Vocation – God’s Calling of The Person
Discipleship – Radical Vocation – Non-Radical Vocation
Discipleship or Vocation
Although the radical forms of Christian Vocation (hereafter vocation) are to the priesthood and consecrated religious life, other states in life can also be vocation. To understand this fully let’s take a moment to clarify vocation as such; that is to say, as Jesus has given it to us. One would most often say that Jesus calls us to be disciples, and this is certainly true. Disciple, being defined as one who learns from and follows the Master, however, does not give the full connotation of vocation. If we look at two particular Gospel passages we hear Jesus speaking of something that goes beyond discipleship. The first of these is the encounter with the Rich Young Man. (Matt 19:16-22 and Mark 10:17-22)
The story of the Rich Young Man is familiar to all of us; he asks Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus says you must obey the commandments. The young man persists in his question by saying “I have done that since my youth.” Then Jesus says, “If you want to be perfect, sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and follow me.”
Now in the style of St. Thomas Aquinas we could say that “following Jesus” can take two forms. On the one hand to follow is to learn from the master and go about live your life accordingly, following his teachings, but not necessarily following along in the master’s own life, mission, travels, etc. This first “following” is within the definition of “disciple.” On the other hand “following Jesus” can indeed mean going along with him in his mission, which would be discipleship of a different kind, vocation. Relating this to the story of the Rich Young Man, we can see both types of discipleship offered by Jesus as options for the young man. The first live your life in obedience to the commandments. This is to live a good and moral life, a Christian life. To abandon his personal life and follow Jesus in his mission, is a second option that requires discernment. The first type of disciple is that of a good Christian; the second is the life of vocation, dedicated to the Christian mission.
Radical Vocation and the Evangelical Counsels
Another Gospel passage that exemplifies this notion of vocation is in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus is asked by “some Pharisees” about divorce. (Matt 19:3-12) In this passage Jesus’ disciples participate in the dialogue, but if we look closely at the passage we can see that there is two dialogues going on, one on the opening question of divorce which Jesus responds to, but the disciples’ interjection seems more related to marriage as “the two becoming one” that “no one can separate.” The encounter happens as Jesus and his disciples are traveling. They have recently left Galilee and entered “the district of Judea across the Jordan.” (Matt 19:1) Jesus had been staying in Galilee near or at the home of Peter and there he had called his apostles (and disciples) and began teaching them. Now it was time for the mission to move on to Jerusalem, and his disciples and apostles followed him. Many of them were married and now have left home to follow Jesus. At the question of divorce by the Pharisees in Judea, the disciples suddenly think of their wives and family whom they had left in Galilee and respond to Jesus statement of the inseparability of marriage, by saying “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” Let’s look at the passage as a whole and see the distinction in dialogue.
3. Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?”
4. He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ 5. and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’ 6. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”
7. They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss her?” 8. He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”
10. His disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
11. He answered, “Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom that is granted. 12. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”
In verses 3-6 there is the question of divorce and Jesus’ response, concluding with inseparability. Verse 7 the Pharisees say “but what about Moses?” In verses 8-9 Jesus explains and says that divorce and remarriage is adultery unless the marriage is unlawful, (which is the basis of annulment today.)
In verse 10, however, the dialogue shifts to the disciples, who are not really concerned with divorce, but separation from their wives to follow Jesus on his mission. They say, “If that is the case of a man with his wife [i.e. inseparability,] it is better not to [have] married.” Here we have a link to the idea of vocation in the encounter with the Rich Young Man. The disciples, at this point have taken option 2, they have abandoned their previous life to follow Jesus; and now they are concerned about what they have left behind. Although their concern is of their own marriage, they speak as though in future tense, “it is better not to marry.” This gives us a sense of future vocation in the radical sense of priesthood and consecrated religious life.
Jesus’ response in verses 11-12 is very interesting, and he is responding no longer to the Pharisees and the question of divorce, but to his disciples and their epiphany of radical vocation and its relation to marriage, which means celibacy. Jesus says “not all can accept this, but only those to whom it is granted.” At this point you can see clearly that the dialogue is not about divorce and remarriage, but about celibate life, and that it is something granted to some, but not all, and those to whom it is granted may or may not accept it. Jesus gives three examples of celibacy, the first two which are involuntary, and the third which is voluntary, but only as granted by God and “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” and “Whoever can accept this ought accept it.”
Radical and Non-Radical Vocation
So what does all this mean to us here and now in the order of vocation? Well, it has a direct meaning to those who feel a calling to radical vocation; this is plain and clear from the passages. These passages give us what Catholic Tradition calls the Evangelical Counsels, in other words “Gospel advice” regarding vocation; and the counsels are obedience, chastity, and poverty. These are the three vows that those entering a religious order take as their final vows. In varying form all three are included in the sacrament of Holy Orders particular to the priesthood. Although diocesan priests do not take an explicit vow of poverty, it is implicit that they live a moderate life. The Dominicans, for another variation, take one vow, a vow of obedience, but they understand that obedience contains the other two. Ultimately, all people of good will, and particularly Christians/Catholics who live a devout life, the Evangelical Counsels are the gateway to holiness and vocation, in all states in life.
