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? 

Continue reading

Exploring Vocation in First-Year Programs

Most people recognize that it takes more than just “smarts” to make it through college. Clearly academic skills and a certain level of intelligence are essential to earning a college degree. However, having a successful, meaningful, and enjoyable college experience includes more than just the academic encounters of our students. Higher education also provides opportunity for students to learn about themselves, develop healthy habits, and make meaning out of life.

Exploring vocation is an important component of the first year of college and can be used to develop psychosocial skills that will set students up for success during their 4+ years at the university. Learning how to use God-given gifts to make a positive impact in a complex, demanding world requires the development of the whole person.

Continue reading

Vocation for Atheists

I have struggled with many things while teaching vocation—students falling asleep, not doing the reading, complaining about being required to take a course on the meaning and purpose of their lives (why do I have to pay for a class that won’t help me get into pharmacy school?). But one particular question about which I have wondered is whether talk of vocation can only be meaningful for students of faith.

What if one didn’t believe in God at all? Could the concept of “vocation” still be useful then?

And I believe the answer is that thinking about vocation can be a productive way for colleges to help students consider the question of what they are going to do with their lives, and how they are going to do it.

Continue reading

The Transfiguring Magic of Ritual

The chaplain invited me to give the sermon at our University’s weekly chapel service the Sunday before Lent. This is Transfiguration Sunday in many Christian traditions, where the Gospel reading is Matthew 17:1-9, which recounts an episode where the disciples see Jesus transfigured in divine glory on a mountain. Even though I am not a Christian, it proved to be a great opportunity for reflecting on vocation and how we can collectively examine shared patterns of meaning and purpose in a pluralistic society, where many of us strongly disagree about the ultimate sources of meaning and purpose.

Continue reading

Daunting Freedom, Paralyzing Fears

One of the most dramatic features of the late modern period (which to historians means anything after about 1790) is that everything about where you will live and what kind of work you will do and who you are likely to meet and marry was no longer decided by the time you were born. As the myriad changes in the technology of production collectively constituting the Industrial Revolution produced in turn momentous shifts in geographical, political and familial organization, suddenly people no longer simply inherited their place on the planet and their place and role in a community from their parents. More than two centuries downstream, we take all this for granted, but of course in the grand sweep of human experience across millennia, it’s really pretty much a recent innovation.

The good news is that, to a significant extent, if you are born in the US or Canada, in Western Europe and in increasing portions of Eastern Europe, as well as in many other arenas of relative affluence and stability around the globe, you are largely free to choose your life: where you want to live, what kind of work you want to do, whether and whom you want to marry or whether to have a family at all. In short, you can decide who and what you want to be when you grow up. (This remains true in general despite all the ways access to various life paths and indeed to freedom of choice itself is filtered and limited by economic resources, ethnicity and social class in America as elsewhere, despite our denials. Social mobility and the liberty it offers is not by any means unqualified or universal, but it is real, and historically unprecedented.)

Continue reading

In Memoriam

Douglas J. Schuurman (1955–2020)

We give thanks for the life and work of Douglas J. Schuurman, one of the founding leaders of the contemporary conversation on calling and vocation. Doug passed away on the evening of Saturday, February 15, 2020. Many in the NetVUE community will be familiar with his important book Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life (Eerdmans, 2004) and with the more recent collection (co-edited with Kathleen A. Cahalan) Calling in Today’s World: Voices from Eight Faith Perspectives (Eerdmans, 2016). Much of his life’s work was devoted to the task of “retrieving and reforming the Protestant concept of callings for modern times.” He also contributed to theological explorations that broaden the range of women’s callings, serving as co-editor (with Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Annelies Knoppers, Margaret L. Koch, and Helen M. Sterk) of After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation (Eerdmans, 1993).

Continue reading

Jonah: a parable of calling

What does the biblical figure of Jonah have to teach us about calling? On the surface, not much. In fact, Jonah may be the great anti-hero of vocation. 

God calls Jonah–and he runs in the opposite direction. God asks him, a good and upright man, to “Go to great city of Nineveh and tell them to end their wicked ways.” Now, to a Jew, Nineveh lay in enemy territory; it was in the country of the Assyrians. Nineveh was the Paris, the Mexico City, the Shanghai of the ancient world, an “exceedingly large city,” a city of “a hundred and twenty thousand people–and many animals,” a city it takes “three days to walk across.”

Maybe Jonah thinks this calling is beneath his pay grade. Maybe he crosses borders with difficulty. Maybe his passport has expired. Maybe he’s just terrified. But he’s quite certain the God of Israel should not bother with the Ninevites and Assyrians, because they’re not part of the “chosen people.” They don’t worship the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel and Leah. So Jonah boards a ship heading across a different sea. He thinks he can outrun God’s call.

Continue reading