Queer individuals are called to perceive a truth inside themselves, name it as an identity marker, reckon with it, tell the truth about it even in the face of hostility, find others who perceive a comparable identity marker, and build community for the betterment of all of us. That, to me, is the essence of a spiritual journey. It is more than that. In my faith tradition, we refer to this as a call. It is a vocation.
Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman, Queer Virtue (2016).
I have often wondered about the role that queer identity can make in a person’s vocational discernment. In what ways does queer identity become an integral part of how one discerns, what that discernment looks like, and the result of the discernment process? What is the role of eros, desire, and the body in the process of vocational discernment? Most, importantly, how can we educate students in their vocational journey to embrace an embodied discernment that includes gender, sexuality, and passion?
For any person, the process of what I have named “becoming-selfhood-in-relation” comes into being through the integration of many factors— body, mind, and spirit, as well as through social context, culture, history, and social location factors (Embracing Disruptive Coherence, p. xi). For LGBTQIA+ persons there is an added step in a vocational journey: understanding and embracing an identity awareness in relation to the hetero-normativities that exist in society, and making peace with both its disruptiveness and its capacity to create more internal coherence. For LGBTQIA+ persons, a vocational calling is discerned most fully and clearly within the integration of their vocational journey with the process of their queer identification, which is deeply connected to an awareness of gender and sexuality in their lives. Thus, queer embodiment—the visible awareness and manifestation of their queer bodies, desires, and identities—must be an integral part of their vocational discernment.
The psycho-social work of developing a healthy and ethically grounded embodied self is a part of young people’s maturation process. For LGBTQIA+ students this process can bump up against the norms of society and culture which for many does not fully express the complexity of their identification of self. With a sense of the bodily integrity that comes with embracing a truthful authenticity about oneself, LGBTQIA+ students can better marshal internal resources (spiritual, emotional, physical) to bring into clarity and visibility a sense of how to serve the world. Part of what makes the closet so damaging to vocational discernment is that it obscures a tangible and visible embodiment of self and prevents a person from accessing the fullness of their strength and power to discern a direction that provides meaning and purpose both for themselves and for the world.
In my own process of coming to awareness and maturity, I formed a vocational direction for my life well before I ever discerned an awareness of a deeper calling. My youth was spent dealing with my mother’s prolonged illness and death. (See my “Stretching Without Breaking” in Sisters in Mourning: Daughters Reflecting on Care, Loss, and Meaning, pp. 19-34). My religious faith helped me during that period, and after, to stabilize myself and to make peace with the experience. As a result, I found myself drawn to religion and teaching as a vocation to empower persons with the freedom that a connection to transcendent reality can provide, as well as to better understand and engage in religious communities that might support that journey. This provided a powerful sense of significance and direction for me, and yet, I was restless and disoriented, struggling to comprehend the deeper movements of my spirit that were pushing me beyond that understanding. Through the process of coming out, making that reality visible in my life, and integrating it into my calling, I found a more profound expression of meaning and purpose. While still embracing the vocational direction of the power of religious experiences and communities in people’s lives I embraced a calling to integrate gender, sexuality, and spirituality openly in my own vocational expression. This depth of conviction continues to sustain my vocational journey and commitment as it grows and expands into new directions.
The trans experience can be a dramatic instance of the way that queer embodiment might interact with a vocational journey. Justin Sabia-Tanis provides a striking example of the integration of embodiment and discernment in his articulation of calling in his life as a trans person. In Trans-Gender: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith (2003), he describes his understanding of “gender as a calling”:
I … have had a sense of being called into a gender, called to live beyond the limitations of our society’s view of gender or what others told me was true about my own gender. I believe that God called me out on this journey of gender to learn particular things and to experience the world in a broader way. I was called to trust God and step out into uncharted territory to learn about myself and about who and what God has called me to be. Calling is about what we are to do and about who we are to be, as well as who we will become.Justin Sabia-Tanis, Trans-Gender: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith (p. 146).
He integrates and makes visible his trans experience with his experience of vocational journey and discernment. He views this as an integral aspect of calling for the trans community: “For trans people, our calling is to a way of embodying the self that transcends the limitations placed upon us. We physically and literally materialize who we are on the inside and bring it to reflection on the outside” (p. 147).
A focus on embodied discernment can anchor various reflection processes that are part of an education that fosters attention to finding a sense of meaning and purpose and that finds ways to connect students to their bodily experiences. For example, I like to ask the question: What do you care passionately about? From that base I can build upon it with more concrete questions such as the following:
- If that passion was a food, what would it taste and smell like?
- What does it feel like?
- If it were a song, what would the music sound like?
- What meme would visually represent it?
Another question for reflection could focus on the energies of possibilities and barriers present in discernment, such as “When you reflect upon a vocational direction, what feels energizing and what feels burdensome?” You might make a connection here with a significant principle from the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius about “consolation and desolation.” I find Vinita Hampton Wright’s definitions helpful: consolation is present when you “sense the growth of love or faith or mercy or hope”; desolation is present when you “sense the growth of resentment, ingratitude, selfishness, doubt, fear, and so on.”
For all persons, embracing an embodied discernment process can form a direction or calling in a deeper and more integrated way. For LGBTQIA+ students making connections to queer embodiment is a fundamental component of their development. When reflections on vocation are embodied, lives of meaning and purpose can be formed genuinely from the centered integration of body, mind, and spirit. Passion and desire can be accessed and put to the service of creating a just society. For queer students this can make all the difference.
Kathleen T. Talvacchia is a contextual theologian with interest in practical theology, Christian practices of marginalized communities, and Queer theology. She was previously at Union Theological Seminary and New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science. Most recently she authored Embracing Disruptive Coherence: Coming Out as Erotic Ethical Practice (2019) and co-edited Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (2015). While one part of her would love for vocational journeying to include a predictable map, her better-self rolls with and revels in the messy, unpredictable energy of Divine Wisdom. For other blog posts by Kathy, click here.