On Vocations

The concept of vocation is important in Catholic spirituality. Much of it is dithering of the sort one can only be embarrassed to watch. For my own part, the idea of vocation is valuable in two very important ways, and worthless in its most commonly taken third sense.

1.) As a part of a general call to holiness. In this sense “discerning your vocation” means simply to focus on spiritual growth and to take it as a decisive and central, even including the important decision of what vows you should be taking. That said, every action in your life falls under this general call to holiness. You want God to be a part of your decisions about what vows you should take in much the same way that you want him to be a part of the decisions you make about anything: how you should act towards others, what you should do with your day, what movies you should watch, etc.

2.) As an account of vows one has already taken. Married persons must see their marriage as their vocation, simply by the fact that they were and are married. It is impossible that it is a mistake that must be dissolved or done away with. There are hard cases here, to be sure, but all vows in the Catholic sacramental dispensation are underwritten by omniscience, and omniscience cannot be mistaken or deceived. Absent this awareness, we might come to think that the vows we took were never meant to work out, or that it is blameless or even natural to “drift apart”, or that we’d be better off with someone else. This sense of vocation is crucial to me and, to be honest, I don’t see how anyone can make a vow without it.

But then there is the most common and worthless sense of the term

3.) The special revelation showing us what in particular we should do with our life. If, so we think, we just say the right prayer, recite the right formula or pay off the divinity with enough earnest and confused anxiety we will get some mystical assurance of what exactly to do with life. To be blunt, this has nothing to do with vow taking but is sheer superstition. All that ever comes of it is occasional emotional outpourings that are taken as surges of conviction followed by the anxiety of second guessing, morbid introspection, and endless questions that no one can answer – all of which add up to decade-sized units of wasted time.



  1. GeoffSmith said,

    February 4, 2014 at 7:28 am

    Yes, yes, and yes. I literally just taught about that to my Sunday school class. I put it online here, http://shallowthoughtswithgeoff.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/sunday-school-career-vs-calling/.

    Anyhow, people really expect the third one will happen to them, that God owes it to them, and that it would be somehow evil to go on without it. It’s sad because popular preachers perpetuated the myth and it isn’t particularly valuable from a practical point of view and good thinking about philosophy and divine revelation falsify it.

  2. February 4, 2014 at 10:45 am

    That … is personally very helpful. Brilliant! .

  3. February 4, 2014 at 11:35 am

    Mr. Chastek–

    I realize this is quite irrelevant to the post, but could you be persuaded to write a critique of this train wreck? Philosophical theology needs a good defender here, and someone on Twitter suggested you were just the man.

    If you are interested I can put you in touch with First Things.

  4. February 4, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    Be careful, the author is one of my readers!

    I’ve had a brief exchange with him before about his account of matter where I claimed he has to use wiggle words to describe the view of the ancients towards it, and I’d make the same claim about his article. He doesn’t say matter doesn’t exist but that it is “practically” non existent, though it seems clear to me that matter on the ancient account exists by participation or in relation to another, which is a very different thing. Maddeningly, he It’s also not clear whether he views the classical tradition as saying that matter vanishes at the end of time or whether it is simply logically committed to this, but both of them seem strange.

    Again, if God is a sensible being in space time, then the proof for his existence should be pretty simple: just point him out. Why are we bothering with all this reasoning when we could just solve the problem by scanning Google Earth or by pointing the Hubble in the right place? But why is it that no one has ever thought that this is the way to locate God?

    (To raise the question of Christ, it seems like the best way to understand his ascension is his entering into the shakina [the cloud] that indicates the hiddenness of the divine)

    Another way of putting his question is whether God’s existence is concrete or abstract. Put in this way, we have both the Euthyphro dilemma and Summa T q. 13 a. 1 as helpful guides, more importantly, we have a whole raft of Scripture texts where God is referred to in both concrete and abstract terms (I am the life, I am who am, etc).

  5. February 15, 2014 at 9:37 pm

    There’s a very helpful Thomistic book on this topic: Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery by Fr. Richard Butler, O.P.

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