I am Called by God

Yesterday was the fifth session of the program I am offering at UST Law School during this academic year on Discerning my Place in the World. In our sessions during the fall semester we addressed several aspects of discerning vocation, including getting in touch with our giftedness, identifying what brings us joy, prioritizing our values and reflecting on our deepest desires.

The subject of today’s session was our individual call by God, the reality that each of us is called by God by name and invited to labor with him.

The first thing I always think about in this context is the beautiful line in Isaiah: I have called you by name and you are mine. God calls each of us by name. We are individually called by God, individually invited by God to labor with him in the co-creation of the world.

We capture this reality of our call in the idea of vocation. “Vocation” comes from the Latin word for call or calling (“vocare”). It implies that there is an action from God who is beyond ourselves that is beckoning and calling to us. Although the term used to be reserved for priests, nuns, rabbis, etc., we now understand the idea of a “call” to refer to more than being drawn to some type of ordination. We now more rightly understand the concept of vocation as applying to everyone. After all, why wouldn’t God call everyone in his or her own way to contribute to the buildup of the Kingdom?

We are all called, although in different ways. We are each individually called to take part in a particular way in God’s plan. One way to express that is to remember that our relationship with God is personal, not private. We deepen our relationship with God so that we can hear God’s call, but the call always involves our living for the life of the world. It is always a call beyond ourselves.

I spent some time in my talk (which, sadly I was unable to record, as I realized only as I was about to speak that the battery in the recorder had died) talking about challenges to hearing God’s call and challenges to responding to that call. After the talk, the participants engaged in a meditation adapted from Elizabeth Liebert’s wonderful book The Way of Discernment, a copy of which is attached here.

During my talk I also described the Call of the King meditation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which I think is a wonderful meditation for connecting with Jesus’ call to us. I distributed a version to the participants, suggesting they pray with it during the week; you can find another version of that meditation here.

Discerning My Place in the World: Recognizing My Gifts

Yesterday was the first session of an 8-session program series I will be offering at UST Law School over the course of this academic year on Discerning My Place in the World.

As I suggested in the description for the program, law school is, among other things, a three-year process whereby students discern what will be their place in the legal profession and in the world. I do not mean to suggest vocational discernment ends when students graduate. Discernment is a life-long process, as our calling changes from time to time. (And while most of the participants in our spiritual formation programs are law students, participants often include faculty and staff who are long out of school.)

The series will address a series of topics relating to vocational discernment. Today’s subject was Recognizing Our Gifts.

I began by introducing the series and then offered some reflections relating both to recognizing our own gifts and recognizing the gifts of others. I then gave the participants time for individual reflection, after which we had some time for sharing of their reflection experience.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 22:04 and there is a short pause where I invited the participants to introduce themselves.) A copy of the prayer material I distributed is here.

Faith Inspired Service

Over the course of an academic year, the University of St. Thomas School of law has several Mission Round-Table lunches for students, faculty and staff. Yesterday was one of those, and our invited speaker was the President of the University of St. Thomas, Julie Sullivan, who is nearing the end of her first year of service here.

President Sullivan began by talking about what it means to speak of faith inspired service, suggesting that our faith gives insight into our service potentials, provides the foundation for our service and gives us the enduring strength and perseverance we need to serve. She then spent some sharing her own responses to the three questions she posed for our consideration and discussion at our individual tables: What are you God Given talents? How are you using them in service to others? How does your faith sustain and nurture your service?

In speaking about the first, she shared her own difficulty overcoming a hurdle many people face: an upbringing that warns against boasting and against tooting one’s own horn. She came to realize something we often talk about in the vocation retreats we do with our law students – that there is an enormous difference between boasting and reflection. We have a responsibility to use the gifts we have been given in service of God and others, and we cannot meet that responsibility unless we recognize our talents.

Part of our service to our students is providing ways to help them to recognize their gifts and to discern how they are being called to use those gifts in the world.

The third question she posed recognizes the role of faith in our service and our need to be nurtured by God to be able to effectively use our gifts. President Sullivan observed that different people have various ways they most keenly feel the presence of God. She then shared one of her own practices, which I found very moving. Before giving a big talk or engaging in some major undertaking, she makes sure that she takes some time alone. During that time she holds her arm out, palm facing upward and prays in that position until she feels pressure against her palm.

