Nancy on Galiano suggested I read John O’Donohue on “calling.” In To bless the space between us he writes that “there is something special that each of us has to do in the world. One of the fascinating questions is to decipher what one’s destiny is. What is it you are called to do?” (p. 132). Some people are clear on their calling, their vocation (from Latin vocare, to call) from an early age, others spend a lifetime sorting it out. Some people know their “true calling,” so we’re told; many simply do what has to be done without looking for anything deeper.
The idea of vocation is central to the Christian belief that God has created each person with gifts and talents oriented toward specific purposes and a way of life. “The rite of baptism was originally framed for adults,” explains Thomas Merton. In the Roman Catholic tradition the ceremony begins at the church door, when the priest asks: What is your name? Soon this is followed by a more profound question: What are you called? “To be named,” says Merton, “is to be called.”
I was baptized as an infant, given as my first name that of a saint, as a second that of the uncle who held me, and as a third that of one father’s brothers who had frozen to death near Stalingrad. As to my vocation (i.e. career), my father informed me at age twelve (as was customary in working class circles) that I would become a cook’s apprentice after completing Grade 8. Because I was deemed too small and too young (13), I was first sent to a residential vocational (!) school, then given to an apprentice master for cheap labour and other abuses.
From there one job evolved into another, one opportunity opening to the next, one mishap causing the next detour. Never once did I think of work as a vocation in the sense of a calling. A job was a job, a promotion a better paying job, each new country a new set of challenges: stumbling from one to the other without thoughts of calling or vocation. It wasn’t till I begun writing a doctoral dissertation at age 56 that I engaged in a deliberate investigation of my life’s purpose. Out of that project evolved a spiritual practice. One day, while waiting for the thesis to come back from the external examiner, I impulsively googled ZEN MONASTERY RETREAT and, chosing the first place that popped on the screen, travelled to somewhere in upstate New York for my first encounter with formal Zen training.
Three years later, at another monastery, I received a new name and the seeds for my life’s calling. “I name you Daishin 大心 boundless heart,” my teacher said. Everything since has flowed from there and continues to carry my towards a clarity of purpose.
source: Merton, T. (1961). The new man. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, pp. 135-223. images: (top) Church of St. Elisabeth (Hildesheim, Germany) where I was baptized; (bottom) Chozen Bays Roshi, co-abbot of Great Vow Zen Monastery.