Written in 1948, its truths are more timely than ever.
By Carol Robinson, Integrity magazine.
Nothing could be more unnatural by way of discovering one’s life work than the current, debasing system of “job-hunting.” … Back of today’s perusal of the want-ad columns, back of today’s dreary trek from employment agency to employment agency, back even of the scheming and conniving through one’s father’s friends for “pull,” is the terrifying assumption that one is extraneous to the world’s affairs, that there is no place waiting but that an opening has to be hacked in a desperate competitive effort at survival.
The Catholic idea and the currently accepted method are poles apart. The Catholic idea is vocation; our commercial reality is job-hunting.
We still speak of a vocation to the religious life or the priesthood, but the term used to apply to all occupations. Why was it lost? We lost the sense of vocation, indeed the reality of vocation, in the process of changing from an organic society to a mechanical one, a change which paralleled the development of industrialism (whether or not it was an inevitable consequence of industrialism is beside the point at the moment). In an organic world everyone does what needs doing, what one seems fitted for, and what it is is usually obvious enough. One takes one’s place, a place which is already waiting. Peguy somewhere says that he can even remember as a child the last remains of such an organic economic life in France, and that then the workmen went to work singing. In such a society a young man often followed in his father’s footsteps, for his father could easily have owned his own farm or his business or his craft. There was a stability in society. One could foresee and prepare for the future. Property and wisdom and skill were passed from generation to generation. Yet it was not a rigid society, provision being made for exceptional vocations, whether religious or scholarly.
Now all that is completely changed. We no longer spontaneously do what needs doing, but we frantically hasten to get in on something which might be making money. For most of us that means finding a place in someone else’s scheme for money making. There is no great permanence about the scheme itself, nor do we have security in our jobs from the point of view of being irreplaceable. An enforced security usually involves sacrifice of any interest in the job forever afterwards. If you want to get out of a routine rut you have to swing from limb to limb of the tree of success, always taking chances, always courting disaster. For the most part it is useless to try to follow one’s father’s footsteps, as he owns nothing and has no particular skill to pass on, but is often just an employee himself. One might as well start at the bottom rung of another ladder, which might even be in another social class. There is no stability anywhere, nor is there even much desire for stability. Little people, as most of us are, with dull jobs, can at least express our dissatisfaction by a restless moving from one stupid job to the next.
The truth that we need reminding of is that we still all have vocations, that we are still all called by God to do His proper work where He wants us to be. This is what modern youth, almost nurtured on despair, will find it hard to believe. Our failure to believe is the measure of our lack of faith. We must never forget that God is not frustrated, either by bad economic systems, or by atomic bombs, or by seemingly ruined lives. It is always within the power of God to bring good out of evil. Since men of late have disobeyed God, pretty much in a body, the result is that we have made an unprecedented mess of affairs here on earth, and that probably vast numbers of souls have been lost, and are being lost, on account of it. The result is that our vocations are ever more insistently vocations connected with the reorientation of things to God. Our vocations are still there. It is just that they are harder to find and to fulfill. When God asks hard things He gives us the grace to do them. We shall need the grace. The key to understanding our times is to realize that mediocrity is impossible: either you are holy or you are lost, either you are with God or you are against Him.
The Unique Nature of Today’s Vocations
There is no point in crying over spilt milk or sighing for a more ordered society. You ought not to wish that you were a gently-bred English aristocrat instead of a New York City office girl with a Brooklyn accent. We are called to be saints, not culture vultures; and Brooklynese, previous personal experience as an alcoholic, night-school at Hunter College, and still-unmarried-at-twenty-eight, may prove to be more useful states in the economy of today’s salvation than a perfect command of the French language, classical features, or a Ph.D. in Psychology. It certainly would have been unseemly of Joan of Arc to have refused to command an army on the grounds that a woman’s place is in the kitchen.
The important thing is to do the will of God, to allow ourselves to be called to the vocations which God wishes, and for which we may find we were remotely preparing (according to the mysterious economy of God’s Providence) even in the midst of heartache and darkness. We may not want to live in our own time, but God is always operating in the present, nor can it truthfully be said that we are unfortunate in the choice of our generation. Pius XI thought it a singular privilege to live in such exciting times. And so it is. It is a time for saints. The thing which is hard today, which is virtually impossible, is to muddle along.
Certain generalizations can be made about today’s vocations, just from viewing the times. Certain it is that you will not be swimming with the crowd. You will definitely be going against the tide-at least until we succeed in changing the direction of the current. That is why job-hunting is so futile. The sort of jobs that are open are all jobs within the system, but we have to change the system, and most of the work will not be done from within. This is also why the educational system is off the beam. In general it is preparing us to fit in, where it ought to be preparing us to make over.
There will be, and in fact there already is, an increase in religious vocations to the contemplative life. The Trappist Monasteries, and the Carmels, are filling up, or are already full. The penance and prayer therein will form the basis for the work of those whose vocations are in the world. There will also be an increase in vocations of suffering in the world. There certainly is an increase in suffering, which seems to indicate (to the cancer victims, the starving and the oppressed) a vocation to suffer willingly that the world may turn again to God.
