The below talk was given by House Of Discernment participant, Schafer Knostman, at the Come & Discern Vocation Retreat that took place February 16-19. (Retreatants pictured from left to right include Jaime Parellada, Guatemala; Schafer Knostman, Springboro, OH; Fr. James Loughran, SA, retreat leader; Pawel Czarnecki, Maspeth, NY; and Danny Sweeney, Indianapolis, IN.)
Upbringing and Growth in Faith
I was born into a Catholic family in Ohio. Sunday Mass was an important part of our lives, but for a long time, I never really thought about what God wanted for my life. In my senior year of high school, I slowly began to respond to a calling I felt, to find what was good and true. I remember one evening, when I sat down and began working on applications for college, but ended up spending hours researching social justice organizations instead. I realized that I what I really wanted was to find something good to give my life to. And when I went away to school, I found it.
In the fall of 2013, I traveled to Purdue University to study engineering. I had no idea of what to expect, but thanks to the support of family and friends, I arrived with an open heart. Within a few weeks, I became involved with a group of friendly Christians. It was in them that I first met peers for whom God was an active part of their life, and one they were willing to share about. They listened to God, and looked for what they thought He wanted them to be. I became increasingly involved in faith groups at school, imitating those faithful people I had met. What is more is that I was also being satisfied by this activity. Faith became an important part of my life, too. I gave my free time over to religious extracurriculars, carved out time each day to pray, and became active in the community of the Newman Center on campus. And, increasingly, my thoughts and happiness were taken up with being a Catholic Christian.
Call to Religious Life
By my junior year in school, I began to realize that being involved in the Church was a far greater passion of mine than my field of study. One evening in the fall, I was doing homework in my room, probably halfway through a statics problem. Try as I might, I couldn’t find the right solution. I leaned back in my chair, feeling dissatisfied. I didn’t like where I was going in life, I realized. I felt no drive to be an engineer. I began to daydream, imagining myself traveling around the country from city to city, helping people. It seemed attractive in the moment, the idea of giving my life to be of service to people. “O God,” I thought, “is there a group in the Church that does that?” But the moment passed, and I had to finish my homework.
A few months went by, and I thought nothing of my daydreaming. Then, in January a traveling vocation director visited campus to talk with those interested in consecrated life. On a whim, and at the last minute, I signed up for a time to talk with him. I don’t remember much of what he said, but his description of religious life intrigued me, and he challenged me to investigate it myself. This really ignited my interest in discernment. But my coursework was intensifying, and I pushed religious life to the back of my mind.
Summer came, and I took a job in lawn maintenance. I also prepared to take the GRE, as I thought I might want to enter graduate school in engineering. As I learned how to mow grass properly, I gave time to thinking about the faith, and my interest grew in religious life. I told my parents of my interest, and they were surprised, but understood from the trajectory of my life in the past few years. Their support and questions have been very important to me, and challenged me to look deeper into what I was doing.
But thinking and sharing can only take you so far. It required action for me to discern what to do with this interest, and it required me to strike out on my own. And so I needed help as to what to do next, and I needed guidance from someone with experience. I remembered something a Dominican brother at school had told me, “Discernment is not done in a vacuum.” In this spirit, I reached out to the local parish priest, and he recommended I start looking to talk with a spiritual director. When I returned to school in the fall of 2016, I began meeting regularly with one of the associate pastors there. I shared my struggles, thoughts, and experiences in prayer with him, and he returned with his own advice and experiences. It was invaluable, especially since he was himself part of a religious community. And so, I started seriously discerning what I am called to be.
In addition to spiritual direction, involvement in the faith community came to be a pillar of my discernment. I began going to Mass more often, helping to lead a faith-sharing group in a dorm, and at times assisting with the set-up for liturgies. I enjoyed these things greatly, and through them I grew spiritually in new ways. Recognizing what I was enjoying, where I was growing, and where those intersect with existing needs helped me to discern what I should do.
