call of life to his soul."(6)

Besides Stephen, other people, in retrospect, equate their discovery of a call with an experience of great struggle and even of utter reluctance to accept the call when it is presented as a choice. C.S Lewis, in his autobiographical writing, Surprised By Joy, describes such an experience that he was only later able to associate with great joy -- and great gratitude:

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen [at Oxford University where he lived and taught], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms . . . . The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.(7)

In whatever way we experience vocation in our lives, for most of us the call itself perhaps is not recognized so decisively as those writers quoted above. What many of us have in common, however, is that which Socrates called "a kind of inner voice" which cannot be stilled, or an emerging inner conviction, described by John Henry Newman, that refuses to be silenced: "God created me to do him some definite service; he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another."(8) For many, this inner voice and conviction is eventually perceived as the voice of God, a moment of grace, contact with the sacred, the transcendent, the Holy One. What all of us also gradually become aware of is what Eliezer's guide told him: "Every human being has his [or herl own gate." In other words, all of us have our own way of living out the truth of our lives as we discern that truth. Though we might like to be, and sometimes quite unconsciously attempt to be, another Augustine, Patrick, Lewis, Day, Niebuhr, Merton, Boisen, Newman, or even Jesus, we cannot be them. We can, however, live our lives and our vocations as authentically as they did theirs, that is, by responding as authentically as they did to the questions of our lives, to the outer experiences and inner voices which will not, quite literally, leave us alone.


The sense of our understanding of "vocation" as in transition in our contemporary church is a very real phenomenon among both laity and ordained. Like the early Irish church before its structures and spirituality were subsumed by England and Rome,(9) we are beginning to experience a "flowering" of ministries, a rich diversity of gifts and talents which are just beginning to be recognized and shared. This flowering finds its roots in a new awareness among people that they do, in fact, have something to contribute and that, as church, they have the responsibility to do so. This flowering also finds its origin in individual and communal conversion experiences: the growing realization that not only has God, spoken to the prophets of old, the apostles who knew Jesus, the saints of other cultures and centuries, but that God is continuing to reveal his love and forgiveness, her wisdom and creativity to each of us. In the midst of our good times and bad, our relationships with spouse, children, relatives, and peers, which so often disturb our lives and so consistently amaze us, we are beginning to see God's presence and loving power. Experiences of birth, marital conflict, friendship with parents, the painful aging and death of grandparents, celebrations of anniversaries, and encounters with unexpected and unexplained suffering -- all raise questions seeking clarification and response. Sometimes joyfully, at times ambivalently, more often than not reluctantly, many of us have come to see that we are on a journey through time -- one that needs to be shared if it is to be experienced as worthwhile. To perceive our journeys as sacred journeys, to discern our vocations which, like tapestries, continue to unfold in length and color and sometimes awesome beauty, depends upon our acknowledging that sacred dimension to our lives and expressing it in stories told in word and deed, ritual and ministry.

To see our lives as sacred journeys is a theme which we find expressed repeatedly in our own rich Judeo-Christian heritage -- from the exodus journey of the Israelites with its trials and liberation to Jesus' journey to Jerusalem which brought suffering and salvation. It is a theme expressed, too, in allegorical form from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress to C.S. Lewis's Pilgrim's Regress. We also find it in the documents of Vatican II, identifying us as "pilgrim people" who, as church, are on the move. Each of us can perhaps identify the moment when that theme and that tradition became a living reality for us, when we stopped considering the sacred only in terms of other people's lives and began to see our sacred memories and moments as worthy of dialogue with theirs. Whenever and however that sense, intuition, conviction, enters our lives, a turning-point is reached, conversion happens, theology as "faith seeking understanding" becomes a daily reflective process.

Bede Griffiths, a student of C.S. Lewis at Oxford in the 1920s, writes about such a turning-point in his autobiography, The Golden String:

One day during my last term at school I walked out alone in the evening and heard the birds singing in that full chorus of song which can only be heard at that time of year at dawn or at sunset. I remember now the shock of the surprise with which the sound broke on my ears. It seemed to me that I have never heard the birds singing before and I wondered whether they sang like this all the year round and I had never noticed it. As I walked on I came upon some hawthorn trees in full bloom and again I thought that I had never seen such a sight or experienced such sweetness before .... A lark rose suddenly from the ground beside the tree where I was standing and poured out its song above my head. Everything then grew still as the sunset faded and the veil of dusk began to cover the earth. I remember now the feeling of awe which came over me. I felt inclined to kneel on the ground, as though I had been standing in the presence of an angel; and I hardly dared to look on the face of the sky, because it seemed as though it was but a veil before the face of God.
In retrospect, Bede sees this experience as one of the decisive moments of his life: one that revealed to him the sacramental character of nature itself and the presence of a loving God. "Suddenly we know," he writes, "that we belong to another world, that there is another dimension to existence."(10)

