There are many intriguing aspects to this simple, straightforward question. For example, I want to talk about the notion of “calling” ... and about a call from GOD. But I think the heart of the question is how do you KNOW? So let me start there. Are there any signs or signals that God is calling you to religious life, or to serve in some way?
Here’s what I’ve noticed in years of working with people discerning a call.
- It seems to start off vague and gradually over time becomes more clear. Maybe in prayer, or on retreat, or after meeting someone who is living out a commitment to God, you may have a fleeting, half-formed thought: “Hmmm ... I could do that!” Or maybe, “I wonder if I should be a (nun, priest, brother, pastoral minister ... etc) Or, “What if God is calling ME?”
- The thought keeps returning. Like a song that creeps back into your consciousness, or a recurring theme in a book, that persistent voice of God will surface now and then -- perhaps with increasing frequency. Sometimes in the strangest places or at the oddest times the thought will pop up. And you may even think: “Oh no, not THAT again!”
The call is often an idea that just won’t go away. God is persistent, offering the call in many gentle or subtle ways -- until you have time to grow into the idea!
- Your reaction to the call begins to change. At some point the fear, or resistance, or incredulousness of it starts to lessen and slowly you notice a shift is taking place. You may find something softening in your response to God’s little nudges. If you were responding “No way!”, you may be surprised to find it becoming “Really? Me?" ... or “Well that wouldn’t be so bad”
Or maybe your call began with a wish or attraction to religious life or a particular service. And you find yourself moving from wondering to wanting. Feelings of unworthiness give way to confidence that God wants to use you.
Eventually, there comes a time when your soul already knows the answer! Yes, I have found the soul often is ahead of the self! The deeper self begins to know before the outer self “gets it.” And then there comes the day when you notice a real desire or even longing to say “yes” to God, when the call seems not perplexing or fearful but blessed and undeserved.
- God will speak in a voice that you recognize. Several truths are tucked in this statement. First is that God WANTS you to know the divine intention for your life. Why would God NOT help us hear God’s voice?! There is a wonderful passage from Isaiah that I just love and frequently quote when talking about discernment:
“No longer will your Teacher hide himself from you, but with your own ears you shall hear your Teacher, while from behind a voice shall sound in your ears: ‘This is the way. Walk in it ...’“ (Isaiah 30:20-21)
God will speak in a way that you can hear. If you are a quiet spirit, God will speak gently or softly. If you are a tough cookie, God may use (as one of my discernees used to say) a “two by four” to get through to you!! Whatever it takes ... a voice you will recognize. After all, we are MADE for God ... and made BY God. Like an infant recognizes its mother’s voice, so your soul instinctively turns towards God.
One other truth tucked in here is the necessity for prayer. God is speaking to us all the time, a constant communication with our deepest self. But without practicing prayer, we tend not to be attuned to the Voice within us. God speaks, but it’s like a foreign language to our outer self, distracted by the noise and clamoring loud voices of a restless world.
- Even though the idea of following God’s call may bring doubt, practical concerns and difficulties, or fear, it ultimately brings peace. This is one of the hallmarks of God’s call. Its “rightness“ for our life brings peace to our souls. Even when we don’t understand how it will work out, or end up, we can like Mary in the Annunciation, find peace when we arrive at a yes. Peace is one of the major signs of God’s presence. So, one way you know you are being called by God is if it produces, at some deep level, an unexplainable peace.
- Those who really know you, perhaps a good friend, parent or spiritual director, confirm what you have been hearing. I have worked with young people who are worried what others will say when they tell them what they are considering. Often, when they “spill the beans” and share their thought about a call to serve God, the people react with positive comments like: “I KNEW you would do that! I’m so happy.” Or, “You would be great at that!” “Good for you! “I’m proud of you!” Even, “What took you so long?” Those who truly love us see our gifts, want what is best for us, and are often truth barometers for us. God can confirm the call through a wise friend or mentor.
I suppose there are many other tips to answer this question of “How do I know?” Ultimately a good spiritual director would send you back to a few honest, heart-to-heart conversations with God. By the reaction in your deepest heart, we can usually come to a little clarity about God’s intention or desire for our lives.
Blessings on your journey, and keep asking the honest questions!