The Big Decision: Your Options, God’s Plan

(This was written in preparation for a series of conferences on vocations and states in life that I gave at Saint Benedict Center in the Spring of 2005. Please see the end of this piece for a small table of contents with links to the other conferences.)

The Purpose of these Conferences is to help you to discern what is God’s will for your state in life, what is your vocation.

Primary Vocation. Right at the beginning, I should explain what a vocation is. First of all, there is the primary vocation that we all have in common: the call to living a Christian life. This is the vocation to the state of grace in this life and of glory in the next life. It is the most important vocation: God calling you to work with Him in saving your soul.

Secondary States.” The “vocations” that form the subject matter of these conferences are the vocations to the so-called secondary states in life. And these secondary states, which I’ll list in a minute, are very much related to the first state, the state of grace. They are intended by God to assist you in living your primary vocation, the vocation to save your soul.

Definition. The definition of “vocation” I’ll use is the one given by the great Jesuit theologian, Francisco Suárez: “A fixed manner of living, established to preserve grace in this world and to obtain glory in the world to come.” We’ll come back to that definition every once in a while to digest it a bit. Simply appreciating the wisdom of this definition will go a long way to help you in the discernment process.

Enumeration. There are four states in life, four vocations we speak of: matrimony (the married state), the unmarried state in the world (the chaste single state), the religious state (living the consecrated life in an order or congregation), and the priesthood.

Plan for Conferences. I plan on treating of these four states in seven conferences. Here’s the plan:

  1. The Big Decision: Your Options, God’s Plan.
  2. The Better Part: The Religious or Priestly Vocation.
  3. Flying Solo: The Chaste Single State.
  4. The Great Sacrament: Holy Matrimony.
  5. Who will it be? Choosing a Partner.
  6. The Chaste Preparation: Courtship.
  7. Till Death do us Part.

Ecclesiastical Vocations” Treated Together. I’m combining priesthood and religious life into one conference on ecclesiastical vocations. They are not the same vocation, but they are very closely related, and the manner of discerning these higher vocations is similar. Also, since this is a mixed audience, I don’t want to leave the girls out for one whole conference while I talk about the priestly vocation with the young men.

Four Conferences on Matrimony. A full four of the conferences will be dedicated to matrimony. The first reason is obvious. This is the most common state in life, and the one most of you will embrace. My second reason for doing this is because of the increasing trend among our local youth to marry fairly young. It’s important for you to know the realities of the married vocation before considering matrimony at all. It is especially important that you do so if you are considering marrying early.

The Big Decision.” Tonight’s talk is entitled “The Big Decision: Your Options, God’s Plan.” That title deserves some explanation. To call it a “big decision” is really an understatement. Second only to embracing that primary vocation I spoke of — the Christian vocation — the most important decision in anyone’s life is the vocation which that person embraces. Many go so far as to say that your salvation depends on it more than on any other factor. Why is this? It has to do with the fact that our secondary vocation is very much wrapped up in our first vocation. It’s right in that definition I gave you: “A fixed manner of living, established to preserve grace in this world and to obtain glory in the world to come.” The very purpose of these four states in life is to obtain your salvation.

What the Saints say. The saints speak in very clear and strong language on this point:

  • St. Gregory Nazianzen: “I hold that the choice of a state in life is so important, that it decides for the remainder of our life, whether our conduct will be good or bad.”
  • St. Alphonsus: “If, in the choice of a state of life, we wish to secure our eternal salvation, we must embrace that state to which God calls us; in which alone God prepares for us the efficacious means necessary to our salvation… God gives to every one his vocation and chooses the state in which he wills him to be saved.”
  • St. Alphonsus: “It is evident that our eternal salvation depends principally on the choice of our state in life.”
  • St. Vincent de Paul: “It is very difficult, not to say impossible, to save one’s self in a place, or in a state, in which God does not wish one to be.”
  • St. Paul (speaking of his own vocation): “For if I preach the gospel, it is no glory to me: for a necessity lieth upon me. For woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel.” (I Cor. 9:16)

Salvation in the Balance.” So, if your salvation is so much wrapped up in this decision, it is indeed a big decision. It is not a de fide teaching that to choose the wrong vocation means certain damnation, but the difficulty of saving your soul in a state God did not call you to would be nearly impossible to overcome. This is especially if you clearly knew you were resisting God’s manifest will for you. I believe this is the lesson of the rich young man in the Gospel, the one who “went away sad” when Jesus called him. The fact that he turned down a direct divine invitation could explain our Lord’s harsh words: “And Jesus looking round about, saith to his disciples: How hardly shall they that have riches, enter into the kingdom of God! And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus again answering, saith to them: Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches, to enter into the kingdom of God? It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. ” (Mark 10:23-25).

