What does it mean to have a vocation? Is a vocation a job, a career, a way of life? Have you asked yourself -- at 20, 40, 60, or 80 -- what am I going to do with the rest of my life? You are not alone. Understanding vocation is key to living a meaningful life, to embracing the "abundance" that Jesus offers.
Like so many of my peers in the mid-1960s, I was married immediately after graduating from college. I worked as a physicist for the U.S. Navy, then spent two years on Guam while my husband served his required time in the Air Force. We then returned to the U.S., to suburbia. We were settling in for the long haul with a growing family. My vocation was clear.
I couldn't know how radically it would change in the years to come.
One of the most powerful and disturbing experiences of my life was realizing that I could neither see nor hear the word of God as long as our family's life was isolated from the broken reality that shaped the experience of the majority of people in the world. The long, long journey toward a simpler lifestyle with more direct connections to people living on the margins in our own country and around the world is very far from finished for me. I suspect it never will be.
The steps I took with my family -- especially from suburbia to an organic farm, where we could experience the kind of work for survival and right relationship with the rest of creation that shape the lives of so many of the world’s poor; and from the farm to Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., where inner-city poverty and violence were woven into the fabric of our lives -- were vital, but I know there will be many more steps necessary in the future. Over and over again, people like me who come from an affluent world have to relocate ourselves in relationship to the poor. On the way, I believe, the rhythm of God’s call will become more and more clear.
Christian vocation is not so much about career as about a call to the fullness of life -- an invitation not to leave the world, but to embrace it.
John Neafsey, author of A Sacred Voice is Calling, writes that vocation has to do with the "the quality of our personhood, the values and attitudes we embody, the integrity and authenticity of our lives." For Christians, vocation is the invitation to follow Jesus. "Come after me," he said in the beginning of the gospel of Mark (1:17), an invitation to discipleship that -- "more than an assent of the heart" -- demands, as Ched Myers put it, "an uncompromising break with 'business as usual.'"
We all bring to our vocations experiences, gifts, and relationships. We bring the obstacles and distractions that clutter our lives. We bring who we are and who we are willing to become. We bring the context in which we live and a particular time in history. Vocation is about the totality of how we live the gospel in these times.
He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them, "Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up …" And as he finished his story, he said, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"
-- Mark 4:2-9
Listen! Catch the rhythm of God’s voice.
But it is really hard to hear God's voice. We are too distracted, too overwhelmed with internal and external noise, too busy. As author Maria Harris says, we need to stop -- literally.
We must allow the land of our lives to “"ie fallow," writes Harris. "This is the land of ourselves, the tiny country each of us comprises, whose geography we know so well," she says, and "We are to let that land, the land of our bodies, our blood, our breath, and our bones, lie fallow too ... giving it not only physical nourishment but regular, ritual rest."
This is a tremendous challenge -- to an economy that drains the last drop of energy out of us as we try to make ends meet; to cultures that define the value of a person by their job description, level of income, or possessions; and to lifestyles that fill every nook and cranny of every day, outside of work or school, with noise or electronic images or organized activities.
In one way or another, we who are trying to catch the rhythm of God's voice and allow it to set the direction of our lives need to create spaces to be present and attentive. The stirrings of the Spirit are often drowned out by our daily routines that are packed with even very good activities. Unless we are still enough to see (really see) what is going on in our broken world and to our broken earth, we will never have the will or courage to accept a vocation that participates in healing (which is, of course, where vocation -- if it is of God -- will lead us).
To opt out of buying and selling in order to listen for God's call goes against the grain of a system that helps us create needs in a world where the real needs of a vast majority are never met; that tells us to buy more in a world of terrible waste; that tells us to produce more, to consume more, to grow our economies without limit on a planet with very real limits that are rapidly approaching.
"We need," continues Harris, "to be people whose every activity has an underlying residue of receptivity, quiet, and contemplative being." We need to listen with rapt attention to the lived experience of those in our world who are excluded from the benefits of society and to the lessons woven into the fabric of a threatened earth. Over and over again, we who come from an affluent and sterilized world have to relocate our lives as we discern the contours of faithful discipleship.
That will require us to keep listening, even when we think we are "settled down" forever; to stay open to new possibilities, even when we know we are too set in our ways or too old or too tired to change; to step repeatedly into neighborhoods or relationships or corners of the world where we would rather not go. We can change vocations, embody more than one vocation at a time, or discover a new vocation at any time in life.
Back when I was first married, it never occurred to me that my life might move in unexpected directions -- that in the years to come I would travel to Cambodia and Zimbabwe, El Salvador and Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan, and perhaps 40 other countries, and that every encounter along the way would present a profound invitation to live more deeply and work more diligently for a just and peaceful world.
Former gang members in Guatemala building a house of welcome and prayer for youth at risk; women facing repeated and horrific sexual violence during an unending war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; survivors of torture from around the world; witnesses for peace in Iraq, Colombia, Palestine; child soldiers; whole communities living without clean water or decent schools -- all articulated for me a remarkable invitation: Live simply; promote social justice; work for peace.
The call to a new place will sometimes be clear, but often not so clear and usually hard. But the gift of each tiny, risky step will always be beyond measure and help us understand better the reality of a world in which, for many people, especially women, there are no "choices" about vocation or discernment about "next steps." How many grandparents in inner-city neighborhoods ravaged by drugs are raising a second family with courage and determination? How many potential artists have neither time or resources to nurture their talents? How many older siblings in African or Asian communities overwhelmed by AIDS are old before their time and carrying on their shoulders the weight of the world? How many brilliant minds have never learned to read or write? How many women have been prevented from entering the ministries to which they were called?
The groaning of the earth in our times is also in tune with the rhythm of God's voice. The shape of our common vocation, to participate fully in the process of creation and re-creation, will be increasingly evident to us if our hearts and minds are attentive to life in all its wondrous forms. Listening to the cry of the earth sharpens our capacity to hear God’s voice.
I had no idea how profoundly the rest of my life would be affected when my family moved to a farm -- by the deep relationship we would build with the earth during the almost 10 years we lived there. We learned to farm organically, slowly reviving the land from years of being doused with chemicals. We worked our fields and planted our gardens with old, low-tech equipment and lots of hand and back labor. We came to know every square foot of our 65 acres -- where the rocks were, where the good soil was, where the ground tended to be too wet or too dry. In the summer and fall we handled every bale of hay and every tomato or bean or eggplant personally. Collectively, we knew every weed in the garden. As we introduced animals onto the farm, we watched them settle into a good relationship with the land and with us as well. Every morning in the dark I listened to God's voice as I milked our cow.
Our years farming tied my soul to the land and the gently rolling mountains of western Virginia. But even when I am not in the Virginia countryside, I can feel God's presence in the city's beautiful trees, in my backyard garden, in the birds returning in the spring. At least from time to time, I have to listen for God's call with the rest of creation.
The challenge and opportunity before all of us is to choose carefully where we plant our feet while listening for the rhythm of God's call. Vocation -- obviously -- is lived in a wide variety of ways. There are many different pathways in each faithful life, but the first step is a challenging one: to listen with rapt attention to the lived experience of those in our world who are excluded from the benefits of society and to the lessons woven into the fabric of a threatened earth.
God is speaking to us all the time about the happiness to which we are called: Blessed are you, happy are you. Blessed are you who are poor, who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are peacemakers, who thirst for justice -- happy are you!
Marie Dennis, a Sojourners contributing editor, is director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C. This article is adapted from her book Diversity of Vocations.