Vocations: it was a key word during my Roman Catholic childhood. We were exhorted to “pray for vocations,” that is, to pray that young men would heed God’s call to become priests, reflecting the significant roles that priests played in the Roman Catholic world.
However, that was a narrow understanding of the word “vocation,” one that left out most people — including, of course, women — except for their prayers. The term “vocation” can be defined as a person’s employment or major occupation, especially one requiring particularly worthy and dedicated service. Thinking again of my youth, the dedicated teachers who instilled in me a love of learning certainly had a vocation. Today doctors and nurses spring to mind as people having vocations, as well as frontline workers who have also worked selflessly to keep us safe during the pandemic, such as grocery store cashiers, hospital cleaners and many others. We all can have a meaningful vocation.
The word “vocation” is rooted in the Latin for “voice.” All of us have an inner voice calling us to live in a way that’s authentic to our values and beliefs. That inner voice asks: What am I meant to do? Who am I meant to be? In his insightful and aptly titled book Let Your Life Speak, Quaker writer and teacher Parker Palmer plumbs the rich elements of the vocational quest. He notes, “Vocation comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about…. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my identity. Is the life I am living the same as the life that wants to live in me?”
This quest for vocation starts with each of us but doesn’t end there. Frederick Buechner, another faith-based writer, connects our personal vocation with the needs of a hurting world when he defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
As I reflect today upon the meaning of vocation, it’s a season sometimes called “the bleak midwinter.” Many people feel even more bleak right now because of the pandemic, and because of the isolation and limitations that have been forced upon us. These are very real hardships. Yet while our outer lives have been curtailed, our inner lives have a rare opportunity to flourish, if we heed our inner voices. When, as a friend said, we’ve become “involuntary monks” because of COVID-19, what better time to think about the deep issues of life and faith, such as the vocations that we are being called to live out?
We can also use this time to explore the broader meaning of vocation. What’s our vocational identity as an Anglican faith community? What does the Good News mean in an uncertain, fearful world? Just as the post-pandemic world will be different from the one before, so too the Church is sure to be different as well. We’ve had to adapt to new styles of worship, of working together and of communication during the pandemic, and those new patterns are certain to affect our communal life in a post-COVID-19 world. Maybe we can not only reimagine church and worship, but also envision a whole new understanding of what it means to be fully alive as Anglican Christians.
Change can be difficult, especially when it’s thrust upon us. Listening to the voice of the Spirit can guide us, reminding us that God is always with us. And that when one door closes, another opens. The Gospel’s message of new life speaks to us now with a special power: “I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19)
Nor is it always easy to hear the still voice of God calling us to our vocation. It can start with making space to hear that voice, turning off the distractions of today’s technology-dominated world. My former Toronto parish held an annual retreat we called a parish quiet day on Toronto Island, with an agenda dominated by … nothing. That is, simply time to be with God. As our parishes look toward a day when we can gather again, perhaps building in time for quiet reflection and pondering where God is calling us can be a priority. Meanwhile we can pray and mediate on God’s vocation for us.