I have recently offered several warnings against self-chosen sacrifice and self-willed religion, noting that, as Christians, ours is a service not of our own design or choosing, and when we orient our lives accordingly, it’s far more powerful because of it.
Writing specifically of our current attitudes about vocation, Mann observes an “unnecessary indecision and anxiety” in modern Western culture — one that is “shaped by the modern sensibility of intense self-consciousness, and by the consumer culture’s obsession with options and the ‘pursuit of happiness.’”
We are living in a world filled with choices and opportunities for “self-empowerment.” And yet with such tools comes a temptation to trust too highly in our personal plans and powers. If we give way to these temptations, our perception of calling is bound to suffer. “Consciously or not,” Mann writes, “we sometimes expect a vocation to solve all of our problems, answer all of our questions, and satisfy all of our desires. But these are not the purposes of a vocation.”
So what is the purpose of vocation?
A vocation – any vocation – is a school of charity and a means of crucifixion. Your vocation is the means by which your self-serving ego will die in order to be resurrected as the servant and lover of God. This is all that we can expect; but this is everything – the meaning of life, all there really is.
My vocation is where I will learn to let go of my questions, carry the cross of my problems, and be mysteriously fulfilled even when I am not happy. We have some choice as to how we will undergo that process; we do not – so long as we abide in the grace of God – get to choose whether we will undergo it.
This, it seems to me, is the attitude we should bring to discernment. I am not choosing between makes and models in a store, looking for the perfect fit or the best value. One is faced, rather, with the question: How I should lose my life, in order to save it? (Luke 9:24) [emphasis added]
Our modernistic and hedonistic sensibilities will surely resist such a framework, arguing, rather ironically, that all this amounts to arbitrary sentimentalism and emotionalism.
But one need not diminish or reject reason, tradition, and rightly ordered authority to submit oneself to ways that are higher than our ways. Far from it, following Christ closely and carefully will lead to amplified stewardship across the board. When we put our lives in service of the King, the Holy Spirit guides us in real and tangible ways. Moses debated God’s plans at the burning bush, but surely he knew that the Lord had ordered his steps for such a purpose, from boy to prince to shepherd to prophet.
As Mann goes on to remind us, this is not about replacing reason with fancy, but about “living in the fullness of reality”:
This does not mean fixating on a sentimental idea, or worshiping an enthroned mental abstraction. It means living in the fullness of Reality: recognizing and loving the Lord who is absolutely transcendent yet totally present, the Son of God who “plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces” (G.M. Hopkins).
That one of these faces should be your own, and that the light of your eyes should be the light of Christ living within you: this is the goal of your vocation, whatever it may be.
But you will not reach that goal by ordinary human means: not by the calculation, strategy, and careful hedging of bets that seem – but only seem – to make the world go around.
The central question in discernment is: How shall I die with Christ, to rise with him? How will I lose my life to find it? What will bring me to the point where I can say, with St. Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”? [emphasis added]
This is indeed the central question, and it is one that is far too often neglected, ignored, or outright discouraged, whether in our homes, schools, businesses, governments, or churches.
“Thy will be done” is often recited from our lips rather casually. But in all things, as we pray and discern about calling and vocation, and as we begin to act upon the leading of the Spirit and by his power, it has to remain the cry of our hearts.