A few weeks ago, I wrote about 2020 being a year of audibles: having to change the plan on the fly due to circumstances outside our control. It’s easy enough to frame it like this looking back, but I have to admit it wasn’t a smooth process. It took a bit of time, prayer, and deep reflection to be ‘okay’ with this.
Why? Because I undertake my planning and goal-setting as a kind of sacred practice, bathed in prayer and decided upon only with discernment, changing those plans felt like admitting my discernment was off-base. Moreover, because I am (like everyone) a complicated person with a complicated history, and therefore surface problems and questions are often connected to far deeper questions and concerns, this rather trivial fact of having to change some of my goals for the year opened up a messy can of worms for me. Because my life has had so many big vocational twists and turns and the areas of life that call most deeply to my heart and soul have proven to be the most elusive, having to call some audibles in 2020 poked at some tender old wounds about my ability to discern well more generally. It stirred up uncomfortable, and largely unhelpful, questions, like, Was I deluded? Have I confused my wants for genuine vocation? Am I simply bad at discernment? And, perhaps biggest of all, if not this, then what does God want for my life?
But despite what those old wounds might try to tell me, I don’t believe this is how vocation works.
First, no matter what else God may or may not be calling us to, our primary vocation is to be faithful — to show up for ourselves, each other, and God — right now. What is God calling me to do? The next right thing. Full stop.
It’s so easy for our focus to wander away from the present moment, to drift towards future possibilities, present impossibilities, or even pasts that never were. But we can’t change the past or the present, and the only doorway to any possible future is the actual present moment in front of us. And so, we are called to do the next right thing, now. This vocation of the present is reminiscent of the notion of the “sacrament of the present moment,” a turn of phrase attributed to the 18th-century French spiritual director Jean Pierre de Caussade. He writes that whatever is before us right now — no matter how trivial or monumental — “is like a sacrament to sanctify all [our] present moments” (Abandonment to Divine Providence 1.2); and, “Our whole science [i.e., applied knowledge] consists in recognizing the designs of God for the present moment” (1.5). What he’s saying is that every moment can be a means of encounter with God’s love and grace. But in order to experience this, we can’t be focused on the future or regretting the past. In order to experience the present moment as a sacrament, we have to be present with it. We have to show up for it.
As it happens, this alone changes our orientation towards questions of discernment and ‘being wrong’. It reminds us that we are called to be faithful, not to be right. If what was a faithful response to yesterday is no longer a faithful response today, we have a responsibility to change course. As the wonderful twentieth-century American theologian Verna Dozier wrote:
We always see through a glass darkly, and that is what faith is about. I will live by the best I can discern today. Tomorrow I may find out I was wrong. Since I do not live by being right, I am not destroyed by being wrong. (The Dream of God)
And, in a world of seven billion human free agents, in which so little is under our control and yet any decision can have huge unforeseen consequences — a world in which a single person handling an animal can unleash a global pandemic — what does being ‘right’ even mean? All we can hope for is to make the best decisions we can with the limited information we have in the moment.
But what of the bigger senses of vocation, that look on a life as a whole and not just a moment? Is there a way to embrace the vocation of faithfulness in the present moment without giving up on those deepest intuitions and longings of the heart that the words of prophet Jeremiah — “I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD” — are true?
I am convinced there is. I believe wholeheartedly that each and every one of us is born with a unique set of gifts and experiences, a unique genius. And, I believe God has acted to restore us and empower us to use those gifts faithfully, and that it is God’s great joy to see those gifts bear good fruit for the life of the world. I also believe, with St. Paul, that God is working “all things for good … for those who are called according to God’s purpose.”
But, it is also true that we still live in a sinful world, and that means that we are all battered and bruised in body, mind, or spirit, and that there will always be structures and people pushing back against God’s dream for us and our lives. For some that may be an abusive parent, for some that may be the forces of systemic racism, for some it may even be an imperial edict that feeds them to lions in the arena. Any of these things can snuff out the light we are called to shine in the world, or chop off entire limbs of possibility from the tree of our earthly life.
And so, yes, I am convinced that God has a unique and beautiful vocation for each of us; but there will be much standing in our way. And the only way for that vocation to bear its fruit is to be faithful here and now. The choices we make in the present moment are the only bridge we have to any possible future. The following passage from Abandonment to Divine Providence that speaks just to this point:
Oh great history! Grand book written by the Holy Spirit in this present time! It is still in the press.
There is never a day when the type is not arranged, when the ink is not applied, or the pages are not primed (2.5).
The “grand book” of history is not yet set. And we are a part of it. We are God’s fellow-workers and co-creators. The choices we make every day are what make any future possible.
For me at least, this perspective on vocation hits the sweet spot, an uneasy balance of present and future, informed by but not dominated by the past. It doesn’t just punt vocation into some unknown future that may or may not come to pass for reasons both within and outside our control. But neither does it shrink our vision and imagination of what God is doing in the world, and what God’s dream for us, in us, and through us, may be.
So, let us go forward today doing the next right thing, marching onward to that vocation that is the fullest expression of who we were created to be.