Tuesday, 19 August 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Part III: Vocation

When I started reading the works of John Henry Newman, on the road to becoming Catholic, I accidentally stumbled across the University of Queensland's Newman Society, the Catholic society on campus at UQ. I walked into their first meeting, and when the ice-breaker introduction came, I said quite clearly: I am not Catholic, I do not want to be Catholic, but I do need to find out more to know if I should be Catholic. Most of the people were fairly quiet at this, they just tried to continue on to the next person, since I was an atypical person to be in that meeting and in that sense I could make people uncomfortable. There were two exceptions: the president at the time, now a close friend of mine, seemed to be quietly excited about the idea of someone looking into being Catholic, even if it was true that I did not want to. The other person was UQ's chaplain at the time, the priest who would eventually receive me into the Church, and importantly, Fr Morgan Batt was (and continues to be) the Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

Hence, the idea of vocation has been in my head since before I was Catholic, and it has not left since then. At the beginning, influenced as I was by the office that Fr Batt had, vocation for me was related to what one might call the sacraments of state, that is, Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony. A little later, and influenced now by the Second Vatican Council's clear teaching on the universal call (vocation) to holiness by virtue of baptism, I realised that baptism was a sacrament of state (of sorts). This remains the common usage of the term "vocation": priest, married, religious...? That is an important question to ask oneself, because it is indeed the subject matter of vocation. However, two other people have influenced me and made vocation into a central element of my theology.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book The Cost of Discipleship is one of the most important books I have read this year, particularly the initial chapters, leading up to his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. In it, he attacks cheap grace, replacing it with costly grace, the grace of the cross. Bonhoeffer presents costly grace as grace that demands something of us, namely ourselves, not to repay a debt, but because the debt cannot be repaid.

In reflecting upon this, I realised that the grace of God always implies a calling, a vocation. For instance, the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus is simultaneously the self-revelation of God acting in Christ, which is an action of grace, the imparting of that grace of conversion and the gift of faith, but at the very same time, and inextricably linked, it is the calling of Saul to be Paul the Apostle. For everyone, in fact, the hearing and believing of the Gospel is at once an act of grace on the part of God and the calling of God to the proclamation of the same Gospel.

Therefore, one's vocation, one's calling, is not just a gift of grace but a necessary element of any gift of grace. First and foremost, every Christian is called to holiness. Secondly, there may be a vocation to married life, to priestly life, to religious life, to consecrated single life... In terms of sacraments, the grace of Baptism is a call to holiness. Then follows the specific path to be taken, for which (if one is to be ordained or married) one receives that grace of office. It is not in vain that the sacrament of ordination is called Holy Orders, because the grace of the sacrament implies by its very nature the orders, the vocation, for the sake of which it is administered. In short, grace and vocation are inseparable.

Bonhoeffer, being a Protestant and not having the same sacramental theology of priesthood or matrimony, also challenges Catholics such as myself to think of vocation in broader terms, though this is not something he had introduced to Christianity. It is at the very least as old as the other influential figure that solidified the centrality of vocation in my thought, the spiritual master and one of the founders of the Society of Jesus, St Ignatius Loyola.

St Ignatius is most remembered for his Spiritual Exercises and as a master of discernment. Discernment is, in one sense, a Catholic version of decision making, but the theology that underpins it sets it aside from its secular analogue. Discernment is not so much about weighing up pros and cons of choices, rather, it is about figuring out (discerning) the will of God. The will of God and his calling are one and the same.

Yet discernment of the calling of God for St Ignatius does not stop when one figures out the state of life one is called to, it is a constant process. I must discern the will of God for me at all moments during my day, during my week, during my life. Discernment is not a matter for big decisions, it is a matter for all decisions. Yet if discernment is for all decisions, then that means that there is a calling of God in all decisions, which means that vocation is a term that encompasses the totality of our lives.

This has influenced me to make the bold claim that Christian ethics can be divided into two categories: general and particular. The general is aptly summarised in the words of Jesus when asked what the greatest commandment was:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

The strength of this formulation is evidently its generality, but it hence is overly ambiguous in terms of choosing how to live out the commandment. Scripture abundantly testifies that not all are called to do all good works, that God wills that some dedicate themselves to one form of ministry, others to another. There is hence another way of formulating Christian ethics, in a way that makes note of the particularity and the uniqueness of the vocation given to each person. One could write it in an expanded form as:

The right thing to do is to employ one's charisms in lovingly living out own's vocation for the common good and the glory of God.

It is rough, somewhat academic, and most likely imprecise. It is not quite my intention to give an absolute statement that I would petition the Pope to define as dogma. Rather, I use this as a sketch-statement to show how vocation forms the basis for Christian ethics, and can be more specifically tailored to each person than a general statement about love.

All this implies that what seems good can be bad. St Ignatius talks about feelings of desolation arising because one has followed inclinations that seemed holy, but actually come from the false angel of light. What seems like a good action can be the wrong action if God calls us to do otherwise - indeed, what would be a good action in another circumstance could be the wrong action in this circumstance, because we are not called to do that action then. I wrote a little about how the converse can be true, what seems like a bad idea turns out to be the right action, when I discussed my own vocation here.

Applying the language of vocation to our decision making is important in making decisions about what we will do with our time. This is specially the case because of how many opportunities there are to do good: should we give our time and energy to homeless people, the elderly, the socially marginalised, the mentally ill? Sometimes these categories overlap, but not always, and we need to make decisions about who we are going to minister to. Should I commit to this ministry, or that other one? I know God calls me to do what is required of me in service of him, so how do I divide my time between my work duties, my study duties, and my ministry duties? How much time should I rest? How much time should I dedicate to fellowship with Catholic friends compared to non-Catholic friends?

All these questions are ultimately questions we must discern the answer to, because God has a calling for us that will answer these questions. As you can see, the language of ethics, of should and ought is the language of vocation and calling.

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