Exploring a vocation
Damian Howard is the Superior of the Wapping Jesuit community and teaches Interreligious relations at Heythrop College.
Exploring vocation as a young person can feel like a leap into the unknown. I am realising that I don’t know myself that well; I have questions about my gifts and weaknesses, my identity and what’s really important for me. Sometimes the questions can seem so big it can be tempting to leave God to do the work of self-discovery for me, giving me a ready-made, magic answer to my quest for an authentic life which I can call my “vocation”. But there are no shortcuts to learning who I am and what state of life will give me a context for healthy and fruitful Christian service. So, a crucial part of finding “God’s will for me” is experimentation, sticking my neck out a bit, taking a few risks: visiting and talking to people and communities, trying out common life or volunteering, going on a retreat, generally making sure that “vocation” is not a private fantasy that stays safely in my head. But then if you are reading this then you have already set out on the journey, so you know what I am talking about.
We are not totally without a compass as we set off in quest of this authentic life. God long ago planted in our hearts the seed of a holy desire which makes it possible to trace a path to life, to follow a vocational thread. “Holy desire” comes in all shapes and sizes, sometimes a little odd, hard to take seriously. It can surface in a person we meet who makes an unexpected impression. Sometimes it comes to light in a crazy coincidence or a simple feeling of being “at home” for no very obvious reason. Again, it can even be around in a dream which gives me hope for my future, as it was for Ignatius of Loyola. But be careful: holy desire tends not to trumpet itself. Like the Sewer who sewed the seed in the first place, it doesn’t force itself upon us or sweep us off our feet. What it does, though, is endure. And it goes very deep, so deep that, even if it feels a little fragile, you really can build your life on it.
Finding and following your holy desire isn’t always an easy matter. Powerful mechanisms at work in our world today contrive to alienate us from our true desires, putting impostors in their place. We are variously brow-beaten with moralities cooked up by Government committees, our appetites aroused by the advertising of global markets, and our ambitions conditioned by the expectations of family, friends and media. No wonder so many of us are hard put to say who “the real me” is. Learning what I really desire, deep down, can only mean unlearning all the detritus which conceals my true self, dismissing the many voices who have misled me about what “success” means, what “love” involves. Laying all this stuff aside can leave me feeling vulnerable and exposed, which, I guess, is why so many people never even think to question the diet of phoney dreams they have been fed.
So, signs that you are being called by God probably include one or all of the following: a willingness to take your dreams seriously and to check them out in reality; a hint of a gentle but deep desire which illuminates your life; and a sense that beyond the lies and illusions you have started to see through there is something more to life. And, deep down, you really want to find it.