Calling is not only a word that applies to those with a religious vocation. Whilst I don’t believe any of us has one essential pre-ordained purpose or destiny, it is nonetheless the case that we have the agency to give our lives purpose by living with integrity, by constantly reappraising our values, by listening to what our guts and hearts and souls are telling us, and by being willing to become a different story.
Calling then becomes something internal, the voice of our deepest selves. For some this is a voice that links to a religious understanding of the universe — the soul seen in relation to divinity. For others it may have a link to the collective unconscious. And for others it may be something entirely different, but however conceived, the inner call is a coming home to ourselves in relationship to all we connect to and are part of. And this notion of calling or vocation does not have to be static and once and for all.
A vocation that evolves
Growing up I had a strong vocation to ordination. It flowered in theology degrees and thirteen years of Anglican ministry. Two decades after that period this almost feels like looking back on a different person, but the threads of that calling, if not its shape, persist and the vocation in retrospect was just as true despite turning out to be not life-long.
More recently, just over a year ago, I made a big move to a new country with two family members. For a long time before that I had a growing sense of wanting to be in a forest. It wasn’t quite out of nowhere; I’d been doing apprenticeships in aromatherapy and herbalism and the connection with the plant work was part of this internal shift. I’ve always had a strong sense of place and during a writing course earlier this year I’d managed to put some of this new sense of vocation into writing.
I’m still not completely sure what this ‘call’ is about or might entail, only that, unusually, it feels absolutely right to centre myself in a place that is so new I’ve never spent a birthday or Christmas in it with my whole family gathered; so new that only one of my four adult children has ever seen it.
Vocation as a sense of place
How can this be the place that calls me? I do not come from a place of forests but of long coasts and cliffs. I wander in the woods and garden picking herbs I’m still learning to identify; hearing birds whose calls I’m learning to differentiate and name. I have to learn from scratch the skills of tending plants and trees, like those in the small apple orchard. Part of me feels overwhelmed and the house stands in a place that is both sanctuary and threat (the river might flood, their are ticks that carry Lymes). Part of me is all too aware that I have no long-honed familiarity with the seasons and rituals of this place and have hardly begun to embody what it means to be here.
What is the nature of this call? It is certainly an act of unlearning, of opening myself to a new space and new stories. The one thing that is familiar is the sense of vocation. I’ve known it before — to ministry, to motherhood, to writing, to holding spaces for others. Beyond that I don’t know. Living with the uncertainty, though, feels vital. And after a year here, I know the forest is immersing me in new ways of living–I’m fascinated by how I might become transparent to its meaning, this green space that is lush and fluid.
Places interact with us. We think differently in different spaces. We breathe differently in different air. Places each have what Laurence Durrell calls their own ‘invisible constants’. Writing about France, Durrell also says it is a country with ‘a tenderness for good living’ and a distinctive ‘metaphysical curiosity’. Perhaps my sense of call has something to do with these features — I know that the pull to ‘slow down, listen, connect’, to find this sense of ‘enough’ is woven into it. Perhaps ‘metaphysical curiosity’ and ‘a tenderness for good living’ are synonyms for slowing down, paying more attention and connecting more deeply — to my inner life, to the work with plants, to this place and to those I hold space for as an editor, mentor, teacher …
For now, the calling is about living with the questions, knowing that what I think effects the place and that the place effects what I think. Part of that is letting it work it’s magic on me — not striving but being, and letting how I orient to the future simply unfold. The story-teller Martin Shaw puts it like this:
To be of a place is to be under a debt of relatedness, to listen — you have to become that part of the land that temporarily resides in human form.
It’s a story, of course. I have choice in this, not destiny. But it’s a story that resonates with who I am and how I relate to the world at the moment and all of us have his kind of vocation. And perhaps writers and artists, who witness to and reflect back the world and its new possibilities, particularly so.
There are no unsacred places, says the poet Wendell Berry, all places are either sacred or desecrated. This call to a place, to make it a space for both herbalism and for writers to find sanctuary (at the moment a virtual space as the pandemic goes through various phases) feels like a thread back to something sacramental, not in a religious sense but in the sense of making visible some inward grace of this location — making something mythic from its material. It’s a new rhythm of finding the numinous in the everyday of being here — an ordinary, enchanted life immersed in place as both topos and khôra (place not simply as topography but as a clearing, a matrix in which our being happens); immersed in time as both chronos and karios (the ripe moment, the time that is qualitative not just the ticking clock).
Vocation as how we express ourselves in the world
This is a little of my current story of vocation, but I believe each writer and artist, anyone making anything, whether material or in any way nourishing to life, has such an ongoing, fluid story.
It is our ‘work’ but I’m also mindful that the word ‘work’ has suffered degradation by a system that exploits far too many people. A mentor and friend recently said to me that she was giving up on the word ‘work’ in favour of talking about how she expresses herself in the world. When we consider all the times we’ve been asked what we do by relative strangers who themselves have been schooled to put people into ‘boxes’ based on job and imagined earnings, she has a point.
What do you do for a living?
Breathe — first and foremost for all of us — and for all of us perhaps something we should do with more consciousness and thanks.
Love, eat, cook, nurture, writer, mentor — and then keep breathing.
Answer a vocation — not a directive, but an internal, inner work that is done intellectually, creatively, emotionally …
Reflecting on Proust’s work, the Polish painter Józef Czapski writes, from a Soviet prison camp, about creativity as a vocation that changes us:
Every great book is profoundly tied in one way or another to the very matter of the life of its author. But this link is even more pronounced and perhaps more integral to the work of Proust. The very theme of [In Search of Lost Time] is Proust’s life, transposed; the principal character writes in the first person, and page after page reads like a barely concealed confession. […]
The ensuing heartbreak produces the same result — a feeling of unreality, and the awareness that the pleasures of life and a final understanding of it exist in the act of creation, the sole true life and true reality.
This isn’t only the case for Proust, Czapski says. Writing changes each writer:
The slow and painful transformation of a passionate and narrowly egotistical being into a man who gives himself over wholly to some great work or other that devours him, destroys him, lives in his blood, is a trial every creative being must endure.
Vocation as writing
Writing is a vocation because it calls us to become a different story.
Iris Murdoch, in Existentialists and Mystics: writings on philosophy and literature, saw writing as a way to resist tyranny:
Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify. The good artist is a vehicle of truth, he formulates ideas which would otherwise remain vague and focuses attention upon facts which can then no longer be ignored. The tyrant persecutes the artist by silencing him or by attempting to degrade or buy him. This has always been so.
And she goes on to extol writing and other art forms as acts of resistance not by being perfect but by art’s nature as contingent and incomplete. We leave our mark on the story we write and it leaves its mark on us and on the world not only when it’s imperfect but because it’s imperfect. The vocation of writing isn’t about being the greatest but about humility and a search for truth.
Toni Morrison says something that also resonates with this sense of writing as a vocation in The Source of Self Regard, selected essays, speeches and meditations:
Writers — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, […]
Writers are among the most sensitive, most intellectually anarchic, most representative, most probing of artists. The writer’s ability to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange, and to mystify the familiar — all this is the test of her or his power. […]
Art invites us to take the journey beyond price, beyond costs into bearing witness to the world as it is and as it should be. Art invites us to know beauty and to solicit it from even the most tragic of circumstances. Art reminds us that we belong here. And if we serve, we last.
This surely is a vocation.