Connecting vocation and spiritual formation

October 8th, 2018

Jesus Christ, in his dying, burial and rising, is the center of all things, the summary or unification of the story of the world within the oneness of God. (c.f. Eph. 1:10.) Robert Jenson (1930-2017) defines the oneness of God as the oneness of the story or life God shares with his people. That means that the process of Christian spiritual formation is a process of immersing oneself into the comprehensive, world-and-history-enfolding depths of Jesus’ dying, burial and rising. 

The center of our life in this world is the Passover of our mortal life with God, through death, into the eternal life of God. 

It involves the work of intentional formation and repentance. And our formation isn’t just about this life, but internal to our formation is its goal beyond this life in God. 

Our work of formation and repentance is a death to self, a forsaking our life that we might gain it. 

The more we bury ourselves in the Passover, the transitus, the journey, the more God ceases to be primarily a distant intellectual object for us. We’re transitioning from life with God into the life of God. We’re becoming internal to, and so in some sense indistinguishable from, the life we’re coming to share with the Father and in the Spirit. We’re also becoming aware that we’ve always been internal to the life of God in a way that’s prior to the sense in which we’ve become external to and alienated from it. We’re in and created through Christ precisely because we were chosen before the foundation of the world for this mortal vocation. (See Jn. 1:3, Eph. 1:4, Col. 1:16-18.) But in using the term vocation here I’m getting ahead of myself. 

This life of transitus also involves not just receptive intellectual formation (i.e. reading and studying Scripture, spiritual disciplines, learning doctrine), but constructive intellectual work: doctrinal and theological meditation. We’re buried away with Christ beneath the surface of the tomb in order to meditate, think, reflect, criticize and get beyond the surfaces of things. We want to get beyond the surface of history and discover beneath it the light and life of God, just like we do with the Bible itself: we learn to interpret its allegorical and mystical depths. We interpret from the letter to the spirit. So Job is a figure of Christ. Abraham’s faithfulness, imperfect though it is, reflects the astonishing faithfulness of Mary and the perfect faithfulness of Jesus Christ. 

And all this formation and deep thinking isn’t just aimed at clarifying the truth of things, not even the divine truth of Jesus’ identity. It’s all aimed, ultimately, at love and goodness — the kindness and goodness of God that motivated the incarnation in order to sweep us off our feet with love in the first place. It’s aimed at sharing in the life of the Holy Spirit in order to be made spiritual. When it’s approached rightly, Truth always has an inner dynamism towards its consummation in Love. To be made truly wise, such that you reflect divine Wisdom, isn’t just to know the truth of Jesus’ identity. It’s to live out the loving way of Jesus on the basis of that identity. That’s wisdom. 

So we begin by first learning Scripture as best we’re able, and studying it with the best historical tools we have. Second, we come to appreciate much more fully the divine depths of Scripture. And this is all oriented to, third, interpreting Scripture spiritually such that it helps us love, helps us grow in the active kindness or benignitas of God. Studying theology is ultimately practical since God ultimately wants to make us genuinely good, authentically and actively kind. Hugh of St. Victor (c. 1096-1141) associates this goodness with the resurrection of Christ as an eschatological disclosure, such that our ethic in the world is both patterned on the way of Jesus Christ and reflects into time the light of eternity making possible, in some measure here below, the eschatological life of God and humanity in union and unison. 

We can see this if we look at the life of a Francis or a Macrina, or even a Phoebe Palmer, a Bonaventure, a Frances Elizabeth Willard. God gives us whatever intellectual and doctrinal formation we get in order to confer goodness on and through us, so that we begin to actively communicate God’s own goodness. If the good is diffusive of itself, as Dionysius the Areopagite wrote, it means that to the extent that we’re really immersed in divine light and goodness we’ll be communicating that, diffusing it, giving it away, reflecting it, sharing it with others. Speculation serves both union with God, or mystical union, and love of neighbor indistinguishably. 

So how does this connect to vocation? Well, vocation has to do with calling. Our vocation in life, at base, is to follow Jesus, to be Jesus’ disciple. Think of Jesus calling the fisherman to follow him — so it is with us. Yet there’s also other layers of vocation. Gordon T. Smith talks about two other levels of vocation as well. The third, and most nitty-gritty daily sense deals directly with our particular circumstances: we need to show up at work, get the kids fed, etc. That’s a level of God-given calling too. But the middle level is what we often mean by vocation: it’s our “specific call — a defining purpose or mission, a reason for being. Each person has a unique calling in this second sense” (Courage and Calling, 10). 

The connection I want to make is about this second sense of calling or vocation. As Smith explores, this specific calling transcends our paying job (even if our job is being a pastor or missionary, etc.) though we can sometimes wind up blessed with paying work that directly serves our transcendent calling or vocation. And — here’s my point — our specific calling is always itself going to be a calling into the paschal mystery. It’s always a calling into Jesus Christ’s Passover through death on the cross and into the eternal divine life of the Trinity. We seek out and engage in Christian and vocational formation in service to our specific calling in the world — and, often enough, to clarify what that specific calling is. That formation immerses us in Christ’s dying, burial and rising. And our pursuit of our specific vocation with its ideals and goals is itself — in its sufferings, its illuminations, its sharing and giving of divine kindness — a quest of deepening in the same Passover. That would apply no matter whether our specific calling is to make clean water available in places that lack it, or whether our specific call expresses itself in a quest to make the best breakfast taco in Austin, Texas. 

A sense of our specific vocation in the world is like a reliable but imperfect map of how we’re to quest in order to participate in Jesus Christ’s dying, burial and rising. It’s an imperfect but reliable map of our mystical quest, our journey to union with God.

comments powered by Disqus