Vocation – Pleasingly Disappointing
By Br Joseph Bailham, O.P. | Have you ever set out on something but found it not to be what you expected? Br Joseph Bailham shares how this has in some ways been the case for his vocation, but it has been no bad thing.
This may seem like a peculiar title. But it describes my experience of exploring and committing to a vocation, and I think it is worth sharing, both with those exploring a vocation, and those already engaged on a particular vocational path. This post has been inspired by conversations I have had, which I have taken as a prompt to share my own thoughts, which may or may not be of use to readers.
Sometimes vocation is presented, in a Holywood-esque way, as destiny – the place where all hopes and dreams come true. Relationships suffer from this more as they are more frequently depicted in film, but it can carry over into how one may perceive any vocation. This is more of a danger when one explores vocation from the vantage point of feeling lost and empty: vocation then becomes the missing piece in one’s life which will make one feel complete.
Committing to a vocation might be seen as a solution to shaking-off vices or bad habits which one has accumulated over the years. Deep down we know that these are not left behind easily, but I think that if I commit, God will make it easier to let go of the burdens that have weighed me down over the years. These things have no place in the vocation I am committing to, and so God will of course make it easier to get rid of them.
It may happen that our vocation makes us feel complete, or that we seem to be given the grace necessary to set aside vices and bad habits. Often it is not the case. Even when one sets aside one thing, one discovers oneself collecting a whole host of new vices or dispositions! One may get into situations that one never even imagined possible. St Paul’s words may resonate strongly: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15).
Vocation for me has been pleasingly disappointing! Not because there has been nothing good: quite the contrary! I have been very blessed these years. It has been a disappointment in the sense that it has not lived up to what I expected in a variety of ways. Following a religious vocation has not helped me in ways I had expected: I struggle often as I did before, and sometimes in new ways too. It has often been a mourning process. I have had to watch my expectations die away, about myself, and about the religious vocation.
This however is no bad thing; in fact, it is a pleasing reality, despite it being painful. It has been a gradual learning to let go of what I want and what I expect of myself and the religious vocation, gradually learning to grasp what God wants and how God wants to use my vocation for my good, the good of the Church, and the world. It is a growing in truth. The full picture may not be entirely clear right now, but one receives positive little insights here and there thanks to God’s good grace. I have learnt slowly how God calls, not the person I will be or want to be, but me now, with all my failings and foibles. It has been a learning to recognise fertile soil rather than dead ends. The Lord’s words in Isaiah resound ever louder the more I reflect on my short time as a religious:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (55:8-9).
When the ‘going gets tough’ it is easy to ask whether one is strong enough for all this. The more important question I have learnt is actually, ‘Are you weak enough?’ Are you weak enough to let go of your plans and expectations, of your narrow view or standards that you set yourself and others? Are you weak enough to allow God to work in and through you, so that, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). This ‘weakness’ admits one cannot perfect oneself alone, only in cooperation with God’s grace, which brings light to any darkness in one’s life. Avoid St Peter’s example, who, before the Passover, was unwilling to part from his ideas and expectations of the Lord when he dictated: “You shall never wash my feet.” Our Lord’s response: “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” God must reach down to our core, where we may well need the most washing. There are no limits to the transformative action of the Lord, who alone can purify, heal, and perfect.
Vocation is never a solitary affair: another is always involved in affirming a vocation. Reaching now the end of my initial formation, I believe the most fundamental question one should ask, more important than whether you think you are good, holy, devout, zealous, strong, or virtuous enough, is: “Do you want to love and serve Jesus this way?” Not can you love Jesus this way—not an unimportant question but it is one which I think those around us may well be better positioned to answer and guide us on—but do you want to love and serve this way? Even if everyone around you says they believe you can, if you do not want to, then growth seems unlikely.
Vocation: a pleasing disappointment! If you are exploring a vocation, do not be disheartened if it is not what you expect. There is nothing magical about it. It is not an end in itself. A lot of it may prove disappointing or boring, possibly (probably?) even painful. Whichever vocation we follow, the shape of it will undoubtedly be cruciform. In the particularities it will differ for each person. We imitate Christ in the pouring out of our lives in service to God. All that our vocation entails, will be our cross, the path to our crucifixion, but also to our resurrection. Now that is certainly no disappointing thing!