Whole libraries of books have been written about vocations, mostly since the time of the Council of Trent, when the Church wanted honest and dedicated priests instead of lazy and gluttonous parasites. The notion comes from the way biblical characters were called to their way of life. Abraham heard God’s voice and obeyed it. Jesus called the disciples generally by going to their work places and telling them to leave their nets and boats and to follow him into the unknown. The word vocation comes from the Latin vocare, meaning to call. There is the external call from Jesus, or from the Church perpetuating the presence of Jesus in the world, and then there is the internal vocation. That internal vocation is the most intangible. Perhaps it is best described as a person’s “life purpose”, what gives meaning to life, without which that person encounters real existential problems. Some feel that the vocation in question, whether it was to become a priest, a doctor, a businessman or a sailor, was inevitable, that they were meant to do that in life.
It is clear that to be a priest without a vocation is probably one of the most harrowing things one could imagine. There is no money in it, no social standing in society and little other than ostracism these days. In the Roman Catholic Church you have to stay single and the ministry rarely enables the priest to sublimate his sacrifice of companionship, love and family life. In days gone by, the Church tolerated a certain number of priests with anything less than a “pure” vocation if they did not do evil and were reasonably conscientious in their work in the parish or whatever. The way the writing is on the wall now, there is no tolerance for human weakness – whether from bishops and religious superiors or from the rarefied and increasingly polarised body of the laity. That is probably the greatest single cause of the crisis of vocations
I have been doing a lot of thinking and searching for notions on the internet – that aspect of the web that resembles a public library rather than Hyde Park Corner and the hecklers. Probably the hardest thing many of us can face in life is having thought we were in the right vocation and the bottom drops out of it, or simply we “burn out” and so much damage is done that it cannot be cured by a few prayers, a bit of will-power, a retreat and some hard and unrelenting mortification. The same thing can happen for a businessman, a doctor or a teacher. Others gradually find that they no longer love what they are doing. The invariable question is – What next?
In my own case, joining the TAC back in 2005 seemed to be a temporary fix to my vocation, the next-best thing to canonical regularisation as I thought of it then. I never had any pastoral work beyond occasional services and even a fairly regular Mass in Dieppe for a couple of Roman Catholic ladies. Why did they come to me? I have never been able to get a clear answer. Apart from that, I blogged in a perspective of some kind of teaching ministry, giving ideas (which I seem to be good at), but too sensitive to the hecklers and trolls. Something was still not fitting in place. I realise I am in need of healing. It is said that a lost vocation can never be recovered or healed, but it can return in some cases in a different form. The loss of vocation is a real loss, leaving deep scars and grief. This is something therapists cannot treat with drugs, except for perhaps certain symptoms like depression or sleep problems. It is a deep spiritual malaise that most priests cannot understand. Perhaps mediums and wise men and women, when they are genuine and not useless quacks, can be of help.
The best thing is to find the strength to turn over the page. If this transition causes psychiatric difficulties, they need to be dealt with by recourse to a specialist. I have never found the need to do that, but this site – the Depression Learning Path – can be a great help. It is necessary to break out of the circle, and nothing is ever hopeless. The important thing is to do something new and stimulating, typically a hobby or a sport. Even people in their 50’s can “recycle” and find training for a new way of earning one’s living. Even ex-convicts released from prison and who cannot find a job because of their bad record can often set up a business. I read about a reformed computer hacker who went into business designing security systems for computers. The new and honest way is related to the person’s previous skill, even when it was badly used the first time round.
It is important to honour what we have lost, never to turn bitter with a “sour grapes” attitude. A part of us will always be there. For a priest, visiting a church or attending a service may set off painful memories – but having had the experience of seminary and parish life may be helpful in other walks of life. Philosophy and theology gave us the skill of reasoning, something many people just don’t have. Also, many of us do not have a materialistic view of life and value simplicity. We are aware that the expensive and flashy car some people covet will not make us happy, but we seek finer things in life like beauty, love and the things that really matter.
Some priests might do well in urban social work, but this is by no means universal. Much of that domain is taken up by the “politically correct” brigade of moralising people who have no interest in other people’s freedom. Everything is politicised and polarised – You’re either for us or against us. There is no one way by which all must go. We have to see what we love and are good at, and then work from there.
I have designed the New Goliards blog as something of a lifeline to priests whose vocations have failed them, or the bottom dropped out and they were left either to jump onto a bandwagon (becoming a Roman Catholic layman attached to some Platonic idea of church unless they live next door to some wonderful parish) or casting off the moorings to sail to an unknown destination – metaphorically or literally. I have no pretence at counselling others, but I do have this experience.
We priests have gifts of understanding the meaning of vocation and finding meaning in work and life. We sow seeds to work towards a new future, even though we have no idea of the unknown territory where we are going. A shipwrecked mariner puts a message in a bottle and throws it into the sea – and perhaps someone in a ship may find it, tell his captain and come to the rescue, or the stay on the desert island might be very long, perhaps for life. Alternatively, the mariner might be able to build a boat from pieces of the wrecked ship and set sail – that is a positive move even if it is dangerous.
We are called in some way. Perhaps some of us are called to convert to another church, Rome or the Orthodox, or simply to convert to our own conscience and intuition, a secret tabernacle where God can reside just as authentically and truly. For some, it might be better to be done with churches and seek something similar to a monastic or eremitical style of life. The new adventure might come as a surprise, and we would find strength and wholeness.
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