There is one more story for us to consider in this initial overview of vocation accounts. One of the shortest books in Sacred Scripture it has become one of the most memorable, both in its own right and because Christ himself mentions it in a rather disparaging comment on the people of his own generation: he speaks of the “sign of Jonah” (Matthew 12:39; Luke 11:29). The book itself is something of a puzzle – a parable, teaching gloss, analogy? It’s myth-like construction and content – it could almost begin “Once upon a time…” – means that the events never really took place, and yet it is true, the events, in one way or another, are always taking place, either completely or partially. And the question always remains: what is the sign of Jonah about which Christ speaks?
Because of its brevity, the details of the story are important – we know this from the very beginning, when we are launched straight into the action without any introduction. Jonah is addressed by God and given a task, one which is common to prophets – to go and preach repentance. But he has other ideas – his immediate reaction is to run in the other direction. This leads to catastrophe – on board a ship, in the middle of a storm, and things being thrown overboard to try to restore order and calm. With this proving utterly ineffectual, Jonah himself owns up to his misguided actions, and he himself is thrown over. The result – calm waters and the passing of the storm.
Now we come to the heart – or belly! – of the tale. Jonah is swallowed by a big fish, which has been sent along for that purpose by God, and spends three days down there, in the dark. In that moment, Jonah prays – a psalm much in the style of Psalm 129, the De Profundis – Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice…. And the Lord does hear. The big fish vomits Jonah ashore, and now he boths hears God’s word to him, and obeys it.
Jonah goes to Nineveh and the rest, as they say, is history – the Ninevites, from greatest to least, repent and the great city is spared. But it’s not the end for our hero – Jonah is angry with God for relenting, but learns, by experience, that he has to soften his heart as God softens his heart.
The Jonah story in many ways provides a model for how we go about this search for self which ultimately is inseparable from our search for and answer to God. The running away from God is a constant theme in vocational discernment – I hear the invitation, I know its value, I recognise that this call is addressed to me, but I have other ideas. For Jonah, this is very profound – it means that he flees in the opposite direction, almost to the ends of the earth – to Tarshish (almost certainly in the southern part of Spain). The task that God assigns to him is not an easy one, and it might very well bring great hardship and suffering – it might have been just as easy for the king of Nineveh to have Jonah imprisoned, banished or executed as to listen to his message (and let’s face it, the message is fairly abrupt and to the point – although the threat of destruction leaves little wriggle room). So, one might understand Jonah’s predicament and his decision – an easier life all round, and lived on his own terms.
Undoubtedly, a vocation can seem to alter the plans that we have devised for ourselves, be they laid out already in great detail or only vaguely outlined. Part, and an important part, of discerning vocation – what do I do if I feel God is calling me to a particular life? – will inevitably be moving aside plans and goals which I had previously devised, to allow God to redraw the boundaries.
The running away is a central act, and has very positive consequences, in fact. Although Jonah feels he has left God’s word to him behind, he soon finds that he can’t get away from the real work at hand. The author of the text frames Jonah’s real and personal work in terms of the storm and the ship at sea. And really, using that metaphor, Jonah is at sea! His life is a chaotic mess, a tempest threatening destruction. We notice how the sailors try to get to the bottom of what is happening – and this is Jonah too – throwing overboard the useless flotsam and jetsam, bits and pieces which are really of little consequence, in this cargo which burdens their vessel. Finally, it’s Jonah himself who must go overboard.
We might take a moment to notice what Jonah does in the middle of this storm which has broken around him – he tries to find a safe place, down deep in the ship, where he can hide and sleep, avoiding the storm. But it’s a useless place and affords neither rest nor answer. He must go deep into another place in order to do the deep, interior work, which eventually will affect real change in him.
Looking at ourselves again – part of our conversion story and vocation discernment will always involve the throwing off of things, attitudes and ways of life which weigh us down. Perhaps this is the beginning of renunciation, of clearing away things which appear important, but which, in fact, do little to allow us to be our true selves. In the Gospel, we cannot avoid renunciation if we are really to embrace vocation (Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23).
