by Michael Tishel
In an episode of the Simpsons entitled “Separate Vocations” Lisa and Bart take aptitude tests, which are processed by an enormous dysfunctional computer. After much anticipation, Lisa discovers that she is meant be a home-maker, and her brother Bart finds out, much to the chagrin of his father, that he is going to be a policeman. Lisa is crushed by this news and is determined to prove the test wrong, so she consults with a professional saxophone player who informs her that, though she has talent, she inherited her fathers’ “stubby fingers” and will therefore never be able to pursue her “vocation.” Thus, Lisa is required to spend the day doing chores with her mother, while Bart gets to ride along in a patrol car.
I don’t know about you, but Bart and Lisa’s anxiety about what they will be when they are older, though humorous, hits pretty close to home. Of course, it doesn’t help that everyone asks us “so what do you want to do after college?” or “what do you want to major in?” These are most certainly well-intentioned questions, yet the looming moment of truth, when the rest of our lives will be decided by choosing one occupation or another, is daunting at best and utterly terrifying at worst.
I for one wanted desperately, when I was a kid, to become a Native American; I’ve since realized that I simply don’t have what it takes. Then it was a detective, but I discovered that most detectives spend far less time catching criminals, and more time filling out paperwork; so that was out of the picture. Then finally when I was in college I decided that I would like to teach English Literature. This was the most realistic goal that I had conjured up, I would say, and was motivated by the superb example of a profoundly loving high school English teacher. Yet even this desire subtly slipped away and I found myself wanting to serve Christ and the Church. I had no idea how this would pan out, but for once in my life it didn’t matter what I would be doing. What mattered was that it would be done within the context of a life in Christ. I started to realize that there was a more important question than “what do you want to do when you grow up” that begged my attention. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
The Simpsons’ episode about “vocation” certainly evokes a chuckle from even the driest viewer, but even more so it reveals our culture’s understanding of vocation. We either associate vocation with whatever job we decide get, or we understand vocation as a calling to the priesthood or monasticism. In either case, however, we can agree that vocation mostly has to do with what happens in the future. It’s that moment in the future when we become whatever it is that we’ve dreamed or hope to be (i.e. scientist, athlete, writer, missionary). We work hard (or hardly work) towards that day, but nine times out of ten, “that day” is one that, in our minds, hasn’t come yet. And “that day” is what characterizes and defines our vocation. “After I’m done with school, I will be a doctor.” “Next year I will…” This idea of vocation expresses as much a disinterest with the present as it does anticipation for the future.
Consider the story of a young girl named Sarah. Sarah was an average child, grew up in a suburban neighborhood playing with her friends in the backyard. Sarah’s parents were both doctors and from a very young age Sarah dreamed of being just like her parents. In high school she volunteered at the local inner-city clinic, and when it came time to choose her college, she had made up her mind to study pre-med. She did well in her classes, but they didn’t mean much to her; she just needed to pass them in order to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a physician. She had her whole career planned out, and had even drawn up a design of her Beverly Hills clinic where she would treat Hollywood’s celebrities. One day during her sophomore year of college, Sarah was sitting in Biology lab, day-dreaming about the palm trees she would plant in front of her clinic. That day they had a sub, and so it was one of the least important days to pay attention, but as the class quieted down, the substitute began to introduce a documentary that the class would watch. As the film began, Sarah was still thinking about her future career, and with bland disinterest turned her attention to the projector screen. All of a sudden she caught her breath. The opening scene was of a mother in Central Africa who had just lost her 7 year old son to AIDS. The mother was weeping uncontrollably.
Sarah watched in utter disbelief as she heard the horrifying statistics of how this epidemic was sweeping through an entire continent. Is this possible, she wondered. The video turned her life upside down. She couldn’t stop thinking about the statistics, and picturing the grieving mother. Every time she tried to revisit her “dream clinic” in her mind, a barrage of confusing thoughts about suffering and poverty, like storm clouds, would cover her sun-bathed clinic in sadness. For the first time in her life, she felt real heart-wrenching pain on behalf of other people. Her dreams to treat the rich and famous seemed like petty children’s games to her now, and she started to discern another purpose in studying medicine. From then on, attending classes was no longer a bore, but held a deep significance wrapped up in her desire to heal, comfort and save human lives. Her heart-felt purpose informed all that she did and pierced through the superficiality of grades and competition amongst peers. Classes were no longer barriers, blocking her from future goals, but rather means of enriching her life and broadening her understanding of the human person. And all this, from Sophomore Bio Lab, taught by a substitute, when she would normally have been thinking of more important things.
The moral of the story: “One of the drawbacks about adventures is that when you come to the most beautiful places you are often too anxious and hurried to appreciate them” (C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy p. 262). Important lessons and valuable treasures often come in seemingly unimportant ways. Jesus himself said “He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much” (Luke 16:10). Take advantage of every opportunity to learn and appreciate the beauty and wisdom that is often disguised in normality or even ugliness. It all depends on how attentive and diligent we are in the small things.