Not Rigorous. In order to show that the point I’m making is not too rigorous, let me quote from a recently authored tract on vocations published by the Institute On Religious Life, hardly an institution associated with rigorism. Under the heading, “Your God-given Vocation,” the author says this:

“Deciding upon one’s specific state in life is not the same as merely choosing a career or picking a profession. While they may be closely connected, discerning your God-given vocation will greatly influence your response to the Christian call to holiness and it could even affect your eternal salvation.

“Without a doubt, all that Almighty God requires of us is the faithful observance of His Commandments. And strictly speaking, it is possible for a believer to be saved under every circumstance and in every situation, since sufficient grace to keep God’s Commandments will never be denied a person. Yet a Christian who turns a deaf ear to the specific call of the Lord may expose himself or herself to eternal ruin — or to say the least, runs the risk of never reaching the heights of spiritual perfection, unless he or she embraces the grace of one’s particular calling in life.”

Your Option, God’s Plan. So, it’s a big decision, but it’s also your option. You have a free will and have to choose for yourself. As in all things which pertain to your salvation, God wants the decision to be yours; He wishes you to cooperate. In order to make the right decision, keep in mind the part of our title which follows immediately after “your option.” It’s “God’s plan.” Just because you are free to make a decision does not mean that any decision you make will be the right one. What you want to decide is to follow God’s will. What you want to discern is what that will is for your state in life.

As is apparent from some of the saints’ quotes above, God has a plan for us and it is our part to discover it. Our Lord made it clear that He had a plan for the Apostles: “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” (John 15:16). Speaking of the counsel of virginity, Our Lord said, “All men take not this word, but they to whom it is given… He that can take it, let him take it.” It would seem that those “who can take it” are those to whom “it is given” by God to remain in holy virginity. In a beautiful passage comparing virginity to the married state, St. Paul said that “Every one has his proper gift from God; one after this manner, and another after that.” (1 Cor. 7:7).

The Right Road. Think of it this way: there are four roads you can take. One of them is the road God had in mind for you from all eternity. Pick that one in order to secure your salvation.

Overview of the Four States

Matrimony a Vocation. Now we can take a look at the four different states. We’ll begin with Holy Matrimony. Is marriage a vocation, a state in life to which God calls people? Yes, it is. It fits the definition: “A fixed manner of living, established to preserve grace in this world and to obtain glory in the world to come.” How do we know that it fits the definition? Our Lord Himself said, “What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” If God joined them together, that means He brought them to that holy state. We also know that God’s mandate to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth was never taken back. That general vocation, given to our whole race, is still in effect. Further, we know that people can be sanctified in that state from the testimony of the Church’s liturgy. In the Exortation that precedes the rite of matrimony, the priests tells the couple that God “sanctified human love and enabled man and woman to help each other live as children of God, by sharing a common life under his fatherly care.”

Dignity of Christian Matrimony. Think of the implications of our definition when applied to marriage. If marriage helps to preserve grace in this world and glory in the world to come, then it must indeed be holy, and must be something directly related to your salvation. Let that sink into your mind so that you don’t mistakenly think of Christian Matrimony in the same terms that worldly people think of marriage. It is not merely a civil contract, not merely a certificate sanctioning two people to cohabitate and benefit from group insurance. It is a sacrament which has blessings attached to it. It’s so important that St. Paul called it “a great sacrament” (Eph. 5:32).

Right Motives. Most people choose the married state. But this does not mean that most people wed properly. And what does it mean to get married improperly? It means that they don’t appreciate matrimony for what it is, namely, a manner of living intended by God to preserve grace in this world and glory in the next.

Reasons for Failure. Most people enter into matrimony for the wrong reasons. Is it any wonder that so many marriages end in divorce? And I’m not talking about non-Catholics. I’m speaking of Catholic marriages. At one time, the divorce rate among Catholics was a fraction of what it was in the rest of the population. With all the chaos that has entered the Church since Vatican II, this is no longer true. Catholics divorce at about the same rate.

