February 9/10, 2013
Most of us are familiar with the word “vocation.” When we hear that word, many of us might think of it in its limited notion of a “vocation to religious life or the priesthood” or other ministerial vocation. That’s certainly a very legitimate use of the word, and it’s understandable that our own idea of “vocation” might be so limited because that’s how we’ve heard the word used. How many of us have heard in various parishes frequent prayers for “an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life”? How many of us might even have been asked by a friendly religious sister, brother, or priest when we were younger, “have you ever thought you might have a vocation”? And, of course, there are a fair number of us here in our own gathering who either explored or lived that type of “religious vocation” for a significant part of our lives, and so it’s very understandable that this legitimate, but more narrow concept is what comes to mind when we hear that word.
Today’s scriptures, however, speak to us very poignantly about a much more fundamental and basic understanding of vocation. The word itself comes from the Latin word, “vocare” – meaning to name, to summon, to call, or to invite. All of those ideas are wrapped up in the biblical calls that we hear today from all three readings — from Isaiah, First Corinthians, and the Gospel of Luke.
Although the calls of Isaiah, Paul, and Peter are different, they each have some common elements that can help us understand our own calls, our own vocations. What are some of those elements? Well, to begin, the person called usually has a sense of unworthiness; a sense of “Oh no, not me! You’ve got the wrong guy, Lord. I don’t have what it takes!” We hear that reaction from Isaiah who says, “I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” Paul describes himself as “one not fit to be an apostle,” and perhaps most dramatically, Peter falls at Jesus’ feet and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
This sense of unfitness, sinfulness, and unworthiness is not some sense of pathological self-hatred. It’s not an expression from people whose self-esteem and self-worth have been so damaged by life that they don’t see in themselves any goodness at all. No, this reaction is honest and real. It’s rooted in a deep and utterly honest understanding of who they are. As I was reflecting on the scriptures for today, one of the phrases that I kept returning to was Jesus’ command to Peter and his fellow fishermen, “Put out into deep water.” To know ourselves, we need to go deeply into our hearts and souls. Knowing one’s self as fully as Isaiah, Paul, and Peter surely knew themselves certainly required self-awareness at their core. And so, when they find themselves in the presence of something much greater than themselves, in the presence of what is Good and True and Holy, a humility that comes from having looked at themselves honestly and deeply causes them, at first, to turn away and to feel deeply their own unworthiness. Humility is not a virtue that I don’t think is in very high regard in our day and age — and perhaps that’s especially true for this city if Washington, DC. Humility is a virtue that reminds us we are limited, imperfect, and that we cannot save ourselves; that we cannot have and do it all. And yet, such true humility in knowing oneself seems to be a requirement for discerning the call of God in our lives.
Fortunately for Isaiah, Paul, and Peter however, what they see of themselves, though accurate, is not complete. For them — and for all of us if we have the courage to listen and to hear God’s calls in our lives — that sense of unworthiness is not where the story ends. What happens next is that God or Jesus responds in a way that heals or removes that sense of unworthiness… what was lacking has been provided, what was limited has now been made whole. Isaiah speaks of the burning ember that touched his lips, but Jesus simply says to Peter, “Do not be afraid.” It’s almost is if Jesus is saying, “Yes, I know you are a sinful man. I know your shortcomings, your weaknesses, your limitations. I know you more deeply than you know yourself because I see beyond those shortcomings, weaknesses and limitations and see the great possibility that lies in the depths of your soul.”
Because they did not get stuck in seeing only their limitations, but were able to let go of that limited vision of self and begin to see themselves as God sees them – each of these: Isaiah, Paul, and Peter – was able to respond almost immediately with a response that embraced that divine call. Isaiah responds in words: “Here I am; send me!” while Peter and his companions respond in action: Luke tells us that they simply brought their boats to the shore, left everything, and followed Jesus.
I suspect that very few of us have ever had such a dramatic encounter with the Divine as those we hear today. And because God’s presence in our lives is rarely made known in such grand epiphanies, it might be a bit more challenging to experience God’s call in our lives. Some of us might even wonder what our call is, or whether we are called at all? Although the specifics differ from each of us one to the other – surely our common call to follow Jesus is the same. At its core, that call is a call to Love. It is a call to live each day with kindness and compassion and understanding – especially for those in our world who are most in need. Right now, God is calling each of us in one way or another to live the Gospel more fully, more faithfully, with greater humility, and with greater love. What that call sounds like, only you can tell. The only question is, how you will respond?
(c) Copyright 2013 – Timothy J MacGeorge