How interesting to see that the sailors – Jonah’s travelling companions – recognise that God is calling him, but Jonah has avoided acknowledging it! This is often mirrored in our own lives, and we should do better to listen – the people around us often have a sense of our vocation. We need to ask one another, if that is the case, whether we feel called to particular ways of life – sometimes, that invitation to listen and discern is the turning point in personal vocation work. There can be times when we need to ask someone if they feel called to priesthood or religious life – it becomes an invitation for them to articulate what they have been feeling all along.
In order that Jonah be able to enter as fully as possible into God’s work he must leave aside something of himself. For Thomas Merton, this is the work of renouncing the “false self”, the images that I project to those around – and even to myself – of a person that doesn’t really exist, and never existed. Becoming self in this sense is to go down into that deep place to find the person that I am. We don’t become someone else – I become me.
Perhaps now we have come to the sign of Jonah. Yes, Jesus, when he applies it to himself, allows us to extend the image of the belly of the fish to the tomb of his death. But the Jesus who emerges from the tomb, risen from the dead, is the same person who dies – but now, manifested in his glory, as he really is, and we have never really known him. In some sense, this is the heart of the transfiguration event as well – the apostles see Jesus, for that fleeting moment, as he is, not as someone else – and that momentary vision becomes for all the only vision after the resurrection.
And so with Jonah – the Jonah who emerges from the darkness of the fish’s belly is the same who went in, but now is really Jonah: the Jonah after conversion, the Jonah after coming to know self, the Jonah who, as far as possible, leaves behind the old coverings in the dark belly.
The belly, then, with its darkness, is a place and time of growth, not fear. At this point we recall – God sent the fish along, God’s hand is very much in this, God has not abandoned Jonah to nothingness and darkness. God waits for the work to be done. And when it’s done, the call takes shape and Jonah responds.
Interestingly, for Merton, the clinching text which he offers is that which ends his journals entitled “The Sign of Jonas”. Set in the form of a poetic piece of prose, this epilogue is a meditation more than an account of Merton’s duty on the Firewatch on 4th July 1952. A nighttime journey of both reflection and realisation, the monk, while all his brethren in the great monastery of Gethsemani sleep, passes through the buildings, starting in the very bowels of the place and ending up on the roof of the church, under the expanse of the sky, where at last he is able to hear God address him. It has been suggested that the whole piece mirrors beautifully the process which the Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Gustav Jung, called “individuation”, the integration of the various facets of one’s personality whose ultimate goal is psychic and spiritual wholeness. This process is one aimed at the gathering together of our scattered self, the process of unification of self. Jung tells us that it is: A person becoming himself, whole, indivisible, and distinct from other people, though also in relationship to these. Andrew Samuels, trying to define what Jung means as “whole” says: it is the fullest possible expression of all aspects of the personality, both in itself and in relation to other people and the environment.
This speaks to us profoundly about Jonah’s journey, about Merton’s journey, which is always about self-knowledge and knowledge of God, and about our own vocational search. Ultimately, in discerning vocation, we look to establish that key which becomes the means for our beginning the journey towards wholeness, unification of self, and the balance of right relationships with myself, others and God.
The discerned vocation means a journey into the deep and dark where true conversion takes place, the false selves are left behind, and I emerge as myself, ready to live God’s way for me, which can be the only way for me. This is a path of both acceptance and integration.
To leave the last word with Merton who, speaking about contemplation, has this to say. But we might just as easily apply it to vocation:
The first thing that you have to do is to try to recover your basic natural unity, to reintegrate your compartmentalised being into a coordinated and simple whole, and learn to live as a unified human person. This means that you have to bring back together the fragments of your distracted existence so that when you say “I” there is really someone present to support the pronoun you have uttered.
-Part of our ‘Vocation’ series-