I attended The Grammar of Vocation, a Theology Day with Kathleen Cahalan at St. John’s University. Dr. Cahalan gave us much to think (and blog) about; I expect to post more from this talk. Probably because of my transition from being a college professor into vocation ministry, the section of the presentation on transitions resonated with me.
Kathleen Cahalan organized her ideas around a set of prepositions that we can use with vocation. Most obvious is “TO” — God calls us to do or to be something. We rarely think of a call — a vocation — “FROM” something. Yet, at least for adults, every call to something new is inherently a call from whatever one was doing before.
Every New Call Begins With Loss
No matter how exciting, desirable or welcome the new role or place to which God calls a person, that vocation also includes the work of leaving. Relationships must be shifted, goodbyes said, projects finished or given over to someone else. In western culture, we tend to identify with our work. Like familiar clothes or shoes, the former identity is not forgotten or abandoned. We will always have the skills and memories, but we choose to use them less and less.
Our culture often rushes into the new, impatient with farewell parties and exit interviews, ready to focus on taking up the new role. We forget the work of leave-taking, we fail finish the file, to notice and integrate the wisdom and lessons learned, to rejoice in the good we accomplished, to give thanks for the good we received. Relationships are left hanging, indeterminate, unresolved. Without the leave-taking work, we haven’t properly hung up our old role or put it into mothballs. The call from is about making a good end, even though our eyes and heart are straining toward what comes next.
When the Call is Only “From”
Unemployment. The youngest child leaves home. New technology makes skills obsolete. The onset of Alzheimer’s. The government claims a home for a pipeline. Aging or chronic illness make old activities impossible. Our friends, our dearest ones, die. We die.
Some calls come from events that are beyond our control. We are not choosing which path to follow. Sometimes, said Dr. Cahalan, people experience God as missing, or punishing, or even as the enemy. Like Abraham, we know what we have to leave behind, but we have no idea where we are going. We may detect a hint of promise – a glimpse of a “to” – but more often, we just know things will be different. We do not choose which path to take, but we may choose how we take the path.
Some hold fast to their faith: “I know God is with me even through this.” Others cannot. St. Teresa of Avila once told God, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.” These events stop us in our tracks. We experience them as disruptions of our vocation that prevent us from doing what we believe God has called us to do. How could they possibly be a call, a vocation?
There is a slippery theological slope here. It touches on the problem of evil, which asks how bad things can happen if God is all-loving and all-powerful. Theologians have written thousands of pages; saints point to the Paschal mystery as the central story of every life.
The spirituality of a vocation from is one of grieving; Kathleen Cahalan described it as four tasks. We must let ourselves feel the loss, contrary to social pressure to distract or numb ourselves, to move on quickly. To process the feelings, we must tell stories about the loss: the house when we moved in or the children were there, the things we enjoyed doing when we had health or friends. Then, somehow, we have to do the work of forgiving anyone that we are leaving behind, so as not to carry the burden of bitterness with us. Finally, we have to integrate what was lost into who we are now, into how we will move forward. Dr. Cahalan reminds us that, eventually, God also calls us from our loss and grieving into new life.
Kathleen Cahalan’s presentation offered a new perspective for my transition that is both from and to. It is a great gift, too, for my new work of journeying with people who are discerning God’s call on the trajectory of their lives.