Callingsedited by William C. Placher
In a collection of writings, published posthumously as Waiting for God, Simone Weil confessed: “Nothing among human beings has such power to keep our gaze fixed ever more intensely upon God, than friendship for the friends of God.” In this fine anthology William Placher gives us a series of well-chosen reflections on vocation, spanning two millennia, from men and women, friends of God in Christ. The famous and familiar appear and, as always, challenge: Augustine and Aquinas, Teresa of Avila and Dorothy Day. The less known also delight and edify by their distinctive personal voice: Christine de Pisan and Sor Juana de la Cruz, relatively unknown to me; or Pope Leo XIII and Dorothy Sayers in unexpected and mutually enriching guise.
Placher frames the motivating impulse for gathering so diverse a cloud of witnesses in these words: “We wonder if the bits and pieces of our struggles, disappointments, and successes will add up to a significant whole. ‘Call’ and ‘vocation’ are categories the Christian tradition has long used to address such issues.” The representative figures he has chosen offer illuminating perspectives on this perennial quest.
The selections cover four historical periods of uneven length and disparate focus, and a brief but insightful introduction to each is provided by Placher. The first covers the church from Paul to Augustine. Here the focus is on the common, radical call to Christian discipleship, that constitutive relation to Christ, which surpasses and subverts family ties and cultural loyalties.
The second period, stretching from the end of the Roman Empire to the dawn of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, construes vocation in a narrower ecclesiastical sense (familiar to pre-Vatican II Catholics). In this period, as a result of the cultural hegemony of Christianity, vocation became associated uniquely with an entrance to the clerical or religious state. Yet, even here, one discovers an intriguing range-from the heroic abandon of Francis of Assisi’s embrace of Lady Poverty to the sanctified common sense of Mechthild of Magdeburg’s counsels to religious superiors. She instructs those who govern religious houses: “You should also go into the kitchen and see to it that the needs of the brethren of the community are well taken care of, that your own stinginess and the laziness of the cook do not steal from our Lord’s sweet song in the choir. For a starving cleric does not sing well!”
The third period, relatively short, but revolutionary, extends from Luther to Wesley. It joins the Protestant emphasis on scriptural normativeness and individual interpretation with the burgeoning possibilities afforded by a new political and economic order. Vocation or calling now becomes assimilated to work and occupation, bringing the religious and secular into close conjunction that can serve either to enhance the secular or domesticate the religious.
The last period spans the shortest time frame: chronologically it runs from John Henry Newman to Dorothy Day-less than two hundred years. Tellingly, Placher titles this section: “Christian Callings in a Post-Christian World.” Yet this period is further abbreviated by the fact that the last entry really dates from the 1960s, coinciding, in effect, with the close of Vatican II. It is the least focused of the sections, a sort of omnium-gatherum, fragments in search of an elusive unity.
A remarkable ecumenical shift takes place in Catholic reflection in this period. Its former insistence on vocation as a call to the clerical or religious life yields, in large measure, to an emphasis on the humanizing and hence God-inspired role of work. As Placher remarks, with, perhaps, a pinch of irony, “Such accounts of the place of the world of work in human life would previously have seemed obviously Protestant.” Yet, as has often been observed, the long-postponed aggiornamento, bringing Catholic thought into constructive dialogue with the modern world, has coincided with the cataclysmic cultural shift that goes by the uncertain designation “postmodernity.” Portentously, the last two authors excerpted in the anthology, Karl Barth and Thomas Merton, died on the same day in 1968 (that annus horribilis), as though prescient of the upheaval to come.
Of course, every division into periods smacks of the arbitrary; and it has long been a favorite academic pursuit to dispute established timelines in favor of even more idiosyncratic readings. Still, it doesn’t require a Sherlock Holmes to perceive that something new is afoot (call it “post-Christian,” “postmodern,” or both) that risks overwhelming traditional understandings of “vocation.” Work experienced as assembly-line drudgery or corporate servitude; two-wage-earner or single-parent households that often sap family cohesion; the relentless imperatives of late-capitalist consumerism-all conspire to render problematic an understanding of vocation as call from God. Amidst the incessant chatter of cell phones, can a divine call even get through?
Placher, while acknowledging the challenges, remains hopeful. Yet, he fails to broach a further issue. All the witnesses so helpfully arrayed (from Ignatius of Antioch through Benedict and Bonaventure to Luther, Newman, and Barth) were saturated with a biblical language and worldview. How can one convey a sense of providential calling, of God-given vocation, in a culture where biblical illiteracy is pronounced, where the foundational narrative of God’s marvelous deeds sounds alien to many?
Stimulating and inspiring as the testimonies gathered here are, they also underscore the depth of the challenge the church faces now. It is a challenge our intra-ecclesial fixations and polarizations can distract us from addressing with requisite depth and discernment.
In surprising ways, then, the most distant witnesses, those who lived prior to the Constantinian establishment, may prove the most relevant. Placher himself hints at this. “Indeed, in an age when once again committed Christians in Europe may find themselves a minority voice in their society, simply being publicly a Christian, as in the early church, may itself be an important calling.” He admits to an initial hesitancy at including accounts of martyrdom and seeming disdain for material goods among the first testimonies. He resolved his doubt by the growing conviction that “most young Christians are more willing to be challenged than their churches are to challenge them...we fail to notice that maybe young people are not looking for an easy Christianity.”
If such be the case, then his selection from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship provides all the challenge any of us, whether young or old, could desire or comfortably endure. Bonhoeffer lived and suffered martyrdom during the collapse of a superficially Christian culture under the onslaught of Nazi neopaganism. He pointedly inveighed against the “cheap grace” too often purveyed by the churches. By way of contrast, Bonhoeffer expounds the Gospel account of the rich young man who questioned Jesus concerning the requirements of eternal life. When confronted by Jesus with the call to radical transformation, the rich man turned away, unwilling to bear the cost. Bonhoeffer comments bitingly: “He had hoped to avoid committing himself to any definite moral obligations by forcing Jesus to discuss his spiritual problems.”
For Bonhoeffer the call comes as both grace and command, for it is an invitation to fellowship with Jesus. As summons to an identity-defining relation with Jesus, to service in his company, it is, inseparably, duty and delight. Bonhoeffer sums up his conviction: “The life of discipleship is not the hero-worship we would pay to a good master, but obedience to the Son of God.” Having traversed twenty centuries of Christian wisdom on vocation through the bounty of this book, we are, at the end, led back to the beginning.