I love the childlike trust conveyed by that image – holding out one’s hand waiting for God to take it.

How does your faith sustain and nurture your service?

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?

Only Sing The Notes You Have

After Mass yesterday, Elena and I were recalling a not very pleasant musical experience we had one Christmas. The singer at the Mass we had attended that year made a valiant effort at singing “O Holy Night,” but listening to her try (and fail) to hit some of the notes was painful. Cringing at the memory, Elena observed, “you shouldn’t sing a high note unless you have one.” Prompting me to add, “Only sing the notes you have.” Elena nodded and we both laughed at the realization of the obviousness of the point – and the frequency with which it is ignored.

Only sing the notes you have. Advice that is not only applicable to singers, but to everyone. Develop the gifts you have and appreciate those. Trying to sing notes we don’t have is a prescription for personal dissatisfaction and deprives the world of what we can best contribute.

I’m not saying we don’t sometimes have to develop our gifts; we don’t always immediately realize what we have, and over time we discover gifts we didn’t know we had. (I remember Elena telling me during her summer voice program at Salzburg that she discovered she has another note at the high end of her range.)

But at some point we need to admit that there are some gifts we don’t have and never will. And that’s OK. And that our task is to sing the notes we have – joyfully and fully.

Vocation As Verb, Rather Than Noun

A former student sent me a newsletter from her church that had a wonderful article on vocation. The article included the important reminder that vocation is not static, discussing the danger that “once we name the thing we are called to” we may “begin to live into a static definition, an idea” that keeps us from being open to God’s call in each moment, thus preventing us from meeting the needs of our world.

The author of the article makes this suggestion for avoiding the static trap:

It might help to think of vocation as a verb rather than a noun. It is an ongoing attentiveness, an ongoing listening to an ever-unfolding process being called out by God. Our gifts are directions to us of how to engage with the world in this service vehicle of vocation, and they keep directing as they, the landscape, and we keep changing.

Discernment of vocation is not a one-shot deal, but a life-long process. We need to have sensitivity to the fact that God may have different plans for us at different times. That can be difficult because it means that the best one can ever say is I am where I am supposed to be right now, but I need to be open to fact that God may want me to do something else at a different time.

Secular notions of success interferes with the understanding that vocation is not static. Secular success means furthering our career and many fear that making changes from what they’ve been doing will look “too much like failure.” Related to this is a common fallacy one author referred to as the “I’ve-invested-too-much-to-stop-now” principle. There is a temptation to stay in one’s current position long after it becomes clear that it no longer aligns our gifts and desires with the needs of the world. These tendencies are aggravated by the fact that success in career is measured by how much we have.

It takes work in the context of the world in which we live to think of vocation as a verb, not a noun.

Go Out Into the World

In the late afternoon today, I’ll leave St. Benedict’s Monastery, where I’ve been for ten days, finishing up my conversion book. The time here has been, not only productive, but refreshing.

Since the time I was a Buddhist nun living in monasteries and retreat centers in Nepal and India, there has always been in me a tension between a monastic life and life in the world. The truth is that I settle easily and naturally into the rhythms of monastic living, the the Benedictine “ora et labor” is a particularly attractive way of life. I so love my time here!

Still, I know that places like St. Benedict’s are only temporary sojourns for me, places I get to “come away and rest a while.” I have known from the time I did the Spiritual Exercise that my vocation is in the world. As I sometimes joke, Jesus didn’t call me when I was in a Buddhist monastery and say, “get thee to a Catholic nunnery.” He waited until I was married and a mother before reeling me in.

So I leave here today with much gratitude that I get to take times like these last ten days living in community with the Sisters here, praying and eating with them, and sharing their lives. I know I’ll be back again. But until then, I have work to do elsewhere.

Search Deep To Lead Your Own Life

In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton asks, “How do you expect to arrive at the end of your own journey if you take the road to another man’s city? How do you expect to reach your own perfection by leading somebody else’s life?” Merton insisted is that we need to have the “heroic humility to be yourself and to be nobody by the [person], or the artist, that God intended you to be.”

It is fine to have heroes, people whose lives and commitment to their vocation we admire and aspire to be like. Their example gives us inspiration and strength.

