The Search for Vocation

Manhattan Memories

It had been a sweltering week of record-setting heat in New York City, that third week in July 2013. On Friday we were gathered to debrief our time together and discuss a way ahead. This week was an immersive experience, the fourth week  of a ten-week course on the history and theology of vocation focusing on the stories of Christian artists in Gotham.1 Many of the students were from Fuller Theological Seminary’s Worship, Theology, and the Arts programs and were wrestling with how to negotiate their talents and/or passion for art with their commitment to Christ. In the first three weeks we had read and reflected online about basic biblical and theological paradigms of vocation, and after we met in New York we continued to read more and discuss more online. This week was an experiential week introducing many different perspectives on calling, encountering many and varied stories, all raising a variety of questions about vocation. We had discussed the writings of Quakers and Catholics and considered whether Ruth had a call like Mary or Moses. We heard from an Episcopalian who started the “Broadway Blessing” as an outreach to the theatre community during the initial AIDS outbreak, heard from a Catholic priest who started a theatre company, and discussed with an Adventist the challenges of being a working musician in the “City.” The students experienced three kinds of texts in our class: they read common texts written about the concept of vocation, they encountered the texts of the lives of the people from New York as well as the lives of their classmates, and then there was the text of their own lives. It was the beginning of a process of discernment on how the first two texts might shape the latter—the text of their own life vocations.

Discerning Life’s Vocation

Though Fuller is about to undertake the tremendous new venture of intentionally forming every student in both her spiritual life and her understanding of her Christian vocation, this is not the first time I have been involved with such a project. When teaching at Loyola University Chicago, I was appointed to the board of a new program called EVOKE: Encouraging Vocation through Knowledge and Experience. Its goal was to raise the question for every student: “What is your calling?” This process was to begin with each application and continue through the entire undergraduate career of a student—later expanding to alumni and graduate students. It used Frederick Buechner’s definition of calling as a guiding principle:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”2

Our goal was to engage each student with a conversation about their gifts and passions in life, and allow the energy of those gifts and passions to motivate their education. This, we hoped, would lead to an embrace of one’s vocation, and we further hoped that all vocations could be linked to lives of service, specifically the service of God.

One of the challenges of discerning one’s life vocation is determining which voice or voices should dominate the conversation. For some a calling is a response to an inner voice, a gut-level feeling that “just feels right.” For others a calling is discerned by the “counsel of many” in their lives who know them best, who assess their gifts, abilities, and passions and work with them to focus on the direction of their lives. These two paradigms are never more clearly demarcated than in the areas of religion and art, where a personal passion can be stonewalled by lack of external support or encouragement, putting the internal and external voices in opposition. Of course the inverse is also true; a person with obvious gifts in art or ministry (or both) is hesitant to pursue this calling, in spite of their affirmation, because of the risks. This is more than just a philosophical difference about life decisions; this is an existential crisis facing young people—and sometimes not-so-young people—every day.

Developing Theology and a Theology of Development

We on the EVOKE board were a cross-section of Loyola. We represented a variety of faiths, ethnicities, theological disciplines, and stations within the university. We wrestled long and hard about what we meant by vocation and how that definition would define our approach to our ministry. After much discussion—even debate—we came to a consensus that was articulated by Jesuit ethicist John Houghey. This was a developmental model of vocation that took seriously the process of becoming who we are over a lifetime of decisions. This should not come entirely as a surprise, as part of Loyola’s Jesuit heritage are the Ignatian excercises, a deep and extended process of discernment. Further, with both educational and psychological voices at the table, the focus on process and human development was seen as a key to caring for our students. Even in the case of a converting flash of insight, the process of discernment was just beginning, not ending.

This particular model of understanding vocational discernment holds the inner and outer, objective and subjective, in a healthy and helpful tension. Haughey used the works of theologian Bernard Lonergan to frame the values we had articulated as a group. Haughey’s use of Lonergan proposed that discerning one’s vocation requires three conversions. The first is an intellectual conversion. This conversion requires individuals to discern the truths of the world around them and then adjust their perspective on the world accordingly. It is literally a reality check. The second is a moral conversion. Here the meaning of one’s understanding of reality is discerned with the assistance of one’s community. And by community Haughey means that cluster of people who speak most directly and helpfully into one’s life, such as a faith community. The last conversion is an affective conversion, where one responds to the moral issues discerned in conversation with one’s community with an attitude of love. An example of this sort of conversion trifecta might be a father who hears a commencement address at a child’s graduation about the decline in education funding in public schools and the need for volunteers in schools. This person, now with a revised understanding of a reality in his world, raises the possibility of getting more involved in the public schools as a volunteer with both family and his church community. After receiving affirmation from his community, this person begins a lifelong commitment to resourcing his local schools, teachers, and students. Discerning one’s calling, according to Haughey, is a multi-staged process.3

What is so helpful in this approach is that Haughey assumes both an inner conviction arising from a revision of one’s opinion of the world and one’s role in it, along with an external, objective conversation with others who see both the individual and the world from a different perspective and can reinforce and challenge them as necessary. Yet in the end, Haughey, from an ethical perspective, looks at the process of discernment as one in which the individual finds fulfillment in his or her role in society and its contribution to society’s betterment. This is ultimately not an exercise in self-sacrifice and altruism. Instead it assumes that God has created us for community and we are most joyfully ourselves when we exercise our gifts and talents in, through, and for community, contributing to the greater good.

