Common Wisdom: Answer the Call

If you could relive the years of your early 20s, would you? Chances are you would not. Most people recall their young adulthood as a time not only of high excitement but also of high anxiety, a period of great peaks and valleys that they scarcely could weather a second time.

The consuming question of what path our lives will take unfolds over our entire span; it ultimately resolves only at death. The specific issue, however, of what work we will do in life— and, most important, for whom and with whom we will do it—is a huge choice that generally befalls us in our youth. It is a choice laid on young people who, often enough, have all the wrong preparation to address it at the depth it deserves.

Our go-go secular culture teaches young people to run faster and faster but not to address life as larger and larger. The tendency, then, for many young people, especially those who have suffered through an illiberal, politicized, overly technical education, is to view life in terms small and shallow rather than sweeping and profound.

The clearest examples of this narrow view are the typical high school and college curricula, which point students merely toward a career. Translate career as a good job that is enjoyable and provides advancement and financial opportunities. No one would dispute the desirability of liking one’s job and reaping its fruits. The problem lies in making a job the highest thing. A job, a career, is encompassed by something much higher and greater—a vocation. Though a career should be compatible with one’s vocation, it can never rightly exceed it.

Vocation is a reality about which the secular world goes blank. Yet everyone has a vocation, a calling to holiness that is unique to the person, a gift that God calls each person to fulfill. On the one hand, the career touted by secular education and, unfortunately, by some brands of Catholic education, promotes self-assertion, which requires a continual jockeying for position and title. Achievement in these terms equates with material success and human respect. Preparation for this kind of success by self-assertion begins in high school, or earlier, when parents vie to get their children into the “best” schools and teachers of advanced placement courses teach to the AP test rather than integrating their students into the truth of a particular academic discipline.

On the contrary, the Christian vocation is a call to self-giving, in which a career or job is a means, not an end. For his work to have meaning, the Christian must see that his job enhances the greater vocation to holiness that is his vocation for life. If a vocation is a gift and a call, it is also a gift that the Christian chooses to accept. Therefore, as Pope John Paul II continually emphasizes, a vocation is a moral choice that defines us.

Once we determine that self-giving rather than self-assertion is our true vocation, then our path by which we specifically will live our vocation becomes clearer. We simply follow the signs the Lord sets up for us. But meanwhile, a young person can experience untold anguish in discerning whether he is called to a lay vocation or a vocation to the religious life. The wisest counselors advise young people to lighten up, keep close to the sacraments, spend time in private prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and follow opportunities for apostolic work. Before long, the way becomes certain. Once the choice is made, the young person often experiences tremendous peace and relief.

Nonetheless, discerning either a religious vocation or a lay vocation can generate months or years of churning. Hardly anyone these days seeks a religious vocation, and the first reaction is to slam the door. The Lord, however, is vigilant; He has mysterious ways of issuing His invitation over and over. He never coerces; He invites. After a period of wooing, the invitee may say, “Well, I’ll at least look.” Looking tells the tale, one way or another.

Discerning a vocation to marriage, the usual path of the lay vocation, may be more common than discerning a religious vocation, but it is equally difficult, difficult because marriage is a vocation to give one’s life to a particular person. So—where is that person? How do people find each other?

A radio preacher, whose name escapes me, recently gave the most comforting words to young people I’ve ever heard. His beautiful daughter, who was nearly out of her 20s, mourned that she would never find the right fellow, and yet she was sure her vocation was to marry and have children. She prayed and waited, remaining chaste and refusing to join the bar scene. Finally, at age 29, she found the man of her dreams, to whom she is now blissfully married.

Her father, as if he had just read Pope John Paul II, offered his youthful audience this advice: Live life by giving now, and don’t worry. Exert yourself in self-giving. If you spend your time in self-pity, that is a waste. Instead, enjoy the family and friends you do have, and if it turns out that you don’t marry, then your full life will not have been wasted. If it turns out that you do marry (and most people do), your life of giving service will have been a preparation.

This preacher is right: Prepare for the life you want. Prepare for marriage by practicing chastity. Prepare for the challenges of either the lay vocation or the religious vocation by habits of prayer and intellectual and practical virtue. Build habits of virtue, and when the time comes for God to unfold his providential plan for your vocation, you will be ready.


Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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