We know that the term vocation has to do with the idea of calling. The word derives from the Latin word vocem, which in turn has Proto Indo-European ancestry (). In both cases the word means “voice” or “speech”. We see the word root in terms like “evoke” (call out), “revoke” (call back) and of course the word “voice” itself.
It is interesting how the notion of vocation appears in many of the main world religions. The prophet Mohammed realised his vocation when an angel revealed itself to him and commanded him to preach. In the Christian tradition, I especially love the bible story of Samuel, who repeatedly mistook the voice he heard calling his name in the night for that of his master, the great priest and judge, Eli. Upon the third instance of the calling, the wise old judge realized that the voice his protege was hearing was that of God himself and sent him back to his bed with the instruction that, should the voice call again, he should reply, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening”. Eli’s choice of words is significant, especially, I feel, this idea of servanthood; I think we still associate the term “vocation” with ideas of servanthood, service and sacrifice, which is probably why we most commonly associate it with professions where these qualities are required like medicine, religious life or teaching. In fact, one of the definitions proposed in the Oxford English Dictionary is: “A person's employment or main occupation, especially regarded as worthy and requiring dedication.” But I think a true “vocation” means so much more than that…..
The route of the Buddha towards realizing his vocation was slightly different: the traumatic experiences of the “Four Passing Sights”, in which the troubles and desperate needs of the real world were revealed to him, together with his great meditation under the fig tree and the epic internal struggle that took place during it, combined to lead to his enlightenment (indeed, the term “Buddha” literally translates as: “A person who has achieved full enlightenment”). To me, this rings true, the idea that our sense of vocation comes from learning from external life experiences but also from deep internal reflection.
It is interesting that through each of these transformations the person concerned really “found his voice” as well as the courage to advocate (note the word root again) for the truths that had been revealed to Him.
So, perhaps the idea of vocation, of answering to a call, is actually a way of explaining a moment of self-realisation and as such, surely it is very closely linked to ideas of maturity that I explored here last week. I suggest therefore, that the idea of a vocation is far wider and deeper than merely a term for what we do to earn money. To me, it is rather an attempt to describe that moment when we realise our place in the world, when we have finally pieced together our full self-identity and are at peace with who we are and how we are, when we know what our values are, in what ways we will serve and what it is that we will advocate for.
Whatever we believe about the notion of vocation, and however we prefer to articulate it, to me, mentoring our young people (like wise old Eli!) towards that moment should be the main aim, and is the greatest responsibility, in our work as parents and teachers.