Putting Faith First
True vocation is revealed not by working, but rather by working at our faith
I keep what's called a Commonplace Book. It collects passages I have read over the years that somehow prodded or inspired me. Under the category of Faith, I found passages I wrote from 1974, when I was twenty-four. I had copied them out of George Bernanos' 1954 novel, The Diary of a Country Priest. I would like to juxtapose Billy Collins' idea of Allegory retiring to Florida with this meditation from a fictional country priest who thought himself and his parish insignificant:
Faith is not a thing which one 'loses,' we merely cease to shape our lives by it.…An educated man may come by degrees to tuck away his faith in some back corner of his brain.…yet even if he feels a tender regret for what no longer exists…, the term 'faith' would nevertheless be inapplicable to such an abstraction.…(p. 95)
I agree. For faith to signify today, not as an abstraction but as a pulse of the heart, we must see it as that which shapes our present lives in these present times. We must not hand over profound faith to fundamentalist sects or to other religions or to a secular faith in Science or in Fashion.
But let me be honest. I would prefer not to have faith shape my life. I don't think I'm alone in my fear. The desire for faith to shape my life promises too much risk, too much loss of control, too much pain, too much doubt about the materialistic world. We would prefer to continue to speak about faith, sometimes in hallowed terms, but actually to retire faith to a palm tree corner of our brain. On occasion by an effort of will or tearful memory or if we dial the wrong number on our cell phone, we can call it up. But not live with it.
And what about vocation? When I was twenty-three, the war in Vietnam was ending, and my draft status kept me free from harm, and free to travel. I had been accepted into a program in Anglo-Irish literature at Trinity College, the University of Dublin. Those were the simple externals of my life—a young man going abroad to study. Internally, I existed in a different world. I was lost in the romantic myth. I imagined myself escaping from the shackles of my strict Southern Baptist upbringing. I was escaping from four years of a confusing collegiate experience (during three of those four years we students went on strike in the spring). I was escaping from a suddenly undesired marriage to a brilliant and beautiful pre-med student. I needed to go.
I was going to become my hero, James Joyce, whom I thought the greatest artist of the 20th century. Like Joyce, who left Dublin and never returned, I would plant myself in his Ireland and with the same "silence, exile, and cunning" prepare myself to write with Biblical power about my troubled homeland and in particular my screwed-up family and forge in the smithy of my soul the conscience of the American people.
Nothing like the dreams and ambitions of young people, is there? I love working with them because of this very capability to dream. But at twenty-three I saw myself called to be a writer more than I saw myself called to write. I saw myself called to be a Noun—not a place or thing, but a person of distinction—more than I saw myself called to be a Verb—to act. I envisioned the magnificently ornate cart more than I saw myself the plough horse pulling the cart.
My two beginning disquisitions—one on faith and the other on vocation—appear at first glance to be unrelated, perhaps even disjointed. I don't think so. As I said, I am afraid of real faith, I often don't want to buy into it. And I also believe that the concept of vocation--the commonly held notion of being called by God to have a special mission--can in a strange way work against our very efforts to be called to a life of faith. The concept of vocation can in a way help us afford the one-way ticket that flies faith South.
Let's use an example pertinent to the Virginia Seminary. I imagine all those called to become priests have at one time or another suffered the pain of discovering that, on occasion, your very calling can obstruct your life of faith. You might become more tied to the fact that you wear the collar than tied to the One whom the collar is called to serve. Surely you are not alone. I definitely feel this tension, and this seduction away from faith, in my life as a Headmaster. All too often I become enamored of the position at a loss to the calling. If you know your Gilbert and Sullivan, I become a parody of myself, Admiral Wilson, because "I polished up the handle so carefullee / that now I'm the ruler of the Queen's Navee . . .. Stick close to your desk and never go to sea / And you all may the rulers of the Queen's Navee."
My understanding of the Abraham story is that he was called by God, but he didn't know where he was going. He is the exemplar of Faith because he got up with his family and went anyway. The Gospels seem to imply to me that Jesus did not understand the purpose of the Passion until it was upon him and even prayed near the end to have the burden taken from him. Both Abraham and Jesus were, in a way, unconsciously groomed for their true vocation, and only slowly, because they struggled so mightily in their lives of faith. Only as part of that struggle for faith did their conscious understanding of who God wanted them to be follow.
What endears me to the stories in the Bible is this fitfulness of narrative. We want our stories to be linear. We beg for them to be linear. A good person sins and suffers, is given a revelation of God's mercy, and then reforms his or her life and does good forever and forever, happily. In the Bible from Abraham and Sarah to David and Bathsheba to Mary, Martha, Peter, and Paul, our heroes continue to make massive mistakes all their lives, as if they didn't learn a jot or tittle from God's mercy. That is my way of saying that however much we believe we understand, we will forever struggle with our faiths and with our vocations and with the relationships between the two.
Last year I found myself in a late night conversation with another school head about our lives. We are both Christians. He is a priest. We talked about faith and vocation, but unfortunately and not surprisingly, we talked a lot about our work schedules. How are you doing? Are you exhausted? Is it too much? He asked me if I had ever read James Thurber's story "The Sea and the Shore." It was a story he often used in his talks with the students of his school and I even found reference to it in a book he recently published.
