It’s 4.15 on a Sunday morning and I wake early with thoughts about Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in my head. One friend is fond of saying to me: you need to get out more!
The snow is gently falling again in Providence, coating the sand and salt encrusted mountainous brown and soiled snow banks, that have reduced the roads on Providence’s East Side into narrow goat tracks, with a fresh coat of feathery white, sound absorbing, snow. It’s amazingly beautiful!
I spent most of Saturday in a meeting of the Bishop’s Commission on Ministry (COMM). This was only my second meeting on coming to Rhode Island, but I bring four years of experience from my time on the very dynamic COMM in the Diocese of Arizona. I hate Saturday meetings because Saturday is the only day I have for the kind of reflective writing I do each week in this blog. Hence, finding myself at 4.15am, sitting at my laptop trying to get some thoughts down before the busy round of Sunday morning services and adult formation commence.
Vocation is on my mind. It’s what Paul is talking about in the Epistle from 1 Cor 9:16 appointed for Epiphany 5. Vocation is the issue I and my COMM colleagues spent most of Saturday grappling with as we interviewed three aspirants for postulancy. Postulancy is the name we give to the first stage of the public recognition of being called to ordained life as a priest or deacon in the Episcopal Church.
What is a vocation, often referred to as a call? How is a call being manifested in a particular person’s life? What seems to be the purpose for the individual of this new awareness of being called? In our catholic understanding of ministry within the Episcopal Church, the call begins as an individual experience but requires recognition and affirmation by the mind of the Church. In this process, the question is how does this stirring within the life of an individual connect or not with the wider needs of the Church? There are huge tensions within these wider questions that I and my COMM colleagues hold as we seek to encourage those who come before us to invite us into seeing what they see of God moving in their lives. For me this is the question. Is the aspirant able to let me – a representative of the wider mind of the community – into seeing what they claim to be seeing?
Paul speaks of his sense of being called in these terms:
If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel. 1Cor 9:16-18
I get the sense that Paul feels that the liberation he has experienced through Christ lays a claim on him, which he has no choice about. For most of us this is a rather alarming image that makes us fearful about going anywhere near the exploration of having a call. Being called is a burden, a kind of compulsion that robs us of our own free agency for choice and self-determination. We hear Paul’s words from a place of fear within us. Our lives are full of experiences of obligation and duty. Yet, in Paul’s feeling that he has no other choice we can also see the possibility of freedom – of the liberation from our all-consuming, anxiety-provoking preoccupations with self.
There is much in our self-preoccupied, individualistic lives that makes us fearful of being called, of having a vocation because we hear being called as another layer of burden – in Paul’s words – a claim upon us. In our over stimulated and impossibly pressured lives, we shrink from involvement, fearing the claims that others or the community might make upon us. Yet, our fearfulness only further abandons us to a sense of dislocation, and isolation – of alienation, no matter how social and full of other people our lives might appear to be. For most of us are profoundly lonely within the pressure cooker of modern social life.
When I was a seminarian I remember a particular supermarket checkout person in the little market friends and I used to frequent. In response to her indefatigable joyful service we used to joke: she’s not got a job, but a vocation! Making allowance for the smug self-importance of the seminarian mindset, that phrase comes back to me over and over again whenever I meet someone who impresses me with their quality of being, often in what otherwise appears to me to be rather mind-numbing situations.
Being called, responding to a sense of vocation is the experience of liberation not
obligation. Our joy comes not from having our needs met, but from serving another’s needs. In our modern alienation, an alienation as much from self as others let alone, what is for most of us the utterly remote concept of God, we have become consigned to relationships, occupations, social connections that are functional, yet, not fulfilling. In our work lives we lack that strong feeling of suitability, being cut-out for a purpose that transcends mere functionality. We long for a deeper, wider, higher – any number of special metaphors will do – sense of purpose for living.
In short, do we not all long for that sense of vocation – now sadly lost to many of us, that infuses the ordinary aspects of daily life lived within a finite set of limitations and boundaries? Liberation is not escape from ordinariness, which is a realization so contrary to the relentless messages of advertising that insulate us in a fog of unattainable illusions. Liberation comes only when we are able to connect with a sense of being called, so that our endeavors come to offer us that particularly strong sense of suitability that makes all that we do, and all that we are, meaningful and fulfilling.
In his sense of being called Paul speaks of being all things to all people? This is not the rather grandiose impossible boast it appears. In his sense of being compelled to serve he encounters freedom to reach out and across the spaces that divide him from others; that fracture that fragments of community into factions. Paul is talking about here,
what we moderns recognize as empathy. Maybe empathy is the first and essential step on the path to accepting one’s calling.