Fellow, Center for Liturgy
This past fall, I experienced one of the fearsome nightmares of most college students: my laptop began to die a slow and painful death. When it came to the point of not saving my work, or moving so slowly that I could not do my work, I started panicking. My life as a student and the tangible witness of what I have do learned, and really all that I’ve managed to do in the last few years is all on this machine. I love to write! And so without my computer, I feel like a carpenter without tools, or a surgeon with no hands.
Enter in the engineers. Most of my extended family has an engineering background, and so this means some funny things for family gatherings. We discuss computer chips and 3D printers at Thanksgiving dinner (3D printers made the conversation three years in a row; I kept track).
We take apart old computers and play with circuit boards for fun, and nearly everyone (even those of us who aren’t engineers) generally know what’s going on in the tech world due to the engineers and those who aren’t engineers but still managed to inherit engineering brains. While I’ve long been awed by the things that many of my family members seem to know instinctively, my computer crisis gave me a reason to appreciate their place in the world even more than normal. My laptop was healed, just in time for me to write 50some pages and do all the research I needed to do for finals season.
That was the windup, and here’s the pitch: I will never forget the text my cousin Chris sent in to the family group message, after I sent a celebratory message proclaiming the laptop fully cured.
His quote there had my brain buzzing instantly about the idea of vocations. Chris’ comment- whether he realized it or not- showed an insight that said his role in the world and the gifts that he has- his role of a “fixer,” bound-to-be-a-brilliant-engineer, is somehow intertwined with mine: the cousin who is a student, a writer, and an aspiring catechist.
Now, Chris would not be offended if I said that he was not the most theologically minded high schooler on the planet. Theologian he may not be, but he’s wise about a lot, and his statement made me start thinking about the universal call to holiness, and yet the particularity of the vocations that God gives each one of us. My cousins’ (and dad’s/grandpa’s/uncles’) tech geniuses have helped support my work as a student and writer before; this isn’t an isolated incident. Maybe, in turn, the way that I can support the engineers is to hope that a few of the things I write help the Christophers of the world to understand that this “religion stuff” isn’t just for a class in school or sometimes on a Sunday morning, but rather is about responding to God’s love by the way we live our whole lives. If Chris’ job was to help restore me to my full capacities and functions as a Theology major, maybe part of my work is to help instill in him an understanding of realities and calls outside the tech world and to show that it is just as necessary as the work of the engineers. [Disclaimer: Chris gave me permission to use and twist his words in this piece].
Chris’ statement acknowledged an understanding of the importance of different types of work, but it also made me think about the fact that we have different gifts but the same call and destination ultimately. There has been a lot of discussion about this- what we call the universal call to holiness- especially since Vatican II. By virtue of our Baptism, all Christians are called to respond to the triune God who has out of love created, redeemed, and saved us:
“The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one—that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God, and who obey the voice of the Father and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth. These people follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in His glory. Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity” (Lumen Gentium, 41).
Maybe my cousins don’t consider helping their technologically deficient cousin a work of charity, but I certainly do, and it is a classic example of a way in which they used the gifts that they have been given and worked to acquire. They use and will continue to use their gifts to do great things. And they can do it and be holy, too. Holiness does not mean boringness. Sometimes we joke at home about the “dark side” being more fun, but what’s more exciting than literally being a part of the side of good to fight and save the whole world? C.S. Lewis once made the comment, “‘How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints” (Mere Christianity).
Sometimes, though, there is such a tendency within many of us- myself included- to delegate holiness to the saints of old, to nuns and monks in garb that seems foreign to our own; at best, sometimes we delegate holiness to the “nice, boring guys” historically. And yet among the canonized communion of saints we find carpenters, doctors, writers, artists, teachers, nurses, priests, soldiers… and that’s just the start. The point is that to be a saint does not mean to become boringly identical; it actually means to be sometimes startlingly unique and yet working for the same goal of glorifying God.
This what I mean by the “particularity” of vocation. The God who has created each of us in His image and likeness has always recognized that we are unique individuals. We all are called to the same thing- holiness, and we are all called to same final destination- heaven, but we aren’t all called to make our way there in the exact same way. We have our own personalities, our own families, our own life stories, our own gifts, and our own messiness. The magnificent thing is the fact that our Lord wants all of us, and can use all in our uniqueness of us for His glory.
As Chris recognized (or at least, like I’ve argued that he recognized) our vocations and our gifts are given by God to support one another and yet can all those different gifts be used together to help sanctify the whole world. I’m going to let St. John Paul II’s papal exhortation Christifideles Laici have the last word here on how to think about the particularity of our own vocations. It’s a lesson for the engineers of the world, the writers of the world, and all of us who fall somewhere in between:
“The “world” thus becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation, because the world itself is destined to glorify God the Father in Christ… They [the laity] are not called to abandon the position that they have in the world. Baptism does not take them from the world at all, as the apostle Paul points out: “So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Cor 7:24). On the contrary, He entrusts a vocation to them that properly concerns their situation in the world. The lay faithful, in fact, “are called by God so that they, led by the spirit of the Gospel, might contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties. Thus, especially in this way of life, resplendent in faith, hope and charity they manifest Christ to others.”
To live out our call to sanctify this world, the Church militant needs the engineers, the doctors, the writers, the teachers, the artists, the lawyers, and everyone in between. All of our collective work can be sanctified and participate in Christ’s work of leading the world to its proper end: that of heaven, if we all remember the source of our gifts and for whose glory we should offer our lives.