Our vocation is to work out our identity.
Thomas Merton (paraphrased)
First things first. This word vocation may be something Catholics toss around but I can tell you that when I was a Protestant I rarely used the word. When I did hear the word used it was when referencing “technical or vocational” schools. For the most part though, vocation is not a commonly used word. Unless of course you are Catholic and then the word takes on a whole new meaning–as in, a vocation to the priesthood or religious life or the vocation of married or single life. Ideally, Catholics should be taught by the Church and raised by their parents to consider these vocations and discern the vocation to which God is calling them. And this is a good ideal.
Merton’s words however, suggest something different about our vocation. He’s not talking about discerning our vocation nor is he equating our identity with our specific vocation in life. Instead he’s saying that each of us, no matter our specific vocation (the priesthood, religious, marrid or single life) are called to the same and ultimately higher vocation of working out our identity in relationship to God.
It sounds like a simple truth and yet few grasp this. Most of us, once we’ve discerned our vocation fall into the trap of allowing that vocation to become our identity. And this brings with it a host of problems. When your identity is based on something that can be taken from you then you are living with a false sense of security.
The husband/father/business man who loses his job, the mother who loses her children, the artist who loses his eyesight– if indeed their identities are built on their vocations then who are they after their loss. Most of us know this insecurity exists (if not consciously then unconsciously) which is why we strive for affirmation, praise, promotion, and affection. We compete with the person next to us because we’re looking for that security we long for.
It’s only when we realize that our identity and security is rooted in the fact that we are His beloved children, that we can truly rest. For Merton, the work of discovering and living in this truth is our vocation.
Our specific vocation or state in life is not who we are, it is instead meant to be an expression of our life as God’s sons and daughters. It is a means to an end, not the end. Henri Nouwen puts it this way: It is very important to realize that our vocation is hidden in who we are. And, who we are is hidden in Christ. Searching for this truth, embracing it so that we can express and share this truth with others through our various roles in life, this is our vocation.