01 April 2009

Followup, On Lemons and Lemonade

[[Dear Sister, I wrote [the following question], {{Dear Sister O'Neal, is your idea of the eremitical life a case of taking the lemons life gives us and making lemonade out of them? So the Church actually professes and consecrates people whose claim to have a vocation is that they have managed to find a way to make lemonade out of lemons? This seems like a pretty negative or undignified way of receiving an actual vocation from God!}}

(The email continues:) Thank you for your response, but maybe I wasn't clear about what I found objectionable in your description of the eremitical vocation. I was brought up to believe that we were born with a particular Vocation. I was taught that that was a great dignity and part of who we really were. No one said anything about the "exigencies of life" or "life breaking us" and then discovering a call coming out of those things. God knew from the beginning that he wanted me to be a wife or a nun, for example. He wasn't playing catch up, or trying to repair what life had done to us. The Vocation was eternal, and could be missed, rejected, and/or lost altogether. Your view of the vocation to eremitical life sounds pretty different than all this and lacks nobility. It is a kind of solution to what life throws at us, and therefore it lacks the dignity of an eternal vocation. Do you see what I mean?]]

Well, there is no doubt that in some ways our visions of vocations and how they are mediated to us, are heard, or are responded to, differ from one another's. I maintain elements of a theology of vocation which are identical to yours, but I also modify others to allow for the way real life works most often. You see, the view of vocation you grew up with does do a wonderful job of conveying the dignity and the urgency of a call from God, but on the other hand, it can lead people to despair that indeed they have missed their vocation, have settled for a second class life instead, and even that God no longer is calling them to anything substantive. What I try to do when I write about vocations generally is to combine the eternal element, the "noble" element you refer to with its characteristic urgency, but also allow for all the twists and turns of life we experience while we are discerning our vocations, and even while we are living them out. Especially I have to allow for the fact that God's call never goes away, that it is a dynamic and ever-renewed reality which is constantly proferred but is able to allow for the "exigencies of life" at the same time. I don't know there is anything ignoble in any of this.

One thing I particularly can't agree with is the idea of a missed vocation precisely, but I readily admit that throughout one's life various paths to the fulfillment of one's vocation will open or close, be followed or missed, thus requiring one discern the best paths remaining to one (or needing to be forged BY one with the grace of God!). You were taught we had a single vocation, and that was seen as a vocation to religious, priestly, married, or single life, for instance. I understand, on the other hand, that we each have a single vocation, namely authentic humanity in and of God in Christ, but the paths to the achievement or realization of that vocation are potentially many and varied and include what you identified as Vocations with a capital V, so to speak: religious, priestly, married, or single life, etc. Missing a Vocation in your schema means to get married when God is calling one to be a religious (or vice versa, though one rarely hears this situation characterized thusly!). Missing a vocation in my schema means falling short of the greatness and authenticity (that is, the holiness) God means and empowers us to achieve with his grace. In that sense, we almost all "miss our vocations" to some extent, but it is a far less hopeless situation than the term means in your schema on vocation.

This is not to say that falling short is not a serious business, but in the theology of vocation I am working with, whatever path one chooses --- even if one chooses badly --- is still a means of growth in one's fundamental or foundational Vocation. Down the line other paths may open up to one: another marriage, religious life, eremitical life, etc (along with all the little "side paths" that each of these can involve: teaching, nursing, homemaking, ministry of all kinds, etc), but they will serve the larger or more foundational vocation to authentic humanity. Such a view certainly allows for a single path as the main way towards fulfilling one's foundational vocation should a person pursue marriage or a religious vocation right out of high school or college, for instance, but if these do not work out in some way one need not conclude they have "missed their vocations" or believe that God had one plan for them which they (whether culpably or through the circumstances of life) have now blown.

Further, this notion of vocation does greater justice to God's ability to call life out of any situation, to redeem any situation, to call to discipleship out of any set of circumstances, etc. It does greater justice to the ongoing and faithful nature of God's call which is always creative, and never JUST a message he communicates to us (a message like, "You should be married" or You should be a nun!" or even "Come, be this or that," for instance.) Vocation is a call to something, yes, but it also summons forth life and meaning and hope from within a person, and it continues to do so so long as the person lives. It is not so much a message as it is a name, "Laurel! [with the subtext:] I call you to yourself and to myself!" What I am saying, badly perhaps, is that a vocation is not something one hears once upon a time, but a Word of God that one allows to work within oneself over the whole of her life and her life is shaped in response. Vocation is something God does within us, and something he will continue to do until we make our final responses in death. OF COURSE it is something which accommodates the exigencies of life. Of course it must be heard in light of these! Of course they will alter its shape and timbre even while the essential theme remains the same.

Finally then, I think this notion of Vocation (with a capital V) does greater justice to the reasons for changing vocations (with a small v) over the span of one's life. With regard to the eremitical life which is very poorly known and less well understood and which is more usually associated with the second half of one's life anyway, it is not at all unusual for a person to enter religious life or marry only to discover many years later that life and the grace of God has opened the door to eremitical solitude to them. Active religious discover a call to contemplative life, contemplative and cloistered religious discover a call to even greater solitude, married people are bereaved and after some healing and time has passed, discover the call to the desert, those who are chronically ill and could not enter a community (or remain within one) find that God continues to call them but in a new direction which esteems their weakness and allows it to be the soil in which his own power is perfected. These are just a few of the scenarios possible here. VERY FEW people consider an eremitical vocation early on. Even fewer are called to it. And yet, these vocations growing out of the exigencies of life AND the grace of God are completely authentic, miraculous calls in fact.

I hope this clarifies where I am coming from in this matter of vocations. While it is wonderful when a person discovers early on the vocational path that will serve them all their lives, focusing on this one way of things happening creates serious pastoral and theological problems for many. It can prevent them from seeing the dignity and nobility of all vocational paths, or of even guessing that they exist. It can lead to despair over missed opportunities, and the failure to attend to new ones every bit as important and "noble" as the early missed opportunities. More, it can distract us from the primary focus and unceasing challenge of our lives, the eternal call to authentic human existence in and of the grace of God --- no matter what vocational path one takes to realize that.

I wish you peace, and a wonderful Holy Week.