Remedies. What’s the remedy for this? Right motives, or right intention. Let me read you what Volume Four of Our Quest for Happiness says about the motives making the proper choice of a state in life:

“My choice of a state in life is intimately connected with my eternal happiness, as well as with my happiness on earth. If I deliberately make a poor choice, through cowardice, love of pleasure, desire for ease and honor, or because of any other ignoble motive, I am jeopardizing my eternity and that of others. In addition, I am almost certainly insuring for myself an uneasy life made miserable by constant self-reproach.”

Purity of Intention: You may be thinking, “Well, Brother, you’re making it sound as if someone has to enter married life with the same purity of intention and desire of pleasing God that it takes to enter a monastery.” Bingo! I am saying that. Since making the choice of your state in life is discerning God’s will for you — trying to tell what that state is for you to enter so as to ensure your salvation — then the marital state does require a great purity of intention.

Raphael’s Advice. I hope you all know the story of Tobias and Sara. This is what the angel Raphael told Tobias: “Hear me and I will show thee who they are, over whom the devil can prevail. For they who in such manner receive matrimony as to shut out God from themselves and from their mind, and give themselves to their lust, as the horse and the mule, which have not understanding; over them the devil hath power” (Tobias 6:16-17).

Signs. What are some signs that you have the married vocation? The first is that you feel drawn to that state. Note, I didn’t say that you feel an attraction to the opposite sex. All normal people have that. It’s part of our animal nature, the part we have in common with “the horse and the mule, which have not understanding.” I said “drawn to that state,” which means that you are attracted to stable family life, taking pleasure in the joys of hearth and home.

Duties. Another sign is that you have the abilities to live up to the duties of that state. In order to determine if you can, consider these questions: Young man, can you provide for your family? Do you have job skills, employment, and a savings ready to begin your family life? Can you spend money frugally? Can you sacrifice yourself to put food on the table? Young lady, can you cook, keep a house clean, and care for sick children? Can you — will you — make your home something pleasant for your husband to come home to when he’s tired after a hard day’s work? Both of you, do you have the wherewithal to put up with the difficulties imposed by crying babies and bickering siblings? Will you discipline your children, raising them to fear and love God, or just let them roam around like free range chickens? Will you see to their education, especially to their religious education? Will you be there for them in the difficult teen years, or will your career or your hobbies be more important? Will you be faithful to your spouse for life no matter what? In short, have you considered the meaning of “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, till death do us part?”

As you can see from these questions, which can be multiplied to a much longer list, there are moral, physical, and mental requirements for one to enter into matrimony. If you truly feel drawn to the marital state and can look beyond the honeymoon, knowing you are prepared for these things, then it seems that marriage is for you.

The Chaste Singe State

A Higher State: The next state we will consider is the chaste single state. This is a true vocation. It has several advantages over marriage, but it has its unique challenges. The biggest advantage is that virginity is superior to the marital state. As you know, when discussing the states in life, we say “superior” or “higher” not to detract from the other states. The choice between marriage and the chaste single state is not a choice between bad and good. It is a choice between good and better. Why is it better? Well, the short answer is that God says so.

Saint Paul wrote this to the Corinthians: “For I would that all men were even as myself… I say to the unmarried, and to the widows: it is good for them if they so continue, even as I …. Now concerning virgins, I have no commandment of the Lord; but I give counsel, as having obtained mercy of the Lord, to be faithful. I think therefore that this is good for the present necessity, that it is good for a man so to be…. He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband” (1 Cor. 7:7-34).

Infallible Teaching. The Council of Trent on Matrimony, Canon X: “If anyone sayeth, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.”

Holy Liberty. In addition to the blessings which are attached to holy virginity. There is also a certain liberty — a good liberty — that comes from embracing the chaste single state. Women who embrace this life often bring great blessings on their families. They can help sisters, mothers, and sisters-in-law, with their own family obligations. They can do volunteer work for good causes. Because their needs are fewer, they can take positions that don’t always pay the best, but in which much good can be done, such as teaching in Catholic schools. Though they will generally be fewer, men who embrace this state can also do much to help their neighbors and friends. Being unburdened by the responsibilities of fatherhood, they can dedicate more time to devotions, to helping young men by working in some youth apostolate, or to reading.

