The holy fear that leads to fulfilment
On a summer’s evening heavy with the scent of roses and lime tree blossom, a small group of young men from Quo Vadis (Quovadisyouth.com) who are discerning vocation, sit down to an al fresco supper in the presbytery garden. Once a month we meet for Mass and then a meal, for a time of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and prayer together, and a rather graced sort of fraternity in which it feels as if seeking to discern vocation must be a good, worthy and rather normal thing to be doing since here are plenty of other good, worthy and normal people of my acquaintance who are doing likewise. So we also have a time of catechesis. On Friday I talked to them about St Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises.
Ignatius of Loyola has some very interesting rules for what he calls “elections” – that is, making a serious choice. He says that one can discern important things like vocation by imagining what that decision will feel like at the hour of my death and how I will feel about it, how the criteria on which I have based that choice will appear to me, when I face God on the Day of Judgment. The language of the Spiritual Exercises is of a certain epoch, and the mention of judgment might seem, to some, to be taking a dangerous step backward to the bad old days of Catholic guilt. Fortunately, Ignatius has none of that judgmental baggage about judgment. He is not talking, I think, of judgment in terms of doom. It seems perfectly natural to him to set vocation in the context of judgment because for Ignatius man is made to praise, reverence and serve God and by so doing save his soul. To speak of judgment is not to seek to coerce a would-be vocation with the prospect of God’s wrath, so much as to point out to him that the only important thing to “fulfilling your potential”, as we might be inclined to express it now, is the extent to which I have entered into this relationship by which I am created moment by moment, sustained and to which I am ordered as the only enduring source of happiness and blessing.
A holy fear of God for Ignatius is a sine qua non for any Christian, not to make his life one of guilt and misery but precisely to help him avoid the guilt and misery which would inevitably follow if he were to embrace short-term and selfish values to which human nature, weakened by sin, cheerfully adheres when it forgets a healthy sense of its limitations and starts to relativise the goodness and holiness of God along similar lines.
To seek to discern vocation in the light of judgment is really just like encouraging a promising athlete to aspire to Olympic gold. I am not sure how current, likewise, the language about man being made to serve God is. For the authors of RE textbooks, I suspect, a certain squirming would occur over what appears to be a rather one-sided approach to vocation – man made to serve God. But actually anything else is unworthy of man, let alone God. By saying, as Ignatius does, that man is created for this end he is not implying something servile in man; there is a spiritual realism here that we ignore at our peril. Man is a creature. He is dependent, contingent on the love which created him and continues to create him and sustain him in being at every moment. To equate this with servility is satanic. It is nothing of the sort; it is freedom. All of this chimes forcibly with things in Blessed John Paul’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which I have been re-reading since his beatification.
In the first chapter he discourses on the encounter between the rich young man and Jesus and that practical question: “Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The story is a wonderful example of a young man seeking vocation. I can only discern my own good, the good of how I am to spend my life in relation to ultimate good, which is just what Ignatius wants to say when he invokes the thought of death and judgment.
This desire to act in accordance with my being destined for eternal life, says Blessed John Paul, “is the aspiration at the heart of every human decision and action, the quiet searching and interior prompting which sets freedom in motion. This question is ultimately an appeal to the absolute Good which attracts us and beckons us; it is the echo of a call from God who is the origin and goal of man’s life.” Man cannot understand the purpose of his life, says the pope, “just in accordance with immediate, partial often superficial and even illusory standards and measures of his being”. In so saying he is making clear why Catholic spirituality used to harp on about judgment and death.
Too often vocation can be promoted as a kind of enlightened self-interest: “It’s a really worthwhile thing to do. It makes a difference. One will help people, etc, etc.” This is all true and worthy in a secondary kind of way, but it’s not vocation, which is, in essence, putting myself at the service what God wants me to do to give him glory as my Creator and thus render me fit for eternal life. There are not two different vocations, one to self-realisation and fulfilment in this world and a rather grim, tedious one which means I must have a miserable life to merit eternity. Any vocation must involve living in this world in such a way as to honour the truth that God is man’s last end.