But each of our lives is unique and how we live out our vocation, our discipleship, will look different.

How do we know what it means to live our own life? How do we reach our own perfection? We are exploring questions such as these at our semi-annual vocation retreat for law students this weekend.

Anthony deMello expressed one answer in a story he once told of a conversation between a Master and one of his disciples. The disciple, a Jewish man, asked, “What good work should I do to be acceptable to God?” The Master answered, “How should I know? Your Bible says that Abraham practiced hospitality and God was with him. Elias loved to pray and God was with him. David ruled a kingdom and God was with him too.” The man persisted, “Is there some way I can find my own allotted work?” The Master responded, “Yes. Search for the deepest inclination or your heart and follow it.”

What is your deepest desire?

Discerning Vocation

This past weekend was our semi-annual weekend retreat for UST law students (which we have also opened in recent years to young alumni, so our group was a mix of students and alumni). It is always a grace-filled experience for all of us involved.

Saturday morning, my colleague Jennifer Wright led a session devoted to helping the participants think about their calling. She invited them to three short period of reflection. The questions she invited the participants to consider go to the central elements of discerning vocation and so I thought they are worth sharing:

Joy: Where is your deepeest joy? As you look back on your lift experiences, what are that things you have done that have given you a profound sense of joy?

Gifts: Where have people – people who konw you well and have seen you in various circumstances – said to you, “You are good at x” or “You should do y, you would be really good at it” or “z is something you should think about doing’? That is, what have you learned from other about your gifts? [Note: There are different ways to reflect on our giftedness. I, too, often suggest to people that they consider what others have observed about them as well as their own assessment of their gifts.]

Needs of the world: We live in a world of tremendous hurt and we can not be open to all of it (or solve all of it). Of all of the pain and suffering of the world, of all of the areas of need, what speaks to your heart? What part of the pain of the world can you not bear to leave alone? Where do you experience the pain of hte world and feel the need to do something about it?

There is no matrix that automatically gives you the answer to your vocation depending on how you answer these questions, but a consideration of these three areas: what brings you joy, what are your gifts, and what are the needs of the world that speak to you – will go a long way toward clarifying options that may be presented.

The Idea of Vocation as a Bridge Between Two Extremes

Yesterday was the second keynote address at the National Convention of the Catholic Ministry Association. The speaker was Ed Hahnenberg from John Carroll University (and author of several books, including Awakening Vocation: A Theology of Christian Call). The theme of his truly wonderful talk was Receiving and Responding to the Light of Christ.

Hahnenberg began his talk by talking about the cultural context, a context that makes the language of vocation especially helpful right now.

We live in a culture of choice, a culture of hyper-individualism and consumerism. That is, we have been trained to be consumers, with choice as one of the most important ways of framing reality.

This has a profound effect on our experience of Christian discipleship, in that faith – like the rest of what occupies our lives – becomes a matter of choice, something we get to pick (rather than being something we are born into). That has been reflected in a shift from “religious dwelling” to “spiritual seeking,” with the dominant metaphor being one of quest.

For some, the horrified reaction to this is to seek a return to command, to rigid conformity to orthodoxy. (As Hahnenberg said this, I recall a conversation I had with a young man once, in which he said, “I don’t see why people feel they have to understand x; why isn’t it enough that the Holy Father said it.”)

Hahnenberg acknowledged that there are some very positive things about this shift – the presence of real agency, a personal relationship with God and the fact that quest is often motivated by a sincere desire to deepen one’s relationship with God and opens one to a more compassionate way or living. As he said, the problem is not choice, but the possibility that choice short-circuits transformation by allowing a pick-and-choose mentality that means nothing challenges us. (This part of his talk resonated deeply with me as it has common chords with my nervousness with hyphenated labels to describe one’s faith – but that is the subject of a different post.)

And that is where, he suggested, the idea of vocation helps. Vocation taps into the deep part of quest, but recognizes that my decisions are not individually made by me but are a response to something beyond – a response to God’s call. In his words, “My freedom does not hover supreme over all possibilities, but stands under the transcendent. Vocation is the way I will rise into transcendent reality.”

Vocation helps steer a course between hyper-individualism and a command-and-control model of faith. And that makes it important that we have and convey a broad understanding of vocation as a universal call to faith and holiness.