Speak of the Devil: an Easter homily

3PictureThreeBearsThree bears talk about someone over three bowls, three chairs, and three beds, and the perpetrator herself shows up in the last bed. This dramatic irony, along with the literary rule of three, seems to hold the many iterations of the famous fairy tale together. So far, so good. But after the bears discover the girl (or in some versions, the old woman) in the third bed, the iterations go their separate ways. She runs through the woods, gets rescued by her mom, or gets impaled on a steeple. She could fly to the moon, for all we care. Ultimately, it’s the irony that counts – the discovery of the anecdote’s subject in bed mid-anecdote. The Three Bears demonstrates that reality intrudes on anecdote or, conversely, that anecdote invokes reality.

The idiom “speak of the Devil” speaks of the former, I think. A friend walks in while we’re talking about him: reality intrudes on anecdote. It’s one of life’s stock ironies. But in the past, “speak of the Devil” spoke of the latter. Our current idiom is short for the medieval adage “speak of the Devil, and he shall appear.” Because anecdote can invoke reality, adherents of this superstition tried not to mention you-know-who.

Three witches, courtesy of you-know-who, invoke Macbeth much as the bears’ conversation invokes Goldilocks. They even employ the three bears’ three-times-three:

Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine
And thrice again, to make up nine.
Peace, the charm’s wound up. (1.3.33 – 35)

This “wound up,” or fully prepared, charm bears out our adage more than our idiom since the charm purports to summon its object. As soon as the witches say it, in walks Macbeth for the first time. The witches seem to have anticipated even Macbeth’s first words, which reflect the witches’ earlier “foul is fair” irony: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (1.3.36).

At least three Bible stories feature someone walking in on an anecdote about him or her. (I’m using “anecdote” not only in the sense of a story but also in the sense of a story in a story, such as Pilar’s anecdotes in For Whom the Bell Tolls or Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor parable in The Brothers Karamazov.) The least complicated of the three may be the first in time: Elisha’s servant is regaling the king with stories about his master’s exploits, one of which involves a woman whose young son the prophet has raised from the dead. In the middle of his anecdote, she and her son walk in. Speak of the Devil. Based on this irony, presumably, the king grants the woman’s request to have her land restored (2 Kings 8:1 – 8). Even a king will honor irony’s authority.

The second story, from the book of Esther, is juicier because the irony’s doubled, maybe tripled. Haman walks in on a conversation between the king and his attendant, who have been discussing whether any honor has been done to Mordecai, the Jew, who stopped an assassination attempt on the king. None, O king.

The king asks Haman what should be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor. Haman, thinking he has interrupted a conversation about himself, suggests that the king have a high official lead the honoree over the capital’s streets. Haman has come to the king for permission to hang Mordecai, but he ends up lugging Mordecai around the city instead. And that rule of three again: Mordecai is wearing the king’s robe, riding the king’s horse, and is crowned with the king’s diadem (Esther 6:1 – 11).

From Haman’s perspective, fair is foul and foul is fair.

Anecdotes, then, can turn out to be examinations of how they may involve the reader or hearer. Haman’s ironic misreading reminds one of Carly Simon’s telescoping refrain: “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” The subject of You’re So Vain is, and is not, its subject. A story about reality intruding on a story can, perhaps, have it both ways. Certainly a story about reality intruding on a story suggests that a “real reality” may come tearing through the paper at any moment.

And maybe the invocatory power of narrative explains the universality of the “speak of the Devil, and he shall appear” adage. Heinz-like, Wikipedia lists fifty-seven varieties of the adage. Each variety is from a different culture and in a different language or dialect. In these adages, the Devil isn’t always the Devil; he might be a donkey or a wolf or even a child, acknowledged now to be legitimate thanks to her incursion into her own story’s telling.

My favorite’s the Yiddish, the last language of this alphabetized list. I like how the Yiddish version combines irony with Esther-like disparagement. It’s best introduced here with a phony anecdote about an anecdote. Imagine Ida and Martin Morgenstern of The Mary Tyler Moore Show fame discussing their daughter Rhoda. In walks Rhoda. Her parents, seated, turn their heads to her, and then back to each other. Ida says, “Eh, it’s a shame we weren’t talking about the Messiah.”

