We’ve all known them — teachers, lawyers, athletes, community organizers, artists,
who knew what they wanted to do from a very young age, and did just that. What about
those of us who struggle to hear a vocation’s call? In this excerpt from Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams , the archbishop of Canterbury, suggests we retreat from the fray to recharge with a new perspective. Part 1 of 2.
The trouble with the idea of vocation is that most of us, if we are honest, have a rather dramatic idea of it. I don’t mean dramatic just in the sense of self-dramatizing , but dramatic in the simpler sense of theatrical — vocation as casting, you might say. God has a purpose for the world, a very long and very good play, even longer and better than Shaw’s Back to Methuselah , with plenty of juicy parts in it. The nuisance is that he draws up the cast-list before doing any auditions. We find ourselves called to fulfill a definite role, but we haven’t actually seen the script, and as time goes on we may suspect we would do better in another part…. What I mean is that this not uncommon way of talking about vocation as God finding us a part to play is actually rather
problematic: there will always be the suspicion that we’re not really being used, stretched, and so on, and a flicker of resentment at being consigned to undue prominence or unjust obscurity. In short, we are uneasy about the hint of arbitrariness in all this.
And it is quite true that this kind of language has deep roots in our faith. There is Isaiah’s call: the King says, “Whom shall I send?” and the prophet replies, “Send me.” There is a task to be performed; it is offered, who may dare refuse? There are souls like Jeremiah and Paul, set apart from before birth for the work of God, writing and crying under the terrible, merciless pressure of their burden, unable to ignore their calling — “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9) — and yet tortured and almost destroyed by it. There are those who try to escape: Herbert’s great poems of revolt (“I struck the board, and cry’d, No more”) or Hopkins’s sonnets testify to the passion to get away from the unbearable pain of uselessness, loneliness, and frustration. Or
think of the Curé d’Ars, trying again and again to run away to a monastery to get away from the relentless crowds of penitents, and always being prevented.
Vocation here is indeed a dreadful falling into the hands of the living God, being bound
upon a wheel of fire. God has decided; I may struggle or revolt, but here is this clear will, to be done whatever the cost. All I’m asked for is compliance: in a real sense, I have no rights here. I obey, I bear the crucifying consequences, because I have however dimly and weakly, chosen to love God and to do his will, chosen to see obedience as the one ultimately, unconditionally worthwhile thing a human being can do. It may seem arbitrary, but the clay doesn’t argue with the potter. And behind it all is the unimaginable promise just glimpsed — “Me thought I heard one calling, child”; treasure in heaven; the hundredfold recompense of God’s fatherly acceptance.
All of that is, I believe, quite genuinely central to the Christian doctrine of vocation, but there is a lot that it doesn’t say. On this pattern, the will of God is seen as still being something very like the preferences of God: God would like so-and-so to be a priest or a nun or something, and that is what so and-so must be. And, once again, if there is a complaint about arbitrariness, the answer is ready to hand that God’s ways are not ours. “Why does X have to be a nun? What a marvelous wife and mother she would have made!” But God is inscrutable, and he has decreed frustration for X on one level, for the sake of greater fruitfulness fruitfulness on another. He chooses what he wills: there is no set of conditions for his grace. We are to rejoice in the fact that, weak and sinful and silly as we are, God has chosen us for the privilege of loving and serving him. Grace upon grace: how wonderful that God is arbitrary — at least for those of us who are chosen. There is a bit of a problem about the rest.
Grace upon grace, but what about nature? Does grace necessarily interrupt and overturn and deny and frustrate? Isn’t it supposed to fulfill? Once put the question in terms like this, and the dimensions of the problem become clear and very alarming: grace and nature, creation and redemption, election and reprobation — inescapable and horribly complex matters. In the long run, we can’t think usefully about vocation without some thinking about these wider things.
Calling and Creating
It’s very important, for instance, to remember that in the Old Testament, calling and creating are closely associated. Look at Isaiah 40:26 — God creating the stars and calling them by name — and the echoes of that in the psalter. And think too of the image of God creating and recreating human beings by naming them. God, say the prophets and poets of Israel, has called you by name. As at first, when Jacob wrestled with the angel, God calls, consecrates to his service, by giving a name. And though there’s nothing specific in the New Testament that says we should, we still reflect this sense by associating baptism, God’s grace calling people into Christ, with the giving of a name.
As the Greek fathers liked to say, God creates by uttering a multitude of logoi , designating words, names: creation springs into being in order to answer God’s speech, God’s call, so that his Word does not return to him empty (Isaiah 55:11). So in the most basic sense of all, God’s call is the call to be: the vocation of creatures is to exist. And, second, the vocation of creatures is to exist as themselves , to be bearers of their names, answering to the Word that gives each its distinctive identity. The act of creation can be seen as quite simply this — the vocation of things to be themselves, distinctive, spare, and strange. God does not first create and
then differentiate a great multitude of roles within creation: in one act he creates a multiple, noisy, jostling, and diverse reality.
