Recently I received a letter from a man who shared that he was still deeply haunted by a story he’d heard in primary school many years before.
One of his religion teachers had read them a story about a priest who went to visit a childhood friend. While staying with his friend, the priest noticed that, while his friend was cheerful and affable enough, he seemed to be harbouring some deep, residual sadness. When he asked his friend about it, his friend confessed that he “had lost his salvation” because he had felt a call to priesthood when he was young but had chosen instead to marry. Now he felt there was no existential redemption from that. He had had a vocation and lost it and, with that, also lost for good his chance at happiness. Though happily enough married, he felt that he would bear forever the stigma of having been being unfaithful in not accepting his God-given vocation.
I was raised on stories like that. They were part of the Catholicism of my youth. We were taught to believe that God marked out a certain vocation for you, that is, to be a priest, a Sister, a married person or a single person in the world. If you didn’t accept that, once you knew your calling, then you had “missed” or “lost” your vocation and the consequence would be an abiding sadness and even the danger of missing heaven.
Such were the vocation stories of my youth, and, truth be told, I went to the seminary to become a priest with that lingering as a shadow in my mind. But it was only a shadow. I didn’t enter religious life and priesthood out of fear, though some moral fears did play a part in it, as they should. Fear can also be a healthy thing.
But it can also be unhealthy. It’s not healthy to understand both God and your vocation in terms that can have you missing out on happiness and salvation on the basis of a singular choice made while you are still young. God doesn’t work like that.
It’s true that we are called by God to a vocation which we are meant to discern through conscience, through community, through circumstance and through the talents that we’ve been given. For a Christian, existence does not precede essence. We’re born with a purpose, with a mission in life.
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