Discernment: Are you doing what you were meant to do?

Josh Noem, ‘98, ‘05 M.Div.
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I often say that writing emerged as a vocation-within-a-vocation for me. Looking at it now, I realize that this phrasing indicates that I had established a career path, and then continued to search for direction after I’d set out on it. Perhaps that’s odd — maybe I should have committed more firmly from the start and not looked back. Maybe I’d be further along in my career if I’d just kept going.

I began my career in journalism, then discovered that I wanted to go deeper into the things I was writing about and get my hands dirty. So I entered a master’s degree program and began to work in the field. But that writing itch never went away, and it started to come out in odd ways, like overly long end-of-year reports or creative descriptions of the programs I was managing. 

I started to notice something: scratching that itch felt good. I started squirreling away pockets of time to put words on the page, and seized opportunities to articulate insights and stories. My wife noticed that I was happier when I’d been writing — and I was. 

This is what discernment looks like. It’s paying attention to what’s going on in our lives — especially to what’s going on in our interior lives. Our gifts and talents — what we are created for — seek expression. If we’re doing what we are meant to do, we draw from a deep well of joy. If we ignore or fight those gifts, we can easily burn out. 

Our dispositions and attitudes and feelings around our work can give us direction about what we’re created for. We’ll be most happy in the work that we’re doing if it flows out of that fundamental layer of our identity.

So how do we get in touch with what’s going on in our interior life? Other people who know you well can offer good feedback, like my wife did for me. And St. Ignatius of Loyola has a very simple exercise that I’ve drawn from often. He called it the examen. 

Here’s how it works: at some point in the evening, take 10-15 minutes for reflection in which you review your day with gratitude. Think of the high points, the low points, the turning points — and bring a lens of gratitude to each moment. For some moments, that will be easy; others will be a challenge. If you can be regular about it, a certain pattern might begin to shine through your experience — consistent moments when that gratitude comes easily and you notice peace.  

God doesn’t speak to us out of the blue. Or, at least that’s very rare. But God does speak to us all the time within the gifts and circumstances of our lives. If we listen to that voice, we’ll find a deep source of joy.

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