Part 2: What do we mean when we speak of a ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’ in life?

Hello, and thank you for joining us for this second session, in our course on Spiritual Discernment. As I mentioned last time that the course will be divided into two parts. The first part will consist of five video sessions like this one, in which we’ll answer some questions about spiritual discernment and try to answer the question like, how do we perceive God’s voice? And particularly when we’re facing important decisions, how can we pray about those decisions and how do we expect to receive an answer from God? And particularly, we’re going to be talking about that in terms of finding our own vocation or calling in life. That’s the first part of the course, five videotaped teaching sessions.

The second part of the course, will be talking about the discernment of spirits. So how do we recognize the various stirrings within our heart, and how do we identify those stirrings that are from God and therefore that we want to accept, and those that are from the enemy and therefore that we want to reject, how do we distinguish between these various spirits at work within us? And if this sounds kind of mystical and impossible to you, to a topic that you can think for example of a person, and imagine a person with a little angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other, we’ve all seen images like that a very common way of portraying the human reality, the human condition of these voices within us, that don’t always agree and that some of these voices seem to be blackening us toward good and others of these voices are pulling us toward something that’s good, or that is evil. We’ll be exploring what St. Ignatius of Loyola has to say about discerning these spirits in our talks.

So today is the second of the five teaching videos. Last time we tried to answer the question, what is spiritual discernment? And we looked at the story of Samuel in 1 Samuel 3, as an example, and tried to draw some insights from that story. Today, I’d like to turn our focus to these words that we often use a vocation and calling, what are we talking about? Christians, speak about, I feel called to do this or that, or I feel called to be a certain thing. Sometimes we say my vocation, this is my vocation. My vocation, my calling in life is to do this kind of work or to perform this kind of service. What are we saying when we talk about vocation or calling? And how do we expect that calling to come to us? So, let’s begin with a definition of vocation. And this definition is my favorite definition of vocation. I refer to it again and again, it’s from Walter Brueggemann the old Testament scholar. And Brueggemann writes it, “A vocation is a purpose for being in the world “that is related to the purposes of God.” In other words, we have a sense that what we are doing is part of our purpose here in the world. And that that purpose somehow reflects the purposes of God we’re trying to live in congruence with God’s will. So, let’s consider that sort of calling.

I wonder if you have experienced that kind of calling in your life, is there something that you can say, this is my vocation, or is there even some moment that you can say, I felt called to do this certain thing? Maybe it was, I felt called to go to the hospital and visit this person, or I felt called to join the vestry or to volunteer as a Sunday school teacher or whatever it is, or I feel called to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a factory worker of some sort, where do you find that in your own life? And can you identify something that you would say is your calling or your vocation? If you’d like, you can pause this tape and do some reflecting on that. See if you can articulate what it is that you believe is your vocation in life, your true calling in life. So what can we say about the call of God?

And I’d like to identify a few characteristics of that call that might help us to recognize it when it comes to us. First, I’d like say that God calls each of us, a vocation is not simply a vocation to a religious life or to priesthood or ordained life or to some special calling that like missionary work or something. A lot of times we think of this vocation as something that has to do with a spiritual calling, but the calling can apply to any part of our lives. And so it’s much broader than just those particular vocations. God’s call comes to each one of us. Each one of us has been given gifts by God to exercise in the world in ways that are congruent with God’s purposes. So, you might be the one who is called to pay attention to the children in your church, or maybe you’re the one who feels called to look in on an elderly neighbor from time to time, or maybe you feel called to support a certain cause or to work for it. You have a sense that the purpose in taking on this particular work is related to God’s purposes in the world. So God’s called come see each of us, each of us, every Christian has a call and many of us have multiple calls in life, multiple roles that we take on or tests that we take on that we feel drawn to do a purpose for being in the world that’s related to the purposes of God.

Secondly, God can call us on many levels. We can have several, both locations simultaneously. I might be called to be in a marriage. I might be called to be a parent of a child. I might be called to be a school teacher. I might be called to be a mastery member for my parish church, and I could be called to all of those things. And more, I could be called to care about the environment and to actively work in my free time. Or preserving the environment or I could be called to work against gun violence in this country. So there are many things that can take the form of a call, and most of us will have calls at various different parts of our life. That we have a sense of vocation about a sense that God really wants us to do this thing in the world. The call of God, the third thing is the call of God can come to us in a variety of ways. Sometimes we realize our calling in life or our vocation in life gradually and over time.

