Calling

In the Convent schools I attended the nuns were always hopeful that some of the students might join their convent. Students were regularly encouraged to “pray for a vocation to religious life.” For girls religious life had just one possibility and that was to become a nun. I never joined in that prayer – just in case I got a vocation- I knew that I didn’t want to be a nun.
          I remember one lovely nun who used to joke that in Kerry where she came from, there were two marks of a successful family. One was to have a pump in the yard and the second was to have a nun or a priest in the family. This nun grew up in an Ireland that sent priests and nuns to work in every corner of the world.
          When the nuns told us to pray for a vocation to religious life; they would add the remark that “marriage” and the “single life” were also vocations; we read the message clearly - a vocation to marriage or single life was infinitely inferior to a religious vocation.
          Today in Ireland vocations to the religious life have almost vanished. I was fascinated to hear that for the first time that students joining the seminary at Maynooth dropped in numbers, was in the year that free secondary education was introduced.
          Ireland is now a secular country. We ask our young people “what do you want to be?” We encourage them with advice such as “get a good education and you can be whatever you want”. We don’t tell our children that they were born to find and fulfil their calling and that they should try to discern that they are called to do in life.
          In John O’Donohue’s reading it is clear that he believes that every individual has a destiny that is preordained by God. This is a belief that is very strong in the Islamic tradition. Muslims believe that however events transpire; that its God’s will and humans fulfil their religion by submitting their will to the will of God.
          There are other theories about human destiny. There is an ancient Greek myth - called the Myth of Er - this myth says that before we are born we choose our future life; according to this myth you chose the life you have.
          Eastern philosophies teach the Laws of Karma. Karma says that our experiences are the fruits of our actions in the past. We are experiencing the results of all our past actions; we have the life we deserve.
          Another view is that everything that happens is simply a matter of chance. Are our lives designed according to God’s plan, did we choose our life before birth, is our life governed by the laws of Karma, or are we simply at the mercy of chance events? We can’t know with certainty; but we all have our personal theory.
          We know that this life is important. How we live, our thoughts and our actions have consequences for other people, they affect our planet and most importantly how we live affects our sense of living a fulfilled life.
          Irrespective of our beliefs about who, what or how our life is determined; we have all had experiences that demonstrate that we do not control events. We plan for something and for umpteen reasons that plan fails; no matter how hard we work or how we tweak it the plan fails; we console ourselves by saying “it just wasn’t meant to happen” At other times things just fall miraculously into place and we comment “it was just meant to be.”
          This experience of knowing that we are not in control is told in the familiar Bible story in the book of Jonah. Jonah was called by God to go to the city of Nineveh. Jonah took a ship going in the opposite direction. God sent a great storm; eventually Jonah is thrown overboard, he is swallowed by a whale and after three days the whale spat Jonah up. Jonah then went to Nineveh and fulfilled his mission. In the Bible stories it is the small details of the story that are important. I will come back to this point later.
          The word vocation sounds presumptuous and it is out of date but to be born is to be called. A few are called to assume important positions in the world; most of our callings are mundane but they are vital. The overarching and most challenging call is the call to be our authentic self; our greatest challenge is to be true to ourselves. Understanding and then accepting our authentic self is a lifelong calling.
          We are called many times in our lifetime these calls are generally temporary nature. We may be called to do certain work, called to be someone’s partner in life, called to parent a child. We are all called to work to create a more just and fair world. We are called to volunteer and to contribute to the needs of our community and the world. The challenge is to recognise the roles we are called to. To fulfil what we are called to and to know when it is time step back from that calling.
          An African American writer called Howard Thurman has advice for how to recognise the work you are called to do. Thurman wrote “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that because that’s what the world needs, people who have come alive.”
          “Do what makes you come alive” This image of calling is positive; our calling is not a burden. Fulfilling a calling will involve hard work and commitment however the work will not drain us it will energise and enliven us. When we fulfil our true calling we are working with – not against - the current of life’s great energy.
          Does what you spend your energy doing make you feel alive? If is does the chances are that you are fulfilling your calling. If not it is time to discover what would make you feel alive.
          Earlier I said that in Bible stories small details are important. In the story of Jonah when the storm struck Jonah told the sailors that he was the cause of the storm and that they should throw him overboard and the storm would quieten. The sailors tried to avoid throwing Jonah overboard. They worked harder and they prayed. It was with reluctance that they threw Jonah overboard.
          When we assume a calling that is not ours; we can be a hindrance to other people and their work. As Jonah endangered the sailors; we can even be injurious to others. Look at the damage caused to children and to Christian churches by clergy who were never called to ministry. Think back to your school days; the difference between the person who had a calling to teach and the one who was teaching just for a job. The real teacher inspired, the jobbers at best bored us, at worse they quenched our imagination and interest in learning.
          Jonah spent “three days in the belly of the whale” this detail is important. Three days is not a long time - unless the days are inside of a whale. When we are unfulfilled our world is miserable and featureless; like the inside of the whale. Sometimes we need to experience the darkest place before like Jonah we are able to begin to think about changing.
          The first positive step Jonah took to change his situation was a heartfelt prayer to his God. Prayer, quiet reflection and meditation it is in these quiet moments that we discern our calling. We must never underestimate the need for reflection.
          When we identify our calling then we do what we feel is the correct thing and we let is go. When we fulfil our work we must never hold on to the fruits of that work. For example members of this congregation feel called to work with refugees. We look at the need and we do what we can. We hope that we have helped and we let it go. It would be a travesty if we were to use our good deed to inflate our ego.
          Dag Hammerskjold said. Do what you can - and the task will rest lightly in your hand, so lightly that you will be able to look forward to the more difficult tests which may await you.
          As long as we live we are called for some purpose. The needs of the world are great. The enormity of the world’s needs should not deter us from doing what we can to make the world a better place. And in the process of answering our calling we may well find that we have come alive in the process.

Rev.Bridget Spain
Minister Dublin Unitarian Church                                       Dublin 11th October 2020


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