Discerning the Elements of Your Personal Vocation

by Fr. Peter Ryan, SJ

Download this excellent article by Fr. Peter Ryan, S.J., covers discerning the elements of a personal vocation:

Download Now
  • Points to bear in mind when preparing to discern
  • Sincere discernment infallibly succeeds
  • Motivation is crucial
  • Discernment requires detachment
  • Discern only what we try
  • Nothing is wasted
  • Discernment is ongoing
  • Consider gifts and needs
  • Let emotion play its part
  • Beware of deception


Gifts and Charisms: What’s the Difference?

Every person is born with certain natural gifts, and every baptized person is given at least one charism, or spiritual gift, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s important to know the difference.

A natural gift is in the order of nature, and a charism in the order of grace. Natural gifts (often called “talents”) can be discerned, sometimes quite easily, through simple attentiveness to the human person—hitting a baseball 380 feet with no practice, singing at perfect pitch, or calculating the square root of 52 in their head to six decimal places. These gifts are inherited. Charisms, on the other hand, are given directly by God.

Grace perfects nature, so there is sometimes an obvious congruence between a gift and a charism. For instance, someone with natural artistic talent could receive the charism of craftsmanship, which the Catherine of Siena Institute defines as a charism that “empowers a Christian to be an effective channel of God’s goodness to others through artistic or creative work that beautifies and/or orders the physical world.”[i]

Blessed Bl. John of Fiescol, known commonly as Fra Angelico, had a natural artistic ability from a young age. His natural talent could’ve been used in many different ways, but through his life of grace it became entirely directed to God’ glory. “To paint Christ, one must live Christ,” he wrote. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Angelico patron of artists, and presented him as a perfect model of the harmony between faith and art.

In no instance, though, is a charism simply the natural development of a talent. It is always a gratuitous gift from God. Charisms often manifest themselves in extraordinary ways that seem to completely surprise those who receive them and the people around them. At Pentecost, the apostles began speaking in tongues to the utter amazement of everyone present. People thought they were drunk! They couldn’t explain this sudden outpouring of the spirit, and they resorted to natural explanations.

Maximus the Confessor reflects on the congruence between natural gifts and charisms, while carefully distinguishing them. They are never separated, but neither are they ever confused.

“The grace of the most Holy Spirit does not confer wisdom on the saints without their natural intellect as capacity to receive it; nor does he give the gift of knowledge where there is not a natural rational ability to receive it….nor does he give charisms and healings where there is no natural love for our neighbor, nor any one of the other charisms where the conditions are not right and there is no matching ability to receive them. In any case, no one will ever come to possess any of the gifts we have mentioned through any natural ability whatever, but only through the divine power that confers them.”

– Maximum the Confessor, Various Chapters. IV.13

Charisms are always given for the purpose of building up the Church and the needs of the world. Since they are directed at building up the body of Christ, they can’t be discerned apart from the Body of Christ. While a natural talent can be discerned by nearly anybody, a charism can only be discerned from within the living body that it serves.

Both natural talents and charisms are gifts, though, and every gift comes with a mission. There is an intrinsic connection between a gift and a mission, like a key to a keyhole. There is even a lexical link between the two ideas in the Polish language. John Paul II, in his 1999 Letter to Artists, reflects on the relationship between the words “creator” (stwórca, in Polish) and “craftsman” (twórca). He notes that God creates man and woman in His image, and he entrusts the task of cultivating the earth to them.

Their mission comes from their gift. The Pope writes that “the more conscious they are of their gift, [the more they] are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation and their mission.”[ii]

Through an awareness of how God has created each person and the gifts and charisms they have been given, we can better understand their mission. We have an important task of helping young people to understand their natural gifts and talents, but also the charisms received at baptism so that they can co-create their vocation with the outpouring of grace that God bestows on all the baptized. “Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term,” the Pope wrote. “Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece …” (John Paul II, Letter to Artists).

[i] Catherine of Siena Institute

[ii] John Paul II, Letter to Artists

Homeschool Course on Vocational Discernment: Syllabus

Discerning Personal Vocation

A Course in Ethics Offered by Mary Seat of Wisdom Classical Community

Fall Semester, 2017 – Wednesday Evenings from 7:00 to 8:30 pm

Joshua Miller, Ph.D.

Course Overview

After looking at contemporary culture and its impact on vocational discernment, we consider how God uniquely designs each person and how that design orients his/her calling. We examine personal vocation as a distinctive but all encompassing call that includes the universal call to holiness, basic state in life, and daily circumstances. We help students learn effective discernment, grow in awareness of self-creative freedom, make critical life decisions, and foster the gifts of others. All along, we emphasize the fundamental objective of helping students identify, embrace, and live to the full their personal vocations.

Weekly Topics

  • Introduction: “I am Vine, You are the Branches.” (September 13)
  • Orientation to the course.
  • Our current cultural climate – how it influences us and characterizes the world we will be serving.

Assignment: Students will research and prepare presentations on cultural topics that impact discernment of personal vocation.

