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Posts Tagged ‘Arnt of Kalyan and Zwolle’

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Vocation:  A Personal Transformation

In his book The Second Mountain David Brooks offers a helpful distinction between a career and a vocation.  They’re very different, he writes, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to find that each requires a very different kind of preparation.

When we’re searching for a career, he suggests, we draw up an inventory of our talents.  As best we can we identify those things that we’re good at.  Then we weigh those talents and decide which are likely to get us a decent-paying or satisfying job.  Once we’ve done all that, we dedicate a chunk of time and energy that will prepare us for that career.

A vocation is something entirely different.  It’s not something that we can prepare or study for, and in fact it can seem almost unplanned.  And it can be something as simple as this:  some activity or some injustice has called to the deepest level of our nature and demanded an active response.

D428367B-BFCB-4184-AB38-459D92FE9568When Brooks muses about vocation, one caveat matters.  Vocation is not confined to a monastic or religious vocation, as we reflexively might think in the Catholic tradition.  Brooks is Jewish, and he thinks of vocation in almost existential terms.  Common to all who search for their vocations is a fundamental set of questions.  What do we want to do with our lives?  To what will we dedicate our lives?  Will we be content to compile what is essentially a résumé of activities — a curriculum vitae?  Or do we want to create a legacy — a legacy of service and love that makes some small difference in the lives of others?

How we come upon a vocation is unique to each of us, and if we’ve been blessed with the discovery of a vocation we know it.  Brooks suggests that it’s the response to some person or event or ideal that has touched us and changed our lives completely.  After that experience we can never be the same because some sort of epiphany has altered the fabric of our being.

Brooks doesn’t use the word “epiphany,” but it’s a useful term, particularly on the day when we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany.  Epiphany to me suggests a second stage of Christmas.  If the Nativity proclaims Emanuel — God with Us, then Epiphany asks what difference this is going to make in our lives.  If we confess that Jesus Christ is the incarnate son of God, then what if anything do we intend to do about it?  Will the Nativity be the equivalent of a television show which we passively watch and then turn off?  Or will it reach to the core of our being?  That there is a choice to be made is obvious but also uncomfortable — both for Christians in general and even for monks.  At Epiphany the birth of the Lord cries for some visceral response from us.

It’s interesting to see how the characters in the Epiphany story responded to the birth of Jesus.  Forever after Mary pondered all these things in her heart.  She was never the same again.  As for Joseph, the events were equally jolting.  I’ve always believed that all Joseph really wanted was to get married, have some children and grandchildren, and live quietly under the radar.  That’s not what happened.  He went on to play a decisive role, and if at first an angel gave him all sorts of advice, Joseph eventually was on his own.  After all, the decision to settle into safety and security in Nazareth was his decision and his alone.

B6906C70-C563-4964-B6B4-9E6EC72864E2That was their Epiphany, and so today we ask what will be ours.  What is it that might change the course of our lives?  What is that unique experience or who is the person or what is the idea that will help us make sense of our lives?  Will we or can we be open to an epiphany?

Our moments of epiphany can be great or small, but they will certainly come if we keep our eyes and minds open.  As for me, a few days before Christmas I had just such an experience, for which I was totally unprepared.  I was at a gathering of friends of Saint John’s in Florida, and the host couple mentioned to me that the next day they’d be joining a group from Catholic Charities to deliver food baskets to migrant families.  I’d never done that before, and without thinking I invited myself to come along.

To say that the experience was an epiphany for me is an understatement.  That day I walked out of my comfort zone and discovered something profound.  First of all I had no idea that some people in America lived like that.  Whole families lived in two-and-a-half-room cottages.  Unrelated adults shared trailer homes that should have been recycled years ago.  That was the deeply disturbing part of this epiphany.  But there was something that was also puzzling.  Early on I met an elderly woman who was riding herd over seventeen kids.  The moms of these seventeen were at work in the fields, and the kids were running around like free range chickens.  What struck me was the sense of joy that pervaded the scene.  But it was a joy that seemed out of place.  After all, these people were desperately poor, and they should have been sad.  But they weren’t.  They celebrated the gift of life, and joy was etched into their faces.  And to me none of this quite computed.

639C1C6E-59D1-4DBC-B6EC-30202679A94EThere’s two things I took home with me that day.  First, that small epiphany reminded me that all people are the handiwork of God.  Be they poor or rich, migrants or exiles or homeless or comfortable homeowners — all are made in the image of God.  As such each needs to be loved and each deserves reverence and respect.  And this is the commitment that I make as a baptized follower of Jesus Christ.

The second item has to do with my own vocation.  There are days when my life as a monk seems like a job and a career choice that was right for me.  Then there are the days when it seems like a vocation, and those are the days with touches and even streaks of joy.  I and my confreres know the difference, and we know that the vocation days are far more exhilarating.  Those are the days when we feel the hand of God tugging at our sleeves.  Believe me, those are the better days by far.

On the feast of the Epiphany we make an act of faith.  We affirm that God loved the world and sent the incarnate son to be with us.  That son Jesus walks with us every day.  But Epiphany presents us with a challenge.  Will that pilgrimage with the Lord be a job or a good career choice?  Or will it be a pilgrimage that transforms us completely?  If it’s the latter, then our lives will never be the same again.

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NOTES

+New Year’s Eve was the highlight of the social scene in the monastery this past week.  We gathered in one of the recreation rooms in the monastery and played cards and board games, visited, and shared home-made pizza made by several of the monks.

+On Sunday January 5th I presided at the abbey Eucharist, and today’s post is the homily I delivered that day.  As noted in the text, I have been deeply indebted to David Brooks for ideas he has shared with his readers through the years.  Through those years I’ve become one of his most enthusiastic fans.

+It seems a little odd to use the Roman numerals MMXX for the new year.  But there you have it.  Happy new year to all my readers, and thanks for the many helpful comments I received during MMXIX.

+The wood-carving in today’s post was made by Master Arnt of Kalkar and Zwolle, in the Lower Rhine, c. 1480.  Today it is housed in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  The photo at bottom shows a clock attached to the wall of a modern municipal building in Worms, Germany.

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