On Cairns and Callings

Rock cairns are wonderful metaphors for vocation, and especially vocational discernment. The rock at the top of the cairn is rectangular in shape. It lines up with the opening beneath it. That rock and that opening point from one cairn to the next. At any given point in time all you can see is the cairn behind you and the cairn in front of you. There is no clear path to follow. But, if you trust the cairns (and the people who placed them there) you can safely get to the top of the mountain from which there is an amazing view.  

For our 30th anniversary (summer of 2019, during life before Covid), my husband and I spent five days hiking in Arcadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine. We have spent 30 plus years hiking together. We raised our children hiking. My son (now 23) recently commented that hiking is what you do to spend time with family and what you do when you need to get away from your family. “Hiking,” he said, “is the answer to everything.” Though there is no point in time at which we made a conscious decision that hiking would be our family coping mechanism, that is, indeed, what happened.

Most of our hiking has been in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Hiking in Maine–the northern tip of the same Appalachian Trail–was a different experience. One of the first and most important lessons we learned was how to read rock cairns. The trail to the top of Dorr Mountain is a challenging one with stone stairways, ladders affixed to steep cliffs, and tight squeezes between boulders. As you approach the top of the mountain the path is marked with rock cairns. Unlike the mountains we are used to in North Carolina, Dorr Mountain is more rock than soil. So, while there are tree-like shrubs, at the higher altitudes there are no legitimate trees through which to follow a path. So the Park Service has erected rock cairns to safely guide hikers up and down the steep upper section of the mountain.

In David Brooks’ article “The Summoned Self” he suggests that while vocation is sometimes planned, it is more often discovered.

Life isn’t a project to be completed; it is an unknowable landscape to be explored.

David Brooks

I am a hyper-organized person. I (only somewhat) jokingly believe that with the right planner and the perfect set of colored pens I could rule the world. Or at least get all the things I need to do done. So a notion of vocation that rests on discovery of that which is unknowable challenges that part of me that believes I can and should be in control of my destiny, or at least of my daily schedule. 

Brooks goes on to say: “The person leading the Well-Planned Life emphasizes individual agency, and asks, ‘What should I do?’ The person leading the Summoned Life emphasizes the context, and asks, ‘What are my circumstances asking me to do?’” Our circumstances include all manner of things from the particular point in history in which we find ourselves, to our educational background, our specific set of interests and abilities, our family situation and needs, the needs of our many communities, and our most tightly held beliefs. Each of these circumstances become, in a sense, a rock cairn that can point us one step further on our vocational journey.

This image shifts our notion of understanding from that of something one does (is supposed to do, is called to do) to the way one lives. My vocation is less about what I will do when I grow up and more about what I am doing right now, regardless of my age.

I am also an ELCA (Lutheran) theologian and deacon. One of my favorite prayers in the Lutheran liturgy is: “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Good courage is exactly what vocational discernment requires, especially when we recognize the “unknowness” involved. I remember when I was in graduate school and struggling with my first draft of my dissertation proposal. One of friends and colleagues told me that writing a dissertation proposal felt an awful lot like designing a travel brochure for a place you’ve never visited. Imagining vocation as a journey, a path to and through a place you’ve never visited can be disorienting. As someone who loves to know exactly where I am going and what I am expected to do (accomplish, produce, etc.) the open-endedness of the vocation of the “summoned self” can be disorienting.  

But the beauty is also in the open-endedness. I cannot get it wrong. Though all hiking trails in Acadia do not lead to the same mountain tops or the same views, all of the trails provide a path, a journey, worthy of exploration. Similarly, if I am responding to the various rock cairns of the circumstances in my life there is no one right vocation, no one right path, but a seemingly endless set of possible paths, that may lead to drastically different places via equally beautiful trails. 

The interesting thing about such an understanding of vocation is its retrospective quality. That is, I may discern various answers to the question(s) of what my circumstances are asking me to do in the present, with an eye to the future. But planning my life out one circumstance at a time may seem haphazard; it may seem to lack purpose. However, from various vantage points along the way I will be able to look back and tell a story of the journey that took me from point A to point N. It may well be that in that story I discover that I was living my vocation all along.

For further reading: On lessons for vocation from the experience of walking the Camino, see Rebecca Lahti’s three-part reflection. For other blog posts that refer to David Brooks’ notion of “the summoned life,” see Marty Stortz’s exercises featuring the metaphor of “path” and Jason Mahn’s “Neighboring and Sheltering in Place.” For a different angle on similar themes, see “Calling as Summons: Treading Carefully in the ‘Cult of Calling'” by Benjamin Norquist. On courage, see “Hope as the Will to Turn Things Upside Down” and “Seeking the Courage to Know What Matters,” both by Esteban Loustaunau, and “Stories that Inspire Courage and Hope” by Shirley Showalter. On seeing retrospectively and prospectively, see John Barton’s “Back to the Future: The Prolepsis of Vocational Discernment.”


Mindy Makant is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Living Well Center for Vocation and Purpose at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina.  She is the author of two books, The Practice of Story: Suffering and the Possibilities of Redemption (Baylor, 2015) and Holy Mischief: in Honor and Celebration of Women in Ministry (Cascade, 2019). For more blog posts by Mindy, click here. The photo of the rock cairn above was taken by Mindy.

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