It may not surprise you to hear that I am asked a lot about how and when I received “The Call.”
Typically, this question arises within the context of curiosity about my decision to enter religious life, to serve the church as a ministerial priest, to do something that — let’s face it — not a whole lot of people are doing today. The question is one about vocation and discernment, but it’s also about hearing.
The idea of hearing “The Call” is not new. As many people already know, the term vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, a verb that means “to call.” But there seems to be a lot of confusion about what exactly “The Call” is, which is where this questions comes up as often as it does.
I can say that “The Call” is neither a loud voice coming from the heavens (like the scenes of Jesus’s Baptism) nor is it a telephone call or bizarre radio signal (like some sort of X-Files case). “The Call” is not often very clear and it’s always in need of discernment. “The Call” is more like a quiet unsettling feeling, an idea that gently appears on the horizon of our prayer, reflection, and imagination; the arrival of a possibility that perhaps at first seems far-fetched or odd, but nevertheless stays with you. (What would it be like to be a religious sister? Could I be a diocesan priest? Might I possibly, perhaps see myself as a member of this religious community?)
Rather than a message from above or a lightening bolt from blue, “The Call” is more of a quiet whisper that comes when one is open to the presence of God in the way Elijah was at the cave on Horeb when God was not found in the thunder or fire or earthquake (1 Kings 19:11-14). “The Call” is more like that feeling of falling in love with somebody. It is something that might have taken you by surprise, but something that you cannot conjure or create.
But the thing about “The Call” is that it’s never as clear as we’d like it to be, and it’s never a direct message.
“The Call,” in whatever form one authentically receives it — whether to religious life, to individual relationship, to ministry, to start a family, and so on — must be discerned and that requires more than just an individual. See, “The Call” is not a one-on-one affair. It is always about the whole church which, as St. Paul reminds us, is always the Body of Christ.
Our readings this weekend center on several instances of literal calling, callings illustrated as far more dramatic than the ones most people experience. The calling of Samuel in our First Reading (1 Sam 3:3-10, 19), the call of the prophet in the Psalm (Ps 40), the call to recognize our respective participation and place in the Body of Christ in the Second Reading (1 Cor 6:13-20), and the call of the first disciples to follow Jesus in the Gospel (John 1:35-42).
In the First Reading, Samuel is hearing something. Depicted as something audible, he is awoken throughout the night unsure of what is happening, presuming something (that Eli is trying to get his attention), but as of yet unwilling to accept the possibility that he doesn’t immediately know what’s up.
It takes some time and it takes the insight of another to clue him into what this “Call” means for him. Samuel not only has to be open to this sense, this audible invitation that haunts his regular life (and sleep), but he also has to be open to the way that God is working with those around him to help him identify “The Call.” Discernment is something that requires more than our guesswork or projection. It requires the effort of relationship found in sharing and listening, of openness and consideration. God calls each of us in and through the other members of the Body of Christ, not just to us directly as in a divine text message (and, let’s be honest, even text messages can be misinterpreted alone).
The Gospel question that Jesus poses to the would-be disciples is the same thing that every dimension of “The Call” contains in God’s invitation to each of us in our respective lives: “What are you looking for?”
The trick here is that we must be honest, though it’s a lot easier said than done. How quick are we to delude ourselves, to be convinced by the expectations set before us by others, to be misled by the seemingly enticing lures of our consumer-driven culture?
What are we looking for?
Is it fleeting happiness? Or, financial success? Or, more power? Or, companionship? Or, freedom understood as ‘being my own boss’? Or, something else?
How we answer that question might help us to understand how the Spirit of God continues to call us, perhaps even right now. Despite the diversity of God’s call in each of our lives, the answer to Jesus’s question, “What are you looking for?” is always the same — the answer is: “To do your will.”
This is Samuel’s answer.
It is the Psalmist’s reply.
It is the openness demonstrated by the first disciples.
It is the entirety of Jesus’s mission among us; to do God’s will.
May we all make the time and space necessary to hear the voice of God calling us, may we be open with and to others in discerning each of our calls as a community, may we respond to Jesus’s question with an honest willingness to do God’s will. Only then, will we truly hear the Lord. Only then, will we become followers of Christ.