So with the human world; God does not create human ciphers, a pool of cheap labor to whom jobs can be assigned at will. Each human being called into existence by him exists as a distinct part of a great interlocking web of identities. Each is a unique point in this great net. To be is to be where you are, who you are, and what you are — a person with a certain genetic composition, a certain social status, a certain set of capabilities.
From the moment of birth (even from before that) onwards, you will be at each moment that particular bundle of conditioning and possibilities. And to talk about God as your creator means to recognize at each moment that it is his desire for you to be, and to be the person you are. It means he is calling you by your name, at each and every moment, wanting you to be you.
When Vocation Happens
And this may be the clue to the problems we have in thinking of vocation. It isn’t that God looks down from heaven at a certain moment and just drops a vocation on you, as if he were utterly uninterested and uninvolved in what’s actually there. If we take seriously the idea that God is faithful and doesn’t change, we need to think of him speaking over and over again the same Word to us — our true name, our real identity — and making us be, over and over again, in that speech of his, in his Word. In other words, vocation doesn’t happen, once and for all, at a fixed date. Paul himself, who seems to be the classic instance to the contrary, recognizes this precisely in talking about being set apart from his mother’s womb. It happens from birth to death, and what we usually call vocation is only a name for the moment of crisis within the unbroken process.
It is a moment of crisis, because answering the call to be oneself at any given moment is not at all easy. In spite of how it may sound, it isn’t a bland acceptance of the status quo in your life, or a license to surrender to every possible impulse. God asks for his Word to be answered, he asks for response. To exist really is to exist as responding-to-God. Each of us is called to be a different kind of response to God, to mirror God in unique ways, to show God what he is like, so to speak, from innumerable new and different standpoints.
So one clue to our identity is this, the idea of mirroring God. We have to find what is our particular way of playing back to God his self-sharing, self losing care and compassion, the love because of which he speaks and calls in the first place. Crises occur at those points where we see how unreality, our selfish, self-protecting illusions, our struggles for cheap security, block the way to our answering the call to be. To live like this, to nurture and develop this image of myself, may be safe, but it isn’t true: insofar as it’s unreal it’s un-Godly. God cannot reach me if I’m not there.
The crisis comes when we put the question, “What am I denying, what am I refusing to see in myself? What am I trying to avoid?” This is where we have to begin really to attend to ourselves and to the world around, to find out what is true and what is false in us.
It is not just introspection, because we don’t merely live in private selves; we have to reckon with the needs and expectations of others, with the practical realities of life, society, family, and so on. And it is not just collusion with those needs, because we have our own secrets of memory and temperament, and desire. We have to listen harder than ever — to each other and to our own hearts. And what emerges is perhaps that sense of near inevitability, that obscurely authoritative impulse that crystallizes for some as “a vocation,” the sense that being myself will demand of me a certain kind of commitment. The process can be rapid or slow, it can work at a conscious or a subconscious level with or without a single recognizable point of decision, but this is, I think, the basis of what goes on.
Those whose job it is to assess the reality or adequacy of vocations can really do no more than attempt to say, “Have you reckoned with that aspect of yourself, with that feature of your relationships? Is this actually you we’ve got here? Or is it another defense, another game?” That is one reason why it’s so important to have some kind of shared life bound up with vocational training.
None of us, I imagine, can discover the truth from the perspective of an isolated individual existence. Our hearts are infinitely cunning in self-deceit; we need others to let the cold light of accuracy shine on our evasions and posturing. All of us have to ask one another at times, “Tell me who you think I am,” and all of us are obliged to answer that with as much candor — and as much charity — as we can. Someone’s life depends on it.
It’s all a way of restating the idea that vocation has to do with saving your soul — not by acquiring a secure position of holiness, but by learning to shed the unreality that simply suffocates the very life of the soul. It has to do with recognizing that my relation with God (and so with everybody) depends absolutely on making the decision to be what I am, to answer God’s Word, and doing this without fuss and existentialist drama because what I am is already known and loved and accepted in God. As Karl Barth loved to say, “God has chosen us all in Christ: at the deepest level we are all called Jesus in the eyes of the Father.”… Sometimes this will look and feel arbitrary. There will be few continuities, no readily graspable pattern in it all, the crisis will be severe and shattering. That is a measure not of God’s whimsical and capricious despotism, but of how far I have really been from myself….
When the Games Have Stopped
And I may rage and cry at the frustrations of my calling and yet know beyond doubt — like Herbert, Hopkins, Jean Vianney, Jeremiah, and all the others — that while this may be dreadful, anything else would be worse — an invention, a game. Here at least, whatever the cost, I am in the truth. The nun may say (as I have heard nuns say) “I know I’d be a wonderful wife and mother. I know I have it in me to live that out successfully and happily because it fits my temperament. And knowing that doesn’t make things easier. But I know too that, for me, that would be playing, messing around with a tame reality I could control, and reality is not like that.” Vocation is, you could say, what’s left when all the games have stopped. It’s that elusive residue that we are here to discover, and to help one another discover.
Posted on Trinity News March 15, 2005