‘Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs, is people who have come alive.’
This encouraging statement came from Howard Thurman, an African-American philosopher and theologian influential in the formation of leaders of the American Civil Rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr.
In saying this, Thurman captures a profound truth about vocation: God calls us to be fully alive and to notice what it is that brings us fully alive. To live from that energy is to live from the deepest desires of our hearts. Thurman also captured a profound truth about stewardship: we are stewards of both personal and communal vocations. How I live my life has an impact on you and how you live your life has an impact on me.
How can we know the deepest desire of our hearts? How can we distinguish what is a superficial desire and what is the deepest desire?
Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, had been a young, worldly, military man. But he discovered, as he lay in a cave, having been badly wounded in battle, that as he daydreamed, some daydreams left him de-energised and listless and others left him with energy and enthusiasm.
Even that word ‘enthusiasm’ offers a clue – its root meaning comes from the Greek en theos, having God within. What was particularly strange for Ignatius was some of his loveliest daydreams and distractions left him depleted and with low energy.
From that simple observation of his experience, Ignatius built his Spiritual Exercises, a way of discerning at the depths of our being that which brings us most alive, and makes ‘our hearts burn within us’.
From a stewardship perspective, being fully alive is the loving and grateful response of the disciple. Stewardship is a way of life which calls for us to receive the gifts of God with gratitude, growing and developing them responsibly, and to share them lovingly in justice with others.
‘The Glory of God,’ says Saint Irenaeus, ‘is a human being fully alive.’ Responding to the call of God is rarely safe or risk-free. Being fully alive involves risk.
There are many examples in scripture of God calling an individual, and of that individual having to take a risk, a leap into the unknown. Two have profoundly shaped our understanding of vocation; in both instances, the leap into the unknown involved a choice to welcome rather than reject.
One is the story of Abraham entertaining the three strangers, captured beautifully in Rublev’s icon.
What was it that enabled Abraham to reach out in hospitality to the strangers, rather than close up in fear and defensiveness? For whenever a stranger appears in the desert on the horizon, there is a challenge to discern whether this stranger represents a threat to me, my loved ones and all that I own. Abraham chose to kill the fatted calf and welcomed the strangers with the result that, unknowingly, he entertained God; his barren wife Sarah conceived as a result of the strangers’ blessing.
In the story of the Annunciation, what enabled Mary to discern she should accept the stranger – the Angel Gabriel and his outrageous message – in her room? What prevented her from calling out, grabbing a broom and sweeping him out?
Whatever it was that softened her heart and opened her to Gabriel’s message and God’s invitation assured God’s place (and her own) in the heart of humanity.
Yet an important reality for Mary was not just the ‘Yes!’ of that moment, but of keeping that acceptance in good health, as the sometimes devastating consequences of her ‘yes’ played out in later life. How could she have known that later in her life she would be a witness to her son’s cruel death?
Pope Francis – a Jesuit – has invited us as Church to go out to those on the margins. That must become our communal vocation, in our families and in our parishes.
Like Abraham, and Mary, we each have moments where we must take a risk.
God often calls to us in the guise of what is strange to us, and we need to develop discerning hearts that perceive God’s call for us be fully alive, individually and communally.
As good stewards, we should keep such discernment at the heart of our work of reimagining our parishes and our diocese.
Mike Noonan is Director Pastoral Services, Archdiocese of Wellington.