A lot of discernment about vocation is rightly based around a certain set of particular questions: “Is the monastic life for me?” “Should I get married?” “Is this the person I should marry?” “What should I study?” “Which career should I pursue?” “Where should I live?” “Is this the right decision?”
This discernment takes a lot of prayer, study, trial and error, and wise counsel. But another important part of the equation to take into consideration is the question of who you are. It sounds obvious and simple, but in reality, even the earnest platitude “just be yourself!” is sometimes much harder to put into practice than it would seem. Embracing our identity is difficult because self-knowledge can be obscured by a cloud of busy activity and expectations (both from within and from without), and because people are not static. It is a delicate dance to try to know yourself while that self is continually changing and growing.
Self-knowledge is not the same as self-absorption or selfishness. Rather, it is an honest and humble continuing assessment of who you are and what you do; sometimes disappointing and sometimes surprising, helpful for relationships, for discernment of life decisions of various sizes, and for Confession as well! Neither is “being yourself” an excuse for bad habits or inertia, nor should it be any sort of crass individualism. The goal of self-knowledge is to become more truly the person God created you to be, striving to be freed of both false affectation and injurious vice, to more clearly reflect His love in the way, time, and place that you uniquely can.
In the quiet of reflection, and over the passage of time, it becomes more apparent what our natural strengths and weaknesses are, what our temperament and talents are, and what are our likes and dislikes. All these things form an important whole, and our identity changes the question of vocation. “What should I do with my life?” instead becomes “How might I best be attuned to God’s will, especially given my particular talents, weaknesses, and circumstances?”
So, when making a decision, our self-understanding becomes the best tool we have at our disposal. “Would this job serve to stretch my abilities and help me become a more well-rounded person, or am I truly not suited for this particular line of work, no matter how much study I might put into it?” “Knowing how I like to see things firsthand, would a visit to a monastery/college/workplace help me better envision whether that life might be right for me?” “What things have I accomplished in the past, that I never would have thought I could do; or enjoyed, that I hadn’t anticipated enjoying?” “What hobby have I always wanted to pursue, but never have…and what delightful avenues might it open up?”
From here, we learn to rephrase the question of “what does God want me to do?” in terms of “who am I?”and the natural Christian corollary “who does God want me to be?” And our answer, whatever it may be, becomes our own unique and living reflection of the love that God has shown us all.