CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #31
THE WORD "VOCATION"
Talk about "vocation" in the Catholic tradition tends to prompt the general question: "What am I going to do with my life?" or "What is God calling me to do with my life?" Beyond this general question of "doing something" we tend to think of "vocation" in terms of religious life or priesthood. This line of thinking and questioning is reasonable enough. After all, the English word "vocation" comes from the Latin word vocare meaning "to call". And in the Gospel we are familiar with "the call" of the first disciples – a call to action:
As he was walking by the Lake of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon, who was called Peter, and his brother Andrew; they were making a cast into the lake with their net, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Come after me and I will make you fishers of people.’ And at once they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-20. See also 4:21-22 and Mark 1:16-20 and Luke 5:1-11.)
This customary focus, however, on doing something and doing it within the structures of religious life and/or priesthood has some serious limitations. There are two very significant factors that tend to be missed in this focus:
· In the first place, the focus on doing something tends to bypass the more fundamental reality of being the human person God called you to be in creating you;
· In the second place, the focus on the particular forms of religious life and priesthood tends to bypass the more fundamental reality of being baptised into Christ.
BEING WHO YOU ARE
Shakespeare points to a foundational truth when he has Polonius say to Laertes in Hamlet:
This above all – to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man (Act One, Scene 3).
You are your vocation. Your duty – first and last – is to be who you are called to be. That "call" is found in your very being. Thomas Merton summed it up:
For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and discovering my true self. (Seeds of Contemplation)
When Jesus says "Follow me!" – as he does more than twenty times in the Gospels – he is reminding us of our fundamental vocation. It is incarnation. Jesus is entering the human condition and that journey of incarnation will find its climactic expression on Calvary. He goes to the utter limits of being human and says to each of us: "Join me. Come with me on this journey of incarnation. Discover the liberty and life my Father has in store for you in and through your humanity".
"Ay, there’s the rub!" – as Hamlet would say. If the truth be told, the last thing we want is that human journey. T S Eliot was probably close to the truth when he observed: "Our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, and an evasion of the visible and sensible world". (The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism) We resist incarnation – in ourselves and in Jesus Christ. Invite us to believe this or that, engage in various rituals and embrace symbols, even perform feats of heroism, high orders of self-sacrifice, climb a mountain …. anything but be simply and simply be who we are.
Being simply and simply being who I am requires work. It is the work of facilitation rather than mastery. We must learn to listen, pay attention, become aware of what is going on in and around us. We must hear and heed the concrete facts of life. They are sacramental, they speak to us of eternity if we know how to listen. So we gradually learn to submit to the truth of who we are and what life asks of us. And that word "submit" is a rich one. It comes from the Latin words mittere, meaning "to send", and sub, meaning "under". In this process we have been describing we slowly, bit by little bit, learn to become part of God’s will manifest in and through creation. We are sent into the world under the loving intention of God.
THE CHRISTIAN VOCATION
The specifically Christian vocation meets that fundamental human vocation with a resounding affirmation. For we are "baptised into Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:3). That challenging invitation – "Follow me!" – is not an appeal to the heroic or the wilful. It is rather a call to awaken to the new reality, discover in the depths of your being who you are in Christ. Your spirit and the Holy Spirit bear a united witness that you are a child of God (cf Romans 8:16). John’s Gospel puts it beautifully in the prayer of Jesus:
As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world,
And for their sake I consecrate myself so that they too may be consecrated in truth.
I pray not only for these but also for those who through their teaching will come to believe in me.
May they all be one just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you,
So that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.
I have given them the glory you gave to me, that they may be one as we are one.
With me in them and you in me, may they be so perfected in unity
That the world will recognise that it was you who sent me
And that you have loved them as you have loved me. (John 17:18-23).
It is our communion with the Father in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit that constitutes our specifically Christian vocation. It is baptism that introduces us to this life in Christ. And this life in Christ is the full flourishing of our humanity. The 2nd century bishop, Irenaeus of Lyons, sums it up very well when he says: "For the glory of God is a living human being; and the life of a human being consists in beholding God". (Against the Heresies)
Whatever work we do, whether we join a religious congregation or become a priest, live here or live there, is no more nor less than the context within which the human and Christian vocation thrive. And it is as well, therefore, that we choose carefully the context. It is not better, universally, to do this or do that, live here or live there, get married or join a religious congregation. It may, however, be better for you to choose one of these contexts, in so far as you are free to do so.
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- What has been your experience of talk about "vocation"? Reflect on the pluses and minuses of that.
- How do you understand the expression "you are your vocation"?
- What do you see as the pluses and minuses of saying "be who you are"?
- Reflect on Thomas Merton’s statement, "For me to be a saint etc.".
- What does "incarnation" mean in relation to both Jesus and yourself?
- Do you think it is true that we resist "incarnation"?
- What for you personally are the practical implications of "being simply and simply being you"?
- What does baptism mean to you?
- Spend some time meditating on Jesus’ prayer from John’s Gospel. Share your reflections.
- What do you understand by the "context" for your vocation?