Which brings me to my third, and last, subject-bites-story Bible story. On the day Jesus rose from the dead, two men walk seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They are Jesus’ disciples, and they are sad. He was crucified. He failed to liberate Israel. Their women said they saw a vision of angels, who had said he was alive.

As they talk about this, Jesus joins them, but they don’t know it’s Jesus. They catch him up on their conversation.

“How dull you are!” he answers. “Was not the Messiah bound to suffer in this way before entering into his glory?” (Luke 24:25 – 26, REB).

So foul and fair a day they have not seen.

For the remaining miles, he talks about the scriptures that refer to him. They reach Emmaus, he makes as if to go on, but they beg him to stick around for supper. He breaks the bread, blesses it, and they finally recognize him. He immediately disappears, and they immediately return to Jerusalem.

But wait: this subject-bites-story story morphs into a subject-bites-the-subject-bites-story story. Back in Jerusalem, the two men tell the other disciples about how Jesus “had made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread.” As they do, “there he was, standing among them” (Luke 24:35 – 36). Jesus walks in on a story about Jesus walking in on a story about Jesus.

This kind of insistence on the present is the message of Easter. The gospel’s implied third interruption is always now. Anecdote invokes reality, and reality intrudes on anecdote.

When we break bread together, Jesus walks in on our anecdote. Here’s Jesus’ own version of the “speak of the Devil” adage: “For where two or three meet together in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20, REB).

Indeed, it’s a shame we weren’t talking about the Messiah.

Easter is many Christians’ second Passover – the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, after all – during which they prepare a place at the table for Elijah, just in case this year he comes.

Who’s at the door?

Couldn’t resist. Happy Easter.


The illustration is by Peter Newell and is found in Favorite Fairy Tales: The Childhood Choice of Representative Men and Women. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1907. The painting is Caravaggio’s Cena in Emmaus.

Jesus teaches the comparison and contrast essay

The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix - van GoghJesus is a rhetorician, and he teaches the modes. Today he teaches comparison and contrast.

“Teach us to pray,” a student asks.1 So Jesus compares God to an unloving friend. He loans bread, but he doesn’t give it. He loans bread to his friend not because he’s a friend but because he’s pestered.2

Later, teaching on prayer again, Jesus compares God to an unjust judge. The judge gives justice not because he’s a judge – he owns that he neither fears God nor respects men – but because he’s pestered.3

We get these comparisons, but we don’t get the contrasts. So we learn the wrong lesson: we base our prayer not on friendship or justice but on magic and importunity.

Then Jesus teaches on our life’s calling. He compares God to a hard man, a man who makes others do the work, but who gets all the profit.4

Knowing this, the man’s servant buries his talent. I buried mine, too.

° ° °

“You’ve got me confused with another master!” he responded. “I am loving and gracious; I’m not a hard man, as you call me. I don’t reap where I haven’t sown; I don’t gather where I haven’t scattered. I represent God in this parable. He’s a loving father and only wants the best for you. Therefore, you should have used your talent and not have buried it.”

It doesn’t end that way.

° ° °

Jesus speaks in parables because they’re all we can hear.5 They are, in part, our echoes. Or our mirrors. If they reflect our false selves, they’ll point to a false god. When they ask him why he speaks in parables, Jesus quotes Isaiah:

“By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive.”6

God doesn’t necessarily speak plainly to Christians,7 I think, but to his creation – to the trees and rocks and sun. But I have created myself.8 Somewhere God was absent, and there I parented myself. There my understanding of the parables may say more about me than the parables say about God.

The experience of helping an emotionally wounded friend seems apt. How can you help him see beyond his difficult upbringing? Even though you dare not speak too plainly, your friend still may misunderstand your words, even your intentions. One way to think about Jesus’ parables is to reflect on such sessions.

Most of us were orphaned on some landing of the heart, and from there we’ve seen the Father as an uncaring friend, an unjust judge, or a hard man. From there we’ve taken ourselves in and raised our false selves.