Motives. As in the case of matrimony, the appropriateness of embracing this state is based on motive. Some, especially men, may choose to remain single simply because it’s an easier way out: less work, less responsibility, more freedom to live a footloose lifestyle and collect expensive toys with the money you’ll save by not have a wife and children. These are awful motives. It isn’t rare that such men become perpetual teenagers, never growing up and still attempting to relive their adolescent good times in middle age.

Proper motives to embrace such a life would include the following:

  • The desire to remain a virgin or celibate while at the same time having thoughtfully and prayerfully discerned that the priestly or religious vocation is not for you.
  • The desire to use your holy freedom to be of greater service to the Church and your neighbor.
  • In women, the pursuit of an academic life or career. (Such notions would have to be sacrificed in order for you to live the marital state.)
  • In men, the desire to live a life of quiet recollection and study.

Difficulties. Now, as these aspirations are rare, it is no wonder that there are few who live this state rightly. Should you think that you are called to live this state, there are difficulties to be considered.

Temptations. First and foremost are the temptations against purity that will accompany this state. Everyone, including one married, is required to be chaste; and this virtue is very difficult; but celibate chastity is more difficult. Without the consolations of the married life or the safeguards of the priesthood or religious life to guard chastity, it is most difficult to be and remain continent in the single state in the world.

Loneliness. Another difficulty is the loneliness that can result from this state. Even companionship in old age is an issue. For a girl, the consideration of who will take care of her is also something to be thought of before embracing this state.

Flying Solo.” However, I call it “flying solo” because the greatness of celibacy is that it allows one to fly higher in the spiritual life, like St. John, the eagle. When embraced for the right motives, this state helps the one who lives it to achieve a higher degree of sanctity.

Ecclesiastical Vocation

The last two vocations are the priesthood and religious life. Collectively, they can be labeled “ecclesiastical vocations,” that is, vocations to dedicate one’s self directly to the service of the Church. There are lots of differences between the priesthood and the religious life, but I will treat them together for the reasons I’ve already given.

Priesthood. A priest is a man who has been given the power of Holy Orders. He is ordained to offer sacrifice and forgive sins. Those are the two powers that single him out of the rest of the faithful. Priesthood is clearly a vocation, because only one who is called can enter into this state. Our Lord told the Apostles “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” Also, St. Paul says of the priesthood that “Neither doth any man take the honour to himself, but he that is called by God, as Aaron was” (Heb. 5:4).

Comparisons & Contrasts. Besides the general notion of a life of service to the Church, what priesthood and religious life both have in common is that a priest is obliged, like a religious, to be celibate. He is also expected to obey his bishop according to the laws of the Church. However, the priest does not take the vow of poverty, and even his obedience to his bishop is not as radical as the obedience that a religious owes his superior.

The Counsels. The religious life is the life of the evangelical counsels, which form its very essense. What does that mean? Evangelical means “of or pertaining to the Gospel” (the evangelium.) A counsel is defined as “an exhortation or an invitation to do more for God than is strictly commanded.” It’s something over and above the commandments. For instance, if your father commanded you to take out the garbage, you would have to obey. It’s a commandment. If, on the other hand, he recommends that you finish your homework before seven o’clock, so that you can participate in the family game of Scrabble, then he has given a counsel. You are free to follow it or not. There is no sin involved in not doing so. If you really love him and want to please him, then you will do it. Further, if you are so respectful of your father that you take his counsels, then the habit of obedience you have cultivated will make it easier to keep the commandments. That’s one thing the counsels do: they help us to keep the commandments.

Their Number. The evangelical counsels are primarily three: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Poverty is the renunciation of personal property. Chastity is the complete abstention from marriage. Obedience is the submission of one’s will to a superior.

Advantages of the Counsels. I can explain the advantages of this state by explaining the counsels and what they oppose. You know that St. James listed the “triple concupiscence” when he said “brethren, love not the world, for all that is of the world is the concupiscence of the eyes, the concupiscence of the flesh, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:15-16). These are the three sources of temptation to sin that lurk in our bodies and souls. We cannot run from them, because they are in us. Each of the three vows puts a restraint on one of the three concupiscences.

Poverty & Eyes. Poverty restricts the concupiscence of the eyes, which draws us to become attached to earthly goods, putting our happiness in them instead of in spiritual things. The more I am attached to the things of this world, the less I am attached to God. By renouncing ownership and using only what you are allowed to by your rule and your superiors, this concupiscence is severely curtailed.