The story is about lemmings. Lemmings, I remind you, are rodents most centrally located in Norway, who periodically make unexplainable mass migrations from the land into the sea and certain death. Thurber's story attempts to explain the mystery of their apparently mass suicide with his typical humor. One lemming leads the way toward the sea, having shouted "Fire! The world is coming to an end!" The other lemmings panic and follow him, lemming-like, rushing headlong to their death. As they die, however, some shout, "We are saved! " Others shout, "We are lost!" Thurber, being who he was as a writer, graces the story with a moral: "All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why."
We are lost, are we not, in a present culture of work where like lemmings we are rushing headlong? Even though studies conflict about whether Americans have more or less leisure time, the sense I have through our literature and news stories and informal conversations is that without doubt we feel as if we are working too hard. Let me make what appears to be a rather simplistic substitution here, and then try to defend it. I propose that instead of rushing into the sea of work, we should go headlong into a struggle for faith. I know you might respond, "Yes, certainly, but when? "
Or you might point out that most metaphors of searching for faith are much less active or even violent than mine of rushing headlong—prayer, meditation, and study, for example. I believe we must first pray for courage. You can't pray, meditate, study, and do all the other more gentle approaches to faith if you don't have the courage to act. Courage combats fear. Ever since I read Dostoevsky, I remain rooted in his way of seeing faith--that faith matters above all else, and that it is a gamble. I must gamble for faith because it must shape my life in the same way that the absence of it shapes my life. It is not irrelevant. It can't be retired.
John Bunyan, who though he was jailed by the Church I love and call my own, remains a hero of mine. He writes, "He that undertakes to believe, sets upon the hardest task that ever was proposed to man. …Believing is sweating work.…Run for heaven, fight for heaven, labour for heaven, wrestle for heaven, or you will like go without it. " After many years of talking with adolescents about their future, I try to steer a young man who comes to me now away from whether he wants to be a tinker, tailor, soldier, or spy. All the adults in his life are pressing him about his future plans. The entire culture presses hard on him. I try to engage him about what he believes. I tell him his belief matters more than his job. I tell him that vocation must follow faith, work must follow faith. Most of the time he does not believe me now. My prayer is that the seed is planted.
I have a coda to this talk, in the interest of the hardest truth-telling, in the interest of not being misinterpreted. The problem with this sense of things I've sketched out is that it is my sense of things. As I said, God does not work in the same linear way we think and we desire. In other words, if John Bunyan's Pilgrim sets off on the road to the new Jerusalem, God's truth comes to him not as he courageously keeps the straight and narrow way, but as he falls off the road. God comes to him in the slough of despond (or the pit of despair if you prefer), or when he is seduced by Vanity Fair. Only then, in his failure and in his humanity and his loss of courage, and only with God's help, can he find his faith to get back up.
To use another very brief example, we decide, as a country, that we will attack Al Queda and the Taliban in Afghanistan as step A, and then move to Iraq or Korea or Iran as Step B (I read the conjectures about the administration's thinking as you do). But then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict explodes. That wasn't part of Steps A, B, or C. That isn't the way we were seeing our own shaping of the world. Another example. As a Headmaster, the Governing Board, the Faculty, and I lay out a long range plan for the School; we will strategically proceed through the following twelve steps, but any linear thinking we impose on reality must then come face-to-face with what we can't control, what we didn't anticipate, what we once thought was perfect and now think foolish. Some people call the unexpected "contingencies we must plan for. " That response, to me, only illustrates our refusal to abandon our way of seeing, our refusal to understand that no planning is sufficient unto the day. We must have faith in God's angels, God's anger, God's serendipitous sense of humor, and God's mercy. Surely it is God who saves us.
I will finish with Flannery O'Connor's discussion of faith. As I read this excerpt from a letter to a young man struggling with his faith, I call your attention to two sides to her thinking. She acknowledges that this journey we are on isn't linear, isn't constant, isn't something we can plan A to Z. And yet she believes that we must nevertheless keep laboring, keep sweating, and let God, as Augustine prayed, help our unbelief.
Faith is a gift, but the will has a great deal to do with it. The loss of it is basically a failure of appetite, assisted by sterile intellect. Some people when they lose their faith in Christ, substitute a swollen faith in themselves.…let me tell you this: faith comes and goes. It rises and falls like the tides of an invisible ocean. If it is presumptuous to think that faith will stay with you forever, it is just as presumptuous to think that unbelief will…if you find in yourself the least return of a desire for faith…go back to the Church with a light heart and without the conscience-raking to which you are probably subject. Subtlety is the curse of man. It is not found in the deity.
—The Habit of Being, 452
Perhaps this talk has demonstrated nothing but my being part of the human family in that I'm cursed at trying to be subtle. I too will one day retire to Florida. I pray that in this last citation from a great writer who always struggled for God, you will take comfort in her belief that belief comes and goes, and that as we work in our daily callings, we must assert our will for faith, and that, without regard to human subtlety, God is always there, the alpha and omega. Amen.
Copyright ©2002 Vance Wilson
First delivered April 10, 2002, to the National Press Club