Some of the most basic questions of human life are ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?’ Until we answer these questions, even partially, our lives tend to be dominated by a deep sense of dissatisfaction. In response to this restlessness or ennui, we have three choices: 1. We can languish in it, feeling listless and directionless, simply going through the motions without meaning or purpose; 2. We can avoid it, distracting ourselves with food and drink, shopping, travel, sex, or a host of other things; or, 3. We can face it head on, and follow that impulse from the deepest part of our being — that part of us that longs for something more and pushes us to do something about it. This last option is what this series is going to focus on. And for the purposes of this series, I’m going to call this impulse ‘vocation,’ or calling.
I think this language of calling is useful because it captures the sense of our deepest self hearing a voice or song it cannot ignore and pursuing it to its source. In this way vocation is like the call of the sirens from Greek legend — only leading us to our deepest sense of truth, meaning, and personhood instead of to our destruction. But it is also useful in a more specifically Christian way, for it reflects the long history, both within our Scriptures and our tradition, of people identifying this voice that draws us out of ourselves with the divine: In the same way that God called Abraham out of Ur and into the Levant, and God called Mary to be the mother of Jesus, St. Anthony felt that God had called him away from mundane life in the city to a radical life in the desert and St. Ignatius Loyola felt God had called him to resign from military service and fight instead for the Gospel.
Indeed it is an essential part of the Christian revelation that vocation is no longer (if it ever truly was) something for the elite and privileged, but for everyone. The New Testament is full of the language of calling, associated both with the work of Jesus and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. What’s interesting about the New Testament usage is that, at times the language of calling is general — things to which we are all called — but at other times this general calling is accompanied by a particular idea of calling. Nowhere is this more clear than in Ephesians 4. The chapter begins with a reference to general calling:
I .. beg you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace: there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4.1-6)
Here we have the idea of calling connected to the unifying work of the Holy Spirit. But this is followed by an equally insistent reference to the diversifying work of the Holy Spirit:
He himself granted that some are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ … (11-12)
This connects beautifully to the text we looked at in this past Sunday’s reflection:
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of powerful deeds, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. (1 Corinthians 12.7-11)
Taken together, we have a clear teaching that each of us has a special something, a gift we have been given, that is ours to be shared and expressed in the community and the world. When we hear it, follow it, live it, and share it, we are responding to God’s call and simultaneously expressing our ‘best self’ and highest purpose and meaning. But paradoxically, living into our unique vocation is never a seflish act, as it is not for us, but is oriented towards our neighbour and helps us to build up the community of faith and serve the world.
Despite all of this, the idea of vocation has had a bit of a rocky history. In medieval Europe, it was seen entirely in terms of basic social divisions: married or celibate, and, if celibate, clergy or monastic. Gone is the sense of the Spirit building up the whole community of faith by giving each member a role. Martin Luther shook this up by insisting that every man and woman’s work in life, in spheres of employment, family, and church alike, were vocations. And so there’s a vocation of motherhood and fatherhood, a vocation of being a son or daughter, a vocation of being a cobbler or carpenter, of teaching and governance. This is an improvement, but as it developed, it tended to focus primarily on work, so that in common speech, one’s ‘vocation’ is equated with one’s job. Over the past few decades, there has been a recovery of the broader — and I would argue, biblical — sense of vocation, but even here it has tended to be couched in some problematic notions taken from our culture at large, such as a focus on ‘finding your passion,’ on hustling, and even shaming those who don’t enjoy their jobs or who struggle find ultimate meaning in the roles they inhabit. In 2019, public discourse around calling had become enmeshed with the unrealistic demands of ‘living your best life now’, demands which many — including those in low-income households, caregivers, people living with disability or illness, and communities impacted by systemic racism — saw as naive, marginalizing, and reeking of privilege. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shattering the illusions of control and certainty upon which so much of the previous conversation had been based. The time is right for a reassessment of vocation that takes all of this into account.
I too have had a long and challenging journey with vocation. When I reaffirmed my faith as a teenager, I was surrounded in positive images of vocation. I completed ‘spiritual gifts inventories’, memorized Bible verses like “I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29.11) and “For all things work together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8.28). And, for several years, I helped to lead a regional young adults ministry that used the idea of vocation as its guiding theme. When I was deciding on graduate school, I felt called to abandon my plans of further studies in linguistics to pursue theology and biblical studies. When I encountered the theology and worship of the Eastern Orthodox Church, I felt called to join this venerable branch of Christianity. And, a few years later, I was discerning a call to ordained ministry. And yet, none of these ‘callings’ worked out — at least not as expected. As faithful as I tried to be in discerning each of these callings, each turned out to present not end points for my journey, but unexpected twists in the road. Did I discern wrongly? Or, is vocation something more nuanced than we give it credit for?
Over the next few weeks, I’d like to explore questions like these further, grounded in the Scriptures and the broader Christian tradition (with particular reference to Ignatian and Quaker spiritualities), and engaging with wisdom from the worlds of positive psychology and coaching. What is vocation exactly? And what does it look like today, in our polarized times, and when the pandemic has clipped our wings as a society? Whereas a lot of discussions of vocation divide up content based on sphere of influence — family, work, Church, and society — I want to look at it through the lens of different levels of identity: the universal vocation to be human; the collective vocation to be Christlike; and the particular vocation to be the persons we were created to be. We’ll then look at discernment, and the barriers the realities of life in a sinful world present to authentic vocation.
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