Gail Godwin’s lyrical little book, Evensong, is the story of Margaret Bonner who serves as rector of the High Balsam Episcopal Church in a small Smoky Mountain town. In a challenging parish, she learns the unexpected ways of God and a deepening sense of her calling. She lives into this truth about her life: “Something’s your vocation if it keeps making more out of you.”
On Sunday I had the privilege of addressing the Association of Professional Chaplains at their annual gathering. Nearly 800 chaplains gathered to reflect on their practices of spiritual care and the contours of professional identity in one of the most challenging, deeply human, and deeply personal vocations. I was proud to see several treasured alumni/ae from the two theological schools that have been my places of vocation; it was good to learn of the excellence of their ministries as board certified professional chaplains.
I began with a reflection on vocation in our time. It begins with the mystery of being addressed, as Dag Hammarskjöld wrote:
I don’t know Who—or what—put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment
I did answer Yes to Someone—or Something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life
In self-surrender, has a goal.
Vocation begins with God. It is something we receive more than we achieve. My theological sense of vocation is that when it is what we most need to do, it is also what the world most needs for us to do. The particular constellation of gifts we possess equips us for unique impact in a calling that evokes our true self. It is the true self which is our best gift to give. Indeed, it takes a lifetime “to become who we are,” as Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams put it in their new book Uncommon Gratitude.
The last part of the lecture sought to capture how the vocation of chaplaincy makes more out of its practitioners. I suggested four areas, which I will mention briefly here.
1. More Grounded. It is a compliment to describe a person as “grounded.” It connotes a person who is rooted, has an appropriate sense of self and, in humility, understands the dustiness and finitude of human living. Humor is usually a close companion of one who is grounded, knowing better than to take oneself too seriously.
2. More Theological. Human life is inexorably theological. We are dust and spirit suffused with hope, growing into the likeness of the Triune God. It is important to find ways to probe the theological resources of our tradition to sustain vocational practice.
3. More Pastoral. Compassion is at the heart of the pastoral vocation as faithful pastors “descend into hell” as faithful companions of suffering persons. Compassion means “going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there,” as Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison write in their fine book Compassion.
4. More Contemplative. Chaplains confront some of the hardest thresholds of human life. When these occur, there are no rational explanations, there are no remedies, and there are no words. Contemplation requires relinquishing control over precise understanding. Yet, we are better persons “when we carry tension, as opposed to always looking for easy resolution,” as Ronald Rolheiser writes.
I was blessed by being with these skilled practitioners of pastoral care. They amply demonstrated that their vocation is surely making more out of them.
Molly T. Marshall
For more information about Central’s perichoretic community, please visit www.cbts.edu