Sunday, December 30, 2018

Vocation, Self-Gift, and George Bailey

The concept of vocation is one that is often discussed in Catholic youth and young adult programs. Yet I remember as a teenager and a young adult that, while I appreciated the amount of attention the subject received, I still found these talks stressful and frustrating. I am a very methodical person, and I wanted a clear, cut-and-dry method of knowing to what vocation you were called, but there simply wasn't one. I went on retreats, spent time before the Blessed Sacrament, listened to plenty of conference speakers, read plenty of books on the lives of the saints, and hoped that God would make it crystal-clear what I was supposed to do with my life. Yet my path remained shrouded in mist. And so I finished high school and followed the typical middle-class child's career path, going first to college and then graduate school. This path, for lack of a better term, "felt" right, and so I didn't worry about it too much.

During my senior year of college I attended a lecture by actress-turned-Benedictine nun, Mother Dolores Hart. About five years later I read her autobiography. This book has proved life-changing for me in its insight into the concepts of discerning one's vocation and the cultivation of the interior life. One of the passages that truly stood out to me was a conversation between Dolores and the Reverend Mother:

"'You will find the will of God when you find what it is in your own heart that you know you must do. Don't look for God in some abstraction. The answer comes from within yourself, Dolores. What is it that you want?'

My [Dolores'] answer didn't come in a lightning bolt. I simply knew at that moment what Reverend Mother was trying to tell me when she insisted that I say what I wanted to do. If I was honest about my answer, I would give God a point of departure with which He could work." 

-- Mother Dolores Hart, OSB, The Ear of the Heart.

Mother Dolores Hart, OSB
Though I did not fully understand the words of Reverend Mother, the passage reminded me of the "Climb Every Mountain" scene from The Sound of Music. Something I began to realize was that, whatever God called me to do with my life, He actually did NOT want me to be miserable. I think people are afraid that God is going to call them to something that will make them miserable, when in fact God wants them to find meaning and joy and purpose in their life just as much they do. This doesn't mean that their life won't be difficult, or that their vocation won't involve sacrifice. It will involve tremendous sacrifice, but sacrifice that will in the end bring joy and fulfillment as each person works to bring about God's kingdom here on earth.

Here are a few more things I have learned recently from my own personal experience and from Dolores' reflections that I have found helpful and would like to reiterate here in the hopes that you might find them helpful if the idea of vocation has you frustrated and/or puzzled.

Listening to God

You need to set aside time to listen to God. God can't speak to you if you don't make time for stillness and prayer, and I am not talking about just going to Mass. I'm talking about spending time in the quiet before the Blessed Sacrament, or in the solitary beauty of nature, like a forest or a cemetery. Make time to actually be still and listen.

Don't Assume God Is Out to Get You

If God seems to be silent, or you are unsure what you're supposed to be doing at this point, be attentive but do not be anxious. God isn't playing games with you. He wants you to find your vocation even more than you want to find it. But He may be waiting for the right time. He doesn't want you to rush ahead, to actively pursue that vocation until it's time for you to do so. If this is the case, then look at your life and fulfill your present responsibilities, whether you are a student or you are in the workforce. In the meantime, what can you do right now to help prepare yourself for your vocation? Do you have a daily prayer life? Do you receive the sacraments frequently?

Self-Gift

Pay attention to yourself and your tendencies. Your vocation is something that draws you out of yourself, out of your comfort zone and out of your selfish tendencies. Your vocation will challenge you to become a better person by calling you to service of others, whether it is your community (religious/parish/other) or your children and your spouse. It will not give you immediate gratification. In fact, it may make your life more difficult, more stressful, even less happy, but in the long term it will give you something far greater: a sense of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.


One of the best examples of this aspect of vocation is the character George Bailey from the classic film It's a Wonderful Life. George is an ambitious man who has dreamed since childhood of leaving his home to have a brilliant career filled with travel, success, and adventure. Yet he ends up staying in Bedford Falls, becoming a husband, father, and the head of the floundering Bailey Brothers' Building and Loan. Although he doesn't get the life he wanted or imagined, what George actually accomplishes in the tiny town of Bedford Falls is far more noble as he stands in the gap and shields the townsfolk from the greed and cruelty of Mr. Potter. We see George's frustration, yet we see him choose the path of virtuous self-denial again and again. And although he doesn't get to build bridges, he builds something far greater: a safe, loving community where poor families have dignity and opportunity. Although he doesn't get to travel and he doesn't make a great salary, he gets to see the small businesses thrive and to watch the success of his friends and neighbors, thanks to his financial assistance and his resistance to Potter. George sacrifices himself in every sense (physical, financial, professional, personal) and chooses the higher and the harder path, yet his life has far more meaning and fulfillment than had he left town and pursued his original ambitions.

Conclusion

Someone once asked a friend of mine, "Why would God give me something and then demand that of me?" To which my friend responded, "God gave the martyrs their very lives, and yet He demanded that of them."

God does not deal in halves. He gave all that we might have eternal life. Why shouldn't He demand our all in return? God can demand anything and everything of us -- our health, our sexuality, our talents, and, in the case of the martyrs, our very lifeblood. We owe all to Him (a terrifying and thrilling notion, to be sure).

A vocation may not necessarily require a bloody martyrdom, but it will in the end, demand the gift of your entire self. Yet you will find that is something to which you actually can give your entire self, and in this self-gift you will find meaning and fulfillment -- to paraphrase the poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a vocation might be likened to "a gauntlet with a gift in it."

May we have the courage to take up the gauntlet. 

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