Everyone has a vocation, and it isn't always a simple, one-time decision.
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I used to dream of being an artist. As a teenager, I would sit in my room for hours listening to REM albums and painting. I was so happy to sit in my room late into the night by myself that my parents became genuinely worried about me (It’s interesting to observe how my own daughter now behaves exactly the same way.) I did end up exploring a few art schools and studied some art while in college, but ultimately, my calling in life ended up being very different. That artistic, quiet, sensitive, introverted teenager became a Catholic priest. Now I talk and write for a living. Everything I do is on public display – how I say hello to someone, how I dress, the look in my eye whether real or imagined. Let’s just say it isn’t what I had in mind when I was 16.
Sometimes I think about what my life would have been like had I pursued a career in art. Would I have been happy? Or, would I have been dissatisfied and full of regret, coming to the conclusion I’d made a mistake?
At the time I made my choice to enter seminary, all signs pointed to it being a long-shot as a good fit. I was anxious about preaching, introverted, and overly-sensitive. I also managed to cultivate these personality traits along with the vice of arrogance, which isn’t a great for a priest. The calling was there, though, waiting for me to recognize it and do the work to seize it. Looking back, even though I still love to make art, I never would have been happy in a career as an artist. I ended up in the right place.
Discovering your calling in life, it seems to me, isn’t a simple, one-time decision. A life is meant to be lived, and we never quite know where it will take us until we stop worrying and start living. In the priesthood, we often talk about living an intentional life as a “vocation.” We ask young men if they could envision living as a priest (or a brother or monk) and young women if they would be happy in religious life as a sister or nun. With this word, “vocation,” all we’re really asking is what God is asking of them, and to be intentional about what decisions would make for a happy life. To be clear, though, this process isn’t only for potential priests — every person has a vocation.
Marriage is a vocation. Motherhood, because it is buried in domestic duties, dirty dishes, and best understood through sleepless nights with crying babies, can seem unimportant — but it creates, nurtures, and shapes lives. Fatherhood can mean trudging to work day after day to provide for the family and may include coaching sports teams of kids who kick the ball in the wrong direction and learning to braid little girls’ hair. This, too, is a life-changing vocation. I have friends who are now retired whose vocation is to walk in the park, notice beautiful things, and pray. I had a parishioner, Diane, who was home-bound. She would meticulously remember important dates – birthdays, anniversaries, holidays – and mail cards. On a regular basis I received these cards from her and it brightened my day. Her vocation was to write those cards. It may sound insignificant, but it meant a lot to me.
In every stage of life, your vocation, your “calling,” is important. Your every action is pregnant with meaning, each one a step down the path of a heroic pilgrimage. Because our vocations can seem small and tedious, or we feel unequipped to fulfill them, it isn’t uncommon that we would doubt that we’ve missed our calling in life.
What happens if you miss it? And can it change over time?
People are complicated creatures with all sorts of hidden gifts and talents. And life throws us curve balls. Often, what seems a wrong turn in life leads us exactly where we need to be. These unexpected paths draw those gifts and talents out of us, even to our own surprise. You may think back and wonder what life would have been like if you’d made a different choice in the past, but doing so with regret is to regret the person you’ve become and that would be a shame. Even our mistakes are opportunities for growth, so worrying about missing a vocation isn’t a fruitful activity. We are who we are, and I suspect that, whatever choices we’ve made, God blesses those choices and, as long as we commit to living the best life possible, there’s joy in that.
As we age and go through different stages of life, what we are called to can change, so don’t get hung up on feeling useless simply because the kids have grown up and left home or you’re now retired. Your calling is now different, and whatever it is, I’m sure it’s amazing. Don’t undervalue yourself and what you can do to give glory to God.
As we seek out and try to better understand this world and our place within it, it always helps to maintain a clear conscience, stay close to God as we make decisions, and be sure we’re accomplishing our current commitments. Your calling in life may change as time goes on. It may draw you out of your comfort zone. It may even be something that’s been on your mind for a long time and it’s finally time to act. Whatever it is, never fear, because as long as you’re taking the question seriously you won’t make a mistake and miss it.
5 Books to strengthen a man in his vocation