By Deacon Jason Ketz
This month’s edition of Wonder explores the subject of Vocation – a topic of great importance to many of us. Six writers have taken up the challenge of exploring this topic, and each offers a substantial contribution to a Christian discussion of ‘calling.’ But each of them also identifies a problem with how we reflexively think of vocation today. It seems, then, that vocation is a subject easily misunderstood, and I would like to offer a reorientation to the subject, by way of an extended introduction. I would like to offer my understanding of the modern predicament, and a few things that would keep our discussion properly focused not on ‘calling,’ but on ‘Christ’s call to us.’ I will warn you, however, that I will offer nothing conclusive here, but only provide the platform from which to read and appreciate our authors’ own essays. So for those of you who have limited tolerance for words, please move directly to the featured works of the month.
Vocation in today’s society
One of the questions that we are taught to wrestle with continually in our society is the cliché “what am I supposed to do with my life?” We are introduced to the idea even before adolescence, and sometime in our teenage years, we are told that one of our responsibilities in life is to answer this question. So we approach vocation like a riddle, and set out on a journey that often spans countless miles, scores of friendships and relationships, and the better part of a decade, trying to sort out what each of us is supposed to be doing with our lives.
Discerning one’s vocation is difficult enough to most people, but Christians compound the difficulties when we invite our Lord into our own personal quest for meaning. Interestingly, we pay very little attention to the etymology of the word Church (the Greek word ἐκκλησία literally means ‘those who have been called out’), and instead we see Church as a building, or an event in our weekly lives. Naturally, and seemingly innocuously, we then identify Christ in proximity to his Church. We also cling dearly to a belief that our ‘calling’ is toward a defined, finished state of being. Then, using scripture as a springboard, we blend our desire to be close to Christ with our desire to make a living. And what is the result? A hierarchal system of rating careers, moving in concentric circles toward (or away from) our Lord. In essence, the closer a career seems to bring us to Christian teachings or to church itself, the more holy and the more worthwhile – and ultimately the more authentic – we believe it to be.
Concentric circles of Christian vocation
Our hierarchy of careers takes a very predictable shape. We consider ministry (usually ordained ministry, by default, and by reinforcement from the pulpit) to be the holiest vocation. Certainly, the Old Testament reinforces this belief – despite Israel’s designation as a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation” (Exod 19:6), it is actually the High Priest who is specifically marked as “Holy to the Lord” (Exod 28:36-38). In like manner, we categorize the Prophets and the Apostles in this ‘most holy’ inner circle, as the ideal vocation. Moving outward from this Christ-centered holiness, we consider the next most worthy vocations as those that directly support God’s plan for salvation, those that care for creation, or those who expound on our Lord’s teaching. We often think very highly of health care professionals, social workers, teachers, and certain types of civil servants as holding worthwhile careers. These professionals are all somehow bringing God’s mercy to the world through healing or teaching or some such social service. But the farther out we move into the secular world, the more suspicious we are of the validity of certain careers. Many of us have a somewhat bemused indifference to farmers. Accounting and factory work are often written off as essentially worthless, and we are extremely suspicious of business owners or ‘Big Business’ executives, reflecting a very conservative reading of Christ’s warning that we cannot serve God and Mammon (Matt 6:24).
Indeed, certain life choices or career choices (such as prostitution, to use the apostle Paul’s classic example) are incompatible with a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. But our nice, neat chart of vocational holiness has many gray areas, and it ultimately does us a great disservice. Consider mothers and soldiers as two examples where our vocational categories may not apply.
Motherhood is an incredibly high calling. The maternal responsibility of one of God’s children is perhaps unmatched by any career. Yet any particular mother may or may not feel any resonance with her ‘calling’ to be a mother. Many mothers who choose to care for their children full-time find great joy in their role in the home. Some mothers would prefer to work, and offer a great gift both to God and to society through their professional careers. And sadly, countless other mothers suffer daily from the tedium of child-rearing, which can so easily lead to a sort of mental atrophy, and even forms of depression. It’s a sad indictment of the imperfection of the ‘high calling’ of motherhood that the barbituate Nembutal was nicknamed ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ in the Rolling Stones’ 1966 eponymous hit song.
Soldiers, and especially those who have engaged in foreign wars, struggle with a similar issue. On the one hand, scripture and our tradition hold them in very high regard. And yet the fundamental request we make of all armed soldiers is to be at all times prepared to violate one of our most highly regarded commandments. Our soldiers are trained to take life, which we consider to be absolutely sacred. In fact, since we utilize the sanctity of life to categorize and prioritize vocations, soldiers are placed in a terribly schizophrenic position by our understanding. Even soldiers who have not knowingly taken a life find it difficult to assimilate with a Christian community after their training and especially after combat exposure. This frustration, from the men and women for whom we pray at every single liturgical service!
Surely, our understanding of vocation has done both mothers and soldiers an injustice. And now we begin to see that our model of concentric circles of vocational holiness (or value) is so full of holes that it’s a wonder we can keep it afloat. Because, at the center of our model is not Christ, but merely a fanciful self-portrait of ourselves standing next to our Lord. The goal is fine, but the model is flawed. Thankfully, though, this whole sinking ship of ours can be righted and repaired simply by a more complete appreciation of what it means to be called by God. And the best place to begin, is with scripture.
