Magnificat – Vocation’s song
It was the feast of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth yesterday. This recalls the beautiful story from Luke’s gospel of Mary’s trip to see her cousin and on seeing Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s baby jumps in the womb, she has a burst of praise that ‘the mother of her Lord’ is visiting and Mary responds with a song of praise, known to us as the Magnificat (which is the first word of the song when sung in Latin).
Last year I went on a vocations retreat organised by the Northern Diocesan Directors of Ordinands (DDOs). Bishop John Packer led the retreat and we focused on a number of different ‘calls’ in the Bible. The one that stood out for me was Mary’s. Bishop John pointed out that among many other things, the Magnificat, is Mary’s song of praise in response to the call God has given her to be the mother of the Christ. It’s a vocation song. For various reasons, this song has also become my own vocation song. I didn’t anticipate the sheer joy of discovering and responding to God’s call on my life. Often, when we think of vocation we think of sacrifice (giving up everything to follow), hard work and perhaps even isolation. Being on my own vocation journey (which won’t end until I die!) I have started to discover that it is also a thing of joy to know that you’re in the place God has called you to be and that it’s a gift from God.
Everyone is called by God
I met with someone recently who didn’t know me very well, she asked me what I was planning to do career-wise in the next couple of years and I told her that I was going to train to be a vicar. She said “oh! You have a proper vocation then!” This was really encouraging but belied the assumption that vocation is only either about the ministry or ‘caring professions’.
Everyone has a calling. I think, perhaps that one can have multiple callings as well – for instance, I have a calling to be a wife to my husband, an aunt to my nephew, a God-mother to my God-daughters, as well as everything else. All Christians are called when they are baptised, we all share a vocation to follow Christ. I read one book which suggested that perhaps Confirmation is a kind of proto-ordination – it is the point at which you are ‘ordained’ to serve Christ in your adult life and follow God’s calling.
So how do you find out what God is calling you to?
It’s all very well being told that we all have a vocation. We know our first calling is to follow Jesus. But we want specifics! This is often a modern Western hang-up I think – we say, ‘does God want me to live in this town and do this job?’ We get hung up on stuff like this because we have so much choice in the West. Most of the world’s population don’t have a choice of where they live and work – they’ve probably been born into the job that they’re doing.
So at the start I think vocation is less about the specifics of what we do and more about who we are: it’s about being rather than doing.
There are two things in particular that have helped me to discern my own vocation, one from within the church and one from without:
The first is Ignatian Spirituality – in particular the practice of the examen. That’s a lot of long words – simply put, St Ignatius developed some ways to help people develop their spiritual life, one of them was something he called the examen which is where you ask yourself two simple questions:
– What has brought me life today?
– What has drained me of life, and taken energy from me?
The idea is that you ask yourself these questions at the end of each day. You can also use the practice to look back over a year or a month or any period of time. Read more about this here. If you meditate on these questions it helps you to work out what kinds of activities and experiences really make you sing, and which leave you cold. This can help you to discern what God might naturally be drawing you to. To get started with this discipline I would recommend listening to this free mp3 ‘review of the day’ – it is 8 minutes long and involves music, some questions and gives you space to meditate:
The second is a book and questionnaire called Strengths Finder by Tom Rath. This is a model for discovering your strengths or talents. The premise of the book is that many development programmes at work focus on your weaknesses – ‘you’re not very good at negotiating so let’s send you on a course’. This, the book suggests, is not an efficient way to increase productivity and make people better at their jobs – the way to do that is to get people to focus on what they’re naturally good at: to focus on their strengths. There is a questionnaire that you take online alongside reading the book that tells you your top 5 strengths (out of 34). One of the things I like about Strengths Finder is that the likelihood that you’ll meet someone else with exactly the same 5 strengths as you are really slim (unlike Myers-Briggs in which you are one of just 16 personality types). The book contains examples of each strength operating in all sorts of people from nuns to marketing directors. I took the strengths questionnaire a few years ago and the results really helped me to understand myself better and what makes me tick.
The Strengths Finder is a secular business development programme but has resonances, I think, with Christian spirituality. Some of your strengths will directly correspond to your God given gifts – those talents that you were born with and also those spiritual gifts that have grown in you. We Brits are incredibly self-deprecating and we often focus on what we’re not good at. The Strengths Finder enables you to acknowledge ‘actually – I’m quite good at that!’
So these two things have helped, I think, in my discernment journey into realising that God was calling me to ordained ministry. My full vocation story is a lot messier than I’ve made out here. Discerning God’s will is really quite a murky business but I wanted to share a couple of practical things to do that might help – they’re not magic bullets – but if you work through them prayerfully God will speak to you.
I would encourage you, if you are unsure of your calling, to try out one or both of these things I’ve suggested and pray for God to reveal more to you about who he made you to be.