As a young woman in my twenties, I had no idea how protected I was by God’s favor. I don’t mean bundled in bubble wrap against the blows of a cruel world—although, at the time, I was living in the rough and tumble world of San Francisco. After some time in the cold, cavernous cathedral which was my parish, I eventually found a true spiritual home in a parish a little farther away.
My newfound fellow believers immediately befriended me and invited me to the Wednesday night prayer group. Instantly my “outsider” identity vanished. They surrounded me and gave me the gift of spiritual community. On my own in a big city, I deeply felt God’s protection, “leading me by paths unknown” to a place where I could safely undergo the vocational work of young adulthood.
As this small and loving Christian community helped me to discern my next step—graduate studies in theology—I found strength to move toward a calling I could not yet name. With their blessing I moved across the Bay and found myself immediately immersed in the generous warmth of Franciscan spiritual community. And I became immersed, too, in studies and interior growth which would serve me well in a future I still could not see.
Even at that early age I began to discover that immersion in real spiritual community is vital to discerning not only who you are but, more importantly, who you are in God. Such discovery—and such immersion—is absolutely necessary if you want to understand God’s calling.
Twentieth century theologian and writer Henri Nouwen addressed the vocational importance of remaining “as much in touch as possible with those who know you, love you, and protect your vocation.” This remarkable phrase still rings true today. Not only does such a spiritual community give you solid spiritual grounding and real encouragement and support for your unique mission in life. Your community, Nouwen observes, “can pull you back when its members see that you are forgetting why you were sent out.”
How true this is! Getting lost in the vortex of busyness, and living on the adrenaline of multitasking your way through an overbooked life, has become the norm in today’s culture. When you can navigate a path through the vortex without completely unraveling you are deemed “a success.” Trying to be helpful or useful can easily morph into an urge to be the center that holds your universe together. Not helpful, and certainly not attuned to God’s calling.
Here Nouwen offers an amazing insight: that an important work of your Christian community—your parish, your Bible study group, your once-a-week prayer group—is to protect your vocation. None of us can adequately discern, much less nurture, challenge, and expand, our vocation on our own. The wisdom and counsel of the Holy Spirit is embedded in a special way in the heart of the Christian community gathered around the crucified and risen Lord.
“Keep returning to those to whom you belong and who keep you in the light,” Nouwen urges. These are encouraging words. But what if you don’t feel that you “belong” all that much? You don’t have to be young to feel like an outsider. You can be middle aged and unmarried, or unexpectedly divorced. Or you can be in later years, perhaps widowed, undergoing your own loss of vibrancy and strength. In these circumstances you especially may need the nurture and care of the Christian community. Vocationally your life is not over. God’s calling of you remains strong, although the invitation may now look different.
In every stage of your life you will need initiative and courage to remain integrated in the Christian community. And for its part, the Christian community must be vigilant in its work of “protecting your vocation.” Discerning and living out your calling is proactive work, for you and for your community of faith.
Copyright 2012 Mary Sharon Moore, M.T.S.