“Born again” without growing up again is just a different orphaning, albeit a religious one. But growing up again, this time as God’s creation, is hard work. After baptism “our life becomes a series of choices between the fiction of our false self . . . and our loving consent to the purely gratuitous mercy of God,” Thomas Merton writes.9 When I choose the latter over and over, I begin to share the integrity of the rocks and the trees. And I begin to hear better.

Jesus compares God to an evil father.10 Isaiah compares God to an unmindful mother.11 Those are tributes to many people’s experiences. But Jesus and Isaiah ultimately find the comparisons inadequate. “How much more . . .” Jesus says. “She may forget, but . . .” Isaiah says. We comprehend the comparisons because we’ve lived harder lives than we know. But we don’t comprehend the contrasts because they’re untold, unexplained, or unillustrated. They’re beyond. When they touch on God’s character, they’re apophatic. They sometimes point to something we haven’t experienced, or haven’t experienced enough.

Jesus’ parables suggest the Word’s mission in the depths of my being.

The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix by van Gogh.

  1. Luke 11:1
  2. Luke 11:5 – 10.
  3. Luke 18.1 – 8.
  4. Matthew 25:14 – 30.
  5. Matthew 13:10 – 17.
  6. Id.
  7. Jesus’ disciples said with relief at the Last Supper: “Now you are speaking plainly and not using a figure of speech” (John 16:20). One such figure of speech – we must eat his body and drink his blood – thinned the ranks of the disciples considerably (John 6:53 – 67). John’s Jesus prefers metaphorical language, while Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels prefers parables. Both forms of speech seem encompassed by the phrase “dark sayings” that Jesus adapts from Psalm 78 (Matthew 13:35).
  8. Ephesians 4:22 – 24.
  9. Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation at 41 – 42.
  10. Luke 11:13.
  11. Isaiah 49:15.

Job’s friends

I wonder if I would ever sit silently with a friend for seven days out of respect for his suffering.

I wonder if I would ever stay with him after he began to talk for the hours or days it took him to grieve his loss, to get in touch with his feelings, and to stand against his God.

I wonder if I would ever stay with him long enough to stand up for his God and to be rebuked by his God for it in the end.

I wonder if I would ever love someone enough to spend hours accusing him as a means of defending my bad theology against my friend’s suffering that would, in the end, invalidate my theology. I wonder if I would ever love someone enough to risk the kind of abyss the loss of such a closely held theology might lead me down.

Would I love him enough to discover that I truly hate him, that the comfort I offer makes everything worse for him?

When I was younger, I tried to avoid hospitals, nursing homes, viewings, funerals — anything that required me to get close to other people in their sufferings. I didn’t know what to say to comfort the sick and the bereaved. Job’s friends later taught me by their example that I don’t have to say anything, and that it is important just to call, just to visit.

At one point, I also shared Job’s friends’ judgmental theology: suffering generally results from sin. My theology was another reason for my avoidance of hospitals and funeral homes. The sick and the dying pitted my heart against my stiff, sick understanding of God. Job’s friends could have helped me here, too. By following their example, I might have stuck it out with others in tight quarters where, sooner or later, God would have shown up and challenged my thinking.

I see the same struggle I went through going on in each of Job’s friends. The struggle plays out in their speeches to Job. They try to help Job by preaching to him about God’s judgment and, in the process, making not-overly-subtle references to the tragedies that rocked Job’s world. For example, Zophar, knowing full well that all ten of Job’s children died when a great wind blew down the house where they were eating, is kind enough to remind Job that ” . . . God shall cast the fury of his wrath upon [the hypocrite], and shall rain it upon him while he is eating.” (Job 20:23)

The following may be only a partial list of remarks by Job’s friends demonstrating how they connect Job’s suffering with what they judge to be his sin:

Job’s disaster (chapter:verse) Friends’ remarks to Job (chapter:verse)
The Sabiens take Job’s oxen (1:15), and the Chaldeans take Job’s camels (1:17) “Whose harvest the hungry eateth up, and taketh it even out of the thorns, and the robber swalloweth up [foolish men’s] substance. (5:5) “[The wicked] shall not be rich, neither shall his substance continue. . .” (15:29)”The robber shall prevail against [the wicked].” (18:9)”In the fullness of [the wicked’s] sufficiency he shall be in straits; every hand of the wicked shall come upon him.” (20:22)”The increase of [the wicked’s] house shall depart, and his goods shall flow away in the day of his wrath.” (20:28)
The sole surviving servant over the oxen and the sole surviving servant over the camels escape and tell Job the news (1:15 & 17) “A dreadful sound is in the [the wicked man’s] ears: in prosperity the destroyer shall come upon him.” (15:21)
“The fire of God is fallen from heaven, and hath burned up the sheep, and the servants…” (1:16) “. . . brimstone shall be scattered upon [the wicked’s] habitation.” (18:15) “The heaven shall reveal [the wicked man’s] iniquity… (20:27)”… the [estate] of [the wicked] the fire consumeth.” (22:20)
A great wind blows Job’s son’s house down, crushing and killing all of Job’s children while they are eating (1:18-19) “Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished, being innocent? or where were the righteous cut off?” (4:7) “[The foolish man’s] children are far from safety, and they are crushed in the gate, neither is there any to deliver them.” (5:4)”If thy children have sinned against [God], and he have cast them away for their transgression. . .” (8:4)”[The hypocrite] shall lean upon his house, but it shall not stand. . .” (8:15)”[The wicked] shall neither have son nor nephew among his people, nor any remaining in his dwellings.” (18:19)

“When [the wicked and the hypocrite] is about to fill his belly, God shall cast the fury of his wrath upon him, and shall rain it upon him while he is eating.” (20:23)

I suppose one could read Eliphaz’s, Bildad’s, and Zophar’s remarks in light of Job’s tragedies and figure that these friends are simply somewhat insensitive. In this way, one might give them the benefit of the doubt, supposing that they might have added, “present company excepted” to each remark had the events of Job’s trial come to their minds during their orations. It is difficult to believe, however, that these three friends would have so entirely forgotten the remarkable events that had led them to remain silent with Job for seven days. Surely the correlations in the above table are more than instances of insensitivity.

Why do these three friends act this way? Logically, of course, they proceed abductively from a faulty explanation. They believe that sin causes all suffering. At a certain stage of many people’s spiritual life, this simplistic belief reinforces itself. At an immature stage of my spiritual life, I may judge others in order to feel good about myself. This makes me quite conscious of other people’s faults. (Needless to say, my judgments are often quite inaccurate.) I am susceptible both to fixating on others’ sins and to accepting the explanation that their sin causes their suffering.

But the root of Job’s friends’ behavior is really not logic but the unrecognized fear that drives the logic. Job’s trials must have scared his friends. After all, if sin doesn’t cause all suffering, what would keep these guys from fates similar to Job’s? What good would their religion be if it ceased to protect them or even to make them feel comfortable or good about themselves? What good would their religion be to them if its essential purpose were not their well-being?

Before Job’s friends show up, the third-person omniscient narrator points out that Job does not “sin with his lips” despite all of his losses. Later, though, his friends’ fear drives them to remonstrate with him, and their attacks in turn drive Job to defend his righteousness. (His rebuttals against their accusations also include some snappy and sometimes sarcastic rejoinders:

Do you imagine to reprove words, and the speeches of one that is desperate, which are as wind? (6:26)

No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you. (12:2)

But ye are forgers of lies, ye are all physicians of no value. (13:4)

I have heard many such things: miserable comforters are ye all. (16:2))

Job’s friends stick around, and Job’s stubborn penchant for justifying himself against God eventually causes them to lose all subtlety. By chapter twenty-two, for instance, Eliphaz no longer requires Job to put two and two together:

Is not they wickedness great? and thine iniquities infinite? For thou hast taken a pledge from thy brother for naught, and stripped the naked of their clothing. Thou hast not given water to the weary to drink, and thou hast withholden bread from the hungry. (22:5-7)

The narrator starts the book by telling us that Job is “perfect and upright, and one that feared God and eschewed evil.” (1:1) The narrator returns after the speechifying to sum up everyone’s chief faults. Job has “justified himself rather than God.” Job’s friends have “found no answer, and yet had condemned Job.” (32:2-3)

Why do I and others I know feel like we have to have answers? What drives us to bright-line theologies that we will defend at the expense of old friendships and normal human kindness? My own experience tells me that fear is involved. Perhaps we have a premonition that, by pretending to possess God, we have grabbed a patient, powerful tiger by the tail.

