is expressed through the meaning we give to our lives.
We discover vocation when we ask ourselves the most fundamental
questions in life: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where
am I going? We not only ask these questions, but we search
for real answers, beyond the ready-made responses of our
times and society.
As we can see, this use of the word "vocation" does not fit the conventional definition. Here we are not referring to a natural inclination, capacity or aptitude. Aptitudes differ by kind and degree: people work easily in some areas and have difficulty in others. Very few people have the same aptitude for everything, and we tend to like to do what comes most easily. The more we work within our area of aptitude, the more skillful we become, and the more fulfilled. This might lead us to say that we have a vocation in this or that field—in art, for example, or science, mechanics or teaching.
But an aptitude for doing something is one thing, while the capacity for unfolding integrally as a human being is quite another. A person might be superbly gifted for some activity and yet be a beginner at the art of living, not understanding his or her experiences or relationships.
Study and training enable us to work well in an occupation, but vocation implies the unfolding of all our human potential.
Vocation is not one more choice among an array of possible activities: it is what gives meaning to everything we do. It is what leads not only to the development of our abilities but also to ourselves, as integral human beings.
People have different aptitudes—some of us are better at some things while others excel at things we cannot begin to do. Yet every one of us is capable of developing our consciousness. Every one has a potential vocation. We awaken to this vocation through a process of self-knowledge, which takes time and effort. Our vocation is actualized when we respond effectively to our need to expand our consciousness.
What, then, is our relationship with vocation?
Vocation is expressed in harmony—the harmony between our everyday affairs and the total meaning of our lives.
We can distinguish stages in our relationship with vocation: discovery, discernment and integration.
The first stage begins when we discover that living is an art. We realize that we do not have to follow the same roads others have taken. We can work on knowing ourselves and shape our destiny in relationship to a reality that transcends our immediate objectives. The interest in new ideas that awakens in us with the discovery of our vocation has nothing to do with personal ambition. It is moved by the desire to attain inner peace and better understanding and, especially, by the yearning to give meaning to our lives.
This step opens up a vast field of experimentation and discovery for us, but it also draws a dividing line between the interests of our daily lives and those of the new life we glimpse within ourselves: the material on one side, the spiritual on the other. Although we create a dualism with our attitude, in the beginning this is good: it gives us the strength of conviction to change our habits and direct our efforts to a more noble and transcendent end than that of self-satisfaction.
At the second stage we understand that there is no real contradiction between our ideal and our daily life. But we still do not know how to integrate the two opposing forces that move us: our true yearnings on the one hand and our instinctual nature on the other. Neither fixed ideas nor the euphoria we experienced when we first discovered our vocation are helpful supports. The only thing that sustains us now is our growing capacity to discern.
The stage of discernment is characterized by reflection and self-study. Vocation requires us to reexamine each and every one of our actions, feelings and thoughts and decide whether or not they further the fulfillment of our ideal.
At this stage we make sacrifices for our ideal, but we still do not love it above all things. In spite of our constant resolve to live with our eyes fixed on eternity, we are still easy prey to negative reactions and discouragement.
The art of living leads us to go against deeply rooted desires. For this reason, although spiritual vocation does not create difficulties, it does make evident precisely what we need to overcome to be able to unfold. In the measure in which we try to live according to our vocation, we discover more and more of those personal aspects that do not match our ideal. We might discover in ourselves, for example, aggressiveness, impatience or the tendency to argue, and we know that this is where we have to work if we are to unfold. When we find ourselves overreacting, we learn to pay attention to the process unleashing itself within us. Instead of wasting our energy in harmful outbursts, we can get to know ourselves better and work to transmute our energy. But, if we decide to close our eyes to our unfolding, we begin to think that our vocation is creating problems for us, taking up our time, interfering with our relationships.
Another aspect that appears after a time of inner work is the tendency to become discouraged, to go through what is known as aridity. Since work on ourselves becomes routine, we do not find the consolation that previously made things easier. On the contrary, the more we know ourselves, the more easily we discover painful aspects of life that we cannot eliminate or solve as we would like. Even though we are now able to discern our ideal, we still do not understand the nature of spiritual work; this is disheartening and makes us vacillate in our resolve.
This is a common experience for those on the spiritual path. Many great mystics knew it, and it was what St. John of the Cross called "the dark night of the soul."
But there is a light even in the darkness: after the painful period of doubt, we come to understand that hesitation is regression. We are no longer waiting for some miraculous intervention that will set us free. It is then that we decide to become totally responsible for our unfolding. And as we come to accept the designs of Providence, we enter the third stage of the fulfillment of our vocation: integration.
All the aspects of our lives come together in harmony through our single intention and our will being applied exclusively to what is good. The apparently disconnected pieces of reality begin to fit together until they reveal, in a simple manner, the perfection of the law of life. Our spiritual life and the task of living are one and the same thing. Love for freedom sustains our will, inspires our intellect, and nourishes our emotions. We become strong, resilient, daring, and brave—not because of our own virtue but from the strength of this love.
Vocation does not eliminate uncertainty or pain in this life, but it does teach us to live more wisely. Vocation enables us to face suffering, and even the most difficult circumstances on earth can produce the flowering of the best human possibilities.
At this stage we understand that fulfilling our vocation does not take away our time. On the contrary, time is multiplied because we learn to choose our priorities wisely, organizing our day harmoniously and sensibly. We increase our capacity to be where we are supposed to be, paying attention to what we are doing, generating at all times the feelings that awaken the noblest and most beneficial responses for everyone.
There is no final point in the fulfillment of one's vocation. We will not arrive at a moment in which we can say, "I have finished." Vocation refers to a way of life that develops the capacity to master oneself, to be at the service of all human beings, and to continuously expand one's consciousness.
If we make vocation the art of living, we are simple and
natural, without aspirations to extraordinary accomplishments.
We maintain a spontaneously friendly and productive relationship
with all human beings, through which we transmit our peace
Reprinted from The Art of Living in Relationship.