What Is It That You Can’t Not Do?

Each August and January, I co-facilitate a weekend vocation retreat for law students. Our goal is to help students reflect on the process of discerning vocation. There are different ways one can formulate the questions one asks oneself during this discernment process. Michael Himes, for example, suggests there are three questions, which he puts colloquially, “Am I any good at it? Does it give me joy? Does the world need it of me.”

As I continue to reflect on Sr. Helen Prejean’s keynote remarks at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, a way to think about one’s vocation emerges.

Sr. Helen shared that back in 1982 she was asked if she was willing to correspond with a convicted murderer on death row. The man was Patrick Sonnier. After writing to him, she visited Sonnier in prison and agreed to be his spiritual adviser in the months leading up to his execution. At the time she began writing, she knew nothing about the death penalty, death row, or the criminal justice system. But she started learning and what she learned transformed her. After witnessing Sonnier’s execution, she realized she had to tell the story. “I got to tell the story” is what she said.

The way she said it reminded me of something Roger Hoel, who directs the Minnetonka Chamber Choir my daughter sang in for three years during high school, said when asked why the girls in the choir sing. He responded, “They sing because they can’t not sing.” When I looked then (and look now) at Elena, I realize he was absolutely right. She can’t not sing.

As I thought of those two things together, I thought of my own discernment to train as a spiritual director and retreat leader. As I explained to my own spiritual director in talking about it at the time, for me, rising virtually simultaneously with any deep religious experience, is (and always was) the feeling, “I need to help others experience this. I need to share this with others.” Being a spiritual director, a retreat leader, is my vocation. Unlike law teaching and legal scholarship, which I could easily not do, this is something I can’t not do.

It may not be the end of the vocation discernment process, but it seems to me a really important question to ask yourself in determining where to focus your energies, in understanding how God wants you to use your gifts: What is it that you can’t not do?

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