Christ came to us in His incarnation, and will come again in His second coming, yet we should never forget that he is present now and invites us to get to know Him now. How do we know this? First of all because that’s what “the Bible says.” But we believe it because we see this truth actually lived out in the lives of the Apostles, Saints and Confessors of our faith. They are the “proof” that Christ is with us, and they witness to what He can do in our lives if we belief (i.e. trust) in Him. What will this do for us? This will do everything. It will give meaning to a life that is tainted by and ends in death. Why will it give meaning, because Christ, as witnessed by His saints up until this very day, conquered death, conquered meaninglessness, conquered darkness, by dying on the Cross and rising from the Dead.
Our true calling in life is respond to the Caller – to Jesus Christ. How do we respond? Do we send him a letter? Do we hit “reply” in an email? Our response is our life. Christ asks of us our entire life. Isn’t that a rather large request though? It would be if we didn’t know what we would get in return. In return for dedicating our life””our fleeting, brief existence on this earth, we receive the richness and depth of eternal life. This is not an eternal life in the future after we die, this is an eternal life which begins now. The saints are people who, through faith and love for God (i.e. their response to Christ’s call), felt at the core of who they were and experienced on a daily basis that they were no longer constrained by the captivity of death.
Why does this matter? Why can’t we settle for mortality, for eighty or so good years of pleasure on this earth? Isn’t it still worth it to enjoy this life, rather than having to dedicate it all to God? A life in Christ is important because death knocks at our door, not only at the end of our life, but also throughout it. We are constantly reminded of our death, by the death of loved ones, by the untimely death of young people who are killed or who were sick, by hearing about death on the news. We are reminded of death by sickness, by evil actions committed by and by and to so many people in world. We are reminded, yet we try to forget. We try to forget by taking pain-killers to numb our pain; by allowing our “busy” schedules to consume our ability to reflect on our day; we allow ourselves to forget by numbing ourselves with food, entertainment, pleasures and anything else that distracts us from the fragility and temporal nature of life. Not that all of these things are bad, they are in fact created by God, but they become this way if they are used as narcotics (a word which literally means “to numb”) from pain and ultimately death. That’s why this discussion of eternity is important. That is why Christ’s coming, his trampling down death and bring forth new life, is important. That is why a life in the Church, a life in Christ is important. We can’t forget why we are here (to love God and neighbor), who calls us (our Creator and Sustainer), and to what we are called (a life of holiness, eternal life and love). In this sense we can echo the “definition” of vocation as articulated by the Office of Vocation & Ministry and CrossRoad (the two programs for which I work): “one’s unique and ongoing response to Christ’s call to love God with heart, soul, strength and mind and one’s neighbor as oneself.”
So where does that leave us? Do we abandon our lives in the world and dedicate ourselves to God by becoming monastics or clergy? Does this mean that we should give up all of our “earthly” dreams and hopes? Many people throughout the history of the Church believed that this was so. St. Anthony the Great, the founder of modern day monasticism, and an ascetic of the fourth century, after hearing the Gospel precept “go, give all your possessions to the poor, and follow me” (Luke 12:33) did just that. Yet the Gospel calls us to a way of doing things, not necessarily to a particular occupation. We are called to do whatever it is that we do with love.
At the beginning of this post I said that I had discovered a deeper question than just “what I wanted to do when I grow up.” This question was “who do I want to be?” and “how do I want to live?” And the timeframe is not “when I grow up” but NOW. Why is it that these questions of ”˜who’ and ”˜how’ often seem to take second place in our lives? It may have something to do with how we’ve come to interact with ourselves and with others via social media sites. Am I the sum parts of my “interests, relationship status, religious affiliation and quotes”? I would say that these “facts” about me or about others comprise the very tip of a large iceberg. What remains hidden, beneath the surface, is in fact that bulk of who I am. We can’t be allowed to reduce ourselves (or others!) to a list of facebook facts, or to define ourselves by our five-year goals.
We also must take care not to fall into the habit of compartmentalizing our lives. Not only is there a connection between what we do in Church and what we do in the rest of our lives, but there is no separation whatsoever. Whether or not we approach things this way, there is only continuity before Christ. Does this mean that we are supposed to walk the streets handing out tracts about Jesus and wearing a sign saying “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand” while we’re at work? Well, maybe to some extent, though probably not through those very words. What does it mean for us to live as Christians in this world? It means that our first priority is the Kingdom of God “and all these things [insert: job searching, housing, education, good grades, relationships] will be added unto you” (Matt 6:33).
Our vocation in life never changes. Our relationships will change, or our careers, or our residence. But our calling in life, based on the fact that we are all human beings, created by in the image and likeness of God, is universal. We are called to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Simple, huh? Yet how we love is much more involved. But God is waiting for us to respond to the call. He was waiting from the moment he brought us from nothing into existence. He loved us into existence, and now we respond by loving Him and our neighbor, and only through this love will we truly find life, meaning, purpose and, of course, our vocation. So may we all hear and respond to the words of St Herman of Alaska, who said so famously, “From this day, from this hour, from this moment let us strive to love God above all and do His holy will!”