I love American Idol and could hardly wait until January when the fourteenth season began. I’ve watched it all through the years: those judged by Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, and Randy Jackson; those when Kara DioGuardi stepped in; the stints of Steven Tyler, Mariah Carey, and Nicki Minaj; the reigns of Harry Connick, Jr., Jennifer Lopez, and Keith Urban.
This penchant isn’t easy to admit. My friends are mostly highbrows—educators, writers, and lawyers whose favorite resting pastimes are reading The New York Times or the latest Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, going to the opera or the theatre, listening to NPR or jazz, and watching PBS. I’ve never had the courage to confess to them that I’m an Idol fan.
What’s the attraction of the show? Am I a wannabe diva who needs a fix of vicarious fame? Is my life so gray and dull that I need Idol’s glitz to glam it up? Do I wish to mock the contestants who’ve been deluded in thinking they have talent? Do I need a demonstration that even the down-and-out can win?
The fact is that, to me, there’s nothing more exciting than watching people discover their vocations. They glow, bringing warmth and light to everyone around them.
Vocation. It’s a concept I didn’t understand when I was young, when I chose to practice law, meeting the dictates of my father and flouting my own yearning to teach English. The upside of that choice: money and prestige. The downside: depression and tempestuousness that the upside couldn’t compensate.
Vocation. It’s a notion I first began to grasp when I chose to quit the law and become a high school teacher. The upside: elation and serenity. The downside: poor pay and status that the upside more than balanced out.
Vocation. What does it mean?
Vocation is an early Christian concept that has evolved over time and been embraced by many. The word derives from the Latin vocare, meaning to call, which in turn means to cry out for the purpose of summoning a person.
To the early Christians reading Genesis, though, to call meant something more. They noted that by calling light Day and darkness Night, God brought Day and Night into being and gave each a way to serve the world, a way that was good. And they reasoned that with humans God does likewise: when God brings people into being, he calls each person by name and summons each to a special path of service, a path that is good.
Many people use the term vocation to refer to work, job, or career, but according to Jesuit James Martin, vocation is much broader.
Work is the labor we do in order to complete a task; a job is the situation in which we do our work; a career is the long-term series of jobs we take on in a lifetime. Our vocation may include all three or none of these, but always overarches and extends beyond them to include not just doing but being. The many facets of our vocation are unique to each and every one of us, and they change over a lifetime, some lasting for years, others for an instant.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, referring to the Hindu tradition, notes there are four ashramas—stages of life—each including its own facets of vocation:
Student—when young people strive to develop the skills they’ll need for adulthood. Householder—when people marry and have children (or not), take part in community life, and work for sustenance. Forest-dweller—when people begin detaching from their social identities to devote more time to spirituality. Renunciation—when people transcend identification with family, religion, nation, and race.
During a certain period, then, your vocation may be to study music education at Boston University, to sing on Sundays at Trinity Church, to head out on August 2 to take part in Idol’s Boston auditions, and to dial 911 at 10:23 am when a skateboarder whizzes by you, falls, and breaks a leg. The next minute or day, the next month or year, your vocation will be different, in small ways and maybe big.
The question for each of us then becomes: Who is God calling me to be and what is he calling me to do? Both Hillel, an ancient Jewish sage, and Jesus gave the answer: Your vocation is to be a person who loves your neighbor as yourself.
Simply speaking, then, your calling is to love others. But if you’re like me, you’ll find this tenet too fuzzy to be helpful. You’ll want specifics for each moment of your life. And that’s where things become difficult. I’ve learned that to garner the specifics, you must listen for God’s voice.
In the Bible, there are many people who hear God’s voice: Abraham hears it directly, Moses through a burning bush, Mary through an angel, Peter from Christ.
Calls, according to modern thinkers, though, rarely come in words. Fr. James Martin says that most calls come internally, through the workings of the Holy Spirit. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes that they come through our thoughts and through signs we must learn to perceive. Preacher Oswald Chambers states that calls come in gradual dawnings. Educator Parker Palmer says we have an inner teacher that calls within our minds.
For me, though, the most useful formulation comes from the sixteenth century, when Jesuit Ignatius of Loyola proposed that God calls us through our desires. Unlike many people, who equate desires with obsessive cravings for material objects and sex, Ignatius viewed desires as manifestations of God’s voice.
This makes sense to me. At root, the wish for things is good; we need food, clothes, and shelter to survive. Likewise the urge for sex; without it we’d become extinct. If God calls us to love, he must first call us to live, and in his wisdom must have wired us to desire what we need to do both.
