What is a vocation? Or more specifically, what is MY vocation?  How do I figure it out? And, once I do, can it change? How is one’s vocation related to one’s job?  Vocation was a hot topic today on two of the theology blogs I follow: Daily Theology and WIT (Women in Theology).

Over at Daily Theology, my good friend Katie O’Neill reflects on the question of vocation and her recent discernment between the vocation of the theologian and a vocation to nursing:

In the past I have always thought that vocation was toward a specific field or specific line of work.  For instance, one was called to be a social worker or a doctor, or a parent or a musician or create delectable foods, or more then one call at the same time.  To some degree, the economic collapse of 2008 along with other life circumstances and choices has made gaining employment as a working theologian very difficult and the experience of watching myself procrastinate with writing my dissertation has shown me that this might not be my true passion.  As a result I have worn many hats while adjuncting the past few years and have finally concluded that the plan of becoming a professor is either financially unsustainable (as adjuncting and selling makeup only stretch so far) or I will have to sacrifice having any control over where I live and take a job anywhere I can get one.  After a year of deliberation I have finally made a decision…I started nursing school last month.

….I feel so privileged to have been able to study in the ways that I have.  But in the end I think my concept of vocation is expanding and growing.  First and foremost, my vocation is to be a baptized Christian.  From there, vocation is the use of whatever skills I have to make the world a more merciful and just place.

As young adults, we spend so much time trying to figure out our vocation and unintentionally it merges with the quest to find the right job and career.  In her post, Katie O’Neill captures beautifully the heart of Christian vocation – it begins with our baptism, not with our career choices. As Christians, the foundation of all our vocations is the call of the Gospel.

As theologians, my colleagues and I spend considerable time discussing our “vocation” as it pertains to the academy, the university, and the Church. The complexities of inhabiting these various communities is something younger scholars, myself included often find overwhelming.  However, when we remember that at the heart of our vocation isn’t “theologian” but “Christian” – a beautiful but challenging unity emerges in the recognition that embracing one’s vocation is to respond to a call from God. Once one recognizes this the stark distinctions between a vocation to be a nurse and a vocation as a theologian starts to blur. And, the pressure to get it “right” as if it then becomes a closed subject fades in light of the Christian’s ongoing call to discernment and conversion.

Through personal experience, I have learned that discerning my vocation to be a theologian was just the beginning; discerning HOW to do that and WHAT that means requires a perpetual openness to the call of the Gospel. For me, I began to appreciate both the complexity and simplicity of my own vocation through being asked, as a moral theologian, to give advice concerning end of life care.  Just as I was beginning my dissertation, my grandfather had a hemorrhagic stroke and died after 7 days in intensive care.  Those 7 days felt like an eternity full of painful decisions, gruesome medical realities and a lot of waiting. A few weeks after his death, I received my first “request for advice as a Catholic moral theologian.” A family friend called seeking my professional advice concerning care of a dying family member in light of  Church teaching.  In that moment, it was the blending of my academic theological knowledge and my first hand experience with end of life decision-making that allowed me to provide pastoral care.  This practical, pastoral role of the moral theologian in personal relationships had not previously been part of my understanding of my vocation. Questions of medical ethics and concrete cases tended, in my head, to involve medical ethics boards and such.  I had not really thought of the pastoral role of the moral theologian as distinct from that of a priest, parish minister, or counselor. (In part, probably due to the tensions between academic theology and ministry examined on the WIT post.)  Through that one month – personally painful and professionally challenging, I began to embrace “being a moral theologian” in a new and more integrated way.

How do I live a life of discipleship as a crucial part of any vocation? And, how do we form a just and faithful community?  When we begin with our Christian vocation as the foundation, perhaps we will be less likely to wed our vocation to a career or to set up a hierarchy of competing vocations. In doing so, we can become more likely to embrace  our own vocation with humility and appreciate those of our neighbors; and thus, to incorporate this  within the broader lifelong process of discernment and ongoing conversion. To do so poses a great challenge to all Christians, but it also takes off a great deal of the pressure to “get right” that “perfect career choice that is one’s unique vocation.”