At this point we must consider the concept of non-radical vocation as it applies to any other state in life. The point of this essay is the discernment of vocation rather it be radical or non-radical. Discernment, therefore, must now be the focus of our discourse. First and foremost, we must understand that vocation is not the same as ambition. It is not something that we decide “we want to do” and then pursue it. Vocation is “a calling out” of the person by God. It begins with a spiritual consideration either from within the person or in many cases from an external catalyst. As one priest told me, many times it comes from within the companionship of faith, the faith community itself; an actual grace, external to the person, that stimulates the interior consideration. In contrast to ambition, vocation is most often a reluctance on the part of the person. This reluctance is the beginning of discernment.
Many people in discernment or acquainted with discernment, would say that this reluctance is a feeling of “I’m not worthy,” and there is that in the initial consideration, but experience accounts it as minimal and short lived. No one is worthy, God chooses the weak and the lowly and raises them up to the work of His mission. If the “I’m not worthy,” reluctance lingers beyond this initial consideration it will either end the consideration or become an element of false humility. The real reluctance is, “can I do this?” Can I do what God is calling me to do? This is called monastic dread. Can I live this way, do I have the ability, gifts, to do this? However, as we have heard Jesus say, “Whoever can accept this, ought to accept it.” This is discernment and it is an ongoing process throughout formation or novitiate of the radical vocations. In speaking of all forms of vocation, radical and Non-radical, discernment is the same but proportional to the state in life.
In God’s calling of the person, there are two spiritual elements at work. There is an interior yearning of the heart. This is usually present in subtle and intense oscillation; both in conscious and subconscious movement, but the person is unaware of what the object of this yearning might be. The yearning being one spiritual element and the object of that yearning a second and complimentary element. The person is usually already a person of deep faith and devotion, yet unaware of the direction of this movement of the heart. Going back to the Gospels we can see a clear example of this dynamic and how the two elements of this spiritual work of God’s call come together. (Matt 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-13; John 1:35-43)
In these four passages of the calling of the first disciples, although with slight variations, there are particularly interesting external elements that bring the two spiritual elements of God’s calling of the person together. In the Gospel of John there is the transition from the preaching of John the Baptist to the ministry of Jesus when, on one particular day John sees Jesus coming toward him and says,
“Behold the Lamb of God.” Two of John’s disciples hear this and follow Jesus. Jesus turns to them and says, “What are you looking for?” Then Jesus says to them, “Come and you will see.” One of these two was Andrew, brother of Simon. Andrew goes to Simon and says, “We have found the Messiah!”
The question “What are you looking for?” gives us insight into the first spiritual element of the vocation and at the same time, although these men were fishermen, they were men of faith. When Andrew says to Simon, “We have found the Messiah!” we can also see that they were men devoted to Scripture and a deeper understanding of their faith. They probably had many discussion together about the Messiah, when would He come, and under what circumstances, and now Andrew announces to Simon, “We have found the Messiah!” Men of faith and devotion with yearning hearts. In all these passages Jesus ultimately says, “Follow me,” the text tells us that they “dropped their nets” and followed him. John and James, sons of Zebedee, leave their father and the hired hands in the boat. There is much more to these stories, but in brief all the elements are here. When the yearning heart encounters the object of its yearning, dramatic things happen and lives change radically. One other verse, from the Gospel of Luke, that the Fathers of the Church and all the spiritual writers of Tradition hold dear is when Jesus says to Simon (Peter) as the fishing crews come ashore after an unsuccessful night’s fishing.
Jesus says, “Put out into the deep for a catch.” Duc in altum in Latin.
When we respond to God’s call we are indeed “putting out into the deep,” and it is a scary and unsettling thing that requires trust in the one who is calling us.
We “cast out into the deep,” therefore, and follow him who asks, “What are you looking for?” All of the elements and occurrences of God’s calling of the person to vocation can be seen and applied to all the forms of vocation; whether the radical forms of priesthood and religious life or as a family of single lay person looking for “something more” and a deepening of their faith. When the yearning of the heart encounters that which it yearns for, life changes and we “follow Him” out into the deep, duc in altum.
It is easy to categorize the different states in life, the life situation of the person, and identify the radical and the general vocations. Keeping in mind that even the general vocations, family and lay persons, responding to God’s call and entering into discernment goes beyond the normal morally good life of Christian discipleship. Marriage, for example, is a vocation in itself, but for it to be a dedicated vocation in the religious sense, it has to become oriented to and a participation in the mission of the Church. This applies to all forms and states in life. Leading a good and virtuous Christian life discipleship, but it can become much more in participating in Christ’s mission of the Church. A young single person, for example, in college or university pursuing a degree, has already discerned their career or field of study. Practicing in their Catholic faith with devotion, if they then feel drawn to “something more,” they may encounter an opportunity to parallel their professional career by putting their skills and education to use in the mission of evangelization or professional service to the Church.
In all Catholic vocation, whether radical or general and dramatic, it is a turning of the heart and hands to work in the vineyard of the Lord.
What the Church is called to be and do, is what those called to vocation are called to be and do. To answer God’s calling of the person, is to enter into Christ’s mission in the world, and the only lingering question is, “Can I do this, can I live this way?” Although the question is ever present, the answer comes in the midst of the question, and it comes from Him who called you.
He says, “Yes, we can do this. Come and you will see. Follow me!”