When I set out to write this particular post, I thought it would be easy. You hear about “vocations” all the time. Except, when I started researching, it seemed to be more subtle and complex than I expected.
I’m going to take my best shot and hope that if I stray, someone will be kind enough to correct me.
I’ll start with a quote from St. John Paul II.
What is a vocation? It is an interior call of grace, which falls into the soul like a seed, to mature within it. (Angelus message, December 14, 1980)
The Lumen Gentium, (one of the principle documents to come out of the Second Vatican Council) explains that there is a sort of universal vocation:
Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history. (40)
My first thought was, “Oh. Is that all?” The “perfection of charity” and “holiness” seems like something of a tall order. But it’s right there in black-and-white and (just in case you missed it) there’s a reference to this in paragraph 2013 of the Catechism.
Both those quotes contain within them the notion of a “call” from God; an invitation to live a life of holiness. What’s interesting is that the Lumen Gentium acknowledges that there are many different ways that this life of holiness can be lived. Section 41 speaks eloquently about bishops and priests, other consecrated clerics, lay ministers, married couples, widows, single people, “those who engage in labor”, the poor, the infirm, and the sick. It concludes by sweeping them all up into a final paragraph:
Finally all Christ’s faithful, whatever be the conditions, duties and circumstances of their lives—and indeed through all these, will daily increase in holiness, if they receive all things with faith from the hand of their heavenly Father and if they cooperate with the divine will. In this temporal service, they will manifest to all men the love with which God loved the world. (41)
This is often referred to as the “universal vocation” and I’m taken with this notion that we are all encouraged to pursue holiness as our primary vocation, by acting out our calling. It’s the word “calling” that most Catholics think of when they hear the word “vocation”.
Traditionally, Catholic thought turns to three different vocations as “primary” vocations or callings; holy orders, consecrated life, or marriage. Holy orders refers to those who are ordained as deacons, priests and bishops. Consecrated life refers to those who have taken vows to live “the evangelical councils of poverty, chastity and obedience“; the most common of which are those who live in religious communities such as monks or nuns. Marriage is also a vocation, although one that is often held in too little regard in the common culture.
All of these primary vocations — these paths to holiness — are a response to God’s call and all of them involve a total gift of self. For married couples, we are called to give ourselves wholly and unreservedly to our spouse. For those taking vows, they are giving themselves totally to God.
I found a wonderful article on OSV.COM that explains it very eloquently:
In the case of each primary vocation, that gift of self is not a transitory or temporary thing. It’s not given one day and taken back the next. Rather, the central relationship of each is spousal. It’s exclusive, total and enduring. When the gift of self is made to God, enduring is a “for all eternity” kind of enduring. When the gift of self is made to another person, it’s just an “until death to us part” kind of enduring. Nevertheless, the idea is the same: You fully and freely give yourself to another, and through that giving you pursue your universal vocation, holiness.
One of the keys — if not the key — to working toward holiness is surrender. It’s that wonderful paradox that comes up again and again in Christ’s teachings — the idea that to attain the most that God has for us, we have to give up our self.
Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily* and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:23-24)
Which doesn’t mean that we turn our backs on life. Most of us have bills to pay and families to raise and (yes!) parishes to support and that means taking up some form of worldly labor. You’ll sometimes see this referred to as a “secondary vocation”. Having a job (or even a career) facilitates our survival and it can also be part of our journey toward holiness The Lumen Gentium recognizes this when it says:
Finally, those who engage in labor—and frequently it is of a heavy nature—should better themselves by their human labors. They should be of aid to their fellow citizens. They should raise all of society, and even creation itself, to a better mode of existence. Indeed, they should imitate by their lively charity, in their joyous hope and by their voluntary sharing of each others’ burdens, the very Christ who plied His hands with carpenter’s tools and Who in union with His Father, is continually working for the salvation of all men. In this, then, their daily work they should climb to the heights of holiness and apostolic activity. (41)
There is — as I discovered in writing this — a lot more territory to cover when it comes to vocations including the question of discerning God’s will for our lives. I’ll end this now, though, with an encouraging quote from Thomas Merton.
Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice out there calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice in here calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.
― Thomas Merton