There are no real secular vocations today, that is, vocations to do the work of the world (which could be good in itself, of course) without regard to religious considerations. This is especially true among the young, and it is what is meant by a general call to the lay apostolate. Today’s street cleaner will have to work to convert his fellow street cleaners; today’s doctor will have to restore Christian ideals of medicine; today’s millionaire will have to start, for example, a movie company to tell of God; today’s mother will have to raise saints (and stop undue worry about health, education, and manners); today’s writer will have to write the Good News; and vast numbers of us will have to get out of what we are doing or what we are trained to do, in order to initiate or cooperate with some other work we haven’t yet dreamt of.
Now the basic reason for this change from secularism is that all the problems that are important problems today are spiritual problems at their roots, and we Catholics have to attack the problems at their roots. That means that not only must we have religious motives and spiritual development, but what we are doing must have as its discernible end the restoration of all things in Christ.
Finding Your Vocation
As we have said, it is harder than usual to find one’s vocation. It is hard because it is hard to know, to find out; and it is hard because it takes sacrifice and faith to accept it. The rules for finding one’s vocation can be derived from the word vocation itself. A vocation is, literally, a “calling,” and the person who is doing the calling is God. The chief rules are three: 1) Get within earshot; 2) Listen carefully; 3) Believe what you hear.
Rule 1: Get Within Earshot
If God is going to speak to us, we have to get near enough to Him to be able to hear. The chief reason that people go around wringing their hands and saying “Oh, I don’t know what to do with my life,” is that they are spiritually too under-developed to find out.
Very many people miss their vocations entirely by not developing their spiritual life. What happens is that they try to find out what to do with themselves on a superficial intellectual plane. They decide, in effect, “Wouldn’t it be nice for God if I wrote a radio play about His birth, because after all I can write (I’ve been writing Pepsi-Cola ads for years) and Christmas ought to have a religious note to it.” So they write the radio play, and it is done in a very worldly way, using all the usual radio tricks, borrowing a cast from “John’s Other Wife,” and edifying no one. The unbelievers who happen to tune in are confirmed in their suspicions that Christianity is dull and dead. A few pharisaical church-goers consider that they have pleased God by listening. Meanwhile, a radio-journalist (himself a fallen-away Mormon) hails the playwright as a “prominent Catholic litterateur,” which goes to our author’s head, and he eventually develops a state of consummate pride.
So the idea is not to think up something nice to do for God, but to approach God with some humility in the hope that He will give you a task. The way to do it is through the Sacraments. Anyone who really wants to learn his vocation ought certainly to start going to daily Mass and Communion if this is at all possible, to go regularly (probably weekly) to confession, to seek out a good spiritual director, to do good spiritual reading and to learn to pray. If no obstacle is put in the way, the Sacraments will act gradually to transform such a person, to make him increasingly docile to the inspirations of the Holy Ghost, to give him more and more insight into contemporary life. From this it can be seen that one cannot find one’s vocation overnight.
Finding a vocation is not like consulting a job clinic, where for $10 or so you can take a few tests to learn where you can fit into the system with the least pain and the most profit. No, if you are a person who has not seriously cultivated his interior life to date, it would be well to set aside six months or a year just for the purification process, wherein the Sacraments have some effect, preferably unmolested by strong interference from radio and movies.
Rule 2: Listen Carefully
God shouts. Hearing God’s call is not like straining for an overseas short wave broadcast. It is perfectly clear and local once you are within earshot. It is characteristic of the saints that they are sensitive to the slightest prompting of grace.
Will an inner voice speak? No. God will first of all use natural means. Chief of these natural means is your intellect. It is absolutely requisite that you start thinking. Start reading the good Catholic books and pondering them in the light of your own experience. Start reading up on Catholic Action. Start asking yourself, or discussing with your friends, the proper questions about your own life. Ask yourself what you are doing in your present job, whether or not it has a worthy end, whether or not it is completely honest. Start meditating on the Bible. Ask yourself what it means to seek first the kingdom of heaven, to live by faith. Thrash all these things out.
Another nudge from God is your desires. Now it is the way of the world to crush all normal desires in the interest of developing dutiful, dull bookkeepers. Try to imagine what you would do if you were perfectly free, whether it paid or not, and whether such an occupation already existed or not. If you have a dull job, just walk out on it for a day sometime to get a sense of freedom (that is, do this if you are the over-conscientious type. If you are already lax in your duties you had better work overtime instead, to develop your sense of responsibility).
Usually it is what you once longed for, and never dared hope for, which was really in line with your vocation. The person who is aching to get married is usually meant to marry. If you love to take care of the sick, give speeches, teach people, plant flowers, play instruments or carve statues, that usually means something. No one has a persistent inner compulsion to file premium coupons, sort toll-call numbers, watch professional baseball, or talk about silly things in crowded, stuffy, little night-club rooms at wee hours of the morning.
If you can’t think of anything you want to do, you are probably suffering from despair. You should cultivate the virtues of faith and hope, and start dreaming again.
