One of the fascinating aspects of the examination of the idea of vocation in Sacred Scripture – the writings which are contained in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible – is that it is almost emblematic of the stories which we read there. The entirety of Sacred Scripture, in some way or other, has to do with ‘call’. It’s never absent. And it’s always personal – it’s always addressed to an individual, or to a group, or indeed to a people. How that specific call impacts on a person’s or people’s life should be of interest to us. So, now let’s offer some examples for our consideration which are given us in Sacred Scripture.
Of course, we should say that ‘vocation’, at its root meaning, simply means ‘call’. If we were to be more precise we should say that ‘vocation’ intends ‘call to’ something or somewhere.
The story of the man called Moses is, in general terms, probably well-known enough to us. It is given us, interspersed with the Law which is attributed to him, over the course of the second through the fifth books of the Old Testament, Exodus to Deuteronomy. It’s a long and wandering story, which in many ways mirrors the fundamental backdrop to the Moses narrative – he is, after all, leading the Hebrew people in what turns out to be a very circuitous and wandering journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The journey is more than topography – it’s also a journey into relationship and self-knowledge, principally of a people coming to know who they are – Israel – in relationship to the God who has decided that now is the time to intervene in a new and salvific way in their lives.
This, perhaps, marks the first major point in our own reflection. Vocation is a dynamic reality which reveals itself in relationship, and relationship, or relationships, are always decisive in our own journey of coming to know self. I gain my identity, to a very great degree, in the midst of, in the living contexts of my many and varied concrete relationships. But it must be said – my identity is not the totality of my relationships, although it is certainly fed and shaped by them, or can be, if I am open enough to that influence and formation. At some stage we will be able to say, when we reach the end of this reflection, that the whole point of relationship and vocation is to answer a call out of love – I am ready to renounce everything for love, I am ready to put up with difficulties out of love, I am sure that love is the only barometer which I can trust to measure the living of my life. But this is rarely the beginning point of a particular vocation, or its discernment and affirmation.
So, within the context of this story which is about to unfold in Exodus, Moses is born. From the word go he’s a man who is, fundamentally, lost. The king of Egypt, Pharaoh, has ordered that all the male Hebrew children be killed because the Hebrews are becoming too numerous in Egypt and the Egyptians are getting nervous – they might rise up and join forces with the enemies of Egypt and overthrow them. However, Moses’ Hebrew mother hides the newborn infant in a wicker basket in the Nile, where he is found by the maidservants of Pharaoh’s daughter. She decides that she will raise the Hebrew child as her own. Indeed, she’s the one who gives him the name ‘Moses’. Now, Moses’ sister is keeping an eye on proceedings from the reeds and suggests that she bring the child to her mother – Moses’ birth mother, of course, to be his wet nurse. And this is what happens. Then, when he’s old enough, Moses is taken up to the royal precinct and is raised as a member of the Pharaonic clan.
We need to pause here and take stock. The sacred writer wants us to be in no doubt that Moses has a fairly tortuous beginning, and this beginning will plague him for a long time, in fact, into what we might call his early adulthood – he doesn’t know where he fits in, who he is , to what people he belongs, or what way of life he should adopt. There is an awareness that he is from Hebrew stock, at once separated from his mother, reunited with her, then taken from her again, and then that he has been raised in the house of Pharaoh, by Pharaoh’s daughter. He recognises his own fellow Hebrews as slaves but walks freely among them as an Egyptian prince. And when all this reaches a peak, he kills a man, a fellow Egyptian, because that man is beating another man, a fellow Hebrew.
The result of that particular misjudgement is that Moses takes to flight, because now Pharaoh wants to kill him. Moses, to put it lightly, is a bit of a mess of a man. From the point of view of self-knowledge and identity we might say that he is in a state of chaos. But this is the Moses whom God will meet and call. That pivotal moment of vocation – and it is call into service – happens in an iconic moment. Iconic because it represents at so many levels the encounter which any of us might have with God, because it is God who initiates it, God who controls it, God who gives it meaning and content.
The incident of God’s self-revelation – what we term technically ‘theophany’ – might be taken to be the moment sans pareil of vocation moments. God reveals himself to Moses – he gives him his name – and he reveals to Moses also the task that will consume his life: to lead the people of Israel from slavery to freedom. Essentially, everything else that happens in the God-Moses story is built around this fundamental call to service, in which Moses comes to know God deeply, intimately, as friend, and Moses finally comes to know who he is himself. The scattered pieces of his life find unity in this call moment and its bit-by-bit outliving.
In Moses, there is curiosity before the bush that is burning but not consumed. He sees the wonderful thing and wants to get closer, find out what’s going on, discover for himself the meaning. He doesn’t know that what is about to happen is a moment of peculiar consecration – God tells him to take off his sandals because he’s in a holy place – not just a holy place, of course, but the holiest presence. There is a curiosity about vocation and call – we can’t pin down what it is that is moving us in this direction but we have a feeling in our gut that there is something worth investigating here. It mightn’t be as dramatic or extraordinary as a bush burning in front of our eyes, but it will catch us unawares. Vocation often begins with a desire to find out more.