Answering the Call
Over Christmas break of that year, I did some more research on the internet about religious life, but was still uncertain as to how to choose between that vocation and a career. I only had one semester of school left, and no serious job prospects. Should I risk the future more, and put my hope, time, and energy into religious life? Or, continue searching for a career? In this time of decision, there were two experiences that guided me through.
First, I was reading a book about career choice loaned to me by a professor. One of the exercises the author recommended was aimed at collecting and ranking knowledge of oneself. You were to pick ten words or phrases that most described your identity, and then rank them according to their importance to you. Next, you were to write by each listing why you picked it, and what attracted you to it. What came to the top of my list were things like faith, my identity as a Catholic, and service. Nothing related to starting a family or a career, or even something related to my major, was close to the top.
Then, God gave me a final push. You see, one of my hobbies is making crafts of different kinds. That Christmas season, I was designing a board game, and it was taking up a lot of my time, making it difficult to discern religious life. I realized this, but was very invested in my creation. So, I decided to throw out the work I had done, as a prayer to God, as a sacrifice to show that I was willing to pursue what He wanted for me, and not necessarily what I wanted to do. I put all the pieces and parts I had made in the trash, and fervently prayed that what I should do would be made clear to me.
A day or two later, I went to visit family in another city for a while. Not wanting to wait to act on my request of God, I scheduled an appointment with a local priest to ask his advice on my dilemma. He listened to my story of my time so far in school and involvement at Church. He told me most sincerely, “I think you have a calling.” I took this as the answer to my prayer, and felt great consolation.
Where Might I Be Called?
Now, I’ve spent about a year praying further and visiting different religious communities. Visiting a community of interest has been one of the most important aspects of discernment for me, next to prayer and talking to a spiritual director. For example, the first community I visited was a Benedictine monastery in Indiana. I admired the monks’ commitment to the Liturgy of the Hours and their time spent in personal reflection, but when I imagined myself among them, I felt trapped and deadened by the vow of stability. I realized that I feel called to a more active life, something involving being a minister outside of the religious community.
At the same time, I knew it would be difficult for me to thrive in a community with an opposite charism, one that was overwhelmingly active and apostolic in its work. Without much time alone for personal prayer, I would find it difficult to thrive. So, my experience with the Benedictines, together with knowledge of myself, guided me to look into communities that live a more intermediate life, one of a combined, active-contemplative style. I began to see that when you take action in discernment, and investigate a path that interests you, and yet you don’t seem to find your calling, it is still crucial that you learn from the experience, and use it to narrow down your options.
Altogether, discernment has brought me from being a Sunday Catholic; through growth in faith and religious activity in college; to seeking out others’ advice, investigating what’s important and inspiring to me; and finally acting on my interests and inspirations, and testing which path to follow. I’ve found that a persistent attraction to something holy is a good sign you’re going in the right direction, and may very well be the manifestation of God’s call to you.
Discernment literally means “separating”, and that is what you have to do when looking for your calling. Given what gifts, interests and inspirations you have, you must cooperate with God to separate out the different possible paths, as if you’re panning for gold, until you’re left with that most precious something that was there all along, though hidden.
A few things are particularly helpful to me in doing this kind of separation. They are summed up in a pattern of taking in information about something of interest, such as a certain religious community; taking action on that interest, such as visiting a community; and reflecting about the results of that action and my feelings about it. Finally, I make a decision as to whether to move further or choose a different path. In this pattern, I find time alone for silence and prayer to be essential. It is in those times that I have been able to listen and talk to God, gather and record my thoughts and reactions, compare the advantages and disadvantages of different options, and come to decisions. Advice from other people has also been very helpful, as you have heard, especially from a spiritual director. Above all, being open to God is important. Give Him plenty of opportunities to speak, as He does communicate through the events and people of your present life, in quiet moments, and whenever you lift your heart and consciousness up to Him.