This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 24th February 2017.
The other day at Mass I learned it was the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It made me think of the number of feast days we have for Our Lady. I wondered why there were so many. Then I realised that she is the prime example of vocation. She was called by God for a special purpose and provides us with a template to follow.
When I was a wee boy we would often have visits from relations. There was often a wee auntie who would ask me if I thought I had a vocation. My blank face would prompt the follow up question, “Would you like to be a priest?” In fact I was more interested in becoming a cowboy like the ones in the Saturday morning cinema.
We often pray for vocations. This has become more important in a time when every diocese is running with fewer and fewer priests and religious orders are dwindling. That’s the story in the rich countries but in Africa and Asia there is no shortage of vocations to the religious life.
I think vocation is not properly understood today. We might have the expectation of an angel appearing before us with a personal message from God and pointing us in His direction. I don’t think that happens. I have two cousins who are nuns. They were based in England when one of them was instructed to go to America to serve there. Realising that she might never be back here they both came to stay with us for a few days in order to visit family before departing.
My younger daughter, finding it hard to understand how someone could give up a life and happiness, was full of questions. One of the sisters explained that her parents had opposed her vocation. They asked her to wait for a year and during that time they showered her with ‘good things’, a car, fine clothes and so on. At the end of that year she gave it all up and entered the order.
My daughter was amazed to see that my cousin carried all her possessions in one small carry-on bag. She really has no worldly goods. Strangely, you will never encounter a happier person. She is content with a life serving the poor, a life with a purpose.
It seems a bit strange that some should be singled out for a life of purpose, a life that can bring fulfilment. But surely that is not the case. God sees a purpose in every life. How often have you been to a funeral Mass where someone reads out a list of the achievements of the deceased? I can remember listening to lists of successes in business, property and holidays. I have heard of how a person’s worth can be measured in terms of worldly success. I think they always miss the point.
There is nothing wrong with owning your own home, your car and the things you need for life’s requirements. However, I don’t think these things are your purpose in life. We are living in a society where accumulation of wealth is the measure of a person. Leaders of big businesses are awarded bonuses of millions of pounds each year. Footballers can be paid more in a week than most people earn in a year. The divide between rich and poor is becoming greater with every budget statement.
It seems to be all about money. We all need money to pay the bills, buy the food, clothes, and pay the rent. What about all the rest? Actually we see less and less of money. Bills are paid straight from the bank. Salaries go into the bank. The money, for the most part, is just a number on a statement. I think that’s why billionaires buy large yachts moored in the Mediterranean and rarely used and large houses that nobody ever lives in. It’s the only way they can see their wealth. Adding a few zeroes on their bank account doesn’t convey any sense of richness. Having something concrete, even if they never use it, can reassure them that they are a success.
Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men of the nineteenth century, is quoted as saying “A man who dies rich dies disgraced.” Carnegie gave away his fortune to build libraries and invest in universities because he realised that the accumulation of wealth for its own sake was meaningless. So what does give meaning to our lives? We can look to doctors and nurses who treat the sick and sustain life and see a real purpose. In looking to others who serve we often use the term vocation again. So it’s not just priests and religious who have a vocation. In fact we all have a vocation; we are all called by God for one purpose or another.
I remember reading an article about public health where the author pointed out that it’s not doctors and nurses who save most lives. It’s the men who build and maintain the sewerage systems who do most in the fight against disease. Just look to countries where there are no sewage systems for confirmation of that. This is repeated throughout human endeavour. Famous architects are credited with the building of iconic buildings but not a stone would be laid on a stone without the skilled artisans who bring plans to reality. Nothing happens without those unnamed, uncelebrated people who work.
In reality we all have a vocation, perhaps more than one. We are all created for a purpose. Human society is like a building and we are the bricks that make it up. Some parts of the building are seen and others are hidden from view but the fanciest bit of carved stone on a facade is no more important that the stones hidden in the foundations. Without the hidden foundations the building would soon collapse.
Perhaps we should stop praying for vocations and start praying for discernment. We all have a vocation but mostly we don’t recognise it. If we can’t see the vocation we can’t respond to it. But the implications of what I’m saying go further than that. We are all called by God for a purpose. That may be a calling to be a husband or wife, parent to children. That is a sacred calling and should be treated as such. We are scandalised to hear of a priest who does not take his vocation seriously but seldom apply the same standards to our own vocation.
So let’s start praying for the ability to recognise our vocation for what it is. Let’s start living out each day as a sacred calling where everything we do for each other is part of God’s plan for mankind. Taking this seriously brings us grace in everything we do. The morning offering prayer we learned as a child is simply a recognition of this.
I need to concentrate on doing what I do well. I can forget any dreams of playing for Celtic and scoring the winning goal. Any glory I will achieve will be in the simple things I do each day for my fellow humans, done in God’s name.