  • The Unique Design of Each Person: Seeds of Personal Vocation (September 20)
  • Unique motivational design and each one’s call to image God through it.
  • Design revealed through achievement stories
  • Beginning the achievement story process

Assignment: Fill out Parts I & II of Autobiographical Form

  • Today’s Vocational Culture. (September 27)
  • Research based student presentations on aspects of our culture that impact personal vocation and discernment.
  • What kind of soil are you? Exploration of John 15: 1-11.

Assignment: Read Introduction, Parts I & II of the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity.

  • What is Personal Vocation? (October 4)
  • Distinctive and dynamic call that includes universal call to holiness and basic states in life. Personal Vocation is now.
  • Role of the laity in sanctifying the world

Assignment: Complete Autobiographical Form, Part III.

  • Cultivating the Personal Vocations of Others (October 11)
  • Empathy, listening, paying attention.
  • Sharing achievement stories with one another.
  • Orientation to MCORE Assessment

Assignment: Take the MCORE Assessment.

  • Complementarity of marriage and consecrated life (October 18)
  • How the vocations to marriage and priesthood/religious life serve one another.
  • What does it mean that the priesthood and religious life is a higher calling?

Assignment: Complete MCORE Report Exercises.

Individualized coaching begins on October 18th. SEE BELOW FOR DETAILS.

  • Personal Vocation in Action (October 25)
  • Stories of personal vocation
  • Guest presentations

Assignment: Report on motivational design as reflection of God’s image.

  • Called for Others – Considering the Needs of the World (November 1)
  • Needs of the world as a trigger of calling
  • Review of autobiographical narrative to identify the kinds of circumstances in which the person is most inclined to serve.

Assignment: Visit and encounter those whose needs could be met by your gifts.

  • Keys to Discernment, Part I (November 8)
  • First part of What Does God Want? A Practical Guide to Decision Making, by Father Michael Scanlan.
  • Challenges to discernment and how to face them.

Assignment: To be determined.


  • Determining Your Interests & Natural Abilities (November 15)
  • Review of autobiographical narrative to identify natural abilities and interests

Assignment: Gratitude Letter (written and read out-loud and, preferably, in person to recipient)


  • Keys to Discernment, Part II (November 29)
  • Second part of What Does God Want? A Practical Guide to Decision Making, by Father Michael Scanlan.
  • Self-creative freedom.
  • Challenges to discernment and how to face them.

Assignment: Report on concrete decision made using keys to discernment.


  • Cultivating Your Gifts to Make your Greatest Contribution (December 6)
  • Exploring options for development: trade school, college, OJT, certifications.
  • The value proposition of college. Is it worth it?

Assignment: Prepare presentation & final report


  • Staying on Course: Effectively Living Your Calling (December 13)
  • Living your present calling to the full
  • Managing the shadow side of your gifts.
  • Living so as to cultivate the callings of others

Assignment: Continue to prepare presentation & final report.


  • “Go and Bear Fruit that will last.” (December 20)
  • Each student gives a brief presentation on lessons learned.

Individualized Coaching

Beginning on October 18th I will be holding individualized sessions of 45 minutes to review student MCORE Reports and provide vocation coaching. Each week from October 18th to December 20th I will conduct one session prior to class from 6 to 6:45 and another session from 8:45 to 9:30 after class. IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT YOU ARE SEATED AND READY TO START BY YOUR ALLOTTED TIME. I would like at least one parent present with his/her child during these sessions. A Google document sign up sheet will be provided at the beginning of the semester to accommodate parent and student schedules.

Grading Policy:

  • In Class presentations. Each student will give two brief presentations of 3 to 5 minutes. One in Week 3, the Second in Week 14. (20% of grade)
  • Quizzes. 2-4 quizzes given as needed. (10% of grade)
  • Participation. Active engagement in discussion and, especially, listening to one another will be required. (20% of grade)
  • Weekly Journal. Journal topics are associated with weekly assignments given above. (30%)
  • End of the semester report. This will be a 3-5 page paper, normal font, double spaced, on lessons learned. (20%)

Code of Conduct

  • The standard Mary Seat of Wisdom dress code for Study Center students will apply.
  • Students will not be permitted to use their cell phones during class.
  • Love one another! Students are expected to make every effort to see the face of Christ in one another.

Reading List:

Contact Information:

  • I can be reached via email: josh@inscapevocations.com. Email correspondence between students and myself will have parents copied as co-recipients in keeping with MSWCC Child Protection Policy.

Materials Needed

  • Each student should secure a 1.5 inch wide three ring binder. This will hold worksheets given throughout the semester and the student’s vocation journal.
  • Worksheets will be sent as electronic documents when assigned. They will need to be printed and returned, when due, in hard copy form.

A Praying Friend

  • In addition to the books, assignments, & presentations each student must secure commitment from someone to pray for him or her during the course of the class. This person does not have to be an adult or a priest or a consecrated religious. The only requirement is that the “praying friend” sincerely and consistently intercede on behalf of the student to identify, embrace, and live to the full his or her personal vocation.

Note to Parents

Parents are the primary formators of their children, especially with regard to personal vocation. I will encourage students to communicate abundantly with their parents and seek their guidance. Further, I will not advise students regarding specific vocational choices, but serve as a coach by asking questions, listening, making observations, and helping them to grow in self-awareness and personal responsibility.


