Since it’s still Advent and not yet Christmas I think I can get away with sharing a story that is depressing and heartbreaking and sad. So here is goes…
A few months ago I was one of a few of the Pax Christi people who participated in a retreat experience at St. John’s University, reflecting on the topic of vocation/religious “calling.” One of the presenters there was sharing the results of some field studies she’d done about this, including some focus group conversations that asked people to share stories about legacy—both those people who had affected them and those whom they had affected, generation–to-generation.
And she shared that the saddest story she had run across in that process was that of a recently retired school teacher, who was gathered around a table of other teachers. They were all speaking of how precious a gift it is to know that you have made an important impact on a student’s life, and you know this because they tell you so, or perhaps among the youngest children they offer you gifts of gratitude. (I was a full-time teacher for almost 20 years, so I know this to be true.) This particular retired teacher reported that in more than three decades in a classroom with kids, nobody had ever offered her an expression of gratitude or acknowledgement of the labor and love she had put out there for her students, and so she quite understandably was wondering whether she had misunderstood her life’s vocation.
And I suppose that could be true. Never being thanked for your work would be a pretty strong and terrible thing to have to come to terms with, especially after a long time. But that story got me to wondering about what makes for a good and successful life. Is it about what happens to me? Or is it about what happens to other people because of me, and with the help of God’s grace.
I can think immediately of several people for example whose life work and witness have inspired me greatly, but who would—I’m sure—never identify themselves as having a God-given vocation to affect my life at all. Some of them wouldn’t remember my name. I’d describe these people as possessed of a divine vocation, some without even knowing it. I’m a different and better person/minister for having known them, and watched them, and trying to imitate them. Several of them don’t know that, and never will.
I think of all this in the light of today’s gospel of Luke, the story of the Visitation of Mary with Elizabeth, and of John the Baptist—both of them not yet born. How would we describe the vocation of Elizabeth? And how would she describe it? In one respect it could been seen as a life whose main purpose was to wait around—for decades, incapable of bearing children until she was an old lady. Was hers a “successful life?” A lot depends upon what that word means, and what counts as a true vocation…a true and lasting commitment to what God intends.
It can’t have been very pleasant or convenient or gratifying to be pregnant as a senior citizen, or for Elizabeth to have had her most active years marked by infertility. It’s easy to imagine that she may have often wondered why she was here.
But was the success of her life marked by what happened to her, or by what happened to the world because of her, through the grace of God? Through her progeny?
And the same could be said of everyone else in this story. What about Mary? A young virgin who was suddenly a single mother, whose fate was to watch her young adult son be executed as a seemingly failed religious prophet. I wonder if she was ever tempted to ask what was her “vocation,” in the end.
Or John the Baptist, the bold young man whose reward for announcing the arrival of the Messiah was to be gruesomely killed, apparently defeated by the power of evil and greed. Did he ever ask God what in the world was his purpose on earth? He must have.
Or what about Jesus himself, who died at the hands of the government without having made any evident difference in the trajectory of human history. Might he have had a few misgivings about how well he had discerned his own life’s vocation?
It’s the same question that the Advent Sacred Scripture holds out to all of us, and perhaps the most basic question that can ever be asked: i.e. why are we here? What is the purpose of our lives? What is our “vocation”? What is God up to with us? Where is all this going?
Todays Sacred Scripture offer four different biographies of people who may very well have all had a similar response of, “I’m not entirely sure.” Elizabeth, Mary, John, Jesus. What they all teach us is that our reason for being chosen and called by God may not ever be apparent to us while we live—though for some blessed few it is obvious. Because the question in the end is not what happens to us, what happens to the world, to our families, to our parish, to our friends and loved ones, because of us, with the help of God’s grace.
The stories of Advent are stories of a whole lot of holy people who were never entirely sure where the big script was headed, but who never doubted the author. May this be our legacy too, our vocation.