Interesting how the word vocation is used in daily life. We identify vocational qualifications, but they’re normally specifically practical; plumbers and electricians, for instance.
We perhaps think of teaching and nursing as ‘vocations’, but what else? And in the Church of England we have Vocation to publicly recognised ministry – hence Readers, Deacons, Priests and Bishops.
But vocation, from vocare (to call), considered today on Vocations Sunday, is much wider. What about the vocation to academia (not one that appeals, but someone has to do it); or to journalism, or advertising? Or to marriage or parenting? Does it follow that all people have a vocation to something in life?
I went this week to St Mary’s Wantage – an Anglican convent in Oxfordshire – and was struck by what I assume to have been the graveyard, at least the place where countless sisters now deceased are remembered on small plaques every few feet along a grass lined path. There must have been at least 400 names recorded there. None had an individualised headstone; yet they were all together in one place, as you’d expect for a community.
It echoed the ‘all together in one place’ that we imagine was true of the first believers, seen in Acts 2, read today. What is more, all the believers had their goods in common in the early church – something that we find a lot harder to emulate today than the other four marks of church embodied by the earliest follows of Christ: the Apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and ‘the prayers’.
Every single one of those nuns named on their simple plaques was a name in God’s heart, an individual who so strongly heard the call to follow in a certain way, that they were able to give up what would be considered ‘normal life’ by most, and become part of that particular religious community. How did they hear that call? In the night, in dreams, in hunches, in other people’s encouragement, in recognising their own desires.
So many Marys, Elizabeth Janes, Phoebe Roses, Theresas and Louisas. All responding the call of God. It was very moving. In another part of the grounds we were asked not to walk too close by the small white cottage, as that is where one of the sisters, a solitary, spends all of her time in silence – a further nuance to the original calling to be cloistered. Thomas Merton, an American Trappist Monk who died in the 60s, had a similar calling to be a hermit.
Does God call people who don’t believe in him? Of course. You often see someone in their element, working away at what they love and are good at, and think that just suits them down to the ground. When for whatever reason we lose our employment, it’s as if a part of us has died.
But the primary calling of all people is to find themselves in their Creator. As the gospel for today showed, essentially it’s a call to The Abundant Life (John 10:10).
As such, Vocations Sunday is not just about praying for more priests (thought that would be good) but about the encouragement to spend every season of life responding to something greater than ourselves, discovering the essence of who we are, and how we can take our place in the world, with everything we have.
You never know (which is an exciting thought) quite where that might lead.