What is it to have a vocation? What is it to be called to celibate life, to marriage or to singledom? Relatedly, how does one know if one is called to be a lawyer, a doctor or an artist? The verb “to be called” and the noun “vocation” (from the Latin verb “vocare,” meaning “to call”) suggest a voice who calls, who utters words. In the recent movie “Frozen II,” Elsa hears a voice calling and she follows it. At the end of the day, though this is hardly a spoiler, we learn that Elsa is the only character in the movie who hears that voice. In that sense, the voice is not real. Someone who stands next to Elsa does not hear it. But in another sense, the voice is real. It is real for Elsa and it is asking her to do something, even if in mysterious ways. The idea that a voice will tell you what to do with your life often does more harm than good. I think this is also true when it is assumed that, unlike the one Elsa hears, the voice we are supposed to hear is Divine. Measured in terms of sounds and voices, God is normally silent when it comes to our specific vocation. This is why I don’t think much of voice metaphors, especially when they are displayed outside a Disney movie. It is okay for the franchise to have the Norwegian singer Aurora perform the voice that not only Elsa but also we, the audience, hear (even though Anna and the rest of the cast don’t). But it is a different thing altogether when people sit on a pew in church, waiting to hear a voice — God’s voice — that will tell them what to do. As I was there one time, I would like to offer those troubled souls who have embarked on the adventure of deciding what to do with their lives a healthier way of approaching “vocation” (though by no means is this to suggest my way is the only valid one.) To begin with, if you are under the impression that God will come one day and literally wake you up and let you know what to do, you need to know that you may wait forever. He wants you to be a saint — we are all indeed called to the universal vocation of holiness — but beyond that is for us to decide. In order to decide, some things will be unquestionably necessary, such as prayer for discernment and the significant role of the relevant community (including church, as the case may be) and of spiritual direction. Furthermore, someone might get it wrong in choosing a plan of life, because some plans of life might be imprudent for some people, given their circumstances. So God does not normally call us the way the voice in “Frozen II” seems to call Elsa. If you look again at the “Frozen” princess (or queen, rather) in the new Disney hit, you learn the reason only she can hear this voice is because she is simply hearing herself, her own “voice.” With God, too, there is no physical voice; normally there isn’t, I insist, as there have been exceptions to this, not least in the Bible. But there is always a “calling,” if this word is rightly understood. We discern our calling, our specific vocation — and we choose it — like Elsa, by listening to ourselves or, erasing the metaphor further, by inspecting closely (and generously) our own life, our past, our inclinations, our tastes, our genuine likings, our loves. In this sense, a poor or selfish inspection (perhaps coupled with a poor spiritual life) may result in “missing” one’s vocation or getting it wrong. You could even say it is we who ought to call God rather than passively expect his calling. It could go more or less like this: “Hello, God. I have noticed in myself this and that. I have noticed you gave me these parents and this education, these talents and this position. I have also noticed that I lack some attributes and preferences other people seem to have. Maybe you gave me all this, and maybe I have been deprived of all that, because you call me to…” I tend to think that if we could actually hear God the same way we hear a friend, we would hear something like: “Yes, I have endowed you like that so that you can choose whatever calling you see fit within those possibilities and serve me accordingly! This is why I also gave you the gift of freedom. I would love for you to plan your plan — your specific vocation — and not for Me to decide your path for you.” What God really wants for us is for us to do his will. But his will, while different from ours, is that our will be done (ironical as it sounds). Insofar as in an exercise of prudence, aided by grace, our will respects his law and insofar as we keep in mind, with generosity, the talents and gifts we have received, what we choose will be … our vocation.
Visiting Professor, Notre Dame Law School