Does a Calling Have to Be Religious?

The word "calling" is a noun that, not so long ago, referred to the singling out of an individual who'd been "chosen" for divine service. But that context is too small.
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When I was a teenager and my parents' friends asked questions such as,"Well, young man, what will you do with your life?" I had no idea that the correct answer would prove to be, "Well, right now I have this really weird, sort of sensual, even erotic, though non-sexual, urge that's been bugging me for years! So, first, I'll spend the next three or four decades doing work that won't really satisfy that urge but will prove to be important steps on the way to understanding what it is and to finding what will satisfy it. Then, I'll do that. Of course, I might be pretty old by then." A calling can, and often does, work just that way.

I grew up a Southern Baptist. Once in a while, toward the end of an otherwise typical Sunday morning service, our pastor would invite a young man from the congregation to join him on the dais. There he would announce that this "fine young man" had been called by the Lord into the Baptist ministry. The pastor would be glowing, the young man, his parents, the congregation -- a veritable light show of pleasure. As for me, I regarded the poor fellow as having contracted some awful disease that mutated normal guys into religious stiffs. Yet, always, I envied what I perceived to be their grasp of a purpose for their lives. Though I considered everything about church to be a grinding, suffocating bore, privately, jealously, I wanted to know what they seemed to know.

Whatever numinous, dogmatic or otherwise meaningful cloth we wrap the idea of calling in, the word itself is a noun that, not so long ago, referred to the singling out of an individual who'd been "chosen" for divine service. But that context is too small. Calling has to do with spirit, and both in biblical Hebrew and Greek, the word "spirit" can be rendered as "breath," or "breath of life," the breathing in and breathing out of that which inspires (from Latin, inspirare), and in human experience, that sort of transaction overflows the confines of what we've come to think of as religion. For instance, were you to ask a physician to explain what she meant by, "Medicine is my calling," her initial response might be that she was drawn by an interest in the field. Push a bit harder and you might see her expression soften, and hear her speak of having been compelled, so much so that nothing else had mattered.

So we could say that calling is a name we give to that need, that hunger, that longing that urges one's life toward greater clarity of meaning and purpose. In his book The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling, James Hillman, Jungian analyst and the originator of post-Jungian archetypal psychology, writes, "Sooner or later something seems to call us onto a particular path ... Despite early injury and all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we bear from the start the image of a definite individual character with some enduring traits ... Each person enters the world called." Yes, but to what? And at what price?

By and large, we are a people of the great middle way. When one of our own becomes obsessed, it throws our normative world out of balance -- and we don't much like imbalance, or the oddballs who create it. For instance, had the guy joining the pastor on the dais been a plant foreman with three kids, two cars, and a mortgage, about to ditch that life for the ministry, an unspoken chorus of "What the ... ?" would have dimmed the light show. In fact, the few middle-aged members of my seminary class, each of whom had left a successful career, reported reactions from skepticism to disbelief to hostility. Each said he'd tried to satisfy the urge through more involvement in his parish or another type of service, but couldn't. It was all-in or nothing.

Actually, it was all-in or the funny farm. Each had found himself caught in a rather splendid web of catch-22 irony: While total commitment practically guaranteed that most friends, family, and colleagues would assume he had lost his mind, each had discovered that to do anything else guaranteed that he would lose it. While I knew what they were saying was true, I couldn't say why until I heard it from a poet.

In 1904, Rainer Maria Rilke, writing to a younger man who'd sought his advice, suggested that the authenticity of one's calling can be found only inside oneself. "[A]sk yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And ... if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, 'I must,' then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity." Substitute work with the poor, forestry, law enforcement, the stage, the military, religion, painting, banking, coaching, law, politics, teaching, or another pursuit, and the answer remains the same: If you can live a full, satisfying life without doing it, it's not "your necessity," it's not your calling. Not even if you're really good at it. Not even if your parents, their friends, your friends, teachers and religious leaders all want you to do it and think you ought to do it and would be nuts not to do it, would it be wrong not to do it -- not even if you think you should want to do it but in fact don't. Rilke might agree that the presence of any language of obligation would be all the evidence you would need to differentiate the true calling from the false. To say I must because I should implies an obligation, not a calling. I must because, if I don't, I'll die inside is quite another matter.

How do you discover your own calling? You don't. But pay attention, make room for it in your life, and "your necessity" might make itself known. Will it make you rich? Maybe, maybe not. (Ask the ghost of Van Gough, or the currently starving artists!) Then again, even should you follow your calling, and even get rich, you may, from time to time, find yourself wishing that you'd been called to do something else. You have to appreciate the irony in that.

So if at some point in your life you begin to hear the whisperings of a new voice, and if that voice will not be ignored or diminished, but grows stronger, manifesting itself in your life as, say, some gravitational or magnetic force tugging you toward another life from the one you've been living, or the one you've planned, or the one planned for you and expected of you, and if you begin to imagine that other life as the only life worth your life, then it might be some deeper, wiser you coming to call. Say yes and you, too, can be one of those norm-breaking oddballs, in for trouble, having the time of your life.

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