Conviction and Covering

After watching the Netflix series about academia, The Chair, I’ve been thinking about its many connections to teaching as a calling that is imbued with a vivid sense of purpose. Series executive producer Amanda Peet, in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, spoke about how impressed she was with the deep sense of calling she found in the faculty with whom she spoke as she developed the script. For me though, I was most engaged with the capacity of the women characters in the series to maintain that sense of calling amid the difficult racial and gender dynamics that they experienced with some of their white, male colleagues. These relationships—full of invalidations, microaggressions, bias, racial and gender discrimination, and harassment—were depicted in a realistic way that, frankly, made me squirm with anger and discomfort at times. As depicted in the series, their sense of conviction about the deeper meaning and purpose of their work helped them to both resist and navigate through the very real obstacles.

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Finding a Way When Vocation is Denied

“I’m confused about my vocational direction.” I often heard these words from students when I was mentoring seminary students. In some instances, the student was clear that ordained ministry was the calling but was searching for the right fit of location and work. In other instances, ordained ministry was not the direction and so the task became helping the student to discern what service to the greater good might look like for them.

The most difficult situations, though, involved those students who had a clear sense of calling, meaning and purpose in a specific area in which there were barriers, based in bias and marginalization, to their engagement in that type of work. For example, there might be an inability to get the credentials needed because of poverty or a lack of opportunity due to systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, or transphobia. In other instances, the block might be an injury, family responsibility, a disabling condition, religious institutional practices, or larger world events. Most often in these challenging instances, the student was perfectly clear about a vocational direction; what was unclear was what to do instead.

How do we guide students to find their calling, when the fulfillment of that calling is denied to them in very real ways? How do we help them to find a way of living out their calling despite the barriers they face, rather than helping them find “what to do instead”?  

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Coming Out into Vocation

New York Pride March, June 2019

I love the celebrations of Pride Month in New York. Some are solemn in remembrance of the violence, both historical and recent, that has been perpetrated against queer-identifying persons. Some are political as they seek to push for legislations to protect LGBTIQ+ persons, especially trans persons, in this moment of backlash. Some are totally celebratory—perhaps best seen in the vibrant, raucous, joyful, and diverse affirmations of pride, dignity, and equality evident at the annual New York City Pride March. For Queer persons, the common theme of “pride” animates an energy to make visible and affirm an authentic sense of self and of community that transgresses normative understandings of gender and sexuality, thereby creating a more inclusive understanding of humanity.

This drive for authenticity and visibility grounds the work of vocational discernment.  Indeed, for LGBTIQ+ persons coming out to a deeper understanding of our gender identity and sexuality centers the search for meaning and purpose in our embodied lived experience. Embracing our authenticity, even as it pushes us up against what is considered “normal,” illuminates the directions we must take for greater vocational clarity. We can make an impact in our LGBTIQ+ students’ lives when we help them embrace and celebrate their gender and sexuality as a strength and a resource to draw upon in the process of discerning their vocation. For students from marginalized communities this effort can make it possible for them to see beyond barriers put in their way because of systemic injustice. For students who are LGBTIQ+ this can literally be a lifeline to survival. As we seek to educate and advise students towards vocational development, we can partner with our LGBTIQ+ students in ways that help them to understand themselves more fully and assist their capacity to integrate that knowledge with their emerging sense of vocation. 

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Cultivating Dissent as a Tool for Vocational Discernment

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2016 portrait

Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.

– Ruth Bader Ginsburg, NPR interview, May 2, 2002.

This insight from the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has resonated with me in these weeks since her passing. The social movements in the name of justice that characterize our present moment require us to engage in a deeper reflection on the meaning of dissent and its effectiveness in shaping vocational direction. Dissent, used wisely and with integrity, forces us to clarify the deeply held convictions at the heart of our oppositional response. In the process of that discernment and clarification, we can discover greater purpose and meaning in our life.

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“The Whispers of the Spirit”: Discerning Meaning in the Work of Justice

As a disenfranchised citizen who yearned for a change, as a child born on the dark side of the American dream, I heard the whispers of the spirit calling to me to wrestle with the soul of a nation. – John Lewis

What is necessary for those persons who seek to create and live a life of commitment that works to develop the common good? A transformed heart and an active response that faces structural injustices and works to affect change is required. Listening to “the whispers of the spirit calling,” to borrow a phrase from John Lewis, grounds the energies of transformation and fuels commitments to work for social change. Discerning a calling dwells in the dynamic integration of inner reflection and critical social analysis.

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Reaffirming Our Vocational Authenticity with Courage and Humility

Of the many types of distractions that clear my mind during the pandemic lockdown, I have found it especially entertaining to re-read Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries. The series, set in a fictional Canadian village in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec as he and his team, often with the assistance of the villagers of Three Pines, investigate and solve crimes that deal with murder. If you have read these mysteries, you will remember that Gamache has often told new agents of the police force the four statements that can lead to wisdom in their lives and success in their work: (1) I was wrong. (2) I’m sorry. (3) I don’t know. (4) I need help. Gamache hopes to ground the new agents in humility and an openness to critique and change that can develop them as effective and humane investigators. He is challenging the new agents to develop an honesty and genuineness in their communication with others as they investigate crimes, one that arises from a morally aware personal character and that shows respect for the persons involved in the incident. In turn, this personal authenticity creates an investigator that is grounded in human sensitivity and professional effectiveness.

It struck me that these statements might also be useful for reflecting upon vocational call. Clarifying and living out a vocational commitment involves a fundamental disclosure of authenticity—an awareness of meaning and purpose in our lives is rooted in that which we value.

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Vocational Discernment Is Not a Luxury

Like many people, I find that in this time of pandemic crisis information helps me to feel calmer and more able to cope with the stress of the unknown. While the facts and figures provide a necessary base of knowledge, I find myself most drawn to pieces that offer experiences of and reflections upon how people are making meaning in the midst of the staggering numbers of infections and deaths and the economic disaster that has been a result of this public health emergency. I search for these reflections as a lifeline to hope and for the things they teach about courage, commitment and calling.

One of the most moving pieces I have read highlights the experience of vocational commitment of hospital chaplains who work in New York City area hospitals in the center of the pandemic storm. I was particularly struck when, after detailing the rigors and extreme challenges of chaplains’ work right now, the author comments, “If anything can shake a person’s faith, it seems an indiscriminate epidemic like this would be just the ticket. Why does a person in one bed die while the person in the next bed recovers? And yet not one chaplain I spoke to said this outbreak had done anything to diminish his or her faith or sense of purpose.”

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Letting Go and Embracing: Vocation and The Practice of Fasting

The practice of fasting is having a moment in popular culture. It often feels as if every health and wellness advertisement, weight loss pitch or trendy celebrity is extolling the benefits of fasting, especially intermittent fasting. Recently, the New York Times personal health columnist, Jane E. Brody, published her analysis of the scientific claims of fasting stating, “I was skeptical, but it turns out there is something to be said for practicing a rather long diurnal fast…”

And yet we know that fasting is now and has been over millennia a central experience for many religious traditions and well represented in their sacred scriptures. For example, fasting for repentance, in praise and thanksgiving to God, for purification or for a desire to achieve greater connection to the sacred grounds many religious and philosophical journeys toward living a life of greater wisdom and seeking to understand calling, purpose and meaning.

It is in this context of the renewed popular awareness of fasting that I thought about my own preparations as a Catholic for the Ash Wednesday fast and the ongoing Lenten season. What does fasting have to teach us about our vocational wrestling? How might that be useful in working with students and members of religious communities on the development of their sense of meaning and purpose? 

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