A Vacation From Vocation

Yes, I do realize that I have already published what I really did think, at the time, was my farewell / ave atque vale “Skeptic’s Collection” column. But there is a matter that has been percolating in the back of my mind for some time:  the issue, and the very concept of, “religious vocation”. (I will deal only with Christian vocations in what follows, since Christianity is the religious tradition with which I am most familiar. But I would argue that the following remarks apply, mutatis mutandis, to all monotheistic religious faiths.) So … in styling my supposedly final column as my final column … mea culpa! … I lied. So let’s jump squarely into the middle of my heresy du jour, shall we?

Over the past roughly 30 years, I have come to believe – based on bitter personal experience – that one of the most pernicious elements of all monotheistic religious traditions is the entire concept of a Divine vocation. (Again, I will only discuss Christian vocations, but I think the following applies across the board to all monotheisms.) Now, by “Divine vocation” I mean the following:  any station of life or activity to which one feels a distinct and undeniable calling by one’s Deity, often something one would not have freely chosen, absent that sense of “call”. In fact, the word “vocation” is derived from the Latin noun vocare, meaning “call” (e.g., as in “telephone call”), which is, in turn, derived from the Latin verb vox, meaning voice (e.g., I call someone on the phone).  This etymological association, regardless of whether one interprets that association literally or not, is a measure of how strongly one feels “called”:  the sense of call could scarcely be stronger if, indeed, one’s Deity called one in an audible Voice. In fact, in biblical literature, God often calls His – God is always male in such scenarios – servants-to-be in an audible voice. For example:

o The Calling of Samuel

In this case, Samuel, whose existence was the result of his mother’s Hannah’s anguished prayer to God for a child, answers God’s call:  “Here I am, Lord, your servant is listening,” just as the High Priest Eli  advised Samuel to do. The immediacy of Samuel’s call accounts for much of the power of the sense of vocation:  feeling called by God. People who are afflicted with a poor self-image / self-concept are especially vulnerable to this sense of a call from God, even if the call does not assume the form of an audible voice. (Today people who claim that God talks to them in an audible voice are usually locked away in mental-health hospitals.) This is the first reason the whole concept of “vocation” is at least incipiently unhealthy:  people with a strong sense of call are the very people who are the most vulnerable to the blandishments of religious romanticism. (Despite what Fr. Ron Rolheiser says, I think the less we have of religious romanticism, the better off we all are. On the contrary, I would argue that the stronger the sense of call becomes, the more hard-headedly critical should be one’s response – analogous to the hard-headedly criticalresponse of the Catholic Church to allegations of demon possession.) The very feeling of being called impairs, even disables, one’s critical faculties.

The calling of St. Aloysius

o The Calling of the First Apostles

The parallel with the call of Samuel is too obvious to require comment. But there is an additional element that should concern us about the concept of vocation:  its disruption, even destruction, of normal, healthy human relationships. My critique of Fr. Rolheiser’s advocacy of religious romanticism applies here, also. Someone in the grip of an access of a sense of “calling” would also do well to reflect on Luke 18:28-29, and even more carefully on Jesus’ response thereto:

And Peter said, “Lo, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Now, did Jesus really adopt such a cavalier attitude toward the separations of individuals from their spouses and children? I do not profess to know. But I would argue that such questions of historicity are irrelevant. For if we read the text, not as a literal transcription of events but only as a theological reflection or parable – basically, like the story of the young George Washington cutting down his father’s cherry tree – the dispensability of human relationships should still give us pause. Most of all should it give us pause when we reflect that sacrificing such relationships in order to pursue one’s vocation is implicitly held up as an ideal to be rewarded. Well, speaking only for myself, if God, in an audible Voice or not, asks me to abandon my wife and my marriage for the sake of some vocation, my reply will be a wholeheartedly sincere invitation to God to do something impossible for a bisexual species

The calling of the first Apostles

I learned by traumatic personal experience the harm that can be wreaked by a single-minded, ostensibly Divine call to vocation. In the middle 1980s, I my wife and I both thought that I was called to pursue my PhD and teach. Then, in another iteration, we thought that I was called to get my MDiv and teach what I will generically call “Catholic stuff” – sacramental theology, liturgical theology, Church history, the Bible, the Creed, etc., etc. – to Catholic adults whose theological education had typically stopped at children’s catechism. The result was a five-year-long period of utterly black clinical depression, the consequences of which I am still recovering from to this day, because, upon finishing the MDiv, I was informed that, the episcopal leadership of the Seattle Archdiocese having lurched hard right, lay people not already in teaching ministries were discouraged from becoming involved in such. I have not done religious / theological education of adults since. Pursuing my vocation remains, to this day, the worst mistake I ever made in my life.