Chastity & Flesh. Chastity opposes the concupiscence of the flesh, the natural but disordered appetite for marital relations. By the vow of chastity, the religious renounces his natural right to marry, and therefore puts aside not only the unlawful, but also the lawful experience of married love. I’ve already explained the value of celibacy in discussing single life in the world.

Obedience & Pride. Obedience, which is for most people the most difficult of the vows, declares war on the pride of life. Pride is the worst of the three concupiscences. It’s also the worst of the capital sins. St. Thomas tells us that it is found in every sin. It’s what caused the fall not only of Lucifer, who would not serve, but also of Adam, who put his will above God’s. It is the function of obedience to humble our pride and thereby to cut off that source of sin and implant that most necessary of all virtues, humility, which Our Lord told us to learn from His Sacred Heart: “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart and you shall have rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:29).

Motives. We spoke of motives for the other states. What are motives to induce one to pursue the priesthood or religious life? The desire to flee the world and grow in intimacy with God, which is surely made easier in these states. The desire to do penance for your sins. The desire to save souls, either by preaching, administering the sacraments, evangelizing, performing those spiritual and corporal works of mercy which various orders do as part of their apostolate. The desire to be a missionary. Zeal to live a hidden life with Jesus in a contemplative cloister of monks or nuns. All these are noble reasons for entering into an ecclesiastical vocation.

Discernment. I will speak of the discernment of ecclesiastical vocations more in the next conference. For now, I will content myself with stating that, contrary to popular belief, it’s not brain surgery. To know that you are being called to the priestly or religious life is not difficult. In case you don’t believe me, I’ll quote two saints on the issue.

The first is St. John Bosco: “I consider it wrong for people to say that it is hard to know one’s vocation. God so arranges things for us that all we have to do is to continue on the same path: all that is needed is our cooperation. It is only difficult to know one’s vocation when we do not want to follow it, when we turn our back on our first inspirations. It is at this point that things become complicated.”

St. Francis de Sales gives us the next one: “To have a sign of a true vocation, it is not necessary that our constancy be sensible; it suffices if it be in the superior part of the soul. And therefore, we must not judge that a vocation is not a true one if a person does not feel those sensible movements which he felt in the beginning, even should he feel a repugnance and coldness, which sometimes bring him to waver, and to make it appear to him that all is lost. It is enough that the will remains constant in not abandoning the divine call, and also that there remains some affection for this call. To know whether God will have a person become a religious, it is not to be expected that God Himself should speak or send an angel from heaven to signify his will. It is not necessary that ten or twelve confessors should examine whether the vocation is to be followed. But it is necessary to correspond with the first movement of the inspiration, and to cultivate it, and then not to grow weary if disgust or coldness should come on. If a person acts thus, God will not fail to make all succeed to his glory. Nor ought we to care much from what quarter the first movement comes. The Lord has many ways of calling his servants.”

Seeking Wisdom. I will conclude with a bit of wisdom that will be helpful in discerning the vocation to any state in life. St. James says “if any of you want wisdom, let him ask of God who giveth to all men abundantly and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (James 1:5). Notice that the Apostle says “if any of you want wisdom.” That implies that there are those who don’t want it. To those who do want it, it is guaranteed. And given what we began this conference with — the intimate relation there is between your primary vocation, the call of God to salvation, and the secondary vocation, your state in life — is this manner of your vocation not wisdom? But it is a wisdom you will only receive if you really desire it, perseveringly ask for it, and resolve to live accordingly. Why should God give it to you if you won’t use it?

Later on in that same Epistle, St. James says, “You ask and receive not: because you ask amiss” (4:3). So it goes back to that purity of intention. If you really want to do what God wants you to do, He will give you the grace both to know it and to do it.

It’s a big decision. Pray that the option you choose is also God’s plan.

* * *

Here is a small table of contents with links to the other conferences in this series. If a given conference is not linked, that means it is not posted yet on this web site. (Back to top.)

1. The Big Decision: Your Options, God’s Plan.
2. The Better Part: The Religious or Priestly Vocation.
3. Flying Solo: The Chaste Single State.
4. The Great Sacrament: Holy Matrimony.
5. Who will it be? Choosing a Partner.
6. The Chaste Preparation: Courtship.
7. Till Death Do Us Part.