A figure who is often referenced in the attempt to explain what vocation is and how it is constituted is Samuel, a man of immense importance in Israel’s history since he will preside over a significant transition in that people’s history – the realisation of the kingship. His story unfolds in the first book in the Old Testament which bears his name, the First Book of Samuel, and he is closely linked with the tragic figure of Israel’s first king, Saul.
Samuel’s beginnings are auspicious and, in many ways, seems to provide a distant foretaste of Christ’s beginnings. His mother, Hannah, prays that the Lord will take away her shame, being childless, and grant her a child. Her prayer is heard, and she conceives with her husband, Elkanah, and brings forth the child Samuel. We might note in passing the wonderful hymn of praise which she sings to God, recorded for us at I Samuel 2:1-10, the model for Luke’s canticle which he gives to God’s mother, Mary, and which we know as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).
Samuel accompanies his parents on their annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, where the Ark of the Lord is kept, that potent symbol of the Lord’s abiding presence with his people. Eventually, and still a boy, he enters the service of the sanctuary, under the priest, Eli. Now we come to the heart of Samuel’s story at this stage – the passage which tells us about his call – his vocation (I Samuel 3:1-21).
The story of Samuel’s call begins with an extraordinary series of twists. The sacred writer tells us that it was rare for God’s voice to be heard in those days – but Samuel will hear it. The priest Eli, to whom Samuel is a sort of young apprentice, is as good as blind. He can see very little if anything – and to emphasise this the writer says that visions were uncommon. So, we have a situation where, although God is present in his sanctuary in Shiloh, his presence is hardly experienced by his people – they neither hear him speak, nor see him in their midst. Effectively, God is present, but to his people he is absent.
In this context, Samuel begins to learn from Eli how to hear God and perceive God’s will for him.
And God does speak – repeatedly! The young Samuel is aware of being addressed, intimately, by someone who knows him – he is called, after all, by his own name. So, it’s no surprise that he thinks it is Eli who is calling him, and he runs to Eli. After three such experiences, it is Eli who realises what is happening, and he guides Samuel to respond to the Lord and place himself at the Lord’s service.
The call of Samuel should give us great pause for thought. In the first place, Samuel is in one of the holiest places in the land, Shiloh, the sanctuary of the Lord, with the Ark beside him. To begin to discern a vocation we have to do something similar – we have to remove ourselves to a context in which listening, hearing and understanding are possible. This need not necessarily be a change of place, although making retreat, for example, can do precisely this. The context is very often some change in our own lives, perhaps even a conversion, but certainly a decision that we make which involves making space for this sort of serious personal work. God’s address to me often has to penetrate walls of my construction, be that my lifestyle, or relationships, or priorities, or faith experience and life. And, of course, this is a deep listening, not just a physical sense of hearing with the ears – this is a hearing which also moves me, touches me, rings true, if surprising.
Does it matter that the writer tells us that Samuel was a boy? Not really. We need not take this as a chronological note in terms of our discernment. It indicates that Samuel was still growing in faith – he was young from that point of view, and perhaps immature. Each of us has to pass from a state of faith immaturity to greater personal maturity – a point or transition in which my faith becomes my own and stops being simply what others tell me. At that stage I start to listen and hear for myself. Perhaps this is one of the points of the repeated nature of God’s call to Samuel – he only hears it when he is ready to hear it, when he has been led to a point at which he is open in a new way. Then he stops being a boy and becomes an adult – and in Samuel’s case, one of extraordinary openness to God’s word.
Samuel doesn’t even know what it is he is listening for, and to whom he is giving answer. But Eli, the wise elder who counsels him, and accompanies him in his spiritual journey, realises. This is a difficult step for any of us – to be at that point where I trust enough to say ‘Yes’ to the God who has been calling me and whom now I hear. When that happens, when that moment of trust is made concrete in response, in a sense, we lose ourselves into God. When at last Samuel consents and listens, God speaks fully and definitively. Suddenly, Samuel becomes the one whose word is taken as the Lord’s word, and the Lord never allows a single one of Samuel’s words to be useless or lost.
Samuel’s call is a benchmark for us in considering vocation. It asks us to learn a number of things and begin to search for them and feel them in our own lives. In the first place, God calls, and calls, and calls, until we have done the work that allows that call to penetrate our heart and take flesh in our lives. God is persistent and, although we may not, knows already exactly what he wants of us. Vocation is supremely the call to the role, or mission, or fundamental life option that God has kept for us from before time began. While he will never force this on us, he will keep addressing himself to us until we recognise it and respond, one way or another.
Placing ourselves in a context where this call and vocation begin to make sense must be a priority. For most of us this will ask the question about our faith practice – it does ask about our decision for personal conversion, how we turn from one way of living to embrace another. While God is always present to us, we are not, in our lives, always present to him.
Who accompanies me on this journey to listen and hear and understand and live? I can’t do it alone – in fact, there are very few important matters in my life that I can undertake absolutely alone! In any important matter, in all moments of discernment, at every time in which I must make a decision which affects the essence of who I am, I need another to hear me and who will reflect back to me what I need to hear. Otherwise, I will simply wander, confused, aimless, and indecisive.
For both of these men – Moses and Samuel – becoming the person that God had always intended them to be is revealed to us as intensely personal.
-Part of our ‘Vocation’ series-