17 September 2018

On Responding to Undefined Lay Vocations

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I've been following your blog for some time and find it very helpful and life-giving. I've been especially interested in how you balance health issues with your eremitical vocation, as health problems over the past few years have changed my external life greatly, diminishing my career and physical activities, but leading to an unexpected deepening of my spiritual life. I was struck by something you said in a recent post, which prompted me to write:
"The importance of the solitary eremitical vocation as a call to personal wholeness in the midst of a world which pulls towards fragmentation, isolation, and inauthenticity cannot be overstated, I think."
       Although I'm not discerning a vocation as a hermit, this call to person(al) wholeness in a fragmented world is one I feel as well, and I think many lay people do. I would even call it a sense of vocation, though what I'm called to is unclear. I find that there is a quality of religious life, and in your description of your eremitical vocation, that calls me as a lay person. I think it is something in the intentional living of a deepening relationship with God, with the recognition of the gifts that offers to oneself, the community, and the world, that resonates very much with my own emerging sense of vocation. The pull I feel now is to ground myself in a mature, sustaining commitment and rhythm in my relationship with God.
          You articulate your vocation and how you live it so clearly, and from such a depth of lived experience, that I was curious how you might answer this questions: How can lay prople, who feel called to be lay people, respond to this type of undefined vocation in a tangible way? The closest I have found to what I mean is the commitment made by people who are oblate associates to an order, but I am not sure this is what I am seeking.]]

Many thanks for your questions and for your permission to use what you have written here. I decided to mainly post it all without much redaction because of its clarity and importance. What I especially appreciate about it is your esteem for the lay vocation and how clearly you state your own determination to remain a lay person as you respond to God's call to personal wholeness and holiness. This determination and sense of call is something the Church has sought to inculcate with Vatican II and she has thus fostered values lay persons are called to embrace as they witness to or preach the Gospel with their lives to and from within the world at large. 

The call to authentic humanity is the foundational vocation of every human being. The things we often call vocations, religious life, marriage, eremitical life, priesthood, etc., are pathways to this foundational vocation. To say one is called to marriage, priesthood, hermit life, etc., is a shorthand way of saying we are called to achieve the fullness of humanity in this way, via this pathway. You have a strong sense of this, I think, and you are sensitive to the way this truth resonates within you. You also  state very clearly what needs to grow in every vocation, whether lay, religious, consecrated, or ordained, namely, one's conscious relationship with God.

Growth in this relationship (the foundation of a universal call to holiness!) has certain tried and true means. While these are open to anyone they are (and have been) most often associated with religious and ordained life, and unfortunately, are subsequently seen as ways lay persons (vocationally speaking) are merely "trying to act" as religious or priests or they are things which are (mistakenly!) seen as unnecessary to lay life. The Church once fostered a relatively elitist view of such things. So, for instance, even today we are used to religious having spiritual directors but see that relatively few lay persons understand this as necessary for their lives; we understand when religious or priests spend time each day doing lectio divina or Scripture study but we tend to see these as unnecessary for the lay vocation (except for the "super religious!" or those without children, demanding work, etc.). Regular prayer (a true prayer life!) is understood similarly and lay persons may attend daily Mass and pray before or after that as well, but more than this? A number of lay persons have become involved in centering prayer and discovered their own call to contemplative prayer, but I think this is still woefully underrepresented among those with a vocation to the lay state of life. Programs offering spiritual development and enrichment are available everywhere but still, despite VII and the catechesis done after that, the majority of participants either remain religious or a very small minority of the laity.

My own preference is to see every lay person participating in a spiritual direction relationship, reading Scripture daily, and praying regularly (morning and night plus meals). I would like to see every lay person totally conversant with what the Church taught about the laity and the universal call to holiness in the Documents of Vatican II (Apostolicam Actuositatem, for instance).  I would like to see them deeply imbued with the Holy Spirit and a dynamic sense that they are the heart of the Church while those of us who are religious, hermits, priests are neither more (nor less) Catholic than the laity, nor necessarily more (nor less) spiritual, etc. Still, it is a matter of priorities and choice, and most often, though all of these things are presented today as realities the Church wishes lay persons to embrace, they are things the majority still can't find the time for -- or deep down don't really believe is "their place".  The truth is, however, that these kinds of things are part and parcel of an absorbing, transforming, and entirely normal relationship with God. They are part of the kind of relationship you have described --- and which the world needs desperately not merely from Religious or priests, but especially from those whose vocations are meant to transform the saeculum, the everyday world of work and family and academy into instances of the Kingdom of God.

You have mentioned health problems. These may limit you in significant ways, but they may also free you to cultivate your relationship with God and find ways of serving the Gospel which are especially significant for you and those whose lives you touch. You may have passions for various things that can be used to serve the proclamation of the Gospel with your life. One of the areas of theology that most interests me is that regarding the vocation to chronic illness. It is not that I believe God wills illness, but absolutely I believe God calls us to wholeness in Him in spite of our illness. As noted in another post, my profession/life motto is Paul's quotation from 2 Cor 12:9, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness." I believe that the Church does relatively well with ministry to the acutely ill, and less well with a ministry to the chronically ill, but I believe the Church has entirely failed to create a ministry OF the chronically ill. Here I am thinking of the chronically ill sharing the wisdom of their faith and experience, but especially the paradoxical truth of the Gospel Paul expresses, for instance. In a world geared to productivity and competition, those who are ill cannot participate in the same way. The rhythm, priorities, and energies of their lives differ from those of the  majority. By definition their lives are countercultural and can witness to a Gospel that is itself the epitome of the countercultural.

I think each of us learns to live and will thus mature in the foundational relationship we have with God in combination with the specific or concrete circumstances of our lives. When we do that our vocation begins to be clearer and clearer, more and more explicit. It will always represent an incarnation of both of these dimension of one's life. Thomas Merton spoke of hermits giving people hope about certain truths of nature and grace; he was correct in this but it is also true that every vocation witnesses to a hope which comes from the meeting of nature and grace and the transformation of the ordinary into something genuinely sacramental. Lay vocations are meant to do this in the everyday world mentioned above, the world of work, family, economics, political activity, etc. In these various dimensions of the saeculum lay persons witness to what is means to be authentically human and to bring the values and dynamics of the Kingdom of God into these same dimensions. So, let me encourage you to take the time and effort required to let your relationship with God develop --- to deepen and extend itself in the ways God wills for you for the sake of his Gospel and Kingdom. As you do this the concrete shape of your call to authentic and full humanity will also develop and God's own dreams for you and all whom you touch will be realized.

Again, thanks for your questions. I hope this is helpful, but if I have been unclear I hope you will let me know that; I will clarify as possible.