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“Please step forward when I call your name.”
We’ve all heard that statement countless times, whether at school, at a medical clinic, or at a government office. When we hear it, we know we have been acknowledged and that we are about to receive or give something.
What about when God says, “Please step forward when I call your name”? Upon hearing God’s call, some leap to attention, like Abraham; others flee as fast and far as possible, like Jonah. What has our response been? What could it be? What should it be?
Before we address the question, “What do you do when calls your name?,” let’s look at another question first. Consider this: “What do you hear when God calls your name?” I raise this issue because of a distinction I learned when I was a new priest. A very senior Jesuit spoke to me of learning what he called one’s “first and last name of grace.”
He explained himself to me this way: “You and I share the same spiritual surname. That is because we are both Jesuit priests; we have in common the same last name of grace. We both receive God’s grace as Jesuit priests. But our first names are different. I am George and you are Bob. God works in and through me differently from how he works in and through you. We serve and love God more fully when we answer to our first and last names of grace.”
I have been reflecting on those words for almost 20 years. Based on my own experience and what I’ve observed of the lives of others, it is very easy to let one’s spiritual surname overshadow and overwhelm one’s spiritual first name, to the detriment of both. I’ve known new priests (and some not-so-new priests) to pray so fully in their priestly calling that (contrary to God’s design, I believe) they had stopped or forgotten to pray as a uniquely loved son. Over time, that failure to pray in response to God’s constant calling of their first name of grace diminished their prayer and effectiveness in answer to their calling as priests.
This eclipsing of the spiritual first name by the spiritual surname is not, I believe, unique to priests. I have known medical doctors, for example, who are undeniably capable and well-intentioned, who have worked themselves into exhaustion, heart attacks or depression because they were answering only to their calling as doctors and neglecting their identity as beloved sons and daughters of God, who had called them to be doctors only after he had first adopted them and named them as his own.
What can we learn from all this? Surely, it is right to steward well and revel in our “last name of grace,” whether our vocation is permanent (for example, priesthood or marriage), professional (for example, doctor or teacher) or temporary (for example, student or athlete).
At the same time, we must be vigilantly on our guard against allowing our “first name of grace” (our identity as a uniquely loved son or daughter of God) to become obscured by our vocation, that is, our “last name of grace.” Remember Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, when he spoke of the apostles as no longer servants but as friends (John 15:15). Jesus did not want the service from his apostles to be separated from his love for them. Yet we run the risk of precisely that when our spiritual surname (our vocation) overshadows our first name of grace (our spiritual adoption). To avoid that error, let us serve as generously and zealously as we can according to the nature and demands of our vocation, but let us do so as our response to being the cherished beloved of the Father, who call us into his kingdom and to himself by both our first and last names of grace.
When I write next, I will discuss a virtue essential for learning and for progress in the spiritual life. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.