Sunday 10th April, Easter 3, morning
by Revd Chris Palmer
We’ve heard two readings about Jesus commissioning people. First there’s Paul on the Damascus Road, hearing Jesus ask ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ Then there’s Peter, on the beach after Jesus has risen from the dead. Jesus asks him ‘Do you love me?’ And then says, ‘Feed my sheep’.
Whilst I’ve had time off work after Easter, I read a book by an Indian Jesuit, Fr Herbert Alphonso, called ‘Discovering your Personal Vocation’ . The book is only 70 pages long, and as far as I can make out it’s the only book he ever wrote, which shows that he actually had something to say, rather than had got into the bad habit of merely writing books for the sake of it.
And what he says is this. Each person has a vocation, unique to them, which is God’s call, God’s charge for who they are to be. This call is not the same as what we do as a job, though hopefully our work is congruent with our vocation. Rather our personal vocation is something that stays with us through changing work circumstances, through changing relationships and family situations, through moving from place to place, in youth and in old age.
Usually he talks about ‘personal vocation’, but at other points Herbert Alphonso talk about simply your ‘name’. He draws on those lovely Old Testament prophetic texts, ‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’ We use very similar words when people are confirmed, ‘God has called you by name, and made you his own’ the bishop says to each candidate.
This calling by God, this naming, this personal vocation is seen in the stories of both Paul and Peter. We know the headlines. Simon a fisherman is called by Jesus to catch people, Jesus gives him a new name, Peter, the rock. He gets it spectacularly wrong, especially when he denies even knowing Jesus; but Jesus keeps faith with him and commissions him, ‘feed my sheep’. He becomes the leader and greatest apostle of the early church.
Paul is a Pharisee, ardent for God. But his ardour is misdirected and leads him to persecute the church, which he believes is an offence to true faith – until, that is, Jesus appears to him on the road, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me.’ He comes into relationship with Jesus, and becomes the great missionary to the Gentiles, journeying all round the Mediterranean establishing Christian communities.
In one of his letters Paul writes, ‘When God, who set me apart before I was born and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his son to me…’ In other words, that moment on the Damascus Road was not as it were a new vocation, it was simply God’s call from before he even existed becoming known and real to him. Like Simon Peter, Paul also took a new name; giving up the name Saul and calling himself Paul, which reflected his mission in Greek territory better.
Another writer talks about our personal vocation as sealed order . Like the orders that military leaders are given, but can’t open until a certain time. They are already written from the beginning, but there comes a moment when they are revealed. That’s what it was like for Paul.
Herbert Alphonso says that our personal vocation may be something that sounds rather vague or meaningless to other people, but has huge significance for us. It has to be such, because it applies to us as children as much as when we are working or retired. It is our vocation when he are on holiday as much as when we’re at home; when we’re visiting friends or sitting doing our emails. He suggests that Jesus’ personal vocation was simply to know God as ‘Abba, Father’, to be ‘Son’. Maybe Peter’s personal vocation was to be the ‘rock’ or maybe something like ‘Feed my sheep’. I give these are examples; I’m not so interested in speculating about these, as giving an idea of what naming a personal vocation might be like.
I was reading this book in the first place at the suggestion of my spiritual director. He had been gently pushing me to try to put a name on my own ‘personal vocation’. Three years ago, when I went on a thirty days retreat, I had identified some of the things that are life-giving in my life and ministry. Amongst them I’d written, ‘Being with Olivia’ (that’s my wife), ‘accompanying people on the journey of faith’, ‘Being part of a Christian community intent on following Jesus’, ‘sharing the tasks of finance and management with others.’ There was more too. But that’s as far as I got.
So when my spiritual director started to encourage me to put a name on my personal vocation, I returned to this list. And what started to suggest itself was that God was calling me to be a ‘companion’. That one word enables me to integrate disparate parts of my life, family, friends, work. It reflects my desire to see faith and living as a venture I undertake in company with others. It was in some ways surprising to me, as I do love to be alone at times. But not ‘on my own’ in work or living or following Jesus.
I’m not confident enough to think that this is anything more than a working proposition about God’s call for me. But it will fit at different periods of life, different circumstances, different contexts. Since I identified that word, ‘companion’, a month ago, it seems to fit with my life thus far, and give me a hopeful guide for the future.
I wonder what your ‘personal vocation’ is. On the notice sheet today, in the 'Rule of Life' box, I’ve asked that question. It might be a helpful aide memoire to take away.
RULE OF LIFE
What is your ‘personal vocation’ – who and why you are in God’s eyes?
What inspires you and bring you life? Can you name your ‘personal vocation’?
If you would like to explore this question, then perhaps the place to start is by asking, what am I most grateful for in my life? When have a felt most fulfilled? When have I been able to give and receive most love? When have I felt most integrated? What is life-giving for me?
And then maybe sit with that list for a while and see what emerges. Are there common themes that arise from the different things you write? And maybe you could have a conversation with someone about it too – as talking about these things often brings clarity.
And if we identify our personal vocation, there are three ways it might help.
First, however chaotic and busy life is, when we are living consistently with our ‘personal vocation’ we are likely to feel energised. In our spirit, I mean. Whereas, if we feel dulled in our spirit, it’s probably because lots of our living is at odds with our vocation.
Second, our personal vocation gives us a criterion by which to review our living. Each day we can ask, when have I lived out of my vocation today? When have I lived at odds with my vocation?
Third, our personal vocation gives us a criterion by which to make decisions, to seek God’s will. We each face decisions: should I take this job, enter that relationship, move to this place? And we’re often seeking God’s will for these decisions. Our personal vocation helps us: what path would enable us to live out our vocation best?
Finally, remember that identifying our vocation isn’t an end. We still need to be open to hearing God’s call afresh, as we respond to God who calls us each day, each hour, each moment.
 Herbert Alphonso, Discovering Your Personal Vocation: The Search for Meaning through the Spiritual Exercises (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2001)
 Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, Matthew Linn, Healing the Meaning of Your Life (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1999)