If you haven’t seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy series, I recommend you do so.
One night I found myself watching the third installment, The Return of the King.
On the last part of his journey, Frodo states how badly he wishes he did not have to be the one to carry the Ring. Being the Ring-Bearer was a difficult and dangerous role. But he took it up voluntarily; he knew it was a worthy task understanding in some muted way that he was the best one suited for it. He also realized that even his weakness was part of his gifting, yet the cost of it wore him down.
Very clearly what Frodo was speaking of was “vocation”, a response to a calling that is worthy of something greater than the self.
The ancient Greeks gloried in achievement; heroism was much to be aspired to. However, it was generally understood as a way to express the strength and greatness of the hero, the individual. The hero chose what army to lead and what battle to fight. In ancient Greece, heroism was a chosen path. In the story of the Bible, accomplishment was a more complex journey.
From the beginning of the history of Israel came the notion of a life not so much planned for glory, as interrupted by God. There was something sacred to be called by God and to be entrusted with His people. And this sense of calling desperately needed to be guarded.
In the example of Samuel, his mother prayed and vowed:
“O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death.
Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people when he heard the voice of the Lord.
The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:8-10)
The great Prophet Isaiah was called to serve when he saw and heard God in a vision.
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. . . . And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! … Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And he said, “Go and say to this people: You have been chosen.” (Isaiah 6:1-2, 8-9)
Having the word of the Lord come to a person is a little like bearing the Ring – you may know it’s a glorious and powerful thing, but after a while the task can wear on you.
“But you have been chosen,” Gandalf says to Frodo. He tells him that he must therefore use such strength and hearts and wits as he has.
You have been chosen.
Being called, the worthiness of it, the glorious goodness of a life lived beyond an individual’s agenda, is a precious gift indeed. Though it can sometimes be subverted into grandiosity, it is perhaps more often lost in the ministry of the mundane. But it needs to be guarded.
Sometimes, along the journey, we can find that the quest is united and strong, the plans are glorious, hope is fierce, and hearts beat fast. But you don’t get to spend every day there. Ministry also involves slogging through the lower regions of “Mordor.” Sometimes it consists of opposition.
St. Paul would occasionally use boxing metaphors. He said he “beat his body” – but he didn’t ask anyone else to take a few shots at his torso. Talk to pastors and they will speak of times being “beaten up” in their church ministries.
At times there is unwarranted general criticism simply for the sake of criticism. (“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.”)
Sometimes it is self-doubt: is what I’m doing really making a difference? (“Father if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.”)
Even if there is visible gain, will that really further the cause of an invisible kingdom?
The world needs to understand, vocation matters; not because a successful career will make one happy. Vocation matters because the he who is calling the one to the vocation matters.
A strong sense of call does not finally rest on being obsessed about what “I” am doing. In fact, what “I” am doing is, in a sense, a very small bit in a much larger picture.
People with the strongest and healthiest sense of calling are not obsessed with their individual calling; rather they are preoccupied with the Caller. With a clear vision of a good, competent and loving God before them, the significance of their own tiny part in His world is safely and manageably held.
To be inspired is energizing and animating. To have the mind racing and the heart beating fast over glorious possibilities is very close to the summit of a life experience.
Those who answer the call are made to live by inspiration, for calling them can only be maintained if they are inspired. But inspiration can degenerate into merely human attempts at manipulating motivation. Visions can deteriorate into scenarios of our own success and recognition when we become very impressed with our accomplishments and ourselves.
To be truly inspired, one needs an inspiration that is grounded in reality while thoroughly transcendent. For many – especially for myself – priesthood offers that reality. The only true and lasting inspiration for the priestly life or any vocational life is a genuine love for God, and a submitted gratitude that we get to be a part of the redemptive quest. And so we journey on.