by the Rev. Mike Marsh
That’s how our conversation began. Her questions and statements are more than familiar to me. I have heard them or variations of them many times before. I have asked and wrestled with them myself, more than a few times. Most of us do, I think, and usually more than once.
I wasn’t too quick to speak or to try to answer her questions. I let silence do its work, to deepen her questions. There is more to what she was asking than her spoken questions. Besides, I don’t have her answers.
Vocation for Christians is not something we choose or decide. We can no more decide our vocation than we decided to be born. It’s not that our lives are predetermined, that we have no real freedom. Rather, just as our birth into this world, our unique creation, was an incredible gift from God, so also is our vocation as Christians not a decision but a gift. Though we might have to make decisions in the particular circumstances of our lives, we nonetheless misrepresent our vocation if we see it fundamentally as our choice rather than God’s gift to us.
Elizabeth Newman, “Called Through Relationship,” Vocation, from Christian Reflection – A Series in Faith and Ethics, pg 20. Used with permission.
In some sense her questions may be more important than any answer she or I might give. They point to something deep within her – a longing, a calling. I believe she was really asking some of the great questions of life. Who am I? Where am I from? Where am I going? What is my purpose? Ultimately these are questions of vocation. They are not answered primarily by what we do but, rather, by whom we are becoming.
For most of us, I suspect, the vocational question is primarily asked and, unfortunately, often too quickly answered in terms of doing. What are you going to do when you grow up? What will you do when you graduate? What are you doing now that you are retired? What does God want me to do? I wonder if we sometimes get so caught up in figuring out what we should do, what we think God wants us to do, that we sometimes lose sight of the vocational core that lies behind that doing.
I am not suggesting these questions are unimportant or that what we do does not matter but that we need to think and see vocation as bigger than we usually do. We need to move
“beyond narrow views of vocation to embrace the idea that vocation first and foremost addresses God’s call to the whole person in relationship to their whole life. In other words, vocation is not reserved for only a select group of people, a particular lifestyle, or to some forms of work and profession.” (1)
So what would this bigger view of vocation look like? Listen to what St. Basil the Great says: “The human being is an animal who has received the vocation to become God.”(2) How’s that for a bigger view?
This vocational understanding is revealed in the incarnation of Jesus the Christ. St. Clement of Alexandria explains, “The Word of God became man so that you too may learn from a man how it is even possible for a man to become a god.”(3) Our deepest and truest vocation, then, is to become, by grace, what God is by nature. That’s what the LORD told Moses when he said, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:45). Jesus echoed those words in his Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).
In this regard there is really only one vocation: to become divine, to move from having been created in the image of God to living in the likeness of God (Gen. 1:26). This one vocation, however, has many different expressions. A saying from the desert fathers makes the point here.
One of the fathers asked Abba Nistheros the Great, the friend of Abba Antony: “What good work should I be doing?” He said to him: “Are not all actions equal? Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable, and God was with him. David was humble, and God was with him. Elias loved interior peace, and God was with him. So, do whatever you see that your soul desires according to God, and guard your heart.(4)
That summarizes well what I told the woman who was asking me what she should do. I trusted she already had, somewhere within her, her answer so I just asked some questions. “What do you want to do? What stirs your heart and imagination? What fits you? What are your deepest concerns and longings? Look around, what do you see?” She began to talk about the elderly who are lonely and have no one to visit them. She described her concern for children who have no direction and no one to guide them. She wondered about art as a means of connecting with them. As she talked she began to cry. “I don’t know why I am crying,” she said. “I don’t know either,” I said, “but maybe you are getting more clear on what might be next for you.”
I wanted to leave her options open and to be clear with her that there is no once and for all, finally and forever, expression of our vocation and, as Abba Nistheros taught, one is not more right, more holy, or better than another. Throughout our lifetime most of us will have many and varied expressions of the one vocation to become God. Vocation “is a dynamic response through a variety of choices that can change over time due to various personal and social contexts and how the Spirit is active and interactive in these contexts.”(5)
Our primary calling is to be a people who live in communion with our triune God. Only in community with God and others do we begin to discover, occasionally like a flash of lightning, but more often haltingly and by fits and starts, what we are called to do in our lives.
Elizabeth Newman, “Called Through Relationship,” Vocation, from Christian Reflection – A Series in Faith and Ethics, pg 21. Used with permission.
Though we may recognize it only in retrospect “the decisions which correspond to our deepest longings proceed from a developing sense of vocation.”(6) Those decisions are made in a particular time and place, and within particular contexts, relationships, and life situations.
At some point those particularities will change. We age and mature. We move to a new town. We marry or divorce. New interests and passions arise. Jobs change. Children are born. Children grow up and move out. Financial resources can grow or diminish. We retire. A loved one dies. New friendships are made. Opportunities we never dreamed of come to us. Our physical or mental health changes. We have successes and accomplishments as well as failures and disappointments. We recognize new or changing needs in our communities and the world around us. These do not necessarily determine the expression of our vocation, but they become the raw material and context for that expression.
The specifics of our lives will change but the core vocation remains. “The goal of that vocation is transformation in God, by God – our personal deification.”(7) That transformation happens within and through the specifics of each of our lives. So what if, rather than seeing the divine will for our lives from a “static absolutist” viewpoint, we took “an evolutionary and relational perspective?”8 What if we received, instead of grasping for, our vocation?
I suspect we might discover that God is stingy and wastes nothing of our lives. We would no longer have to put ourselves in the position of reading the Divine Mind to figure out that one and only thing God wants us to do. We would be free to become the person we truly want to be and the person God knows us to already be.
The Rev. Mike Marsh is rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Uvalde TX. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Kathleen A. Cahalan, Introducing the Practice of Ministry (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 28.
2 Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (Hyde Park, NY: City Press, 1993), 76 (citing Gregory Nazianzen, Eulogy of Basil the Great, Oration 43, 48 (PG 36, 560)).
3 Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 1.8.4.
4 John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Bloomington: IN: World Wisdom, Inc., 2003), 13.
5 Cahalan, 30.
6 Francis Kelly Nemeck and Marie Theresa Coombs, Called by God: A Theology of Vocation and Lifelong Commitment (Collegeville: MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992) 1.
7 Nemeck and Coombs, 1.
8 Ibid., 11.