“…’They said look, we need a priest [and] you’re the only guy who’s got some sort of theological background, so you’re it,’ Sim said, recalling the conversation. “I said, ‘Oh, hell no!’ But then I thought about it and did a retreat and said, what the heck, I’ll go along for the ride.” — From the vocation story of Bishop Cornelius Sim, apostolic vicar of Brunei, among the 13 new cardinals named by Pope Francis Oct. 25
Most of what we as Catholics would call “vocation” comes to us without the luxury of our having various desirable options to choose among. In the real world of day to day life, we are constantly presented with events, people, circumstances, needs, limits not of our own choosing or preference that we must respond to. God’s call comes to us principally in the unavoidable. In fact, unless we have walled ourselves in a self-protective cocoon, the overwhelming majority of what demands our free response from moment to moment is not what we pre-selected, or even what we would have wanted had we been consulted by God in advance. This is especially true of the poor, who possess very few real options. It is these Jesus calls blessed.
I once wrote a post on the Providence inscribed in inconvenient interruptions, unexpected failures, unsought crises, unwanted requests, unchosen neighbors and spoiled plans, revealing them to be particularly poignant vocational signs from a Real God who manifests in them his eternal penchant for impinging on our pathological need to be control-freak gods. Instead, God calls us to make of our whole life an act of sacrificial worship by our faithful obedience to the demands of reality. In this way we entrust ourselves into the hands of a Divine Potter who makes all things new. St. John of the Cross made this point in his Counsels to Carmelite novices:
You are like the stone that must be chiseled and fashioned before being set in the building. Thus you should understand that those who are in the monastery are craftsmen placed there by God to mortify you by working and chiseling at you. Some will chisel with words, telling you what you would rather not hear; others by deed, doing against you what you would rather not endure; others by their temperament, being in their person and in their actions a bother and annoyance to you; and others by their thoughts, neither esteeming nor feeling love for you.
Yes, it is true that, at certain points along the way, we are presented with genuinely good options that require our deliberation in faith as to which would best allow us to carry out our unique call to maximize good and minimize evil. However, those moments, when they do come, mean little if we are unable to discover our vocational freedom when our liberty is hemmed in by the unyielding and unpleasant demands of reality. The real training ground for vocation sounds like this: How can I meet what life throws at me each day by keeping God’s commandments, doing deeds of justice, lovingkindness, patience, courage, mercy, honesty, peacemaking, forgiveness, chastity — all the while entrusting the ultimate outcome of all things to God, awaiting my ultimate fulfillment in a new creation I am co-building? As a Coptic Egyptian priest I know once said, 95% of God’s will is doing what we already know he wants, and 5% is discerning what we don’t yet know.
My step mother once shared with me a note my dad had handwritten on a loose piece of paper during the months his dementia was rapidly accelerating: “Mother Teresa: If you want to know the will of God, just look around you. See what’s happening. There He is. Accept ‘whatever is’ as his will. Permissive will, ordained will, matters not. Respond as best you are able with faith, hope and love. Then you’ve found his will. Done his will. Gethsemane is the epitome: No, not what I wanted. But here I am.” This vision of vocation is the deepest meaning of Dante’s famous words: E’n la sua volontade è nostra pace, “In his will is our peace.”
I shared here several years ago the story of a Sudanese missionary priest I met briefly over two decades ago. When I asked him how he decided to become a priest, he shared insights that exploded my personal vocational paradigm. Here’s some of what I wrote in my journal later, remembering his words to me:
My story’s not as sexy as ones I hear so often in America!
I can tell you this — it didn’t begin with my exploring “I, me, my;” but with exploring “thou, thee, thy.” God, neighbor. My mother taught me as a small child: “You will find God only when you fill the mouth of someone who is hungry.” In other words, if you live to love as a matter of course, you will infallibly find God and his will. “God is love” is a clue as to how he is to be found.
In American culture so much discernment is agonizing over personal fulfillment and happiness — What will make me feel fulfilled, Make me happy, Make me feel complete? While those may come in part in this life, love can’t start there or it will always be a tortured process. You’ll be locked in the prison of your incurved ego. Because the center of gravity in every vocation is always outward and upward: others, neighbor, church, village, world, God.
… A vocation can feel like a compliment from God to me: You are special, unique, gifted because I have called you by name. Yes! There is truth in that, of course. But vocation must always be perfected by mission, which is God’s compliment to those God has called and gifted you for, sent you to serve. Vocation must also be mission, or it will always live for more compliments.
Sometimes people get stuck in vocational naval-gazing hell because they know if they say Yes to anything, their freedoms will shrink as their mission begins, and they’ll be forced to forget themselves more and more. And in a culture that claims rights above responsibilities, or gifts that don’t demand giving, real vocations will be hellish indeed. Such are an unhappy lot.
For me my discernment to be a priest was simple. But never easy. There was a real need for priests in my village. I enjoyed religious activities and being in church very much. I had the gifts to accomplish priestly ministry and the people in my village thought I was a leader. So, I am a priest. There was no agonizing path. The agony is always in being worthy of the mission.
I saw the apostles did not deliberate over personal fulfillment when Jesus called. They dropped all, with the hand grasping the plow, no turning back. Zacchaeus did not deliberate when Jesus called him, he just gave half of his possessions to the poor and rectified his injustices. While when Jesus called the rich young man in the Gospel, he stopped, deliberated over his personal happiness, his fulfillment in riches and honor, weighed his options, got paralyzed and went away sad. Love was not first, self was first. Love makes everything simple.
When Jesus called, he did not say to me, “My son, do you want to feel happy and fulfilled and special?” No! He said to me, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep, tend my lambs.” My response must be simply, “Which sheep? How do I feed them? How best to tend?” Now, that’s not always my response, but I know it must always be.
Jesus is clear, mission is about cross-carrying because it’s other-centered; which for egoists is always a cross. If my whole vocational edifice is built on me, my and mine, my house will soon fall, since it’s built not on the rock of love but on the sand of self. But when you find the rock, you will find joy, which is the fruit of love…