What do I do Next?

How Do I Make a Decision?

Becoming clearer so as not to drift…

Usually our vocation becomes clearer over time. If you are living your Catholic faith, and being open to the Lord and to all that is happening in your life, you should gradually feel a pull in one direction, a growing conviction that one way of life is right for you. This process of discernment takes time, and it is much more than simply trying to make practical decisions.

Yet there are two reasons why you might come to a time in your life when you need to make a decision of some kind. First, because things have become clearer, and you feel you are ready to take a step in a certain direction. Second, because things are not at all clear, and you have been going round in circles about your vocation for a long time, and you don’t seem to be getting anywhere. In this case it can be helpful, with the support of a wise person you trust, to try and make some kind of provisional decision about where you are going. There is a risk that you could drift through life without making any decisions; always looking for signs that will tell you what to do, without actively taking responsibility for your own choices. You could become a ‘serial discerner’ and fall prey to ‘paralysis through analysis’.

Sometimes God lays before us different possibilities, and wants us thoughtfully and prayerfully to come to a decision about what seems best. It is not a final decision (we don’t make a final decision until the day of our marriage or ordination or solemn profession), it is simply a decision to test the water instead of hovering at the edge, to start down one particular path instead of standing at the crossroads. We shouldn’t be surprised that God sometimes invites us to make a choice. Sometimes, but not always, we learn more about God and about ourselves by acting than by waiting. We are often looking for certainty, for objective signs. But one of the ‘signs’ of a vocation can be our willingness to try a particular path and see where it leads. He leads us partly through our choices. You don’t have to be certain about the choice, you just have to make the best choice that you can. If you wait for 100% certainty you will be waiting forever.

Here are some tips about how to make a decision when the time comes. You don’t need to use them all, like a checklist – they are simply ideas in case you are stuck.

Wait

God’s call usually becomes clearer over time. Often we just need to wait patiently – living our Catholic faith, doing all we can to be open to God’s will, praying for his help and guidance. Don’t force the issue. Something will happen – in your own heart, or in the circumstances of your life. But if it doesn’t happen then…

Weigh up the pros and cons

Take some extra time to reflect on your life and on all the factors that seem significant in this choice. What are the options before you? Write down the pros and cons of each option. Think about them. Weigh them up. Put the list away and come back to it a few days later. What seems to be most important for you? What seems best?

Imagine that you have made a decision

It can sometimes help to imagine that we have made one particular choice (and then to imagine that we have made an alternative choice). Be very concrete. Imagine telling your friends and family; imagine taking the next step. Imagine changing your life accordingly. Imagine where you will be in a few weeks, a few months. What feelings does this stir up? What hopes and fears? Excitement? Relief? Despondency? Regret? These feelings can sometimes reveal what is deep in our heart. Another idea is to imagine you are at the very end of your life, looking back on all that might have happened as you followed this path. Can you be proud of such a life and pleased to offer it to God? Or would you be disappointed or sad?

Talk to someone

Not just anyone, not just a friend who will say what you want to hear. It should be someone you trust, a committed Catholic, who is wise, and who will be honest with you. It might be a friend or relation or a priest you know; or someone you don’t know who has been recommended by, for example, your parish priest. They might give you some good advice and encouragement. But even if they don’t say much it is enormously valuable to talk about our hopes and fears in this way. It forces us to put into words the vague thoughts and feelings we have; and it gives us new courage and clarity simply because we have been brave enough to open our heart to another person – our hopes and worries about vocation are no longer just a ‘secret’, they become more real, more urgent.

