September 2019

Following the ‘clues’ to our vocation

For many, finding one’s vocation can be a slow-burning realisation, even a trial and error exercise, writes Sister Patty Fawkner.

By Patty Fawkner SGS

A vocation? You don’t hear much talk about having a vocation these days. But when I was a teenager it was a ‘hot’ topic at school and church. We knew there were three vocations – you could become a nun or a priest (that was the best!), you could get married, or you could remain single. We also attended ‘vocational guidance’ sessions to try and ascertain a suitable career path. This muddied the vocational waters somewhat, because a vocation is not a career.

It occurs to me that each of us has a vocation beyond three discrete categories. There is more to a vocation than my choice of a job, a hobby, or career. The Latin word, vocatio, is instructive; a vocation is a calling. Someone – God, life, the universe – mystically issues a divine invitation to me to do something that no one else can do with the one precious life that I have.

Call it what you will – vocation, mission, life-calling, purpose – it seems that very few of us have a definitive lightning bolt moment like St Paul received on the road to Damascus. For many, finding one’s vocation can be a slow-burning realisation, even a trial and error exercise.

When I shyly informed friends and colleagues as a 19 year old that I was planning to join the convent the inevitable question was, “Why do you want to become a nun?”  I scratched around for a cogent reply.  How could I put words around the ‘something’ that stirred deep within me? The closest I got was, “because I believe it’s what God wants me to do”. An honest reply, to be sure. But it wasn’t the full story. 

At times I found myself wishing that God would call me otherwise, to married life and parenthood. It was only a number of years after joining the Sisters of the Good Samaritan that I realised that religious life is what I wanted to do. I couldn’t ‘blame’ God. God was completely in tune with the deepest desires of my heart, or better, the deepest desire of my heart was of God and for God.

My father had a similar experience. One visiting day during my novitiate, well after my first fervour had subsided, I confided to Dad that I wasn’t sure if my vocation was as a vowed religious. A week later, I received one of the two letters Dad ever wrote to me. His words stunned and moved me deeply:

“I’ll let you into a little secret,” he wrote. “I don’t think anybody had more misgivings about getting married than I did… it wasn’t that I didn’t love your mother, although I think that you have to go through the trials of having children and scraping to build a home to really get to appreciate your mate. It was that I knew it was for life… As it turned out it was the best day’s work I ever did.”

My father found his vocation and the most precious gift of my life was my parents’ love for and fidelity to each other.

We find our vocation by responding to the ‘clues’ that present themselves. “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need,” writes American theologian and novelist, Frederick Buechner. 

Our vocation uses our interests, talents and gifts in the service of others. If I feel called to be a primary school teacher but then feel dread every Monday morning and am anything but my best self in the classroom, I may be contributing to the world’s deep need for education, but obviously I haven’t found my bliss. Or if I delight in dreaming up scams to fleece people of their money, clearly I am not making the world a better place and such a calling is not, obviously, of God.

“Something is your vocation if it keeps making more of you,” says the protagonist in Gail Godwin’s novel, Evensong. Saying ‘yes’ to our vocation will make us more and will contribute more to God’s ongoing creation.                                                                                  

An initial positive response to the movement of the Spirit isn’t the end of the story. At times we have to rekindle the fervour of that first call, or perhaps we realise we’ve made a monumental wrong decision, or we feel called to make a better decision. Finding the ‘more’ often involves a change of direction, a metanoia or conversion, or a call within a call.

This was Teresa of Calcutta’s story. After 17 years as a Loreto Sister, she found that her true vocation was to the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta. 

First a revolutionary, then a prisoner for 27 years, Nelson Mandela found he had a third journey to undertake as a political leader whose mission was not only to dismantle the legacy of apartheid but also to foster racial reconciliation.

And then we have Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Pope Francis’ papacy can’t be caricatured as a climb up the hierarchical ecclesial ladder.  He received a new call, a new vocation at 76 years of age. I believe one aspect of his papal vocation is to show us what true leadership can look like.

When we see the impact of other nominally Christian leaders – for example, the rise of white supremacists under the United States’ President Trump, the plethora of extra-judicial killings on the watch of President Duterte in the Philippines, and the destruction of the Amazon as Brazil’s President Bolsonaro stands idly by – we recognise the world’s desperate and urgent need for Gospel-based servant leadership. 

We are grateful for Pope Francis whose modus operandi is humble transparency, simplicity and dialogue. Francis’ papacy aims to address the deepest needs and yearnings of people, especially those made poor by unbridled capitalism, and the most urgent needs of our world in, for example, his positive action on climate change. His radiant smile reveals a man who has found his deepest joy, even in the face of ever-increasing virulent opposition.

Let me ask: what calling, what life-choices, jobs, what relationships have made you more? Is it being a volunteer at the local hospital or animal shelter or community garden? Is it being a caring step-father, a bringer of beauty to the world through art or music? Is it by being a nourisher of hearts and minds and bodies as an author, a counsellor or cook? 

Perhaps there is a new vocation for you looming. “What if the world is holding its breath,” asks poet David Whyte, “waiting for you to take the place that only you can fill?”

What if?

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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