Yet I have nothing on Job’s friends. I’m not sure I would have goaded Job to defend himself, and I’m not sure I would have risked having my theology ripped away from me by the God it turns out I never knew. At once comfortable and vaguely uneasy in my piety, I’m not sure I would have shown up to comfort Job in the first place.

Posted July 2006

Jobs & vocations

The blind spiritual instinct that tells us obscurely that our own lives have a particular importance and purpose, and which urges us to find out our vocation, seeks in so doing to bring us to a decision that will dedicate our lives irrevocably to their true purpose.

— Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin:     Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin:     Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

— From the 1967 movie The Graduate

[I write here with more conviction on the subject of vocations than I am entitled to. I have been mulling over the idea of vocation, and I push hard in certain directions here. Feel free to push back. I hope I am more flexible than I sound here, and I would appreciate any feedback or correction you may wish to advance.]

Our society encourages vocations for something like the first twelve years of a child’s life. Our society stops encouraging kids in their vocations after that, generally, when it’s time to put away childish things and get a job.

Vocations aren’t usually jobs or even professions, at least in their pure forms. Children usually aren’t interested in jobs, per se, anyway. If you want to quiet a child, ask her what she wants to do when she grows up. To a child, the options must seem incomprehensible, dull, or daunting. Most of all, adult work often may seem unimportant to a child except as a means of making money.

“I’d like to be a dental hygienist [forklift operator, hairstylist, corporate counsel, travel agent, telephone repairman, secretary, mortician, drywall hanger, swimming coach, accountant, etc.]!”

I bet you don’t hear any of that from children when you ask them what they wish to be when they grow up. More likely you get averted eyes and something like, “I dunno.”

Most children don’t talk about it, but they innately seem to understand the difference between a job and a vocation. A job is a living, something kids might have to do if the world continues to require people to work to get along by the time they grow up. But vocation is adventure.

Vocation helped me finesse a potential showdown with a student in class a couple of months ago. Tommy was trying to engage the other ninth graders around him with a small ball. I asked him for it, and he responded by putting it behind his back. As I got closer to his desk and asked for it again, he gave me a grin and asked me to guess which hand it was in. (I knew it would be in neither hand at the end of his act if I continued to participate in it.)

I surprised him. I folded my arms and grinned. “You want to be a magician, don’t you?”

He looked up at me with a different kind of engagement. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

I never got the ball, but – more to the point – I never saw the ball again. Even better, we found something to talk about for the remaining weeks of school.

People with vocations include entrepreneurs, healers, magicians, mystics, naturalists, poets, prophets, super heroes, virtuosos, and wizards. A lot of kids want to be wizards. My son Warren went through a wizard phase. He hasn’t hit a landscape architect phase yet, though, and I don’t see it happening.

David Keirsey, author of Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence, has emboldened me to use the word “vocation” in a somewhat unorthodox way. In Please Understand Me II, Keirsey asserts that each of us aspires to become an executive, a mystic, a virtuoso, or a wizard. He defines each of these four terms broadly, and he links each term with one of the four temperaments he creates from Isabel Briggs Myers’s famous personality matrix. What I call a vocation he calls an aspiration and “more of a dream than an ambition,” noting, for instance, that “it’s one thing to dream of becoming a virtuoso . . . and quite another to become one.” True, but I think we might raise our sights if we acknowledge our dreams and then think and talk (discreetly, perhaps, at first) about our vocations in terms of our dreams.

