When in my old neighborhood, I always make it a point to visit Catholic Trade. I fondly remember how my Granny would take me there when I was kid and buy me whatever books I was drawn to. I was especially fascinated by the lives of saints, my childhood heroes being Dominic Savio and Francisco Marto of Fatima.
Anyway, it was at Catholic Trade that I recently found and bought, among others, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life, Gene Edward Veith’s short book on the Lutheran doctrine of vocation, as systematized by Gustaf Wingren in his 1942 dissertation, Luther on Vocation, which Veith considers (along with my favorite author C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity) “one of those books that opened my eyes to things I had never seen before, helping me see my Christian life in a completely different way” (p. 9).
The word vocation comes from the Latin vocātiō (a call or summons), and like Luther, Veith uses the word to refer to one’s callings as a worker (Ch. 5), in the family (Ch. 6), as a citizen (Ch. 7), and in the community (Ch. 8). A person therefore has multiple callings, which change, some slightly, some drastically, as one goes through life.
Among the several ideas in the book that resonated with me were:
1. The purpose of vocation is to provide us with countless opportunities (of which we will ultimately be accountable for) to love and serve our neighbor.
“The purpose of vocation is to love and serve one’s neighbor. This is the test, the criterion, the guide for how to live out each and every vocation anyone can be called to: How does my calling serve my neighbor? Who are my neighbors in my particular vocation, and how can I serve them with the love of God?” (p. 40)
There was a time when I used to think that loving one’s neighbor or being a “Good Samaritan” meant doing outreach work. I still like to engage in outreach, but I have learned that the bigger challenge is to love and serve those whom I spend my time with regularly – my natural and spiritual families, my students, and my colleagues at work.
2. Vocation is discerned, not chosen or quested after.
“Not only do we not choose our vocation, but, strictly speaking, we do not find our vocation, as if it is something unknown, awaiting us in the future. Rather, our vocation is already here, where we are and what we are doing right now.” (p. 57)
I believe that every human being has a general and a specific purpose, the former being to love (Matthew 22:36-40), and the latter being something unique that only one person can singularly fulfill. Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life taught me that one’s S.H.A.P.E. is unique, so I have always counseled young people that when making decisions about career, marriage, family, etc., they would do well to choose that which, considering their God-given and unique S.H.A.P.E., would enable them to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) and the Greatest Commandments (Matthew 22:36-40) to the greatest extent possible. However, Veith does have a very important point in reminding his readers not to be unduly focused on the future that one forgets the present.
3. Because vocations are callings for us to love and serve our neighbors, not every occupation or way of making a living can be a vocation. Moreover, one can sin against vocation.
Veith notes that certain occupations cannot be a vocation by the above definition, such as those that are intrinsically evil (e.g., contract killer), or even occupations that are legal but that nevertheless involve the making or selling of harmful products such as legal scams or bogus medicines (p. 66). He also points out that legitimate callings can be misused to bring harm to others, such as when a director pushes an actress to do a nude scene. This latter case is an example of what Veith calls “sinning against vocation” (p. 134). Related to this is what he calls “acting outside vocation” (p. 140), as when one engages in something one is not called to do, or when one engages too much in legitimate activities in one vocation (e.g., too much church activities) to the detriment of one’s other vocations (e.g., family or work/study).
Still on occupations, Veith also notes that “there is not a ‘Christian’ way to be a carpenter” (p. 154), or to carry out any secular occupation for that matter. The output of a technically good carpenter who is a Christian and that of an equally good carpenter who is an unbeliever can both be equally good. What would differentiate the two would be the quality of their inner lives, though Veith does not go further to say that the quality of their inner lives could also affect the quality of their outputs.
4. God uses vocations to provide us with what we need, and to protect and even avenge us.
Though God could give us food directly (as when he gave the Israelites manna in the desert), he usually does so through vocations, e.g., through farmers, wholesalers, retailers, delivery personnel, and cooks, among others. It is also through vocations that we are given the wherewithal to obtain what we need. Similarly, God teaches and protects us through the vocations of parents, teachers, mentors, and pastors, among others. He protects and avenges citizens through the various vocations in government.
5. There are crosses to bear in vocation. These crosses drive us to prayer, which in turn enables us to rest in God.
“…[C]rosses are never self-chosen… Crosses we choose are not crosses… What should Christians do when they experience trials and tribulations and temptations in their vocations?…[These] drive us to prayer… What suffering does is to bring God into our vocations.” (pp. 148-149)
“Occupy your office with prayer. The results and consequences and outcomes are largely beyond your control [your children may reject God, your business may go bankrupt, your political opponent may defeat you by buying votes]. But they are not beyond God’s control… God is working through what we do in vocation. We are merely his instruments. When we realize that, we can relax.” (p. 149)
Today, I officially assume the position of Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs of my university, with the mandate of ensuring high levels of excellence in pedagogy and curriculum. May I remember all the above as I love and serve my neighbors through this new vocation!
(Many thanks to the missionaries of the Society of the Divine Word. It was only on my last visit to Catholic Trade that I learned that the said store was established by them in 1924.)