Finding my place in the world

Herbert Alphonso SJ wrote a book entitled ‘Discovering your personal vocation’. The book is really best for those who are familiar with Ignatian spirituality and have made the Spiritual Exercises, but the idea of the personal vocation is immensely powerful.

I had the dubious privilege this last week of being invited to talk to a group of teens about vocation. I was one of a panel of four people – each of us represented one of the four ways of living one’s vocation recognised the Roman Catholic church – the priesthood, religious life, married life and single life. (No prizes for guessing which category I represented!!)  In preparing for the encounter I found myself, once again, deeply frustrated by this approach to the idea of vocation. It is so easy to miss the real question from this angle. I know this is not the intent, but it seems almost to reduce one’s vocation to a matter of how one chooses to use one’s sexual energy.

So what is ‘personal vocation’ as Alphonso articulates it, and why is that more appealing? Personal vocation is not just about what one does, it is what is unique and unrepeatable about one. It is the discovery of who I am and who I am becoming. If we can discover the essence of our being, then where I need to be, what I need to be doing, and who will form my community follow.

If I am able to pay attention to the inner stirrings as I make choices about which career to follow, or which relationships to pursue, or which kinds of activities I participate in, I will begin to notice that some things really resonate and some fall a bit flat. If I continue to choose the things that really resonate, and leave aside those which don’t, I begin to find the way of being in world which most supports my being.

Over time, those little choices begin to take a shape, and the way it will become clear that a particular lifestyle will most support my way of being in the world. For most that will be marriage, but for some the other vocations will begin to crystallise.

The important thing to recognise is that it is a process of discovery that may take years. The goal is to find the way of living which most supports the flourishing of my being. Of course, the journey doesn’t end with the taking of vows or making of promises, it is a continual daily choice.

Most importantly though, it means that I am never too young or too old to consider my vocation. Even when I have made a commitment to a particular way of life, I can choose to nurture my being by paying attention, or to let it wither. Seeking my personal vocation is a daily choice and daily task. Teaching teenagers to pay attention to what brings them to life and what drains them seems like the best place to start the conversation.

On goal setting and discernment

A couple of days ago my brother-in-law posted a link to a column he had written. As a biologist he uses the analogy of the different ways in which certain organisms choose their environment to illustrate the importance of true navigation in our human lives. It is well worth reading.

But it got me thinking. I am a little ambivalent about the idea of setting goals. I do understand that it is useful to have goals to work towards. Goals help both in keeping us on course, and in keeping us motivated. I think though, that I am little wary of presuming that we will arrive at a place of enlightenment or fulfilment or contentment simply by pursuing and attaining our goals.

My own life path has been erratic (if one measures it by the standards of goal setting). That is not to say that I did not have purpose and distinct trajectory in the choices I was making. My goal, in as much as I had one, was to deepen my relationship with God. That isn’t a very tangible goal, and it certainly took me on a very winding road. It continues to be the thing that motivates me, and yet the markers seem mostly to appear in hindsight.

I suppose my issue, inasmuch as I have one, is that I think goals are good, but only if we are open to the possibility of rethinking occasionally. I am a firm believer in importance of discernment. The daily task of paying attention: Paying attention to what is happening internally; paying attention to the feedback from my environment; paying attention to communication from God. That is something akin to the internal feedback of checking that I am on course, which is a little different to evaluating how I am doing with respect to my goal. Or it can be.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I think the direction we are headed in is more important than the proximity of a goal (whatever that goal might be). In pursuing a particular long favoured goal we may end up on the wrong trajectory. Pursing the goal may have simply been a useful means to get to place where we have greater perspective and are thus able to make different choices and set different goals.

We need to be attention on a daily basis; to notice whether the goals we set weeks, months or even years ago, are in fact still appropriate for our primal search for meaning. Goals are important but we need to continue to be discerning.