Vocational discernment, community and the mystics' wisdom

November 21st, 2018

It was a singular gift to be on my friend Eric’s ordination discernment committee. Eric and I had been seminary housemates, and he was looking to plant a United Methodist church in Austin, Texas  except for the minor logistical hang-up that Eric’s ecclesial background, which certainly included United Methodism, had been for a long time rooted in a particular quite artsy emergent Baptist congregation. But a plan was hatched with the aid of the UM district superintendent and Eric’s Baptist pastor Don: following an appropriate discernment process, he might be ordained as a Baptist minister such that he could receive United Methodist appointment to plant an artsy, servant-minded, locally-rooted UM church. So Eric’s pastor Don gathered a discernment committee  made up of Christian friends from many different eras and locales in Eric’s journey. We met. We prayed. We reflected together on Eric’s life and testimony, his gifts, his struggles. We prayed some more and met some more and asked Eric and each other lots of questions. In dialogue with Eric and God we sought to discern the shape of God’s call on Eric’s life. Did he have a vocation to ordained ministry? Yes he did, we discerned. He was ordained, and was the founding pastor of a uniquely motely, joyful, and indeed [servant-minded congregation]: a congregation at once expressive of the [musically-textured] and progressive character of its locale, filled with biblical and divine concern for the outsider and the immigrant, and bold in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ in song, sermon and liturgy.

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I ended my last post on vocation around the Communion table in the Triune God’s love-conversation with the world, a conversation which includes all of us and converts us, at length, into the people we’ve been called to be from all eternity — wise, blessed beyond imagination and united to one another and all things in the unification of all things God is accomplishing in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10). The story of Eric’s ordination brings out some particular aspects of the task of vocational discernment, and points the way beyond some dead ends. In contrast, Eric's story is the story of a praying person who gives his vocational life's discernment into the hands of the Triune God and a handful of other praying people. 

Lots of vocational discernment is subjectivist in an overwrought and spiritually unhelpful way. We know we’re beloved, chosen and called by God in Christ — indeed, that’s the deepest reason why we exist at all (Eph. 1:3-10). Yet that’s always a risk among the fallen (that’s us) for discernment of the shape of our vocation to devolve into self-centered, obsessive, tortured navel-gazing. “WHAT SHOULD IIIIIIIII DO?????!!!!!!”

Yet again, it’s time for a dose of theological tradition to the rescue. Indeed, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity (which we figured out was the biblical doctrine over several centuries), the role of the church in prayerfully and penetratingly questioning us and speaking into us, and the wisdom of the mystics shed wise and maturing light on the way of vocational discernment. In what remains of this post, I’ll weave these three threads together briefly, giving most attention to the mystical thread, if only because it is so seldom attended to in writing about vocational discernment. How might we become the sorts of people who can offer our lives in a healthily detached and non-grasping way to the glory of God (and for wise vocational discernment)?

The mystics, then. St. Paul wrote, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20) — giving us a radically ecstatic and christological understanding of our identity. In a different letter it says, “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) — shedding some luminous darkness on the way in which we are, in Christ, properly opaque to ourselves. In the long aftermath of those fascinating Pauline locutions, Christian mystics and spiritual masters have repeatedly investigated and sought insight into the way in which, in our union with God in Christ, our deepest “self” is, in and like God, hidden from us — and that’s a profoundly good and freeing thing.

Here’s how the 5th century Syrian writer and Paul-enthusiast who used the biblical name Dionysius the Areopagite (from Acts 17!) put it in one of his most exquisite pages. Dionysius is here expositing his doctrine by riffing on Moses’ ascent of Mt. Sinai. Here’s what happens at the very peak:

But then he [Moses] breaks free of them, away from what sees and is seen, and he plunges into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing. Here, renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, he belongs completely to him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.*

One knows or sees the hidden God in knowing nothing: God is the not one of the things that exist but the source of all things, and so to know God is to know no particular thing at all. And so, for Dionysius, the ascent to the Triune God which we make by Scripture and liturgy culminates in a silent communing in utter unknowing: a blessed mental “blank”, a luminous darkness. And — to our present purpose — notice the utter attenuation of subjective experience in the moment of divine union. One is, in those blessedly stretching moments, “neither oneself nor someone else.” The Unknown God (Acts 17 again) revealed in Jesus Christ is known in an unknowing that is also an unknowing of self. One is united to the transcendent God, we might say, ecstatically beyond one’s “self.”

So it turns out that we can be, and so in some sense “are”, beyond our “selves.”

Mystics since Dionysius have, of course, continued to explore and unfold these Pauline tropes in their teachings on prayer and contemplation. There’s a part or hidden center or source of the self which we cannot know. “I” (no longer I) am rooted and oriented beyond my “self”. That which sees, that which is aware, is itself not an object in our awareness. Here’s how Martin Laird puts it in one place:

your life, your “self,” who you truly are, is something that is “hidden with Christ in God.” Whatever there is about human identity that can be objectively known, measured, predicted, observed, whether by the Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, the tax man, or the omniscient squint of your most insightful aunt, there is a foundational core of what we might as well call identity that remains hidden from scrutiny’s grip and somehow utterly caught up in God, “in whom we live and move and have our being,” in whom our very self is immersed.**

Here’s what I want to say: grasping this way in which we are not our “self” — the way in which I — the I somehow hidden with God in Christ from before the foundation of the world — am “no longer I” — is profoundly freeing with respect to vocation. Vocational discernment isn’t an identity construction project. If we pray at the Pauline school of Dionysius or Laird, it isn’t even a discernment about what “I” should do: I blessedly don’t have to possess or understand my deepest “self” — such is the province of the hidden God alone. Ergo, the stakes are lowered in my own vocational discernment: I can give myself into the hands and conversation of the Triune God, into the hands and conversation of my friends, even into the awareness and freed-up discernment of my own disinterestedly loving gaze. (Jesus’ vocation even involved giving himself into the hands of his enemies.) I, with the help of others, might look at my "self" and ask, "What should that person do?" Vocational discernment hence isn’t an identity consolidation project. It's not a conservative and self-protective response to an existential crisis — even though such a crisis might well occasion the beginning of our mystical quest. Contemplative prayer gradually frees us from our reflexive "grabbing" after our identities, after our selves. Authentic Christianity is identity project-halting. In Christ’s humility we find the humility to just wear lightly identity projects, career identities, daily tasks etc. We don’t have to hold or grasp onto an idea of ourself. God has us. We’re held. We’re caught and no longer falling. God in Christ has taken responsibility for us. All that is left to us is, as we’re able, to respond into that freeing divine summons, to offer “our” heart and mind and soul and strength, our “self”, with its particular gifts and limitations, to the service of God in whatever way makes most sense. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.... For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30).


*The Mystical Theology 1, in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Paul Rorem (New York: Paulist, 1987) p. 137.

**Martin Laird O.S.A., Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 13-14.

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