Culture of Vocation: Part 1

Challenges: A Culture of Calculation

Challenges to Building a Culture of Vocation Part 1 –
Our Culture of Calculation

The Curious Case of the Sadistic Poker Player of Discernment

God is not a Sadistic poker player. Yet this is the image that many young people unknowingly have of him. He holds the cards of our lives in his hands. He knows the secret to our best life and true happiness, but he won’t tell. We don’t even know if he’s holding a good hand or a bad hand. Worse yet, he might be bluffing.

Those who don’t believe that God has a purpose for their lives are not immune from him. Their Sadistic Poker Player is their desire. They imitate the desires of the people around them without knowing where they ultimately lead.[i] Without the light of truth, there’s no assurance that they’re on the right path. In this environment, choice is trepidation.

How do we pick among good things? When I go to a restaurant, I get menu anxiety. I don’t want to order the steak if the place is known for their fish. If you hand me a wine list, it’s even worse. I like to hear the words, “Good choice.”

If I have this much anxiety over these choices, how much more anxiety do I have over the cards that the Sadistic Poker Player is holding! I fear hearing “wrong choice” come from his cold, grey lips before he lays down his hand and laughs.

But Jesus doesn’t greet people in heaven with “good choice.” In the parable of the good steward, he says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

The Lord’s praise is for his servant’s doing and faithfulness. This is the joy of vocation when it is approached as a gift. It’s a stark contrast to the fear, anxiety, and depression rampant in young people today who are weighed down by decision fatigue and a sense that in the end, it doesn’t even matter.[ii]

The voice of Jesus sounds very different. He says to the Samaritan woman: “If you only knew the gift of God!”

Today, that gift requires a new kind of openness.

[i] Rene Girard on mimetic theory is a crucial piece in understanding the pull in a million directions of many young people today

[ii] Linkin Park, “In the End”

[iii] John 4:10

Inscape: Vision of Personal Vocation

Our vision is for each person to know, embrace, and live to the full their unique personal vocation.

We envision high school and college students who receive the tools and support to discern personal vocation, graduate with a deep sense of purpose, and embrace their unique calling in life.

We envision local churches flourishing with vocations of every kind by cultivating a sense of the unique mission of every life, especially the young.

We imagine families that recognize and cultivate the uniqueness of each member, in which children are able to assimilate new experiences into a growing sense of identity and purpose.

We imagine adolescents who embrace uncertainty and change in their lives with the confidence that God is preparing them to fulfill a unique mission in the world.
We hope for a world where people can thrive according to their unique, personal calling and way of being in the world.

A person fully alive is the glory of God – you, and only you, can show forth the truth, beauty, and goodness of God in a way that nobody else can. We’re here to help you do that.


Education: Love & Adventure

Adventure in Learning

For St. Augustine, love alone allows us to see what something is really like, or what someone is ultimately capable of becoming. Education is first and foremost an act of love. Through love, we are able to help people become who they are.

An educator’s job is to help each student develop according to their God-given, individual design. This requires a great sensitivity to the uniqueness of each person. It also calls for the cultivation of interior freedom in each student so that they can pursue knowledge and understanding according to their personal way of being.

In the real world, we read books that we are curious about. And we are free to follow that curiosity to its end! If I read a good book, I may follow a footnote within it that gets my attention. This often leads to the exploration of a new author, and a new sphere of thought. But this way of learning is missing from the typical, static, college course. Where is the adventure?

Love is always an adventure.​


There is no adventure without freedom.

​The real joy in playing jazz music is in the freedom of the musician to give expression to what moves him. Now, there are basics that the musician has to master in order to get to this point. For example, he must know the fundamentals of music, and he must respect the baseline and accompanying instrumentals of each song. But beyond that, he is free to move in often unexpected directions. The joy of jazz is in spontaneity!

If we have lost the joy in education, it is because we have lost the freedom to give expression to who we really are. There should be joy in learning. The search for truth, when authentic, is a joyful experience because it is a following of that which we love. For a Christian, it is a following of Jesus Christ. And we must follow him as we are – not as anyone else follows him, and not as anyone else might want us to. This is why attentiveness to the unique person is the foundation of  education: by denying a person the full exercise of his freedom to be who he is uniquely created to be, we are denying him truth.

Toward a Renewal in Catholic Education

There is no “system” for renewing education. What is needed is a radical attentiveness to the personhood of each student. We believe that true renewal in education will come about by creating a “culture of vocation” in our schools so that the entire journey of learning is situated in a context of who the human person is and what he is called to be. As long as education is built on an inadequate anthropology (human persons as information-gatherers, for instance), there is no amount of tweaking that can fix it. We have to raze the bastions, in one sense, in order to get back to the persons themselves.

We can create a culture of vocation within education by forming strong local communities and, above all, by fostering loving and open dialogue between those primordial communities, families, our primary educators. It is within the family that the first stirrings of personal vocation arise, and so it must be within the family that personal vocation can be cultivated by an education that takes it seriously.