St. Alphonsus on Vocation

“How narrow is the gate, and straight is the way that leadeth to life: 

and few there are that find it!” – Matthew 7:14

The path to salvation is found only in Jesus Christ, yet there are many roads along that path which allow for one to serve Him. The question of which path one is to follow to best serve Him brings about a serious consideration of His Will and the trust thereof. We call discernment the process of prayerfully considering where God is calling a soul to serve Him. Discerning a vocation is no easy task. Marked by long periods of waiting, interior struggles, spiritual desolations, and other pains known only to those who have undergone such a process, the soul is put to the test in the “fiery furnace,” so to speak, as the good Lord makes known where He has desired that soul to follow Him. 

Doubtless, the question of one’s path, or vocation, is of the utmost importance in one’s spiritual life. We use the official term vocation, (coming from the Latin vocare, which means to call), to describe the calling of God for one’s soul. If discerning a vocation was not so imperative to one’s spiritual life, why would there be such a struggle involved in the process? Struggles are necessary to prove our love for God, even when we consider how best to serve Him with our lives. Where there is no struggle, it seems to bear no hesitation in saying that there is something “fishy” going on.

Regardless of the struggles, there still remains a question when it comes to discernment, from which multiple other questions emerge. What if one were to choose the “wrong” vocation? Is such a thing possible? Could that person be lost forever? Would it not be selfish to go about one’s own way and not the way God has called us to live? One of the great spiritual writers who tackles this question is St. Alphonsus Liguori. Besides giving me scruples from time to time, St. Alphonsus seriously considers one’s vocation as being the major and perhaps sole means of one’s salvation. As he says, 

“It is clear that our eternal salvation depends principally on the choice of our state… In regard to choosing a state, if we want to make sure of our eternal salvation, we must follow the divine vocation, where alone God has prepared efficacious helps to save us…”    

This quote, besides giving me scruples in my own discernment, has made me seriously consider the reality of the question: Is one forever lost if they choose the “wrong” vocation? Let us examine this question further.

It would seem that, according to St. Alphonsus, one who does not follow the Divine Vocation is set off on a path which, though not entirely impossible, would make it extremely difficult to obtain one’s salvation. For if one were not to follow the path God has called Him to, he would be cut off from those efficacious means God has prepared to help him be saved. Let us consider an example. If God was certainly calling a man to the priesthood, and after having seriously considered it for years (perhaps even having gone to seminary) the man eventually left the seminary. He meets a woman; the two eventually marry and raise a family. Necessarily, this man is not able to obtain those same means of salvation which God had prescribed for Him in the priesthood. (For this discourse, I will leave out the question of celibacy and the priesthood in the Eastern Churches). Because that man is not able to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for himself and his parishioners, nor hear their confessions, neither baptize and confirm their children, marry couples, or anoint the dying, he does not have those means of salvation which God would have prepared for him in that state. So, is this man lost for all eternity because he did not become a priest? The short answer, simply, is no.

We read in scripture, “As I live, saith the Lord God, I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way, and live.” (Ezechiel 33:11). Even if one were to make a “mistake” and follow a path which God had not desired for him originally, all hope is not lost. Even our friend St. Alphonsus gives some concessions to his earlier statement. He says, 

How can I be content, if I was not called to this state?’ But what does it matter if at the beginning you were not called? Although you did not become a nun by divine vocation, it is nevertheless certain that God permitted that for your welfare; and if he did not call you then, at the present time he certainly calls you to belong completely to him.

Though the example considers a woman becoming a nun without God’s desire for her to do so, the same can be applied to any vocation. God may not have willed for the man we examined earlier to get married, but He still desires the salvation of that man and allowed him to choose that path for himself. God will no doubt work to save him no matter where he goes. God permits everything for our welfare, even our mistakes.

The reality of discerning one’s vocation that often seems to be overlooked is that God will never abandon us no matter where we go. It’s ultimately ourselves who have the choice of abandoning God, a choice no one in their right mind should make. While choosing a “wrong” vocation, if such a thing were possible, does not condemn one to eternal abandonment, it is a matter of the utmost importance to honestly consider where God is calling one to follow Him. St. Alphonsus’ original quote implies that many are lost because they do not follow the path God has arranged for them. Why are they lost, though? They may have lost those means of sanctification God prepared for them in that state, but are there no other means of sanctification in the other states of life? It is not that the person is lost simply because they did not choose the “correct” vocation, but because they did not fulfill the duties of the state of life in which they chose. Let us consider another example. It would not be wise for a man to marry when he neglects the duties of that state in life. If a man does not take up his roles as the spiritual head of the family and as provider for and protector of his wife and children, there will naturally be consequences. His children may lose the Faith, and for that he will answer to Almighty God. He may turn to bad habits of drinking and vices of impurity and the like. He will fail in his role as a Father and jeopardize the salvation of his wife and children. So how does the man not do all of that bad stuff and actually fulfill the duties of his state? The short answer, simply put, is prayer.

All things converge to the simple reality of the necessity of prayer. St. Alphonsus famously said, “He who prays is saved, he who does not pray is damned.” Through prayer we receive the inspirations of God and enter into loving conversation with Him. It is through prayer ultimately that God makes known to us what He wills us to do for Him. So long as one perseveres in prayer to the end, he will not be lost. God always hears the prayers of those who cry out to Him for help. If we pray with purity of heart and will, we will no doubt find that path which God is calling us to, and the grace to fulfill the duties of such a path. 

In closing, I would like to point out one major disclaimer in addition to a story I once heard. First, this discourse is not to be an excuse not to follow the path God has called one to. God desires our happiness, and He will make the path known to us if we trust in Him. In discernment nothing is certain, save the fact that God loves us and desires us to love Him with all our heart. Even if we make a mistake (or even many mistakes) in discernment, it is not cause for despair, for God always makes good out of those who are faithful to Him.

Finally, here is a story I once heard in a sermon which I think makes clear the importance of every path God calls us to: St. Pius X, after he had just been consecrated as a Bishop, went to his poor hometown to visit his mother on the farm. When he arrived, he eagerly showed his mother his episcopal ring. His mother looked at him and pointed to her wedding ring saying, “You would not have that ring were it not for this ring.”

“Behold I command thee, take courage, and be strong. Fear not and be not dismayed: because the Lord thy God is with thee in all things whatsoever thou shalt go to.” – Joshua 1:9

About The Author

Brendan studies history and philosophy at St. Xavier University in Chicago. There he also maintains the pro-life club and the Catholic Fellowship, a Catholic student organization. In his spare time, he enjoys playing the heinous and barbarous instrument known as the Great Highland Bagpipe.

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