The Fragility of Vocation

A reflection by Lindsey

When we start to speak of celibacy as a vocation, we give ourselves the task of defining vocation. Some people perceive of celibacy as a spiritual gift, where God supernaturally empowers a person to live a celibate life. Other people consider their own experiences of their sexualities and wonder how it is possible to live a life without sexual release and/or sexual connection to another person. There’s an idea that for a person gifted with the spiritual gift of celibacy, then the vocation of celibacy is reasonably easy and straightforward.

However, I’d like to posit that all vocations are inherently fragile. No vocational discernment period is without struggle. And, to be honest, there are a good number of vocations that just don’t make it until the end of a person’s earthly life. When we speak about celibacy as a vocation, it is illustrative to remember that marriage is a vocation and monasticism is a vocation. Our vocations pull us into relationships with other people in the world around us. All humans experience difficulties of learning to love in the context of relationships; this difficulty can increase the fragility of vocations.

I know of many people who seemed uniquely gifted towards marriage. They conceived of themselves first and foremost as family people. They devoted a considerable amount of energy towards building visions of what married life could look like. They spent time discerning how to work towards God-honoring marriages in broader faith communities and with the people they eventually married. Yet, despite their best efforts, their marriages failed.

I’ve also met some monastics who knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was calling them towards monastic life. They devoted considerable time discerning which monastic communities they should enter. They devoted themselves to prayer and spiritual counsel. After extensive searches, they found the monasteries they intended to call home for the rest of their lives. They did whatever they could to try to live in community with those particular brotherhoods or sisterhoods. Yet, in the end, they found themselves seemingly without a choice to leave the monastic communities.

As I’ve watched perceived “rock-solid” vocations fall apart around me, I’ve had to think deeply on what mechanisms wreak havoc on people I’ve come to respect, cherish, admire, and love. In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that love is an entirely fragile force. Love has the potential to hold the universe together. Yet, something in our human hearts can turn us away from this life-giving force. Living into our vocations causes us to look this fragility dead on, and for many of us the odds do not appear to be in our favor when it comes to safeguarding vocation.

When Sarah and I first got together, I remember telling Sarah that I thought, “Please forgive me” were the three most important words in any relationship. Seeking forgiveness helps me remember to be humble. Trying to head off my mouth before it speaks words helps me learn to be kind. Offering assurances that there is nothing Sarah can do or fail to do that will influence my commitment to our relationship forges a channel in my own heart to support us when we go through rocky times together.

I tell Sarah regularly, “I’m opting in, 100%. I want to be here. I want to support you.” The more I say those words, the more I realize that love gives people the freedom to choose the opposite. Love does not mandate acceptance; love hinges on faith… faith that the other is in for the long-haul as well. Every time I tell Sarah that I’m opting in, I can’t help but think of people I know who existed in situations where there was no choice but for a mutual opting out.

When love takes its leave, it’s not long before manipulation and coercion overtake a person. Manipulation and coercion act to destroy trust, promulgate falsehoods, and leave a wake of destruction. I’m all too aware that people can choose manipulation and coercion in situations that demand a seemingly quick fix. Occasionally, I find myself doing everything possible to prevent manipulation and coercion from taking root in my heart. I’m trying to get better at monitoring the fault lines within my own heart, submitting myself to God in prayer, and begging for the Holy Spirit to guide me in the ways of love and affection.

All vocations seem to be inescapably fragile because vocations come as people learn to love as God loves. God’s love is mysterious. It’s all-powerful while being all-humble. It’s all-knowing while being all-listening. It’s all-present while respecting all boundaries. Sometimes, walking in the way of love feels like walking on a tightrope. Other times, walking in the way of love feels like a leisurely stroll through a field with a naturally defined path. May God impress on us both the difficulty of these tasks and the abundant grace available to us as we seek to live out our vocations… for the long haul.

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8 thoughts on “The Fragility of Vocation

  1. Are you REALLY saying that being celibate isn’t any harder than being married? What about the no having sex. I think that makes it harder than marriage.

    • Hi Alex. In my reflection today, I started by noting that all vocations are fragile. I addressed questions like: How can marriages end? Why do some people leave monastic communities? Why is it important to spend time discerning one’s vocation? Why is forgiveness an important part of any relationship?

      Humility, forgiveness, and a continual opting-in is necessary to make any vocation work. And it’s a massively difficult challenge regardless of the nature of one’s specific vocation. I was not trying to pronounce one vocation as being easier than others.

      • Speaking as a Christian who has currently been married for several years and who was a celibate, single Christian for many more years prior to that, I am often frustrated by the idea (either expressed or implied) that marriage is somehow the antidote for sexual sin, that it is some “magical place” in which the challenges of expressing sexuality in a way that honors God simply cease to exist (or are greatly diminished). There are times in marriage when sexual expressions are deeply satisfying and other times when they are terribly disappointing. There are times in marriage when desired sexual expressions are not possible (for a variety of reasons) and one or both partners must deal with unfulfilled desires. Godly expressions of sexuality in celibacy and in marriage require intentional obedience to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and I applaud your affirmation that this work is equally challenging in both vocations.

        Thank you for sharing your journey with such thoughtful candor. I have been following your blog since the beginning (though I seem to stay about two weeks behind in reading the posts) and I am grateful for the insights and challenges that I have gained from you and your readers.

        • Thanks for the comment! We’re glad that our readers chime in as they are able. I appreciate your comments about sexual expression in marriage being a mixed bag. All too often, the other vocation can present itself as this magical ideal where we assume that the other vocation is more capable of meeting our needs and supporting self-actualization. It can be easy to idolize the other state. One of the reasons why I’m so glad to have any number of close friends who are married is that I can see their real struggles. I come to realize that it’s not exactly easy for any of us.

  2. Hi Sarah and Lindsey! I just discovered your blog (through the comments on Rachel Held Evans’s blog) and have been eagerly reading through your posts. I really appreciate that you started the blog and have been posting so faithfully and thoughtfully! I know it must take a lot of time and effort. As far as this particular post, Lindsey, your deliberateness about expressing your love and commitment to Sarah struck me; in my own relationships, I tend to take it for granted that the other person knows how I feel, and because of that I don’t feel the need to tell them what they mean to me or emphasize my commitment to them. But you’ve reminded me how important it is to share my feelings and make sure the other person knows without a doubt how much I care about them. So hopefully I will be getting better at that! Thanks so much for sharing, in this post and all the rest. 🙂

  3. Reading WH Vanstone’s “Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense”. He is superb on the precariousness of love. Renunciation of control (which he sees as fundamental to love) means that love progresses by a series of improvisations with no guarantee of success at any point.

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