I know there’s a real can of worms to be re-opened here, but it’s perhaps one of those that ought to be looked at time and again.
When we think of the subject of vocation, we tend to mean a particular request of God to embrace willingly a particular state of life, sealed sacramentally or through canonical vows. The important term here seems to be request, as it is a request and never an imposition—and as such it can be declined. God, nevertheless, will give to any faithful person every grace necessary to fulfill the duties of his state in life, whether that call was heeded or not. At least, this is the narrative as I’ve come to understand it.
This idea has been getting to me a little lately. Am I the only one finding it a little Pelagian, as though the old proverb were inverted: “God proposes; man disposes?” But it’s also open to me that I might be trying to use fatalism to quiet a guilty conscience (which truly needn’t be guilty anyway). Perhaps a relation of the relevant parts of my story may be in order:
In my 20s, shortly after I came to take the faith seriously, it occurred that I ought to take the priesthood more seriously. And so I did, and what I experienced of parish and diocesan politics aggravated me so that I found myself rather bilious, defensive, and even at times duplicitous. I felt like that man who no longer loves his wife but still lives uneasily with her. After a few years that still feel wasted, I realized that my wheels were spinning, and it would be best for my health and my sanity to look elsewhere. I thus contacted orders, as my diocese had recommended, only to have several letters come back advising me that I wasn’t quite the candidate they were looking for. On my 30th birthday, I finally got the hint that there wasn’t much of an offer here and prayed simply that God put His offer, His recommendation even, but more preferably His command, right in front of my face so I wouldn’t be plodding along in this limbo any longer.
It should go without saying that that prayer was answered over the next few months. I found work as a college instructor in English and the humanities, a position I hold to this day, in which my interests and talents are surely better used than in past work I’ve held. And then, out of the blue, came the woman, and not just any woman. She was the sweetheart of my 17th year, the first I loved, whom I hadn’t seen since that time. I had not even finished reading her first letter to me before youth’s passions came to inflame my heart, and I was again in love. Upon setting the letter down, I knelt in prayer, asking forgiveness for my lack of trust in divine providence over the past years and giving thanks for the woman, the job, and all good benefits I had received. The offer was made, right in front of my face as I had asked, and was no longer a mere abstraction.
But I let her go. I’d offer a reason, but to this day I’m not sure. I believe self-doubt had a lot to do with it. In any case, thus began the most difficult year of my life, which I didn’t handle very well. I drank a lot and became a social recluse. I felt that I had in an unguarded moment thrown God’s grace back into His face, that I had failed myself, this woman, and God Himself. Every day was another overwhelming experience of guilt and shame. Life seemed to lose its savour. It got very bad when I found out she was engaged to another man. That’s when my confessor told me that I should stop confessing this: if it was sin, it is forgiven; failure to accept that forgiveness is exactly the same thing I did when I let her go. I asked the confessor then why I still feel guilty. The answer: this is my share of the cross; offer it up.
This happened a few years ago, and it taught me a lot about the fallenness of our nature. I’ve since that time continued to focus more on what’s in front of my face, teaching, advising, and mentoring students, even writing for publication. But little seems to have changed otherwise. I’m still just a bachelor academic, still something of a recluse, seemingly meaningless when I return to my apartment at night. And even if this has purged me of much of the bile of my youth, I’m getting into the “over-the-hill” years as far as most religious orders go, and that’s presuming I find this option right before me again.
So as far as vocations go, I’ve chased a phantom which consumed me and then I declined an offer which likewise consumed me. Thinking about the latter still hurts quite a bit; it’s like a continual penance I undertake. Then thinking about where I stand now hurts—and I’m all alone facing it. No sympathetic wife, no wise and holy religious brethren, just me alone in my armchair during the pipe-and-slippers hours in my drafty apartment.
So, back to my point: a vocation is a choice to respond to a divine call in a particular way. My response, very much in spite of myself and of which I repent daily, has been no. Now every no implies a yes. Was I saying yes to make this penance, this solitude my vocation? Other men get to go to their families or dine with their brethren, and I get to go off alone and be sad? I didn’t actively choose this—I didn’t say yes to this; I only said no to something else—and there’s little joy in it. I keep on telling God that I’ll keep doing this so long as He gives me the grace, but I’d rather something else, something with a little less insecurity. And hopefully something somewhat more conventional (Latin-Mass people like myself hate novelty).
(to be continued)