I was a teacher before I came to the monastery. And as I looked back from my teaching career, my teaching vocation, I looked back and I could see, in my teenage years, I was babysitting. I was teaching Sunday school and I was working as a camp counselor. And I found myself feeling more and more comfortable in this role of working with children. And so I in college chose that path and then that became my vocation, a teacher. So we see signs of it over time, we develop a skill or develop an interest and have become more and more drawn to this particular vocational work. Or sometimes this call comes to us suddenly and almost unexpectedly think of Paul riding his horse to Damascus and being knocked off his horse by seeing a bright light. And he’s to called completely turn his life around. And he’d been doing this persecuting Christians and zealous for his faith. And now Jesus was calling him and directing him to be an ambassador of that same faith rather than a persecutor of it. So in that case, the conversion, the calling happened in a specific moment of time. And a few of us will experience that. I think most of us will experience it more as a gradual dawning over time. And understanding that grit comes more clear as time passes.

Fourth, God’s call is continuous and ongoing, and there’s no stage of our life where we no longer need to be listening for this call. I think some of us might’ve imagined in our early years, we would find a profession and career, and that would be our calling. But now we realize that in each decade, we’ve had to be attentive to what is God asking me at this point in my life, in this situation with these people, what is God wanting me to do, inviting me to do? So God’s call comes to us over time. It’s ongoing and it’s persistent. And even in our later years, we need to be attentive to what is God asking of me in this stage of my life, in this situation, which I find myself in? God’s call often comes to us through everyday events, very few of us receive a spectacular message like St. Paul received.

Most of the time we come to some sense of vocation through very ordinary means. A conversation with someone or reading about something, or being exposed to a particular type of work or ministry. And we said, that interests me, and I’m gonna read more about it. And I’m gonna try to get some experience in that area to see if it fits me. I’m gonna ask others what they think about this path or this vocation for me. So, it can come through a very ordinary unspectacular ways. God can communicate to us through scripture or through the words of a friend, or through a book or something that we’ve read online. The other thing is that God’s call can come to two different people in very different ways. So for example, imagine that two women have received God’s call a invitation to work at a homeless shelter, for example, and they both seem drawn to this and seem interested in this, but as they pray about it, as they discern about it, one of them perceives that it’s not the right time for her, that she needs now really to be more with her family and focus more on her children who are at a crucial stage perhaps. The other person may find that this is exactly the right time, and this is the exact right vocation. And she may step into it and find it. So we have to, even when we recognize a call within us, we have to discern how we enter into that call and how we respond to it.

And so it’s always a matter of further discernment. Another thing we can say about the call of God is that the call of God is always of benefit to others. It’s always leads us to service of others. Every calling, every vocation, is directed to the welfare of others as well as ourselves. So, God’s call always stretches us beyond ourselves. It always involves service or benefit to others. There’s no calling from God that doesn’t benefit other people. Any matter, large or small can relate to our call. So, the call could concern a job. It could be about a relationship. It could be about a particular action or quality of being. I feel called to be someone who brings hope into hopeless situations, or brings love where there is hatred and strife or unifies when there is division, I can be called to serve in a field in business or in medicine, or in healthcare, or in education. Those can be callings for me. So the call can take on many different forms. Here’s one to remember that we very often have difficulty with, and that is we are not called to do everything. And for some of us we’ll have to learn how to say no sometimes to invitations, there might be some form of ministry or service that we are drawn to, and that we would like to volunteer for, but still discernment is needed. Are we being asked to put ourselves forward for this opening? Or might there be someone else who is shy or less experienced, who would benefit from some encouragement to step into this role rather than me?

So always discernment is necessary. We’re not called to do everything. And we have to learn where to put our boundaries, where to define our limits. We’re not called to do everything. We have some specific things that we’re called to do, but not every opening means that we are called to fill it. I think also every call is a call to obey God, this is a call comes to us as an invitation from God. And God invites us to respond, to respond in obedience, to God’s beckoning in God’s revelation, of this purpose for us. So, I think many of us misunderstand this. We have a notion somehow that God has maybe even before we were born, picked out a particular path for us and we’re to marry this person and we’re to do this kind of work and we’re to live in this area. And this is what our life path is to be about. And that our job that is to somehow discern, find out what this is God’s will for us. We say, what is God’s will for me?

What does God want me to do as if there was one path that God had predetermined was the right path. And that if we weren’t careful, we would miss it. I don’t think it’s like that. I don’t think God is sitting at some control panel in the sky and deploying people to different places of need. I think rather God gives us tools and gives us a personality, gives us a temperament, gives us gifts and strong interests that are part of who we are. Of part of who’ve gone has made us to be. And God says to us, let’s work together and take these gifts and build them into something that is a benefit and service to others. Let’s do something wonderful with them, but there’s a great deal of flexibility I think in that, I think many of us, could have been married or could be single. Many of us could have chosen this path or this path, and then equally happy and equally fulfilled. I don’t think there’s simply one path that we have to find. And if we fail to find it, somehow we failed at life. God says, all of this is given to you, use it for God’s glory and to find some meaningful purpose for yourself in life. And then the final thing about God’s call is that God’s call always comes with a promise.

