Wednesday, September 17, 2008


When I was assigned dean of men in seminary many years ago, I remember inviting the students to give trust and openness a chance in order that good things may result. And while it took a while for many of them to accept that invitation, it did come eventually; and while I was aware of how difficult it was for some, it was truly gratifying that by the time I was getting a new assignment, most of them had in fact found their way out of their shells and opened themselves up to the possibility that the priests who were assigned to form them really had their best interest in mind. To put it more simply, while it took a while before it actually happened, most if not all, of them eventually trusted that we were genuinely interested in them, and were not merely doing our job.

This calls to mind a conversation I had with my spiritual director in Louvain. Fr. Rick Friedrichs was a wonderful priest from Rhode Island, whose ways with us his students spoke very clearly of his care and concern for those he was guiding. At one of our meetings, during a pause in the conversation, I remember asking him a question which probably caught him by surprise, but which, I guess, didn’t really bother him. “Do you really care for your spiritual directees or are you just doing it because it’s your job?” I was afraid I had offended him by asking a question that seemed to suggest that I didn’t trust him enough. Always the perceptive guy however, Fr. Friedrichs must’ve sensed that I was asking a sincere question. “Both”, he said. “It is a job”, he added, “I wouldn’t deny that. But it’s not just a ‘job’. It’s what I do. I’m a spiritual director, and I love what I do, I like guiding, assisting, and caring for people very much. And you’re one of them”. His response was both sincere and real. I was to have a very similar conversation with one of my students in seminary years later.

That answer I got from my spiritual director—“loving what we do”—is a great way of bringing together the two sides of our concept of ‘vocation’. On the one hand, vocation is about God calling us, inviting and drawing us to him. But vocation is also about us responding to that invitation, of being attracted to God’s invitation, because of a seed that he has planted deep in our hearts. What exactly is this ‘seed’? In the first chapter of the gospel of John, we find what could well be a most profound way of understanding what this ‘seed’ is. Two of John the Baptist’s disciples begin following Jesus after the latter points to him as the “Lamb of God”. Out of a great curiosity, or a strong initial interest perhaps, they tail Jesus for a while, until he turns around, looks at them both and asks: “What are you looking for?” (Jn 1:38)

“What are you looking for?” A better sense-translation of the Greek, ti zeteite, would probably be “What do you want?” The Greek zetein— “to search”, means in a more profound sense, “to desire for something”. What Jesus was asking the two curious ones was in fact, what they “desired”—i.e., what they most eagerly wanted, what in their heart of hearts they longed for more than anything else. To which they respond of course, with a question that spoke of what was in their hearts: “Teacher, where do you stay?” It was a question that in effect meant, “We want to know you more. We want to know who you really are. Show us where you live. Take us there. Take us with you.” What is most interesting about this episode is that Jesus takes them with him, saying: “Come and see”. (Jn 1:39)

Desire is the force that powers the universe. We’re not talking about some superficial kind of ‘wanting’ here, like wanting to be wealthy or popular, or powerful. Nor does this kind of desire include in its scope, desire for what is obviously wrong and misguided. What we’re referring to instead is, knowing what one, in the “innermost core” of himself, earnestly seeks in life. We’re talking about vision and goal, of ultimate purpose. We’re talking about what we normally mean when we use language like “what I am called to do”, “what I would like to be”, “what shape I would like my life to take”. Just as Jesus’ question to the curious followers of the Baptist was the foundational question that led them to follow him more closely, so too is that question which God himself has planted deep in our hearts—“what do I so earnestly seek in life”—the foundational question of all true vocation.

Noli foras ire, in te redi, in interiore homine habitat veritas, says St. Augustine. “Do not go out of yourself, go within, truth dwells in the inner man”. God has placed the seed of vocation deep within our hearts and souls and it is there that he speaks to us, inviting us, and showing us the way. Unfortunately, most of the time, we are like the disciples after the Ascension, constantly “looking up to heaven” for signs that should rather be sought from within. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” (Acts 1:11) Vocation is about looking into ourselves, taking stock of the gifts, talents, skills that God has given us, and asking ourselves in all honesty, what it is that we would like to make of these blessings. “What would I like to do with these gifts?” “What would I like to do with my life?” “What would I like to be?”

“What would you like to be when you grow up?” was a question we were all asked as children. As we do “grow up”, however, we learn two important things: first, that being “grown up” is not so much a final stage one arrives at in life, it’s rather a long and never-ending process; and second, we never really outgrow that question, “What would you like to be?” Life after all—our “calling” to “be all we can be”—is very much like “growing up”, it’s a never ending process that calls us to never cease responding to the invitation placed before us by God himself. Put more simply, it’s being aware of those special gifts, the “charisms” we have, and putting them to good use.

As a student in Louvain, I had the opportunity to be among six students interviewed by the board of benefactors of the seminary. One of the questions I remember from that encounter was asked by the owner of a large European company. After telling us that he appreciated everything we said about our faith, vocation, studies, etc., he paused, took a deep breath and said: “Now gentlemen, tell me, what do you wish to do as priests?” He wasn’t at all expecting the usual “celebrate the mass”, or “be a good or holy priest”, response. He was asking us what line of work, what specific area of ministry, we wanted to go into as priests and which we thought we would be good at. In terms more familiar to us, he wanted to know what “charisms” we believed we had, were bringing into the church, and wanted to realize and live out as priests.

My spiritual director’s answer to the question I asked him hit the nail on the head. He was happy with his work, his ministry. He was good and effective at it, because he “loved what he was doing”. He was “a spiritual director”. That was his gift from God, that was his charism, and being a good spiritual director was his way of realizing that gift and responding to his vocation. One always goes the extra mile when he truly appreciates, enjoys, and loves the work he does. And that was why when we, his spiritual directees, would talk about him, the common experience we all shared was that this was one happy and fulfilled priest, who loved his ministry and whose life was “whole”. And that happiness, fulfillment, and “wholeness” rubbed off on everyone he met and ministered to, his directees most of all

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)