The following article originally appeared in the December 6-19, 2013 print edition of National Catholic Reporter. My thanks to Caitlin Hendel and Dennis Coday for their work in publishing the piece.
It is virtually impossible to receive a Jesuit education without hearing about vocation. What you study, the job you will hold, the direction your future will take—Jesuits have a knack for presenting life’s most important questions as part of a grand vocation we all must discover.
Having studied under the Jesuits at Marquette University, I, too, have generally thought about my vocation in terms of life’s larger themes. Should my passion for writing dictate a practical major like journalism or would an English degree be truer to the person I am? Would I be happier pursuing a career in public policy or music?
A year and a half ago, my short-term vocation took me to the Peruvian Andes as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). My primary work was teaching English, religion, computer and literature classes at a local high school. It was an incredibly rewarding opportunity. I learned innumerable lessons from my students, colleagues and friends, and I like to think I experienced some solid growth along the way.
Though my stint in JVC was an ample stretch of time, volunteering was obviously never going to be a definitive answer to the question of my life’s vocation. Many people asked me what I intended to do when I got back to the United States before I even moved to Peru. Neither this question nor my anxiety whenever it is asked have subsided now that my return has come to pass. Because for all my ideas of what I would like to do or feasibly could do, I am unsure what I will do.
Recently, I have had cause to think of vocation in a new light. A few months ago, I was diagnosed with pericarditis, an inflammation of the fibrous sac around the heart. My recovery involved two hospital stays, during which I had little more to do than read and watch reruns of Two and a Half Men.
Amongst the reading I found in my possession was Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints. The book is a wonderful collection of biographies of important spiritual figures throughout human history. The Catholic Church has officially canonized some, like Rose of Lima and Francis of Assisi. Others, like Albert Camus and Mahatma Gandhi, were not practicing Christians. Each in their own unique way, however, seemed to illuminate a divine spark in their very human lives. All pursued whatever their vocation was with singular courage and conviction.
As a member of an organization named after St. Ignatius of Loyola, the irony was not lost on me that, as the founder of the Jesuits did after suffering a cannonball shot to the legs, I was lying in a hospital, reading the lives of the saints and meditating on my own vocation.
Ignatius’s reflections led him to form a new religious order, venturing into the world to spread the Gospel and accomplish grandiose, heroic deeds for the greater glory of God.
My musings were a little more modest.
What struck me more than anything while reading All Saints were the countless small, slow and seemingly insignificant ways so many people’s vocations developed over time. The shapes of the saints’ lives often fell into place haphazardly and with plenty of fits and false starts. In many cases, a person’s vocation seemed less the major decision I always thought it to be and more of an arrival, a gradual accepting of God’s grace in her or his life.
Moreover, I started to see vocation less as an ultimate choice for what to do with my life than as part of the dynamic, ongoing process of discovering who I am in the world. Vocation need not only apply to vast subjects like what career I will hold or who I will marry. It also involves common, day-to-day details. As one of Ellsberg’s saints, William Stringfellow, said, “Vocation means being a human being; every decision is a vocational event.”
In his book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, James Martin, S.J. movingly makes a similar point as he relates the story of Walter Ciszek, an American-born Jesuit priest who spent 15 years doing hard labor as a suspected spy in Russia’s Lubyanka prison. Quoting from Ciszek’s memoir He Leadeth Me, Martin explains how the priest came to discover his vocation, or “God’s will” for him, during his incarceration:
“[God’s] will for us was the 24 hours of each day: the people, the places, the circumstances he set before us in that time. Those were the things God knew were important to him and to us at that moment, and those were the things upon which he wanted us to act, not out of any abstract principle or out of any subjective desire to ‘do the will of God.’ No, these things, the 24 hours of this day, were his will; we had to learn to recognize his will in the reality of the situation.
The plain and simple truth is that his will is what he actually wills to send us each day, in the way of circumstances, places, people and problems. The trick is to learn to see that — not just in theory, or not just occasionally in a flash of insight granted by God’s grace, but every day. Each of us has no need to wonder about what God’s will must be for us; his will for us is clearly revealed in every situation of every day, if only we could learn to view all things as he sees them and sends them to us.”
It is important to intentionally consider where God might be calling each of us in a broad sense. But it is also essential to avoid the temptation of only seeing life’s crucial questions as part of one’s vocation. Though I knew I would not be a volunteer for the rest of my life, that was my vocation while in Peru. As I now consider next steps and long-term goals, I also must remember that each day, my vocation need not involve much more than trying to gracefully face whatever comes my way. As the lives of the saints make clear, the bigger issues will often sort themselves out anyway, fits, false starts and all for the greater glory.