Be Who You Is

After Words

How do I discover my vocation in life?

When I was 9 years old and in CCD class, our teacher gave us a few pictograms, some from the old Baltimore Catechism, to help us understand our faith. To explain sin, three bottles of milk were shown. One was spotty: that was the soul filled with venial sins. One was black: the soul under mortal sin. The last one was pure white: the soul in the state of grace. To explain the concept of “vocation,” there was a drawing of a married couple, above a legend that read, “Good.” Under the drawing of the priest and the sister, the legend read: “Better.”

The concept of vocation has undergone something of a theological face-lift since the Second Vatican Council. And not a moment too soon. The belief that one vocation is better than another has given way to the understanding that everyone, no matter who they are—single, married, vowed, ordained—participates in the “universal call to holiness” in their own way.

This is eminently sensible. Part of God’s plan, after all, is diversity, with everyone building up the community in ways that others cannot do. Where would we be if everyone were a priest or a sister? (For one thing, we’d be somewhat challenged in the procreation department.) Or if everyone were married and there were no religious orders? To use the Pauline image of the Body of Christ, where would we be if the eye said that it had no use for the hand?

But that begs the obvious question: OK, so I have a unique vocation. What is it?

That’s where Ignatian spirituality comes in handy. For St. Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Society of Jesus, desires were an important way to discover one’s vocation. Your desires—not your surface needs, but your heartfelt desires—were one indication of the way that God was drawing you to happiness.

On the most basic level, a man and woman come together in desire to discover their vocations as a married couple. Doctors or lawyers or artists find that they desire a particular kind of life and so find their vocations. Desire works the same in the lives of the saints, drawing each of them to different brands of holiness and service in the church. St. Thérèse of Lisieux was very different, and did very different things, than St. Teresa of Ávila.

In this way, God’s desires for the world are fulfilled, since ultimately our deepest desires are those that God has planted within us. So the notion of vocation (from the Latin word vocare, meaning “to call”) is less about finding one and more about having it revealed to us, as we continually pray to understand what Jesuits call our “governing” desires.

The primary difficulty in all this is the false belief that to become useful, or happy, or holy, we have to become someone else. The young mother says sadly, “I’ll never be Mother Teresa,” when in fact her vocation is to be a mother. Or the lawyer, who reads about the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, says, “I’ll never be like him.” But you’re not meant to be Mother Teresa or Thomas Merton, estimable as they were. You’re meant to be yourself. As Merton himself wrote, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.”

Part of that means letting go of the wish to lead someone else’s life, and remembering that our own vocations—not somebody else’s—are what will finally lead us to happiness. You don’t need to use anyone else’s map to heaven, because God has already placed within your soul all the directions you’ll ever need. When people visited Mother Teresa in Calcutta, hoping to work with her, she used to tell many, “Find your own Calcutta.” Discover your own vocation. And remember that every vocation is equally valuable and beautiful in God’s eyes.

The best way to sum this up is to use a favorite expression of John Kerdiejus, a holy Jesuit who worked for many years at the retreat house in Gloucester, Mass., by the Atlantic Ocean. Today, John is confined to his bed in the Jesuit infirmary outside of Boston. He was as happy a man as I’ve ever known in his vocation, and he used to say, puckishly, “You have to be who you is, and not who you ain’t. Because if you ain’t who you is, then you is who you ain’t. And that ain’t good!”

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