Scriptural vocation, revisited
Scripture is so full of divine callings and human responses that it is tough to draw any hard and fast conclusions of vocation. However, in our endeavor to reorient ourselves to the subject of vocation, it would behoove us to consider first, the condition of the recipients when they received their calling, and then, the subject of the calling.
Characters of every sort receive callings in scripture: kings, patriarchs, prophets, fishermen, a virgin in the temple. Some people are well-known, popular figures, and some were previously anonymous. And each of them was conducting themselves differently right up until the moment of their call. In many cases, these people were living holy and good lives. Mary was in the temple, as was Samuel. Jonah was acting the part of a holy prophet right up until the moment that he received his prophecy. On the other hand, the disciples were all going about their lives relatively unaware. King David was tending his father’s sheep. Moses was on a bit of a quest, but Abraham, by contrast, was just ‘doing his thing’ in Haran. Most remarkably, Saul (Paul) was actually persecuting Christians. But in every case, in every situation, with every person, our Lord had them precisely where they needed to be, to hear Him calling to them.
If these people were all precisely where God wanted them, why would we dare to believe that we currently in such a position ourselves? That is not to be understood as carte blanche for bad judgment, but seriously, why should we be so willing to believe that we may currently be unable to hear God’s call? There is simply no strong basis for this belief, and it’s dangerous, too, to the extent that we believe God’s power is limited by our choices.
The second thread of continuity in scriptural callings is the subject. Those who are called are asked to do something or say something to a group of people, in order that they repent and find salvation with God. In no case is the person asked to focus on himself. Rather, the Lord is always the subject, The exception that proves the rule is the prophet Jonah. He feared for his own reputation as a prophet when he was finally called by God to prophesy, so he fled. And it was only as he was being blotted out of existence in the belly of the fish, that he finally understood that it was not about him, but about the Lord God. Even Christ deflects attention from himself to his Father in heaven. And, in fact, John the Baptists best articulates the Christian vocation when he says simply that ‘he must decrease, so that Christ may increase’ (John 3:30). Vocation is not about us at all. It is about Christ.
One final correction must be made to our initial understanding of vocation. Vocation is an active process, but it is not a finished state. “Lead me on a level path” pleads the psalmist, and we along with him. In this psalm, our prayer is not for the destination, but for the journey. When we ask God to ‘teach us the way that we should go,’ we are asking for continual guidance and support through our entire lives – not merely a one-time course correction because we somehow strayed into dangerous waters. Our prayer affirms our belief that right now, each of us is right where Christ wants us, so that he can speak to us. And finally, we accept the possibility (and indeed, the likelihood) that we can encounter Christ and reveal Christ to others through the daily work that we already do.
From this position, freed from the constructs that we so willingly place upon ourselves, we are now able to enter into a more intelligent discussion of vocation in terms of Christ. So what, then, is a healthy understanding of vocation? And how do we hear our calling today? What shape does it take? How do we discern it? And what is our response? And what should we hope to hear in reply when we pray with King David that God “lead me on a level path.” (Pss 27:11, 143:10)?
As mentioned above, six authors have taken up the challenge of exploring vocation in this month’s edition of Wonder. Mr. Michael Tishel leads us through popular culture and a moving anecdote to discuss our common social misunderstanding of vocation, and a healthier sense of calling. Tishel encourages us to respond to Christ’s call by honoring the great commandment, to love God and to love one another. Fr James Bozeman discusses the frustration of exploring one’s vocation and the temptation to use “God’s call” as a catch-all for bad decisions. To minimize either difficulty, Bozeman emphasizes the freedom of vocation, and suggests that the proper view of vocation is the return of our gifts and talents to our Lord who bestowed them upon us. Ms. Kay Wakaruk offers several insightful tips for understanding vocation in her essay. Comfortable with both the possibility of vocation and the use of scripture for understanding it, Wakaruk places the burden of responsibility on we, who are constantly being called by Christ.
Fr Chandler David Poling parses the difference between our secular understanding of vocation and a properly Christian one, refusing all the while to allow us confuse our quest for ‘vocation’ with our quest for ‘material things’ in this world. Our true call, Poling asserts, is a daily process, that may well be independent of (and is certainly not limited by) career choice. Liz Gauvain offers a brief reflection, and contributes to our discussion by assessing the importance of self-understanding. As she sees it, Gauvain considers a healthy self-understanding as a prerequisite to answering the Lord’s call. Only by knowing ourselves could we possibly hope to respond authentically and individually to our Lord. Our body of writings concludes this month with a piece by Mr William Kopcha, who offers some conventional wisdom on the subject of vocation, through his own personal journey over recent years.
All of these authors have given us powerful words to contemplate when discussing vocation. And each one of them more fully articulates what it means when we pray that God “lead me on a level path.” The path is unique for all of us, but the destination is the same, and the prayer is for the journey. I hope that you can take time to read and reflect on this collection of essays this Christmas season, and identify both the consolations and the challenges that these authors offer us all, as we pray that God lead us all on a level path, and teach us to do His will.
Wishing you all the very best in the season of the Lord’s Nativity.