At my brother’s graduation at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina back in May, Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama gave an interesting homily in the Commencement Mass regarding vocation. Vocation in modern times has been associated with the call to religious life. But, as Bishop Zarama pointed out, it is not restricted to just the priesthood. It is in fact a more broad term, and simply means a calling. It refers to any of the million and one choices of professions out there. In modern times, it has been called a career choice, a somewhat sterile word nowadays. As a child, we simply called it “What I want to be when I grow up.”
So what is a vocation? One aspect of it is that its a job. It is something we do to earn money, so we can buy food and supplies, and support ourselves and family in this world. What’s more, it is a social activity. Because civilization requires an economy, our work is in fact a social service. We constantly give and take, each profession providing needs for a customer or another profession. Our economy functions very similarly to a natural ecosystem: Each plant and animal has a role to play, each giving and taking in an endless cycle of life. The very nature of work supports not only ourselves, but our neighbors as well. Where would we be without farmers who grow our food, or carpenters who make our furniture and homes? What would happen if we didn’t have doctors to treat us when we are sick, or business owners when we need things? Let us not overlook the garbage collectors and janitors either, else we would live with filth under our feet. Civilization, culture; mere human existence, would be impossible without jobs.
But that is just the practical part of it. A vocation, in addition to being a job, is something we enjoy. One may experience a calm when making sense with numbers, as a banker does. Another may enjoy the mystery of discerning an illness in another person. Some men are driven by the judging eyes of a jury. Some take joy in working on a car, and get a rush when they start up the engine and find it working once again. A shoemaker takes pride in seeing a customer walk about in a set of loafers he made. The baker relishes in the scent of freshly made bread, and a carpenter lives for the smell of pine dust. Fishing guides get a thrill when their client hooks a large trout. The farmer, a true farmer, works with the land, and enjoys watching things grow. I can go on and on, but then we would be here for hours. You see, to live your vocation is to have a joy, a joy that is yours and no one else can understand. Why else would there be waiters and teachers when they pay so little? The point is that, for each of us, there is something, a place that God has prepared for us, and it is for us alone, no matter how big or small.
We need lumberjacks, police men, chefs, carpenters, coaches, cameramen, bankers, teachers, soldiers, technicians, farmers, crane operators, pilots, artists, and many, many more. But obviously not anyone can be a doctor, just as not everyone can be a farmer. We each must have a vocation to that job; that place in society. It defines us as a person, as a soul with a purpose. Anyone can learn the piano, but only a musician, with a vocation to the art, can make it come alive with music. Any fool can prescribe pain killers, but only a great doctor will attack the source of the pain. What the bishop was trying to say to the graduates that day was that God has a plan for each of us, and not one job is less important than the last, and that any can be, and are just as spiritually important as being in the religious life.
Today employers, fearful of bad employees, require more and more expensive education, forgoing even meeting the man until they meet such obscenely difficult requirements. Parents, even politicians now, make the push for children to enter into careers that guarantee money and employment rather than personal enjoyment. Trade schools are looked down on, and crafts such as carpentry and metal working are now low on the social totem pole. Our hospitals are now overrun with doctors that shouldn’t be doctors; overcharging patients with unnecessary treatments that can be harmful. Our judicial systems are filled with lawyers who manipulate the law to defend criminals; anything for a wealthy client. Businessmen now work for giant corporations making cheap, poorly made products through practically slave labor, because it is too risky to start a business of their own. Even our churches, while many complain about not having enough priests, are filled with men who are not fit, mentally or spiritually, to be priests.
The problem, I believe, is that we have given in to fear, and its associate anxiety. We worry about making money, and keeping up with the Jones’s. We want the careers that will make us rich, rather than what will make us happy. Being a doctor or a lawyer now entails lots of money, where at one time they were seen as social services, meant only for the few who were willing to sacrifice much in order to heal the sick or defend the accused. Children enter careers based on status, and the security of finding a job. And yes, there is a fear out there of being unemployed. Sometimes we must take any job we can get just to get through a rough patch in life. But sometimes, often times, those miserable subsidence jobs are stepping stones to something greater. That is why we must have faith in God. Have we forgotten how Jesus taught us that God will take care of us, just as he takes care of the lower animals? We forget that we are not in control, and live as though we do. It requires ultimate surrender to God’s will. We often believe that we are in control, that we can control the outcome of our own lives, the “masters of our own destiny” as the popular slogan goes. This is worthless, over-advertised “feel good” propaganda. It is when we realize that we are not the masters, but rather the servants, that we succeed. Only when we surrender can we gain the freedom to live our vocation. We must be ready for whatever path God has sent us on, and believe that He intends for us to be happy on its course.
I had to remember this a few years back, when I went through a serious depression, and an anxious period about whether or not I could get a job just to pay off my student loans. I was having trouble finding a job in the conservation field (I’m a wildlife biologist), and even the entry level jobs required experience, something I did not have (and, paradoxically, needed a job to get). I worried, and my fears for the future only grew, but I continued to put my faith in God. It seemed like forever, but one day, out of the blue, the principal of my old high school called me about a job; to restore and maintain the habitat of a small wooded lot on campus for the benefit of the wildlife and the education of the students. It was a unique position, requiring a few odd skills I happened to have but didn’t think I would need in my profession. I had not hoped for this job, as I would have settled for less. But I had hope in God, and God provided, and I couldn’t be happier. I have a joy now that I know to be my own.
That is my vocation. What’s yours?