Vocation is a fundamental part of all our lives, even when we don’t realize it. There is a vocational calling for all mankind, an urging from God to live the life he has given us. In a sense, our life prior to finding our calling is the winter of our discernment, the necessary foundation for the flowering of the new life of spring, the explosion of vitality that cannot bear to stay cooped up in just one person but demands a expansion, on outward rush of unending love.
All people are thus in some stage of the vocation life cycle, moving forward at their own pace. The three stages are Discernment, Formation, and Vocation itself. Everyone of us is called to move through these steps, though one is not finished with the former in moving on to the latter.
Discernment is the ground stage of vocation, for it is only through discernment that we are able to come to a knowledge of our vocations. There are many vocations out there (I will address why I feel the traditional tripartite (or quadpartite) division is inadequate in another post) but each of us is called to only one. It is through discernment that we, with the assistance of others (Spiritual Directors, friends, those in a given vocation, etc.) come to an understanding of where God is calling us, of what place in this world will make us most fully alive.
The second stage is Formation, but calling it second (or even a ‘stage’) is misleading. Formation is the very foundation or vocation is built upon and begins the moment we are baptized (or earlier, if we are late to the water). We are formed as people most particularly during our childhood and young adult years; the formation of our specific vocation also begins then, though it is often hidden (e.g. a boy is formed toward the priesthood slightly when he sees the way a priest acts). All the small things are background for later life.
Formation is the backbone of the middle-part of one’s vocational cycle. As a specific vocation is discerned (in the seminary, religious community, or elsewhere) a focused formation begins; as discernment becomes clearer this focus also becomes sharper. For example, a man will begin his discernment of the priesthood outside of seminary, where he might start praying some of the Divine Office or serving more at Mass. Once he enters the seminary, however, formation becomes a major focus until his second or third year of theology when discernment should be over and formation becomes the driving force.
The last stage of the vocational cycle is Vocation proper. This occurs when someone is ordained, married, takes final vows, etc. It is the result of discernment and is prepared for by formation, but the latter is not finished. Just as formation occurs prior to discernment it continues long after the vocation has been claimed. Whether one is called to be married, to the priesthood, or to any other vocation ongoing formation is a fundamental part of living it well.
Thus formation is the endless backbone of the vocation cycle, coming to the fore briefly once discernment is properly done and prior to full entrance into a vocation, but it is at the heart of being a good priest, a good husband, a good wife, a good religious, a good deacon, a good single person. Without formation a vocation is useless; in fact it is not even a vocation, for one could not possible embrace what one has no understanding of. It is in formation that man or woman fully alive is created to the glory of God.