Well, quite frankly, because I had predicated my supposed vocation on the idea that I was being called by God. This is, I eventually concluded, the mistake that everyone makes who pursues a “busted vocation”:  getting God involved in the process. In such cases, that is the Mother Of All Mistakes, what might be called in German the “Ur-Mistake,” if you will:  the mistake from which all subsequent calamities flow.

The calling of St. Matthew

In the wake of that trauma, I now define “vocation” very differently, and in purely secular and personal terms. At this point, I define a “vocation,” quite simply as anything you enjoy doing (or being … or …) and that you are really good at. Period. But I no longer make the mistake of inferring from this proficiency and its enjoyment the conclusion that therefore God has issued a call to me to engage in that pursuit, no matter how much I enjoy it or how good at it I am, as a Commission to devote my life thereto. I am no longer tempted, as I was in the middle 80s, to baptize my preferences or my proficiency with reference to God. It  -- whatever “it” is – is simply something I enjoy doing (or being or …). My “vocation” is no longer a sacrament – with a capital “S” or otherwise. A couple of examples:  I enjoy playing “Bejeweled” on my iPhone. Really. And I superlatively proficient at it. But I do not consider “Bejeweled” my ultimate raison d’etre for existence. When I was working at Boeing, I enjoyed developing web-based statistical inventory management systems that enabled (and, so I hear through the grapevine, still enables) Boeing inventory planners co-located to airline-customer sites (Amsterdam, Tokyo, Singapore, et al.) to track the availability of spare parts for Boeing’s airline clients. Hell, I honestly looked forward to Mondays! But it was not in any sense a Commission from God. The result:  life is much more sane, much more sustainable, now that I no longer feel compelled to appease the arbitrary and persnickety demands of John Milton’s “great taskmaster”.

That tendency to baptize one's supposed vocation in the waters of the will of one's God is what the concept of vocation is so pernicious, so dangerous, in a monotheistic religious culture. If that God calls you to a certain vocation, then compliance with that call is not optional. The Prophet Jonah discovered this to his sorrow. You, as the called person, are responsible to a Commanding Officer -- to a Taskmaster, to recur to Milton's memorable terminology. You are not free to simply drop out of your vocation, at least not without incurring incredibly intensive existential crises and guilt trips: in a monotheistic religious culture, you will have failed God. And failure is not -- repeat, not -- an option. (Men in training to be Navy SEALs at least have the honorable option of failing.) This was a trauma I dealt with for a long while after I gave up my ostensible vocation to teach.

I have never encountered anything analogous to this guilt-trip vulnerability in any non-theistic religion, least of all in Buddhism. And the same remark holds for, e.g., Taoism, Confucianism, etc. -- and not because these religious traditions lack a moral center. See Buddhism's Eight-Fold Path. Rather, what these faith-traditions lack is a Taskmaster, a Commanding Officer. There is no question of obedience to a Commanding Officer simply because there is no Commanding Officer. Consequently, in non-theistic faith traditions, one is free to fail.

So herewith my advice to anyone who is considering the possibility that he/she is being called to a vocation by God:  take a page out of the Prophet Jonah’s play-book and run, as my Dad used to say, “like a cat shot in the ass with a firecracker” in the opposite direction away from your vocation. (Tarshish was reputed to be an ancient city on the edge of the modern-day Iberian Peninsula, i.e., in the diametrically opposite direction from Nineveh.) Run while you can before the existential crises and guilt-trips have a chance to kick in. (Jonah waited too long to run.) And keep running until you can finally pursue your ostensible vocation for its own sake, because you love it for its own sake, and not because you feel compelled to obey the dictates of any “taskmaster,” Divine or secular.

In other words, and for your own sake, take a vacation from vocation.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

"La Vocation" … Henri Cassiers (1858–1944) … Public domain
"The Calling of the First Apostles" … Sistine Chapel … Public domain
"Calling of St. Matthew" … Follower of Marinus van Reymerswaele (1490–1546) -- National Museum of Warsaw … Public domain
"The Vocation of St. Aloysius" … Guercino (1591–1666) -- Metropolitan Museum of Art … Public domain

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