By Father Warren Sazama, S.J.
WE OFTEN HEAR it said that we all have a vocation–but what is a vocation anyway? I’ve thought a lot about this question since I’ve been vocation director. It’s not a “thing” inside of us. Nor is it a “thing” outside of us that we search to find as on a treasure hunt. Sure, it means “God’s call” to us, but that’s merely a translation of the Latin root vocare, “to call”.
In trying to understand what a vocation truly is or what we’re actually doing when we search to discover our vocation in life, it might be helpful to look at two extreme positions. As my novice director used to tell us, the truth is often somewhere in the middle.
One extreme position is that God has a blueprint for each of us. To discover our vocation in life is to figure out and follow that blueprint. If we deviate from God’s plan for us, we deviate from God’s will, and we’re lost. Most of us today see this model for understanding one’s vocation in life as a bit rigid and implausible.
The other extreme is that God’s call to all of us is the same–to be united with God and to use our gifts in service of our neighbor. The particulars of how we do this are up to us. In this view, God doesn’t really care how we do it as long as we do it. This view makes God rather remote and unin-volved, almost uncaring. This is certainly not the God in the Judeo-Christian scripture who is personally active in our lives and our history.
A middle view comes out of my Jesuit, Ignatian tradition, which sees God as actively and personally involved in each of our lives. God speaks to us directly in our hearts, minds, and souls through our thoughts and feelings, and through our inner movements and desires. However, not all of our inner thoughts, movements, and desires come from God. Therefore we have to discern which are from God and which are not. God is engaged in a lifelong dialog with us. Our role in the dialog is to pay attention, listen, and try to respond.
In this Ignatian view we discover what God is calling us to by paying attention to what gives us the most life, energy, and joy. Where do your interests lie and how will you order your life to pursue these interests. Some might have a passion for art or science and a deep desire to be married and have children. Others may want to teach or act and find that their passions may best be met in the context of religious life or the priesthood.
So a vocation is literally “God’s call,” a call that we hear by listening to God’s voice within us as God speaks through our inner and outer experiences. Listening to God’s call is an interactive process–a dialog–between God and us.
If we look at the major, archetypal calls in scripture, we see this pattern borne out. Whether it is Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Jeremiah, Mary, Jesus, or Peter, they all somehow hear God’s voice, often in the interior of their hearts and sometimes through external experiences. Regardless of how they hear God’s voice, each of these models from scripture eventually responds generously and openly. After a time, their calls seem obvious and literally define who they are. But this is not the case initially.
At first each one responds with confusion and doubt. Each one’s first reaction is a variation on “Not me, Lord!” “I’m too young” (Jeremiah) or “I have a stutter” (Moses) or “I’m too sinful” (Peter and Isaiah) or “I haven’t had sex, so how can I bear a son?” (Mary). But as they try to listen attentively and respond generously and openly, they eventually discover what God is calling them to. And the more deeply they respond over time, the clearer their sense of having been called becomes. They develop a genuine, profound sense of vocation.
So when we say that we all have a vocation in life, what this means is that God speaks to each of us in a personal way and has a preference for us. If we listen and respond, we grow to possess a sense of clarity about what our vocation in life is.
It’s a truly wonderful, joyful experience to grow aware in this way. At the same time, it’s important to remember that one’s initial intuition about a vocation rarely is accompanied by much peace and clarity. Usually it is accompanied by doubt and confusion–perhaps even anxiety. Staying faithful to the conversation with God in time brings a growing sense of clarity about what’s right for you–what will bring you peace and joy.
If you’re presently discerning your calling and are experiencing uncertainty, trust that God is speaking to you and that, if you try to listen and respond, you’ll find your way.
Enjoy the journey. May God bless your every step!