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In the article below, Ferns Director of Pastoral Development Sean O' Leary explores the concept of vocation. In the interview below, he elaborates on this and looks forward to the celebration of 'Vocations Sunday' on 21st April. He discusses how the idea of 'Vocation' needs to be explored and reflected in a greater culture of vocations in the Church.



Throughout our days, we use a variety of tools, participate in different activities and meet different people. We form relationships and interact with the world - its customs, structures and people almost as if we take it all for granted, like it has always been there and always will be.

Given the sheer scale and depth of our interactions, we can’t delve into every single facet of our experience nor the fullness of reality itself. Often, we simply engage with reality in some way and move on. To use a mobile phone, we don’t need to know how it works or when we eat our dinner, we don’t always realise the amount of work that takes place in the background on the journey from farm to plate.

But those who pursue a vocation go deeper. They begin by asking questions. This searching is captured well by the Greek philosopher Plato who wrote the Allegory of the Cave nearly two and a half thousand years ago. This story describes a group of prisoners who are confined in a cave from birth with no knowledge of the wider world. They sit facing a wall unable to turn their heads while a fire behind them forms a dim light. Other people carry objects in front of the fire thus casting shadows onto the wall that the prisoners face. The prisoners name these shadows and believe that they are real things in themselves that define all there is to know about reality.

One day, a prisoner breaks free and escapes from the cave for the first time. In the sunlight, he is disorientated and afraid. He finds it hard to believe that the things around him are real. Slowly, his eyesight adjusts, and he wonders at the new clarity brought about by the sunlight. He decides to share his new discovery with his fellow prisoners and returns to the cave filled with wonder.

Upon his return to the cave, the prisoners come to believe that the man’s journey has made him stupid and blind. They strongly resist his efforts to free them from their chains. Finally, in a violent temper, they kill the one man who has seen the light.

This is a cautionary tale about the human condition. Yet, it also tells us something about the challenges of vocation. In small but significant ways, each one of us who sees beyond the everyday embraces a vocation.

The novice architect asks penetrating questions about design, the young nurse wonders what approaches help people to heal, the fledgling scientist learns to systematically investigate material forces, the trainee teacher explores the strategies that help young people to gain knowledge, the apprentice administrator practices the art of keeping organisations functioning well, the

new writer sweats over the arrangement of words, the aspiring cook is eager to find out what ingredients go well together and the budding gardener examines growing conditions with a curious eye.

All true vocations begin with a sense of calling, of wanting to explore further, of desiring to see beyond the immediate. In Christianity, we come to understand vocation as the kind of life we feel called by God to live. It is a spiritual call that grows into a strong sense of purpose: to live a meaningful life, to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves, to discover our gifts and use these gifts in the service of others.

In the Gospels, people were called to first become disciples and then later to be sent out on a mission. Answering the call to become a disciple requires discernment to stir through the mix of one’s life to get a sense of God’s loving presence and let God lead our onward journey. It takes time and courage to understand our gifts, realise our weaknesses and explore how God’s love inspires us to faithfully serve the needs of others.

Discovering our vocation is not straightforward, it is rarely a one-off event complete in itself. Rather, God constantly asks us to step ever closer to the light so that we can discern better and more completely appreciate our own purpose within God’s beloved world. Along this path, there are moments of decision where we choose, somewhat anxiously, to step out of the boat to follow Jesus more closely, requiring a dramatic leap of faith. Indeed, we may experience many such grace-filled moments in life.

Our individual purpose cannot always be seen at the beginning of the journey but with God’s grace through the sacraments, reflection and prayer, we can discover our purpose as a larger pattern within the overall story of our lives. In some ways, discovering our vocation is like Plato’s prisoner who first begins to wonder about the shadows on the wall, painfully frees himself and slowly adjusts to the light with a deepening sense of wonder.

Reflecting upon Plato’s story of the prisoners in the cave helps us to renew our appreciation for the birth of Jesus in a cave in Bethlehem. As a people, we really do need God’s assistance to see more clearly, to follow a path of goodness, to persevere through our own struggles and support our fellow pilgrims in their difficulties.

We can be thankful therefore that God came to a cave to reveal reality more fully, to free us from blindly going through life and show us what is true, good and beautiful. As we follow Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, we learn to reflect more deeply upon our inner life and look outwards with a clearer vision. We remove the plank of timber from our own eye so that we can

better see what is around us and so we come to better understand our purpose and mission with God’s unfailing help.

This vocational journey is not without risk, nor does it provide us with every answer to every problem in advance, but it does offer us a much deeper appreciation for the aching beauty of reality with its trials and unrivalled gift of redemption. Yes, the people who were too afraid or proud to acknowledge Jesus for who he truly is, killed the Son of God who came to liberate us. But the remarkably good news is that Jesus not only rose from the dead but also sends the Spirit into the hearts of all who believe. Indeed, it is the Spirit of God who gives us the courage to bear witness.

By conquering death, Jesus enkindles a light that can be carried by us into the shadows of the world; an eternal light that can never be extinguished. With this everlasting light, we can truly help others to see that there is more to reality than meets the eye and share the life-giving and hope-filled message of the Gospel. Living the life that God intends for us is not simply a challenge nor just a privilege, it is an ongoing invitation to journey upon the Way, expose our vulnerability and wrong-doing to God’s saving grace and receive profound blessings beyond our reckoning.

Just as all vocations begin with a call to see beyond the immediate surface, it is no exaggeration to proclaim that the minister, lay, religious or ordained, chooses a life that offers a fulfilling exploration of the origin, meaning and destiny of all things set amidst the captivating mystery of God’s undying love, a reality that encompasses the past, the present and the future. This is worth contemplating again and again for it offers us a truthful vision of reality that can overwhelm us while simultaneously drawing us closer (see Rudolf Otto), involve us in absolute mystery (see Karl Rahner), and satisfy our longing for joy (see C.S. Lewis).

For me, this is what it means to believe in one God, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible; to believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God, born of the Father before all ages; … to believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life; … to believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church, … and look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. This is our creed, a guiding symbol of our faith in God.

And so, to every person discerning or living out a vocation, I pray that we continue to ‘Go with God’. We will not be disappointed. In the words of St. Pope John Paul II, ‘life with God is a wonderful adventure’.


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