Friday, January 29, 2010

What "Vocation" Is All About

Among the majority of folks, especially older Catholics, the word "vocation" conjures up either a blank stare or some vestige of notions revolving around nuns in highly-starched habits and priests delivering a homily, complete with stories and smiles. In popular parlance, the word was associated with a decidedly religious, and hence curiously off-putting, way of life. To "have" a vocation meant becoming a religious or a priest, and that's it. Life gone. Fun gone. "Yes, that word" gone. You might as well have moved to Mars, as far as most people were concerned. It was that mysterious and different and strange.

Unfortunately, not much was done to disabuse folks of that notion, at least as far as I can tell. These "vocation" people were generally held up as special, dedicated, and generous folks who did something that, yes, was mysterious and different and strange, but also seemed quite a bit adventurous, novel, and even exciting in some odd way. So in the balance of things, a "vocation" was generally admired among Catholics and some others. It was something that just didn't apply to run-of-the-mill people.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The Church speaks about four vocations in life - four ways of life that invite you into a deeper relationship with God through Jesus Christ and those around you. These are, in no particular order, the priesthood, marriage, the single life, and religious life. Each is an authentic vocation in the Church, and there are saints in each category to prove it. (So there!)

On the other extreme, the word in popular parlance has taken on a more pedestrian notion that's associated with simplicity, utility, and the practical arts. We hear about vocation training, vocational schools, and vocation therapy. Here the word is associated with fixing cars, becoming an electrician or plumber, and doing whatever training is necessary for someone to get a good job.

Wouldn't be nice if those two notions could meet in the middle, which is probably where the real meaning of the word belongs? A vocation involves both an adventure or mystery and an ability to do all the practical work necessary to make it a reality. There's a deep and strange aspect to it, and there's a very real training that's necessary for it be a "good job."

Indeed, those who have thought and written about the notion of "vocation" have come up with some fine definitions. The most popular is the one by Fred Beuchner, who writes that a vocation is "where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." My personal favorite is the one by Albert Schweitzer - no slouch when it comes to the vocation area - who calls a vocation "a duty undertaken with sober enthusiasm." You may recall that he put his vocation on steroids, becoming both a brilliant organist, Bach scholar, biblical scholar, minister, physician, and finally missionary in Africa. One book says that vocation is not just holding on. The commitment holds you. "You can't not do the work." Schweitzer did that several times over. If he'd been a Catholic, he'd probably be a saint (which he no doubt was anyway).

At a recent retreat that we held at our camp at the Russian River for 11 young women from our various high schools (we hold one for young men in the Fall) on the topic of discerning one's vocation in life, each person was asked to come up with his/her own definition. After thinking about it, my definition for vocation was this: "That which draws out your best and feeds your joy." It's something akin to the one given by a religious sister to a group of students to whom we were speaking. She said that you have to find that way of life where you can best love and be loved.

Not a bad set of statements to invite folks to look more deeply into who they are and may become.

But you have to do it to choose it. And others have to see it to be it.

God dwells in the middle of the doing of it, and that's where His presence is found. So when you see something good that needs to be done, it's a vocation invitation. When you feel drawn to a begin something that helps others, that's also a vocation invitation. When despite the drudgery and work, you feel fine doing a certain kind of work, that's a vocation in action. You get the idea.

Each of our lives can be a fine illustration of a vocation in action. Among those who are prime examples of this - without the starched linen outfit but with the singular mystery of a religious vocation - is Mother Teresa. Her invitation to stretch one's vocation applies to us all.

"People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway. What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway."

And Mother Teresa's definition of vocation is one of the best:

"Wherever God has put you, that is your vocation. It is not what we do, but how much love we put into it. We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if that drop was not there, I think the ocean would be less by that missing drop. We don't have to think in numbers. We can only love one person at a time, serve one person at a time."

This is a good place to stop and simply let our vocation be.