Thomas Merton seems to see vocations pretty much as the Catholic Church teaches about it, but he also finds exceptions that help him define “vocation” in a way I like: as becoming the truth that we love. Sticking with the sense of the word “vocation” usually used in the Catholic Catechism, Merton limits his discussion in his chapter on vocation in his book No Man Is an Island principally to spouses, monks, and priests. He starts the chapter more broadly, though, stating, “Each one of us has some kind of vocation.” He also ends the chapter more broadly, pointing out that St. Francis found any label, even one for his vocation, too constricting:

He had thrown all vocations to the winds together with his clothes and other possessions. He did not think of himself as an apostle, but as a tramp.

Merton writes that, in addition to people with unorthodox vocations like St. Francis, a small percentage of people struggle for years without finding their vocations. This isn’t necessarily bad, since “. . . their paradoxical vocation is to go through life guessing wrong.” I like to think that these people’s cultures – and even their own thinking – aren’t ready for the kind of vocation these people have before God. Our purpose is deeper than our thinking or our culture may be able to grasp. We wish to become the truth that we love, as Merton puts it, and there may not be a label for what we become.

It’s interesting to talk about what a vocation is and how it might differ from a profession or a job. It may also be fun but less rewarding to quibble over titles to the vocations. An agreed-upon list of vocations is impossible and unimportant, I guess. (It may be important to recognize, though, that some titles of vocations may also be titles for professions or jobs, just as some vocations may approximate certain professions or jobs.)

My buddy and mentor Michael is a wizard. He was a pastor (and a good one), but that title didn’t really encompass much of him. When we got rid of the churchy part of the church – you’d have to look pretty hard to find it anymore – Michael found himself with no short answer to the Great American FAQ: “What do you do?”

Wizards are part salesman (sort of the seedy side of the vocation), so Michael tailors his answers to the GAFAQ to fit his audience. He may allude to things like his life coaching, his infrastructure work with tribal leaders in India, his training of pastors in Eastern Europe, or his long conversations and friendships with other underground figures up and down the East Coast. But none of it comes to the point. “Life coach,” for one thing, is such a halfway house of a phrase. Why not commit yourself and say, “I’m a wizard”? That would get them thinking.

(Though I think most wizards abhor direct answers, or at least they don’t like a lot of talk that doesn’t tend to point to a new means of perception. I’m still enjoying one of Michael’s recent remarks: “If people really know you, they don’t know you.”)

Michael has no job anymore, though he works hard. He is one of the relatively few people I know who is paid for practicing his vocation.

I don’t think, though, that we should reinvent our economy to employ people at their vocations. Most of us benefit from working at our vocations without being paid for them. One such benefit is that we learn that our vocation is not about the money. Another benefit may be that we lessen the likelihood of veering from our true vocation at an early stage when it might be more susceptible to corruption. Still, it would be interesting to imagine what our society would be like, and what accommodations it would have to make, if it took to openly and more uniformly recognizing vocations and the people who practice them well.

The relationship between one’s job and one’s vocation is important. If I agree with Merton and Keirsey that everyone has an aspiration or vocation, then I can better put up with a less-than-fulfilling job. If I am in the job market, I may wish to look for jobs that will help me learn some aspect of my vocation, whether that aspect is a skill or a character trait. Finally, understanding that my job and my vocation are different may keep me from falling into the trap of defining myself by my job or profession. (As I hope to establish in another post, someone operating well in her vocation will hardly be tempted to view and understand herself in terms of her vocation alone.)

I think blogging has helped many people with their jobs and their vocations along these lines. I blog in part to get closer to my true vocation or at least to think through my vocation better. Blogging also helps me put my job in perspective since blogging gives me an outlet to express myself in ways I am not called upon to use at work.

Vocations may differ from jobs in at least four ways: in how one prepares for them, in how one is recognized in them, in how one relates to the public, and in what part of us is employed by them.

Vocations may differ from jobs in how one prepares for them. Jobs require training and maybe some experience, but, while vocations often require these efforts as well, they usually require dreams and inner transformation, too. A child or young adult may dream of a vocation, even if he conceives of it poorly. According to the Book of Genesis, Joseph at age seventeen senses his future vocation to govern, and he expresses his sense in the form of dreams he shares with his father and brothers in which the sun, moon, and stars – representing parents and brothers – bow down to him. The dream alone does not make Joseph a ruler. Instead, from the glimpses we get of Joseph over the ensuing thirteen years, it appears that his stints as a slave and a prisoner give Joseph the humility and patience necessary to tackle his vocation.