Illustration of Frederick BuechnerYOUR DEEP GLADNESS AND THE WORLD’S HUNGER

“It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-interest. By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

—Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, A Seeker’s ABC

Art, Story, Learning, and Vocation

All of this may seem fairly abstract and philosophical. But when it came to implementation, we learned that the most effective way of provoking these three conversions, of inviting students to hear the voices of their inner self and their just God, was through the stories of others. A good deal of the programming we ran in the EVOKE project, therefore, appeared quite simple: people shared their stories of finding their vocation. It began with lunches with faculty, where they outlined their journeys into their field of study and research, as well as their passions beyond their professional life. We then began asking guest speakers who were coming to campus for other purposes to have them speak about how they found their callings. Almost no one refused. These were so successful that we began bringing people on campus simply to speak about their callings. In the end we concluded that all were equally effective. The point is it didn’t matter how famous or how unfamiliar a person was; the stories of coming to know and own one’s calling was one of the most helpful resources in helping others find their own vocation. Stories—whether a person knew from her earliest memory what she would do or came to a hinge moment in her life where a flash of insight created a pivot point in her life’s journey—were powerful tools in helping others negotiate their own life’s journey.

It appeared rather simple: have people tell their stories so that students might find resonance with some or many of them to gain insight into discerning their talents and passions. However, this required a rather rigorous pedagogical foundation to contextualize the stories and give them a hermeneutic through which to hear them. Our programs were framed with particular questions that helped the audience see the particular assumptions, questions, and answers that resulted in the decision those presenters had made. It allowed them to name particular paradigms in the stories they were hearing and be able to categorize what they heard. It also invited them to consider how those assumptions, categories, and paradigms reflected their own. We further emphasized the quality of morality and justice to the students as part of the calling of Christ’s disciples. Here our diverse board spoke with one voice—Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant—people of faith are called to preserve and improve the quality of life for all who live on our planet.

For artists, even artists of faith, this moral or ethical dimension may seem a bit forced. Yet, if one senses an affinity to art and their involvement with it in whatever way, and corroborating gifts and passions are discerned by an invested community of friends and colleagues, then their contributions should and can be a benefit to the larger world. It simply identifies that art—its potential for inviting us to see the world and ourselves in new ways—is a contribution to the world at large, not simply an exercise in self-expression. In fact, artists are major contributing voices in intellectual conversion—which may frequently begin as an affective response to a work or works of art. For example, in our vocation class, the play My Name Is Asher Lev by Jewish novelist Chaim Potok and the films Romero and Mr. Holland’s Opus were some of the most profoundly provoking “texts” we discussed. They are not only fine pieces of art; they all have strong moral themes. Even those who are passionate about service to those with the least adequate means would acknowledge that those on the margins of our society and its economy benefit from art and beauty. Studies have consistently shown that beautifying an impoverished neighborhood has a significant impact on the self-image of the residents and their level of confidence. Similarly, teaching children the arts gives them a vehicle for self-expression and sense of control over their lives. The late Maya Angelou is but one example of a person for whom the arts became both a form of self-definition and empowerment and a vehicle for justice.

What we learned through Haughey’s work is the challenge of making decisions well, especially fork-in-the-road decisions that can lead a person in two very different directions with very different outcomes. It requires an ability to take a personal inventory of one’s passions, abilities, and skills as it responds to one’s evolving view of the world. At the same time, it assumes that one lives not in isolation but in community—a community who values not only the individual’s passions but also the needs of the community—and how an individual can find personal fulfillment and make a positive contribution to the world. These types of questions are asked repeatedly throughout one’s life, honing one’s direction and evaluating life’s opportunities and choices.

Back to New York

Our conversation that hot July Friday brought together the teachings of the Scriptures, the variety of theories we had been exposed to, and the stories we had heard. We framed the question of calling using the concepts of ongoing conversions over a lifetime, drawing together the objective and subjective, the internal and the external. We invited the students over the coming weeks into a personal inventory of their gifts and passions and asked how that might speak to the needs and betterment of the world. We had personal and heartfelt conversations that were rooted in the Bible, theology, and questions of morality and justice.

This sort of experience will no longer be contained only in isolated courses or extracurricular events. At Fuller Theological Seminary, in the newly updated curriculum, this focused and informed reflection will now be an essential for all students, a required part of an education at Fuller. In the end, this is a process in which a vision of mutual confirmation is identified, where the external and internal speak in harmony. As James Joyce described it, “His heart trembled in an ecstasy of fear and his soul was in flight. . . . This was the call of life to his soul, not the dull gross voice of the world of duties and despair.”5 Discovering this voice is not always easy, but it is always worth the effort. Otherwise we have silenced the contribution we can joyfully offer to our world, our God, and even ourselves.

1. The course “Calling: The History, Theology, And Experience Of Christian Vocation” will be offered again with an immersion experience in New York City, Summer 2015.
2. Frederick Buechner, “Vocation” in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper & Row, 1973), 95.
3. John C. Haughey, SJ, “The Three Conversions Embedded in Personal Calling” Revisiting the Idea of Vocation: Theological Explorations, John C. Haughey, ed. Catholic (University Press of America, 2004), 1-23. This was a volume we produced as a board on vocation that arose out of our initial questions and subsequent responses.
4. Neafsey’s initial thoughts were published in our volume on vocation, “The Psychological Dimensions of the Discernment of Vocation,” Revisiting the Idea of Vocation, 163-95. They were more fully developed and expanded in John Neafsey, A Sacred Voice is Calling: Personal Vocation and Social Conscience (Orbis Books, 2006).