However we discover that dimension -- whether through an aesthetic experience which Bede describes or an experience of powerlessness, helplessness, suffering -- we are transformed and our histories are divided between "before" and "after." It is also often the beginning of the recognition of a call to ministry: the sense that life gives us moments and for those sacred moments we give our lives. Ministry then is not something we put on like a collar or a particular kind of uniform which labels us as such, but ministry emerges out of those patterns of our lives which reveal gifts received and the yearning to return them -- the yearning which Abraham Heschel calls "the yearning which sweeps eternity: the yearning to praise, the yearning to serve."(11)

Some of us may seek recognition of those gifts in some institutional way (for example, ordination). Whether we decide to do so or not, always our ministry must be rooted in a grateful appreciation of gifts received and a healthy awareness of our own limitations. An inner affirmation that we have something to contribute also needs an "outer" affirmation, a discernment by others on the "grass-roots" level that those gifts and the desire to serve are genuine. Ministry begins with our personal relationships of family, friends, and peers. It is their discernment process, expressed to us when they might say, "You know, you're really good at that" or "People come to you because you listen so well," which is crucial to our own discernment. No matter how many ceremonies of "laying on of hands" or how many "good intentions" we might have, effective ministry will not happen unless those close to us have also guided us with their insight and, more specifically, their wisdom.


How can we begin to listen, to take seriously the questions of our identities and the possible direction of our lives? How can we begin to discern for ourselves the call to ministry on our sacred journeys through time? Presupposing that the discernment of vocation is a process, I would recommend that we begin with the attempt to tell our own stories, first, by identifying them for ourselves.

Years ago, back in the 1800s, my great, great grandfather, Mar tin Foy, came to Minnesota from Ireland. He took up farming it southern Minnesota, near New Ulm, and retired in 1890 to Springfield. There, in his advancing years, he wrote an autobiography entitled "Trials and Experience of Frontier Life on the West ern Prairie." In it, he states that "every man and woman has a stor~ to tell; many of them have a story to tell much like my own."(12) I have come to appreciate the wisdom of my ancestor, for it seem to me that no matter who we are and no matter how eloquent or otherwise, if we tell our own story with some degree of honesty and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and, if related in a personal way, it will be in some sense a universal story. Attempting to name the good times and bad, the significant people why have had -- for better or worse -- their influence on us is a way of contemplation, a way of seeking wisdom, a way of prayer. When we take time to look back over our lives for certain themes and patterns that are easy to miss when we are caught up in the process of living them, we are affirming that our stories are sacred journeys and that, possibly, within them we can find the seeds of our own ministries. One does not have to be a great writer or someone with a talent for writing well, but merely a person who wants to discover the truth of one's life, a truth that begins to emerge as we reflect on our lives and times and begin to take time to write our stories down.

To facilitate that writing, let us consider some questions which might help us focus on our pasts and thus help us discover who we are, whose we are, whom we are called to serve. We may begin to see that discernment, in fact, is not limited to present experiences and future dreams, but also rooted in our pasts: sometimes the stories of our ancestors, always our recollections an memories.

  1. Family Roots. What was my relationship with my parents like? What with my brothers and sisters? What did I learn from them? What is my inheritance, the gifts that I inherited from them which I can contribute to other peoples lives? What is my most painful memory when I was a child? What my happiest? Beyond the familial, what cultural heritage was passed on to me?

  2. Significant Persons. Are there certain people in my life besides my immediate family who taught me certain values, who formed me with their love? To whom am I grateful and for what? From whom do I feel alienated and why? In what way are they significant? In what ways could I acknowledge my gratitude or my own need for reconciliation?

  3. Significant Events. Are there certain events, good times and bad, turning-points, which have had their effect on my life? What are they and in what way are they significant? Be specific. Are there certain places which I associate with those events?

  4. Patterns. Are there any patterns in my life which emerge as 1 reflect upon my journey? Are these patterns related to any self-destructive behavior or patterns which brought some personal integrity, happiness, and satisfaction into my life? Are there certain gifts which I can contribute to my family's and communitys health as well as my own?

  5. A Title. Titles of books or plays have a way of summarizing what that book or play is really about; they help focus the content of an entire work in a few words or a short phrase. For example, Dorothy Days autobiography, The Long Loneliness, is about the experience of loneliness and, because of it, her own search for God and community; Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain is a story of repentence and conversion, a "climb" to holiness and God; C.S. Lewis's Surprised By Joy, about a life journey initially in search of joy, finally leading to an encounter with its Source. After reflecting on my story, what would I entitle it? Why?

