The American poet Robert Frost once said that his life’s challenge was to join his vocation with his avocation. In one of his iconic poems, he says that the two are as inseparable as the two eyes of the body:
“… As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.”
The Latin root for “vocation” is “vocare,” which means “to call.” Frost’s poem reminds us that the call does not come entirely from outside of ourselves, or despite ourselves. The truth is that God also endows us with certain qualities which draw us, and equip us, to fulfill the vocation to which he calls us. Frost’s challenge to join his vocation with his avocation is not without divine planning and assistance.
God has a plan for every individual, and he calls each of us in a variety of ways so that we may live a fruitful life (both in time and in eternity), using the talents and graces that he has given. When we hear the word vocation, we often think of the call from God to the priesthood or religious life. We need to remember, however, now more than ever, when marriage and family life cannot be taken for granted, that they too constitute a vocation from God. The Second Vatican Council speaks of the “universal call to holiness” that we all receive as part of the sacrament of baptism.
“Every state of life leads to holiness, always,” says Pope Francis, but only if we are open to the grace of God’s gift. Our Holy Father tells us that holiness “constitutes the distinctive character of every Christian.” However, we must continually make ourselves available to hear and respond to God’s call, and then continually find ways to renew fruitfully our vocational mission and refresh its expression.
Recently, I had the joy of ordaining five new priests, three transitional deacons and 10 permanent deacons. Our new priests are between the ages of 25 and 64 and come from as close as Connecticut and as far away as Colombia. Reflecting on these wonderful celebrations, as well as my own 40th anniversary of priesthood on June 26 of this year, I think of my earliest memories of a call to priesthood.
No audible divine voice sounded in my ear as a young boy growing up in Detroit, but from my earliest years in grade school, I remember being drawn to the priesthood. My family’s weekly attendance at Mass, the devotional and liturgical seasons of life, the faith-filled atmosphere of a Catholic school and the words and example of the teaching sisters all conspired to awaken in me a desire to be a priest. Such was God’s call to me, and time would prove (not in my judgment alone, but in the judgment of many others) that I happily had both the vocation and the avocation to priesthood.
Hearing and heeding God’s call is a deeply personal experience, as unique as a fingerprint. I never tire of hearing witness stories about the wondrous ways in which God calls and reveals himself to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. “Seek, and you will find,” Jesus assures us, provided we have faith.
Let me tell you about a man who, while he was a corporate executive in the year 2000, was struck by Henri Nouwen’s observations about the power of today’s violent images in the media. Nouwen said that we can wind up being manifestations of the images to which we are exposed, and that if we only allowed ourselves godly imagery, we would increasingly become reflections of God himself. This executive made a concerted effort to do this. One day, he went into a favorite church of his, and in silence prayed: “Lord, please give me an image of yourself so that I can better know and envision you.” As he prayed, he recalled a voice “pouring into him” and saying “it’s not so much your image of me that matters; rather, it’s my image of you.” There and then, the man understood that God wanted him to see his true self, a creature made in the image and likeness of God, redeemed by Christ, and called to eternal life.
It was a grace-filled moment and a life-changing one, too. No longer a corporate executive, that man is now a permanent deacon and currently serves as the director of the archdiocese’s Office of Pastoral Planning. “Deacon Ernie” readily shares his transformational experience in the parish homilies he delivers, and when he counsels those who ask for accompaniment on their discernment journeys. He tells them to ask the Lord for the grace to know, understand and love themselves as God knows, understands and loves them – to listen for the voice of God, specifically calling out to them.
“Every state of life leads to holiness, always,” says Pope Francis. We are blessed indeed if by God’s grace we can hear and heed the call of our vocation and avocation “as … two eyes make one in sight … where love and need are one.”
For those who feel God may be calling them to the priesthood, visit www.hartfordpriest.com; for religious life or the diaconate, go to http://archdioceseofhartford.org/vocations; and for the Christian state of marriage and family, see http://archdioceseofhartford.org/office-of-family-life.