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Saturday, October 08, 2005


Started this a week ago, and have only just finally returned to it. Not sure it was worth it--but why waste a post, right?

Tonight at mass we had a great homily by a visiting priest. It focused on the rather scary first and third readings, which both have to do with a vintner whose best efforts are continually disappointed: in the one case, because, despite his heroic gardening measures, no good grapes grow (leading him to completely destroy the vineyard), and in the other because the vintner's ungrateful tenants start thinking they have a right to the land he's leasing them, and beat and abuse all his messengers, until finally they kill the vintner's own son. (This reading ends with the promise that the vintner will dispossess those tenants and rent out his land to a more worthy group of tenants).

What the homilist focused on, however, was the vintner's (i.e., God's) sadness and disappointment that all his care and trust had not produced anything, and he went from there to discuss the ways in which we often think that our relationship with God is pretty free and comfortable and quite unlike the relationship that we have with any earthly boss--God's a nice, forgiving guy, and doesn't really expect anything in particular, except maybe showing up in church now and again and sometimes giving a little money. But how do we actually live our lives? What gifts are we given, and how are we using them? How does our work life relate to our spiritual life? Do we have a sense of acting meaningfully in everything we do--and of trying to meet a standard of justice, morality, and compassion?

His homily made me think about the issue of vocation. Not to the religious life, but in the weberian sense of a true professional calling. When George Washington Boyfriend and I started dating, at the end of my second and his fourth year of graduate school, I remember his talking about his sense that academia was that for him, and that it was something he'd felt for a long time. His best friend in grad school also had that same sense of mission--and, sure enough, both of them came to grad school straight from college, finished their Ph.D's in five years, and got great tenure-track jobs.

And I remember finding this so strange, and wishing that I could say that I felt the same way. I pretty much snuck into the Ph.D. program through the M.A. program, which in turn I'd decided to do because I wasn't ready to commit to law school. I wasn't particularly happy in grad school those first few years, I wasn't convinced I was smart enough to be there in the first place (clearly I'd gotten into the M.A. program only because I'd been an undergrad at INRU and knew some people, and clearly I'd gotten into the Ph.D. program only because I'd already proven that I could do the coursework). Even after I decided to stay in grad school, I wasn't at all sure that I wanted to stay in academia.

But somewhere along the line, I have become convinced that this is my calling. I could and would leave it, if the job market doesn't feel the same way for long enough--but at some point I guess I started to get good at this and to derive real satisfaction from it. After a rough start, my dissertation blossomed into something that I feel passionately about and that I think really matters to my field; it certainly matters to me. The issues I work on have everything to do with how I understand the world and how I understand human nature, and they can translate into issues that are urgent for many students as well. I saw that the other day in a mini-lecture that I gave in my survey class: the historical background, which was the point of the lecture, went fine, but I spent most of my time expanding on what these events meant, experientially, to the people who lived through them--and why in the world people might have felt and behaved in the ways they did--and my students were fucking rapt. It was fantastic.

I think I'm doing good work, and I think I do have a sense of mission. The question is, though, is it a calling if you're not called? If you kinda fall into something, muddle along, and eventually make the field your own? As I say, if academia doesn't work out for me, I have no doubt that I could make a go of it in some other field and find just as many rewards and eventually see it as just as much of a calling. I just don't think there's such a thing as a single destiny, in careers, in love, or in anything else.

That's one reason I've always preferred the conversion of Ignatius of Loyola to that of Paul: I just don't buy the road to Damascus. I buy the story of a guy who kinda bets himself that he can live a good life. Who doesn't know if he has much faith, but who decides to go through the motions of the holy life, imitating the saints in his outward actions--until eventually his inner self mirrors his outer self.

Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
It shall be still in strictest measure even,
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven;
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great Taskmaster's eye.

link | posted by La Lecturess at 11:11 PM |


Blogger Terminaldegree commented at 12:27 AM~  

Thanks for sharing this post.

Well, it's too late at night for me to be a brilliant theologian (not that I'd be a brilliant theologian any earlier in the day either)... :)

...You wrote: "The question is, though, is it a calling if you're not called?

So my question is: "Are all 'callings' equally loud-and-clear? Are not some of us perhaps called in a way that makes us search our souls along the way?"

A good case of this might be Samuel, who spent a lot of time just trying to figure out who the heck was even calling him! :)

I tend to raise an eyebrow when someone knows, at the ripe old age of 18 or so, what their "calling" is. But then I've never bought the idea of predestination in any form. :)

Stepping down out of the pulpit now. I get confused up there. ;)

Blogger What Now? commented at 3:09 PM~  

Excellent post (definitely worth your posting!). My school got a grant to talk about vocation, which means that I've been in countless discussions about it for the last couple of years. And one of the things I've decided in the midst of all of those discussions is that I often find the idea of vocation kind of problematic, at least in the way that we often define it. This past summer I was in a two-day workshop about how we discuss vocation with our first-year students, and I mentioned some of the problems I have with the idea of vocation, and another person in my small group said that she didn't find it a helpful concept at all and that she never thought of her work as vocation. When we all reported back to the group as a whole, you would have thought, by the reaction we got, that my group was spitting on the Holy Grail. So that experience made me feel even more uneasy about vocation, if it's become such an untouchable concept that we can't even talk about it critically!

Okay, that was clearly a hijacking of the comments with my own issues. Sorry! Thanks for a good post.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 10:30 AM~  

Thanks, guys (and welcome, Terminal!). I like the idea of a calling being ve-wee, ve-wee quiet, and being something that one has to figure out--even my artist friends, who are the closest to having what seems like a calling to me, do doubt their own sense of vocation regularly.

(It's funny how a vocation seems often to require external validation: ability to get a job, or get paid, or get good reviews. Maybe that's what's behind your experience, WN: to question the *idea* of vocation means that you're questioning the vocation of those people--I assume some of them were priests?--who need & want most to believe in them as relatively straightforward and clear-cut things.)

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