When you hear the word “vocation” what comes to mind?
In my last year of college, vocation seemed like a puzzle to be solved. I put a lot of pressure on myself to figure out “what should I do with my life.” I met with a spiritual director and weighed several options, agonizing over how I would know which was the right choice. Although my spiritual director and many other people in my life tried to tell me that I didn’t have to figure out the entirety of my life just yet, I wasn’t listening. I had a very narrow view of vocation as something to be discerned once and only once. I thought, if you’ve done it right, you stick with your choice for your whole life. I imagined that God had my life mapped out for me and there was a very definite direction I should take; I just needed to figure out which it was.
Now, 11 years later, I realize just how much God’s grace has been at work in me in so many ways—especially in broadening my understanding of vocation. I’ve come to really appreciate that discerning one’s vocation is not like completing a task at which we can excel or fail. It’s not a question with a single right answer.
In fact, God’s plan for us is none other than to be holy, and to do so in ways specific to us, “to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 19). The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church speaks of this universal and personal call to holiness by saying that “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord – each in his or her own way – to that perfect holiness by which the Father himself is perfect” (Lumen Gentium, 11). Each and every one of us has this fundamental vocation, the one that underlies every other particular way in which God calls us to holiness. Holiness isn’t lived out in a single grand way possible for only a select few; “We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 14).
In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis issues a powerful summons: “You too need to see the entirety of your life as a mission” (GE, 23). With this broader view of vocation, I can more readily recognize the multitude of ways in which God has drawn me to himself throughout the course of my life. I can discern how I am being called to holiness in this moment and reflect on how my response in the here and now is part of my greater life’s mission.
Now I understand vocation as more than a single call. It is, rather, living our lives in a constant awareness of and responsiveness to the promptings of the Lord, who draws us to himself. Vocation is not inward looking; it draws us outward to God and neighbor. This redirected gaze allows us to recognize and receive with gratitude the gifts we are given so that we can more freely and truly make a gift of ourselves. Such self-emptying love is what it means to be Christ-like, to be holy. It forces us to reframe our questions. Instead of asking, “What do I want to be?” or “What do I want to do with my life?” (as I kept asking myself in college), we can prayerfully discern “How is God calling me to make a gift of myself?” This certainly applies to my state in life, whether I am called to give of myself in marriage or religious life. But I also respond to this call to self-gift by carrying out my work with integrity and skill in the service of my brothers and sisters, by patiently teaching my little ones how to follow Jesus, by refusing to gossip, and by saying a kind word to the person I encounter on the street (to list a few examples from Gaudete et Exsultate 14- 16).
My life’s journey has taken a lot more turns than I could have anticipated those many years ago. Yet the Lord has made use of each step, big and small, to draw me ever closer to himself.
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