These questions cannot be answered hurriedly. We need time for reflection, for listening, for beginning to see the richness of our lives. We also need to begin that writing with low expectations -- not with a grandiosity that our story must be so perfect as to be suitable material for a movie or play. (Many of us already believe that not even a novel or movie could adequately describe the seemingly "strange" aspects of our lives!) Rather, we write our life story for ourselves, as a way of beginning to appreciate the whole story and what gifts might be in need of acknowledgment, gratitude, and sharing. Such writing of our story need not be the length of a book, but perhaps only a short chapter. For those who simply cannot write for one reason or another, alternatives can be found to writing one's life story. Some might prefer to keep a taped "oral journal," for example, and simply reflect aloud into a tape recorder those memories of people and events which come to mind. Others may prefer to express their stories through drawing, painting, or collecting old photographs. Whatever seems to fit, re-collecting our memories and continuing to reflect on our stories as they unfold can be a way of acknowledging all of them so that they can finally be claimed gratefully as ours.

Another way of discerning the mystery of our stories and the possible traces of a vocation is that of journaling. A journal can be one place to begin to respond to the questions of our daily lives and to the broader questions of who I am, whose I am, and whom I am called to serve. Both the words journal and journey come from the French, le jour. Journaling can become a way of reflecting upon one's daily journey as well as a way of preparing to write one's life story. It is not necessarily a way of "capturing" one day's or yea's mystery, but a way of becoming aware of the mystery which is a part of every life and every day.

What can be recorded in a journal is anything which seems most appropriate to the person doing the writing: anything from an account of significant daily events and feelings associated with them to a description of dreams -- the ones that come to us at night or those "daydreams' which haunt us in our waking hours. Whatever the content of our journal, journaling can be a practice which helps to clarify our present situations and to give us a glimpse into the future as we reflect on who we are becoming now. journaling can also offer the opportunity for examining the past where unhealed memories need to be "named" and reconciled. Whatever our journaling focuses on, each of us must find a method that is meaningful to us. There is no right way or wrong way of journaling.(13) As a practice, however, it has been used by all sorts of people, from Emerson to Reinhold Niebuhr, from Pope John to Dorothy Day, from Hammarskjold to Thomas Merton, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Virginia Woolf. Besides the increase of self-awareness that journaling brings (certainly an important attribute of any pastoral minister), there comes an awareness that this journaling is a form of worship and a form of prayer. If we take seriously C.S. Lewis's analogy that contemplation is "the daughter of wisdom,"(14) we can see that journaling is a way to wisdom itself.

Whether keeping a journal or writing a life story, either or both forms of meditation can possibly lead to sharing our reflections with family and friends, or with what the ancient Irish called an anamchara, a "soul friend."(15) Out of such sharing we may eventually come to the understanding expressed by the young convert and monk, Thomas Merton, that all vocations, all stories, really, are meant to reveal one vocation, one story whose origin is God:

Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called . . . to a deep interior life, perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others. And if you cannot do so by word, then by example.
In an obvious reference to his own sacred journey and his own ongoing discernment of vocation, he describes the experience of us all: "In one sense we are always travelling, and travelling as if we did not know where we were going. In another sense we have already arrived.(16)

  1. Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Avon Books, 1969), p. 14.
  2. Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1934), p.35.
  3. St. Augustine, Confessions, bk. 8, chap. 12.
  4. St. Patrick, quoted in Katherine Scherman, The Flowering of Ireland (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1981), p. 90.
  5. Russell Baker, Growing Up (New York: Congdon & Weed, Inc., 1982), pp. 188-189.
  6. See James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: The Viking Press, 1964), pp. 157-71.
  7. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 19551, pp. 22 & 29.
  8. John Henry Newman, quoted in Edward Fischer, "That Voice Within," Notre Dame Magazine 61 (February 1983): 40.
  9. For an excellent description of the early Irish church, see John T. McNeill, The Celtic Churches (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974). Also Kathleen Hughes and Ann Hamlin, Celtic Monasticism (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), and Maire and Liam de Paor, Early Christian Ireland (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1978).
  10. Bede Griffiths, The Golden String (Springfield, Ill.: Templegate. 1980), pp. 9-11.
  11. Abraham Heschel, Man Is Not Alone (New, York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 1951), p. 259.
  12. Martin Foy, "The Trials and Experience of Frontier Life on the Western Prairie" The Story of Cormac, ed. Father Hunt (Toronto, Ontario: Mission Press, 1954).
  13. For further guidance in journaling, see George Simons, Keeping Your Personal Journal (New York: Paulist Press, 19781, and Morton Kelsey, Adventure Inward (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1980).
  14. C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Lerdmans, 19331, p 121.
  15. For an explanation of this form of ministry, see my article "Soul Friend: Guidance on our Sacred Journeys," Spiritual Life 19 (Summer 1983) 73-83.
  16. Thomas Merlon, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1948), p. 419.