“Not my will, but yours be done”
In those seven short words, Jesus Christ, in prayer to his Father, conformed human will to divine will in the Garden of Gethsemane. In so doing, Jesus not only obeyed his Father’s will, but resolved to fulfill his vocation—the very reason he was born into the world. Indeed, Jesus had earlier taught the Apostles that he must be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, suffer greatly and be killed so that he could rise, conquering sin and death. Mark, 9:31. Offering Resurrection and salvation to all human beings through his teachings and his death on the Cross was Jesus’ vocation.
The Knights of Columbus has always supported “vocations”. To the modern lay Catholic mind, the term “vocation” usually is first, or even exclusively, associated with commitment to religious life as an ordained priest or as a brother or sister of a religious order. But while support for such vocations is certainly of highest importance, permit me to suggest in this month’s reflection that the term “vocation” has a broader scope which has serious implications for lay Catholics.
When giving the valedictory speech at my high school graduation, I made a statement reflecting an inadequate understanding of the Catholic concept of vocation. I told my classmates that “it is now time for us to decide what we will do with our lives.” Unfortunately, that statement was the only quote from my speech that appeared in the local newspaper the next day.
Consider how I mistakenly articulated that line. “We” should determine what “we” would do with “our” lives—as if we owned them. The statement unconsciously reflected the typical American assumption that we are entitled to do as we please with our lives. We, in the exercise of absolute individual autonomy, only need to choose. Ah yes, the holy grail of secular American society: choice.
The great classic poet, Virgil, knew better. His epic, the Aeneid, is an account of how Aeneas supposedly founded Rome. But as does any world-class author, Virgil plows far more deeply than the surface story of founding Rome. For Virgil also explores the concept of vocation—and its costs. Throughout the epic, Aeneas acts in a manner consistent with his calling to be the leader who eventually founds Rome. In Chapter IV of the epic, for example, Aeneas leaves behind a woman, Dido, with whom he would have liked to have spent his life, because settling down with Dido would have been inconsistent with his calling and with his mission. And Dido, perceiving Aeneas’ decision, sadly turns and walks away, never to re-enter Aeneas’ life.
As a married man with four children, I would be the last to claim that marriage is inconsistent with vocation. Indeed, marriage and raising children is an honored vocation. But the truth reflected in the secular epic, the Aeneid, reveals that vocation is always a calling. The question is not, “what do I, in the exercise of absolute personal autonomy want to do with a life that I own as if it were my property”, as modern secularists would have it. Rather, the question is, “what am I called to do with my life?” In a very real sense, we do not select our vocation; our vocation selects us, if we are listening.
Of course, the question, “what am I called to do with my life,” simply raises three more questions: WHO is doing the calling, to WHAT am I called and WHY am I being called to do it? This is where our Catholic principles and values enter the picture.
Scripture tells us that Jesus prayed so hard in the Garden of Gethsemane on Holy Thursday night that his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. Jesus, who was fully divine but also fully human, was sweating bullets as he realized that he would be dead within the next 24 hours. But in the midst of what Scripture describes as his agony, Jesus recognized WHO was doing the calling. God the Father himself was calling Jesus to fulfill his vocation—to fulfill the reason he had been born—to die on the Cross to forgive our sins. And thus, Jesus prayed, “not my will, but yours be done.” Let there be no mistake: our Catholic faith teaches that it is God the Father himself who calls, not just Jesus, but each one of us to our respective vocations.
Please consider the second question: to WHAT are we called? A human being can be called to several vocations. We can be called to be married or single, parents or childless, ordained or lay, doctors, accountants, teachers or any of numerous other professions. To determine WHAT we are called to always involves an examination of what talents and gifts has God given me? What natural interests has he given me? What opportunities does he simply present to me? What commitments in response to God have I already made in life that give direction to and shape further decisions that I must make and that must be consistent with those earlier commitments? The answers to these questions are not always immediately clear. They require prayer, counsel and discernment.
Finally, WHY have I been called to this vocation? I suggest that this third question is more easily answered than the second. Again, consider Jesus’ actions on Holy Thursday night. The Gospel of John tells us that before reclining for the Last Supper, Jesus, teacher and master, washed the Apostles’ feet. This example reflects a theme that runs throughout the New Testament: our vocation, whatever it is, must always be motivated by service to others. Have you ever noticed that the Pope specifically refers to himself as “the servant of the servants of God?” We are not on this earth to acquire as much as we can, for as long as we can, for ourselves. Whether our vocation leads us to authority or to powerlessness, to notoriety or to anonymity, our vocation must always lead us to Christian service.
Is that not what is encapsulated by the first principle of our Order? True charity also is always true service to others. To modify slightly the statement of a former President of the United States, “ask not what your brothers and sisters can do for you; rather, ask what you can do for your brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Thus, gentlemen, it is never the time to decide what you want to do with your life. It is always the time to discern what God wants you to do with your life. And may that life always be one of charity and service to others, consistent with the main founding principle of the Knights of Columbus.
--Bernard Smith, Grand Knight
September 15, 2011