Literature and culture give us other examples of how the fire of transformation prepares people for their vocations. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Two Towers, Gandalf the Gray needs the abyss to become Gandalf the White, after all! Vision quests and similar coming-of-age rituals practiced by many Native American tribes deliberately put younger male teens through difficult experiences in part to help them discover and prepare for their vocations. The hablacia (“crying for a vision”) ceremony of the Oglala Lakota tribe was typical in this regard:

During the ceremony, a young person will leave behind the mundane problems of life, and contemplate on his place in the universe. Similar to a vision quest, the individual will sit for four days and four nights, without food or water, and contemplate the whys of his existence. A person will ask, “Who am I?” “What am I doing here?” “What is my purpose?” Basically, this ceremony helps a person get in touch with their spiritual being. In other words, they ask the spiritual part of themselves to come to life, so that they may fulfill their part in the Divine Plan.

(Gary Null, “Native American Healing: Native Americans Speak Out on Sacred Healing and Transformational Rituals,” http://www.garynull.com/Documents/nativeamerican.htm.)

Vocations may differ from jobs also in how one becomes recognized in her field. Jobs and professions often require certificates or licenses. Instead of these forms of accreditation, I may need confirmation in my vocation somewhat less formally, but sometimes more meaningfully, by some respected mentors and authorities who have themselves been recognized as proficient in their vocations.

Vocations may differ from jobs also in the relationship one has to the public. For most vocations, it’s no good hanging a shingle. Instead of proclaiming my vocation, I may need for someone in need of it to recognize the vocation in me. I think Jesus is saying as much when he sends out his disciples to an unsuspecting public with these words:

He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. (Matthew 10:41)

“So long as it’s within your level of competence, when someone recognizes and draws on a vocation in you, he will be rewarded with something from you,” Jesus may be saying. Jesus also seems to recognize that how he himself stands with his audience determines what the audience is going to draw from him. “Who do men say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” are not rhetorical questions, I suggest. If I don’t think someone is a superhero – or if I don’t believe in superheroes – then I may never receive a superhero’s services. In this way, vocations are respectful of the perceptions of individuals their practitioners come in contact with. They thus tend to honor people’s humanity in a way that normal marketing efforts may not.

A vocation’s “if you don’t get it, you don’t get it” approach may be advantageous for another reason: many vocations seem to be more effective when practiced under the radar. As a healer, Jesus was not using reverse psychology when he told many of his patients not to breathe a word about their healing to anybody.

One may well begin to understand the relationship between her gifts and the world’s use of them differently when she is living out a vocation. A vocation may or may not start as a dream, but it ends up being whatever is left once this fire of transformation is underway or ends. Through these fires, someone may become something she never expected to be. One may also sense a hard-won strength within herself, and one may sense when others are drawing on it. A strong humility may replace a fragile confidence in her relations with others. Marketing still may be part of attempting to live by her vocation, but the success of the marketing is not much of an indicator of the validity of her vocation. This passage from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh may express something of these effects:

There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passersby only see a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney, and go along their way. Look here, now what must be done? Must one tend the inner fire, have salt in oneself, wait patiently yet with how much impatience for the hour when somebody will come and sit down – maybe to stay? Let him who believes in God wait for the hour that will come sooner or later.

(Vincent Van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, 1959))

Van Gogh’s words suggest a final way in which vocations may differ from jobs: they may employ separate understandings of ourselves. Jobs usually require us to perform a role, to put on a certain hat or helmet during our shift. Jobs may come with codes of conduct, and some jobs (especially professions) may require that we conduct ourselves appropriately after hours as well as when we are at work. Vocations, however, come from inside us more than from a role we have studied and practiced. Someone operating well in a vocation is operating as herself through the truth she loves and has become.



Posted July 2005