If all you want to do is lie on beaches in Florida or sip tall drinks in steamer chairs, you have been thoroughly corrupted by the advertisements and would do well to take a “cure,” in the form of giving alms, fasting for Lent and abstaining from mass-circulation magazines. Recreation is not an end in itself.
Besides using your head and your wishes to find your vocation, you must take careful note of circumstances. God doesn’t say “Yes, Johnny,” or “No, Johnny,” in so many words. He says them, in effect, in circumstances. If you suffer a severe disappointment, that’s usually God saying “No, Johnny.” Disappointment in love, loss of your job, failure to get a promotion, especially when these things come through no fault of your own, indicate the will of God, and are therefore blessings in disguise. If we were saints we would praise God for them, seeing that they are all useful toward our final end. All things work together for good for those who love God.
On the other hand, God often gives opportunities, and then He is beckoning us. Seemingly chance meetings with people of like mind, invitations to join Catholic Action groups, and such things God uses to maneuver us into our vocations. As a person becomes docile to God’s Will, such opportunities present themselves more and more often, and it becomes impossible not to see the guiding hand of God.
RULE 3: Believe What You Hear
God does not sit down with you and say, “Now Mary, I want you to found a religious order to take care of some sick people on Easter Island. First I want you to quit your job in the telephone company, then I want you to go to nursing school, then I want you to enter such-and-such a religious order-but you will leave there after six months, it’s just to give you training-and then I will arrange for you to have Father X, who is coming over from China, as your spiritual director, and he will tell you about the Easter Island people.”
No, God does not tell us where He is leading us. That’s the whole point, we have to go from step to step by faith. The supreme thing that God asks of us is faith, that we do not falter or lose confidence while He leads us through the darkness. That is why we have to be interiorly developed, to have strong virtues which will keep us from losing confidence. In the days of a Christianly ordered society most men could see clearly where they were going. Now very few of us can see God’s way. The pagans think they know where they are going because they are trying to construct the road themselves; but they are in for some surprises.
So in consequence we have to proceed from step to step darkly. If it seems that God badly wants you to quit your job, you had better quit it, even if you haven’t got another one. If the next step seems to be washing dishes at $10 a week, wash dishes at $10 a week and be cheerful about it-maybe you are getting some indispensable purification in the matter of poverty. If you have to give up your worldly friends, do so without reluctance. Just giving up something that is bad because you are now sure it isn’t pleasing to God may be the very act of faith that will start a chain of events leading in the right direction. We live in a world that has faith only in money. We have got to have faith only in God. We have to be instruments, and so our chief virtue must be docility (which is something quite other than the sloth born of despair).
Who has not felt the internal disquiet that comes from pursuing a course which everyone accepts but which seems phony to you? Who has not sensed the degradation of trying to “sell yourself” to some impressive employment manager? Well, when you set out on your vocation you will have the opposite feeling. Everything inside will be in order. You will feel you are doing right, and it will make sense to your mind, at least some sense. But outside you may run into a riot. There will be people to tell you that you are betraying your social class. There will be your family to say you are throwing away your chances of success. There will be your father wondering why he sent you to college anyhow.
How To Know You’ve Found Your Vocation
When you get there you will know you have arrived at your goal by the sense of rest and relaxation that will set in. There will be a peace such that it will almost sing out “I belong here,” and there will be this peace even if “here” turns out to be on a martyr’s gibbet set up in Times Square, or a soapbox set up in front of a howling mob of Communists, or if it turns out to be a cave in a barren waste some place. What’s more, you will find that you are not envious of what anyone else is doing, even if it is in itself more interesting or important. All the unengaged girls are envious of the one who captures the local [Movie Star], but let Mary find the man God has chosen for her and whom she sincerely loves, and, be he cross-eyed, she will not covet any other man.
It is plain to be seen that the world’s unhappiness is at present greatly intensified by the fact that most people have not found their vocations. As long as you are not in your right place you envy everyone who has any sort of desirable place; everyone wants to be a millionaire, marry a movie actor, get a raise and have an interesting job.
Now the second way to tell you have found your vocation is that the work will come easy to you. It may be building bridges or commanding armies or negotiating peace or editing a newspaper or nursing the insane; no matter how hard these things are in themselves, there will be a naturalness and ease in the way you do them. You will have to work hard, but it will be a pleasure and it won’t go against the grain the way things in the past (much easier in themselves) have gone against the grain.
Most of us need kicking upstairs. We make a mess of filing (which, if it must be done, needs a phlegmatic temperament) whereas we would be very good actresses or surgeons. The world’s tendency is, since we have so disgracefully failed in filing, to degrade us still further into sorting papers. A lot of neurotics go from bad to worse on this score.
God will, if we trust Him, transport us into some sort of fairyland, better than our wildest dreams. Really that is our big sin against God, that we underestimate Him. We have an inferiority complex about religion when the reality of God is beyond our imagining. We have set our hearts on a new Buick, whereas eye has not seen, nor ear heard, the things He has prepared for those who love Him. We hope for so little for ourselves. The goal that God has set us is to become saints.
This article is reprinted from ‘This Perverse Generation’ (Sheed & Ward, 1949, pp.37-47)
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