The great American educator Parker J. Palmer writes, "Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about, quite apart from what I would like it to be about […] Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am." I like the way Dr. Palmer relates the question of vocation to the question of identity. The answer to the question “What shall I do?” must be grounded in the answer to a more important question “Who am I?"
I’ve recently been rereading a fascinating novel, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In it, we see the protagonist, Stephen Daedelus, growing from childhood into adolescence into young adulthood. His journey is similar to that of all young men and women who grapple seriously with the question of their identity in life and their role in the world. Stephen has a hard time of it, zigzagging between moral depravity and religious excess. He finally settles on the ideal of the artist, of the writer who, standing aloof from the world, comments on it with his skill in shaping language. However, if we follow Stephen’s adventures in Joyce’s next novel, Ulysses, we will see that he actually falls far short of his ideal. And Joyce implies that this is because of Stephen’s inability to truly enter into relationship with others. In a famous scene, Stephen is asked, “Don’t you love your mother?”, to which he replies, “I don’t know what your words mean.” Joyce seems to imply that Stephen’s inability to love impedes him from finding his true identity. Indeed, Joyce hints that our true identity is to be found in the relationships that make up the warp and woof of our lives.
When Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan by his cousin John, Saint Luke tells us the Spirit came upon him in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven was heard proclaiming, “You are my Son whom I love; with you, I am well pleased.” This was a revelatory moment for Jesus and for those who accompanied him. His deep identity was revealed in these words. Who is Jesus? He is the beloved Son of God. His identity lies is grounded in his relationship to the Father in the Spirit.
Why did Jesus then go directly into the desert for a forty day fast? Perhaps it was to meditate on this revelatory experience and to understand all its implications. Luke tells us that Satan tested Jesus’ faith in this revelation. Two of the three temptations start with the words, “If you are the Son of God…”, as if the devil were trying to foster doubt in Jesus’ mind and heart. But Jesus did not falter, did not hesitate, and rose to the occasion. He remained faithful to his relationship with the Father and his deep identify as the beloved Son.
In the next scene of Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus back in Nazareth, where he had grown up. He is invited to read and explain the Scriptures in his synagogue, and he does say by proclaiming the same text from Isaiah that we have just heard proclaimed in this arena. It seems that Jesus is using this text to explain the meaning of his experience in the Jordan to his friends and family. Perhaps he had meditated on this text during his days in the desert. It starts, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.” Clearly, this refers to his baptism when the Spirit came down upon him and the Lord’s voice proclaimed his identity as God’s own Son. But Jesus continues with Isaiah’s text, “The Lord has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, and to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God.”
Did you notice the shift here? Jesus reflects with his friends and families on his own baptism not by emphasizing his identity but by drawing attention to his mission. He is sent by God to do something in the world, to change something in the hearts of the men and women of Israel. Let us not imagine that this mission is disconnected from his identity. On the contrary, it rises out of his identity, it is rooted in his identity, and it can only be accomplished by keeping his identity at the heart of everything he will say and do.
I think this is why our Church both baptizes and confirms those who want to be followers of Jesus. In baptism, our deepest identity is given to us. We become sons and daughters of God the Father, we become brothers and sisters of Jesus, and the Spirit dwells within us to help us live up to our identity day after day. I’m not sure we are conscious of the marvelousness of our baptism. In the second reading today, Paul describes God as “the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom no human being has seen or can see.” And yet, in baptism, this overwhelming, distant God bends down to us, embraces us and calls us his children. Our whole lives resemble Jesus’ sojourn in the desert, as we are constantly challenged to believe in our identity and to grow in it. The world keeps on mocking us, “Are you truly a son of God, a daughter of God?” We are continually tempted to hide our identity and to take up the masks that the world would have us adopt. Here is the first, ongoing challenge in developing a true culture of vocation: to remain faithful to the identity that was given to us in our baptism, and to help our brothers and sisters grow in that faithfulness.
But we have not only been baptized, we have been confirmed. With Jesus, we have been anointed – not by the voice of God speaking from heaven, but by the oil of chrism – and we have been filled anew by the Spirit in order to be sent into the world just as Jesus was. Christ’s mission becomes our own mission as the sacrament of confirmation indelibly inscribes it within our hearts and our souls. If baptism gathers us as disciples of Christ, confirmation scatters us into the world as his missionaries. This is the second challenge in developing a true culture of vocation: to continually identify and respond to the concrete mission God is entrusting to us every day.
There are so many needs in the world, so much pain and suffering, such loneliness and alienation, so many false roads that ultimately lead to sorrow and death, both spiritual and physical. Our identity as children of God compels us to respond to these needs by following Jesus in living out his mission. But do we? In the Gospel story of Lazarus and the rich man, we hear the tragic tale of one who had an abundance of gifts to share but was blind to the needs of those who sat on his very doorstep. I can’t help but think of the rich countries of our world that hesitate to open their doors to the victims of terrorism and war even today. However, this man also represents each one of us, for we have all been blessed with a variety of gifts and we all suffer from one type of blindness or another. Jesus’ parable presents us with a household where there is no culture of vocation. And the warning is clear: those who do not take up the challenge of Christ’s mission cannot lay claim to Christ’s identity as children of God. You cannot deny your confirmation and claim the grace of baptism at the same time. Or, as Jesus said in another context: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
The question then becomes, “Well, what is MY specific vocation, how is God calling ME to follow Christ in his mission to the world?” The Presbyterian author and theologian Frederick Buechner writes, “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” I understand this to mean that God is calling me to respond to the needs I most clearly recognize with the gifts within me that most call out to be developed. I can only figure this out with God’s help.
As a young man, I struggled mightily with this question as I sought to determine the direction my life should take. I remember speaking with a high school teacher who would one day become my spiritual director. I asked her, “How can I know that my choice corresponds to God’s will? I might delude myself. How can I be sure?” She answered, “God has given us a spiritual barometer called inner peace. Things might be flowing along smoothly in your life, you might be enjoying yourself and feeling that you are in the right place, but if you stop, ponder and listen to your heart and find that there is not deep peace within you, you are not doing God’s will. However, you might find life battering at you like a vicious storm, full of stresses and uncertainties. If in this situation, you enter within yourself and still find deep peace, then you will know you are doing God’s will.”
I recalled her wisdom a few years later when my career as an opera singer was starting to take shape. I was nearing the end of my Bachelor of Music and already was singing professionally, winning awards and signing contracts. I was popular and enjoying my life. I was even finding time to participate in parish life and occasionally pray. However, when I did stop to pray for a meaningful moment, I sensed something nibbling in the depths of my heart. Eventually, I recognized it for what it was: the realization that I did not possess that deep peace Sister Laurette had told me about. That’s when I decided to drop my music studies and entered seminary. I realized that, though I was passionate about music, it was not my greatest passion, and that the world’s greatest need was not another a baritone. This could not be my vocation.
It was far from clear to me that God was calling me to the priesthood, but I believed that seminary would be, for me, the place that would allow me to seek my true identity and the mission God was preparing me for. It was not quite as much fun as singing with an orchestra, and no one was paying me to preach, but it was the context in which my baptism and my confirmation were finally able to flourish.
It turns out that priesthood was indeed my vocation. However, it might not have been. That would not have been a failure. The failure would have been to have turned away from my identity and my mission, to have given in to the doubts and snares that Jesus had overcome in the desert. My prayer for all of you is that you will overcome all doubts and snares through Jesus and, with him, find your true identity and mission in this life.
May all of us, as a Church, help each other live our baptism and confirmation, and so build a true culture of vocation, for the glory of God and the salvation of the world.