Afriend recently passed on to me an article in which the author, a priest, argues that we need to reromanticize priesthood and religious life and give people something beautiful to fall in love with. I find it to be an inspired idea, given recent revelations and events, and a troubling idea. Rarely has there been a more intriguing or controversial time to juxtapose the concept of vocation and the act of romanticizing.
Generally understood, to romanticize is to make something appealing to the emotions by highlighting its idyllic, fanciful or heroic qualities. Meanwhile, the various senses of vocation boil down to two: a divine calling to or by God and one’s chosen trade or profession. How the two are related depends on one’s politics, education and earliest attitudes toward religion and faith.
As a boy, I fell in love with religion; it was a beautiful thing to me. The ethos of faith was suffused with romance, of both the idyllic and heroic variety. Serving God was the hub around which all elseevery relationship, every choice, every goalturned. In this I was no different from many other Catholics of my generation, and I dutifully pursued and enthusiastically felt the excitement of being called to faith.
Not surprisingly, then, I found the idea of vocation compelling and used the term frequently in talking and thinking about the future. In my world, discerning and pursuing one’s vocation was synonymous with being alive, just as the Holy Spirit was necessary to physical reality, but not bound by it. Living and breathing made me flesh, but the divine Spirit within made me human. I couldn’t conceive of my working life or my life’s work as anything but a form of vocation. And whether or not it was religious life, I knew it would be a calling that would hit me with the dramatic clarity of an omen.
As it happens, I was wrong. At some point around the time I became engaged, I stopped expecting the bolt of lightning any longer. Eventually vocation receded into the background, and one day a few years back I awoke to find it a strangely quaint notion from my past. What happened is a familiar story: certainties vanished, old verities lost their luster, and the vocabulary in which I had first learned and felt God’s personal love for me gave way to a new language with which to explore long-unanswered questionsabout what it means to love, about how one manages to be in the world but not of it and about the relationship between belief and doubt. In short, I had become a secular believer: a rather untidily unreligious and decidedly deromanticized Catholic. The world of faith and spirit didn’t mesh so seamlessly with the world of career choice; they were not incompatible, but they were not inseparable, as I once believed so unequivocallyso theoretically, so romanticallythat they would be.
Being calledi.e., to religious lifetraditionally included the security of knowing and feeling that one is chosen by God. Of course we believe God loves every person uniquely, but one with a vocationso went the thinking of many generations of Catholicshad a higher calling. Many priests and religious, and many lay people, knew the reality was subtler and more complex than this. Today, the myth has been generally shattered. If this has meant a demystification and humanization of priests, then I wonder how many Catholicslay and religious alikefeel such developments as a loss. Not many, I suspect.
The deromanticizing of vocationthis slipperiness between being called and not being called, between religious and secular lifeis at once a problem and a solution. For it entails a refusal to compartmentalize vocation, to set it apart artificially from the rest of life. Does this attitude make vocation less wondrous, more pedestrian, secular or mundane, even profane? Perhaps, or perhaps it merely acknowledges the already profane, mundane aspects of its nature. For some this represents a loss, if not an abomination and a threat. But even for a lifelong idealist and student of all things romantic, to romanticizeto ignore, distort or otherwise elide realityrepresents a betrayal of truth and authenticity.
To my mind, Catholics young and old would benefit less from re-romanticizing religious life than from re-exploration of the relevance of vocation for believersparticularly those who do not choose priesthood or religious life. For starters, by vocation do we mean, as I was taught in high school, life choice or the narrower sense of special calling by God? Does vocation imply religious vocation? In a culture where the notion of career has become increasingly fluid and nonlinear, even while one’s working life (and making ends meet) is an increasingly all-consuming part of one’s life choice, it behooves us to help one another be religious and secular people at the same time, in the same moment. With the lines blurred all around us between the role of religious and lay Catholic, and with the declining numbers of priests, especially, it is time we got real about the imperfect beauty that characterizes our most profound choices, our most revered icons and our shared journey.
Even the most jaded, world-weary antiromantic secretly hopes for something or someone to fall in love withan ideal, a newborn child, a soulmate, a cause, a credo. But falling in lovea blissful anodyne that takes you awayis not the same as loving: a long-term choice that will surely take root in you, heart and mind and body, and unceremoniously grow and change by way of mud, thorns, darkness andif you are prepared to relinquish nearly everything you once knew about yourself and lovelight.