The post by Deb Reinstra (and others) on vocation have had me thinking (and muttering to myself) this past week. While I share in Deb’s distrust of the word, I think we need to sharpen vocation’s outline before we can search for another model of being in the world. I would point to three worthwhile aspects of the concept.
First, behind vocation is the call itself, a kind of compulsion, how can I do anything other than this? So Jeremiah; so the Psalms on occasion: I hear and I must speak lest I burn up. The difficulty here is that while such calls may be for a lifetime, our own experience may be that they are of limited duration. The secular sense of “gift” flows from this deeper charismatic and prophetic reality. Vocation may also hide a desire to preserve that first love. Like Moses veiling his face because the glory has left him, the memory of being called to a task lingers like the fondest, most fragrant thing in our life. We want that all the time. So vocation is not only response, but also hope that Presence continue with us.
Second, with vocation there is a freedom. Vocation is something I give myself to, and with it the converse, it is something I can also walk away from. This is a freedom in the secular world purchased by education, wealth, and time. Freedom highlights that I choose to continue even in the face of other circumstances, enduring precisely because I can (hypothetically) go and to pick up something else. Vocation is both ego and surrender of that ego.
And third, vocation has an other-directedness to it, whether we frame this in terms of the common good, the Kingdom, or some other frame. We are summoned, made free to be for some body else.
These three dimensions would seem to help define what constitutes a “vocation,” say, why it is used of a doctor but not of a retail clerk. As hinted at above, however, it is somewhat unsatisfying as a Christian way of describing our way of being in the world, notwithstanding the priesthood of all believers, common grace and the celebration of the kleine luyden.
One way to understand the concept is to compare it with another way of being in the world, that outlined by Benedict in his Rule, with its theme of stability. This is in tension with the theme of freedom that seems to constitute “vocation.” We find God and our worth in our work by being here, in this place. The same themes of persistence, freedom (as self-surrender) and larger purpose remain, but they exist in a more bounded fashion. I am struck at how this Rule not only helps us escape the egotism that lies so close to vocation, but also how it better opens the way for a spirituality of the dreary and ordinary. Instead of hasting to some goal, this life of self-surrender and patience becomes the holy place for Grace.
This communion prayer from The Book of Common Prayer captures this sensibility and alternate way of looking at our lives:
Eternal God, heavenly Father,you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and you have fed us with spiritual food in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Fed at the Table and out in the world with strength, courage, gladness, and focus for whatever comes. Now that’s a vocation.