The topic of “calling” came up in our chaplaincy training cohort last week. What brought us here, what or who told us to come, what directed us to walk a path of service? Being keen on etymology, my thoughts went to the word “vocation,” from Latin, meaning vocatio summons, vocare to call, and vox voice.
Until about ten years ago, my vocation was to teach—the motivation running no deeper than was needed to earn a decent income and enjoy a self-centered life. Then, out of nowhere, in the midst of writing a dissertation, it became clear that I was “done with teaching.” I remember writing to my research supervisors about this insight and being surprised at their unanimous “go for it!” replies.
Things swiftly unfolded from there: without much ado I flew across the continent to undergo two months’ of training at a Zen monastery (Buddhist boot camp), soon gave up all teaching commitments, joined a monastic community in Oregon, came back to volunteer at a hospice, took up a bread-baking practice to benefit the food bank, and—just a year ago—was hired as spiritual care worker at a hospice.
A clear calling occurred in the depth of a personal loss experience, two years ago. In the pit of pain, when I saw no hope and wished to die, a voice clearly spoke, telling me to pay attention to my breath (“even just one inhale”), and to brace myself for something important to come . “Don’t rush,” it said, “this will change your life.”
One thing has since become clear to me: I could not be a companion to the dying and their families had I not been brought face-to-face with deep loss and grief … had I not heard the vox calling me. What’s both amazing and ordinary is that I don’t know what specifically I am called to do. Such specifics seem unimportant, I realize, what matters is that I’m listening.
“I don’t ask for the full ringing of the bell,” writes the poet Wallace Steven (1879-1955). “I don’t ask for the clap of thunder that would rend the veil in the temple. A scrawny cry will do, from far off there among the willows and the cattails, from far off there among the galaxies.”