Pray

Pray to God for guidance and help. Pray especially to the Holy Spirit for wisdom. Make a particular prayer each day for help as you make this decision. If you are about to make a big decision, ask a priest to offer Mass for your own personal intentions (which are that you will make a good decision – you don’t have to explain all this to him). To offer Mass for an intention in this way brings great graces to any situation. But don’t pray too much! Sometimes, especially if you are feeling desperate, you might think that you have to pray more and more, as if you are forcing God’s hand. It can become a kind of superstition, and you half-worry that God will not help you unless you pray for hours every day and turn your life upside down with devotions. This is simply not true. God loves you and cares for you and wants the best for you. He certainly wants you to pray, but in whatever way is right for you as a layperson studying or working in the world.

Listen to your heart

Sometimes, when we make time to think about one course of action or one possibility, it brings with it a deep sense of peace and joy; not just a passing mood or emotion, but an inner feeling that something is right, a contentment and quiet excitement, a sense of reassurance and freedom, of being on the right track. At other times, when we stop to reflect in this way, an idea brings with it feelings of fear and panic and worry and insecurity; a sense of heaviness and imposition and unnecessary obligation.

The spiritual peace (or ‘consolation’) can be a sign that one path is right for us, a sign that it fits with who we are and who God calls us to be. The fear and panic (or ‘desolation’) can be a sign that one path is not right for us, that it is pulling us away from who we are and who God calls us to be. But some fears and doubts, natural fears that we are bound to face when we make big decisions, are not signs of anything deep – and they simply need to be faced and overcome.

Take a single step

If you are still unsure what to do and feel paralysed and unable to make a big decision, it can help to make a small decision instead. Decide to take just one step down a certain path, the next step – so that you can see how it feels and how it turns out. You don’t need to find certainty that this is the final step for you; you simply need to have some confidence that it is a good and worthwhile step in itself at this moment. For example, if you have never talked to anyone about your dilemmas, then decide to talk to someone.

If you are unsure about a vocation to the priesthood, then at least go and speak to your vocations director. If you are fond of someone but unsure about marriage, then at least try to get to know them better. If you would love to be a nun, but feel pulled in different directions, then make a decision to visit a convent and even arrange to stay for a few days. If you are seriously considering a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life, but still unsure of how to find certainty – then why not consider making an application and see how you feel? You can always change your mind in the next few weeks. Or you can leave after the first few months. Often simply making one decision helps us to see that it is the wrong decision – and nothing is lost, but great clarity is gained. Or perhaps you won’t be accepted, and that will certainly be a sign that this is not for you.

Make a decision

The English language is instructive. We don’t find a decision – we make one. Sometimes we imagine that a vocation is something we have to find: if I can only find the answer, read the signs, discover the path – then I will happily walk along it. There is some truth to this, and the title of this booklet is all about ‘discovering’ your vocation. But as well as this, a vocation is also something you have to choose. With all the signs in front of you, with all that lies in your own heart, there is a moment when you will need to weigh everything up and simply make a decision. Not a final decision you are certain about, but the best decision possible at this time – a ‘provisional’ decision. Looking for infallible signs can paradoxically be a way of avoiding the responsibility and risk of making a decision.

There are not many moments of decision like this, but there are some. You can trust that God will help you to make a wise decision now; and above all that his plan for your life will unfold through the consequences of your prayerful decision. If it is the ‘wrong’ provisional decision, and you are meant to be somewhere else – he will make that clear before too long. If it is the ‘right’ provisional decision, and you are meant to continue along this road – he will confirm that for you and make it clearer and clearer. Only when you are at the stage of making lifelong promises or vows will he ask you to make an irrevocable decision – and by that stage you will have had many reassurances that this is the right path for you.

Trust in Providence

Above all, you can trust in God’s Providence. If you are not yet at the point of making decisions, then trust that God will guide and enlighten you. If you are about to make an important decision, trust that God will help you to make a wise one. If you have made a decision, trust that God will lead you to know if it is indeed the right one. He loves you more than you love yourself. He cares for you with an unbounded tenderness and affection. His power is greater than any other force in creation, and his Providence is guiding everything and will put right even the mistakes you may make.

So be at peace. Do all that you can; but trust in the Lord.

(Photo: mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk)