IS 'VOCATION' A BAD WORD?

       It was common, in a previous generation, to find books of popular wisdom with a chapter (usually the last) on 'My Station {in life} and its Duties'. Nowadays you never find such chapters in such books. There is little sense of vocation, of being called to a way of life. The emphasis is rather on career, which is something one chooses for oneself.
      This change is an index of many other changes in society. We feel (correctly or otherwise) that we have much more control over our individual lives than people had in the past; that our lives are not something handed to us, but something we construct.
       It's good, of course, to be responsible for one's life, and to have freely chosen its direction. Then there is no reluctance in living it. But there are accompanying dangers; and there are extremes in both directions. When we have total control and freedom we begin to feel somehow isolated....        Many years ago experimental psychologists discovered that the autonomic systems in the body are not so independent in their operation after all; they can be taught to do things! Rats have been taught to speed up or slow down their hearts at a signal, or to alter their blood pressure, or to switch off certain brain waves and switch on others. The human applications, these people suggested, are endless.
       What do you think of it? The trouble, as someone said, is that our gall bladders and livers (for example) are much more intelligent than we are! Left to themselves they do their complex work infinitely better than if we were interfering with them. Likewise all the other parts of us. To have full control of everything that happens in you would be like having an airline pilot wave you to his seat at the controls, 39,000 feet up, and say,"It's all yours!"
       Thank God there are many things not subject to human will! The deeper you go, the more things you find that are less subject to your will, or not subject at all. A controller in a big company may be poorly able to control his or her own emotions, and quite unable to control what goes on in his liver or spleen. And there are many historical things about him that he was never in a position to control - like the date of his birth, and the place, and who his parents were.... Many things are given us without our being consulted.
       There is a world out there, too, that is given us. It is vast and mysterious, and it draws us far beyond ourselves. Then if we think for a moment about the mystery of God, the mystery deepens infinitely.... In that context, the word 'vocation' is somehow a humbler word than 'career'. It means 'to be called'. We are beings whose nature it is to be called beyond ourselves.
       It's consoling to see even the closest friends of Jesus eyeing a career instead of a vocation! Peter, James and John were the innermost circle. But in Mt 19:27 Peter comes in with a rather crude question! "What about us? We have left everything and followed you. What are we to have, then?" Then James and John made a shameless request for promotion: "Master, we want you to do us a favour.... Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory" (Mk 10:35). They are asking for important places in the Kingdom (in politics it is known as 'jobs for the boys'). It was so self-serving that Matthew (20:20) edits it and has their mother make the embarrassing request!
       But they all did learn eventually (see the Gospel Commentary for July 25). They were all drawn far beyond themselves. In the Christian vision, everyone is called to a special way of life, and called in a unique way. Clergy and religious have somehow appropriated the word 'vocation', as if they were the only ones called. But every Christian is uniquely called by name: the words "Come follow me!" are addressed to you as if to none other.

 

 

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.