God never calls us to some form of work or ministry without also promising to empower us in that place. And so if we look at the figures in the scriptures, for example, Moses called to appear before Pharaoh and he’s intimidated. He’s unsure that he is up to the task and God says, don’t worry, I’m going to give you the words. I’m gonna tell you what to do, I’m going with you. I am the one who’s rescuing my people out of Egypt, who doesn’t depend on you, I’m the one doing the work. So all I need really is your cooperation. Or Mary says, “How can this be? “How can I be the mother of the savior of the world?” And the spirit responds to her and say, “The spirit will come upon you. “And you will bring forth this child.” So, it’s God that is sending a savior into the world. And your job is simply to cooperate with God’s purposes here. It’s not that you have to do it all yourself. So God promises to come alongside us promises to give us the word, to give us the wisdom, to give us the insight in order to fulfill the calling that we’ve been given. God’s call always comes with God’s promise.

Now, we might experience that call coming to us in a couple of different ways. As I mentioned before, sometimes we experience this as something that just grows within us, like an internal call. We feel drawn to some particular vocation or work or service, and that call gets stronger and more insistent as we go on. It’s a thing that gradually develops over time until we gain the clarity that this is a call that I wanted to embrace and follow. And then it can also come to us externally. I gave the example earlier of St. Paul, where this call was like breaking into his experience, completely reorienting his life and sending him off in a different direction. So sometimes something can happen to us or someone speaks a word to us, or we awakened to something that completely changes our life and shifts our values and points us in a new direction. So this call can be something that grows up interiorly and become stronger and stronger or something that breaks into our experiences as were from outside and redirects and reorients us. So, when we receive this call or when this call is becoming clear to us, it often makes sense to seek confirmation to test the call. And St. Paul writes to Timothy “Test the spirits to see whether they are of God.” So if we feel drawn to something, we test that, we say, does this seem like the right thing? Does this take advantage of my gifts and my strengths and my interests? Does it fit my temperament? Is it the type of job that will be meaningful for me and will be rewarding? Is it something that I can be good at?

We look for signs of confirmation. Sometimes those signs are interior signs that we recognize in ourselves. This would be a good match for me, this type of work or this type of service. At other times, the confirmation comes through circumstances. We talk about doors opening, or doors closing one opportunity closes down it doesn’t seem that we’re able to progress along that path, but then this new opportunity opens up over here and we’re not. So sometimes it’s shifting circumstances that reveal to us the path that God wants us to take. We seek confirmation from other people as well. It’s wise to ask those who know us best. What do you think of this call? Can you see me in this role? Do you think I’d be good at this? And sometimes they can give us valuable insight and they can see things that we can’t perceive about ourselves. So seeking the counsel of others and seeking affirmation from others who know us and who care about us, and who would be interested in our choices is a valuable thing to do. It doesn’t mean that we always have to follow the advice or accept the insights of another person. I know that many of us who came to monastic life experienced that our families and some of our friends had difficulty understanding why we would choose this path and may have even actively discouraged us from it. But we felt in our hearts, we were still called along that way.

So, we’re not just looking for people to say yes, yes, yes, that’s right. Sometimes we make it pushback. And we have to decide whether to receive that and to say that is a correct message and I’m gonna turn away from this path, or whether just say no, in spite of others misunderstanding or not being able to recognize this calling in me. I still feel certain of this calling and I’m gonna set out on this path and test it. So, we listen to others and we ask for their insights and their reflections, but then we put that in the mix with all the other things that we need to discern a choice. And if we listen for the voice of God, in those circumstances and people and situations, God promises to lead us, God promises to empower us, God promises to be with us. As we look for our vocation in life, our own purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God. In our next video, the third video of this series, we’ll be looking at Jesus and what the gospels can show us about his own sense of vocation. How did he perceive his purpose for being in the world that was related to the purposes of the father? How did he come to know the path that he should take? We hope that you’ll join us for that date.


  1. Jaan Sass on November 8, 2021 at 00:32

    It is strange I was an idealist thought my vacation was living in a commune but my mental illness said otherwise I can understand how crisis and circumstances can change a vocation. I like the idea we have many callings from helping are neighbor to working on the vestry and I do not have the main player but it is the little callings that matter.

  2. Shirley Fierro on October 26, 2021 at 09:13

    Thank you for a great series. Please sign me up for further lessons.

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