While many desires prompt goodness, others trigger evil and thus can’t be signs our vocation to love. Ignatius called these desires disordered, meaning that a God-given longing—a holy desire—has become perverted. If you’re a contestant on American Idol, you may have the holy desires to uplift your fans through your singing and to earn a living for your family. But if you sabotage another entrant to better your chances of prevailing, your holy desires have become warped.
When Ignatius was a young man, he happened upon a system for distinguishing holy from disordered desires. At the time, he was pulled by two strong yearnings, one to be a womanizer, the other to become a monk, and when he pondered these conflicting urges he noticed a difference in the feelings each aroused.
When Ignatius thought about philandering, at first he felt great pleasure, but this gave way to desolation—nagging feelings of depression, turmoil, and alienation. When he thought about religious life, initially he felt great fear and insecurity, but these gave way to consolation—lasting feelings of joy, tranquility, and connectedness.
Ignatius then deduced: when a longing brings us consolation, God is calling us to act on it; when conflicting desires bring us consolation, God is calling us to follow the one that brings us the most; and when a desire brings us desolation, God is warning us to snuff it out.
Ignatius, though, wasn’t suggesting that we should simply follow our bliss. He was letting us know that our bliss will endure only if it serves other people and that it will turn into grief if it simply serves our self.
Ignatius, thus, became a monk.
If you read the Bible, you’ll see that fear and insecurity often precede consolation, as they did for Ignatius. When God called Moses to rescue the Israelites in Egypt, Moses said, “Who am I to go?” and tried to weasel out. When God’s angel told the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Christ, she was troubled and asked, “How’s that possible?” When Jesus called Peter to discipleship, Peter said, “Go away. I’m no good.”
But God reassured all three people that they were worthy and capable and gave each the means to succeed in their vocations: to Moses, he gave a magic staff; to Mary, a miraculous conception; to Peter, the keys to heaven.
Christians use the word gifts to refer to the abilities God grants us to complete a call. Gifts are more than vocational tools, though. Catholic writer Sherry Weddell, social critic Os Guinness, and educator Dawna Markova all explain that gifts not only enable us to perform our vocation, but also signal what it entails.
Sixteenth century Anglican theologian William Perkins gave advice to help us identify the gifts that point to our vocation: since we’re innately biased, we should not assume we have a talent unless reliable assessors say we do.
Rabbi Heschel, Os Guinness, Sherry Weddell, and Parker Palmer add other indicators: we can presume to have a gift if using it benefits others and brings us great delight. So, if multiple choirmasters ask you to join their chorales and your singing moves others and elates you, God is likely calling you to sing.
The opposite, though, is also true: a limitation—a lack of desire, positive feedback, joy, or beneficent effects—can signal our vocation just as much as our strengths do. Thus, if you love to sing, but audiences boo you, or if you hate to sing despite the praise you reap from it, God is probably not calling you to sing, but to something else.
Yet some of us ignore our limitations or let others talk us out us of them. All throughout our lives, we’re surrounded by people—parents, teachers, religious leaders, peers, marketeers, spouses, bosses, children—whose expectations counter our vocation although their intentions may be good. Attempting to meet their expectations, we take on tasks we’re not called to do.
Even if we do this out of love, the results can be disastrous. Ignatius, Os Guinness, Parker Palmer, Sister Joan Chittister, and many other theorists have all noted the result: desolation, aka depression, that can cause us to be bitter and turn our love to hate.
This was my mistake when I chose to practice law instead of teaching: I listened to my father’s voice instead of to my Father’s voice. I wasn’t interested in law and disliked my job, even though my skills were praised, benefitted my clients, and helped support my family. By persisting in practicing law, I made myself and those around me miserable, although my motivation had been good—to please my dad.
Coveting or assuming a vocation that’s not ours isn’t only harmful, but also unwarranted. Saint Paul once explained that humankind is like a body and each person is like a body part. Eyes can’t be or spurn ears. Ears can’t be or spurn hands. Each has a unique and necessary function that together with the others makes the body healthy, efficient, and whole. Thus, teachers shouldn’t be or eschew lawyers, and painters shouldn’t be or eschew singers. Each of us has our own vocation, and the more of us honor it, the more fully we meet the world’s needs.
Discovering our vocation, though, doesn’t mean we’ll always be happy. It’s unrealistic to pretend that every task we do and every minute of our life will be exciting, fulfilling, and successful. Sometimes work is drudgery that simply must be done, and often the job market is tight, forcing us to take whatever work we get.
While some of us may find a paying job that matches our vocation, many of us will not. Instead, we may find volunteer work and hobbies that jibe with our call.
So, if you love and have the gift of singing, I hope to see you on American Idol. But win or lose, if you sing because you’re called you to, you’ll bring joy to both your listeners and yourself for as long as your voice responds to God’s.
Previously published in Good Letters.
Image by Beth, used under the Creative Commons License.