The Vocation and the Other
Among the stories that the United World Project collects and conveys, most of them concern people, groups, and communities that commit themselves, give themselves, for someone else, to make a piece of the world more just. But what moves these people? Where does this drive to spend for a cause, a city, a people, or a friend, come from? What does it mean to have a mission in life? May we call them “civil vocations”? We addressed this question to the italian economist Luigino Bruni, who for some time has been dealing with this issue in his articles for the Italian newspaper Avvenire.
Prof. Bruni, Let’s begin by clarifying the concept of “civil vocation”…
I would not have added “civil” because every vocation is civil. Even the vocation of a cloistered nun is civil, because it has to do with human life. A cloistered nun can live a secluded life, but it is always a vocation that looks at humanity. A man or woman religious prays for everyone.
What is a vocation?
I will answer starting from the empirical fact that vocations exist throughout the world. In all areas of life, there are people who feel an inner call to perform a task. The strongest areas are artistic and religious life, some feel called to the scientific career. At some point and in a certain place, there is an inner call to one’s consciousness, something that calls on you and asks you to do something. You feel that your life has something to do with a task. This is a vocation. Someone calls this “voice,” God; others just feel it, but it is a concrete, historical, and empirical fact that these types of people exist and they make the world more beautiful! The world is more beautiful because there are vocations, because there are people who live life as a task, a commitment, a destiny.
Is there a characteristic that distinguishes a vocation?
I think it is the fact that this task, this destiny, does not have much to do with the things we do but with “who I am“. Therefore, it has to do with identity; it is about my place in the world. That does not mean that it is the only dimension of a person. Each person has more than one identity, many elements: he/she is a mother, a father, for many years he/she is a worker, but there is a particularly strong dimension of life, that makes you say, “I am a painter,” and not just, “my work is painting”.
Sometimes, though, perhaps out of fear, you can hear that voice and turn to the other side…
Like true alliances, like marriages, vocation has to do with blood, with the flesh. You can leave an alliance, you can break a pact but the flesh remains marked forever, because it is a flesh issue, it is not an issue of ideas.
You hear the voice in one condition, then maybe things change during your lifetime … what does it mean to be faithful to a vocation?
This voice is not immutable, it is an alliance, so it grows with me. I would like to change the covenant that you read during the marriage, which in Italian goes, “I promise to take you as my bride/groom, to always be faithful to you, in joy and in sorrow”. I would say instead, “I will take you as my bride/groom and I promise to always be faithful to you, to what you are now and to what you will become, and that neither you nor I know”. Because the problem of vocations, of pacts, is that you both change, the “voice” changes and you change too. Therefore, “I promise to be faithful to what you are now and to what you will become and that we do not know, neither you nor me“. Instead, when someone ends a relationship, often says, “You have changed!” On the contrary, the human being is not a mummy that remains intact throughout life.
Therefore, the vocation has to do with oneself; is it not just a religious issue?
Absolutely, even if in a book as big as the Bible, vocation is the word being used, and what forms vocations can take … I’ll tell you about some vocations that seem very interesting to me, then, each of you can identify him/herself to one more than another, but they are all very beautiful. The first we find, not in historical order, but because it is very famous, is Abraham’s vocation.
Abraham is an already grown man who, at a certain point, hears a voice calling him by name and invites him to leave, promising him a “new land”, where milk and honey flow, which, at that time, was the maximum abundance. It is like saying today, “I’ll give you caviar”. In that world, children were Paradise, because in the Old Testament there is no idea of Paradise, the only Paradise were the children, that is, the idea that you continue after death. What is given to Abraham is a promise of happiness: you experience an encounter with a calling and there you see your happiness: “Go, leave, do this work, follow (for example) your artistic vocation and you will be happy.” Therefore, a promise of happiness that is structurally very common to many vocations, especially among young people, because young people want to be happy.
Well, if I may, even the more ‘mature’ persons want to be happy…
Obviously! Furthermore, I can tell you that so many vocations occur while people are at work! There is nothing more beautiful than this. Work is a place where God speaks to you, and here we have a second form. While Moses, for example, is working – he is a shepherd -, a burning bush calls him, “Go and free my slaved people who are in Egypt”. There is no promised land, no happiness, there is only a task of freeing slaves, so that Moses says, “I’m not going there, send my brother Aaron, I am not a good speaker.” There is not much happiness, there is rather the vocation as a task: you have to do this, because life is like that, you feel it inside and you have to do it.
Are there any examples that help us to understand more precisely how a vocation materializes?
There is the scheme of the vocation of Samuel, which I really like. Samuel is a very interesting figure, because he is a boy already destined to the temple, since he was a child, and he lives in the temple, he grows up, but he does not yet know the Lord. Until the Lord himself calls him, one night. But the old priest, Eli, does not understand and sends him back to bed three times. Only on the third call does he understand that God is calling Samuel. What does it mean? There are people who do not understand right away, we need to call them several times, and this is where Eli turns in.
Eli is the name of this senior priest, an expert on the word, an expert on spiritual life, who says, “Be careful, it is the Lord!” But Eli too decided to wait three times. What I mean is that it takes patience in these things. Sometimes vocations are lost because you do not wait and you say immediately, “Look, yes, the Lord is calling you”, or because there is no “Eli” that teaches us how to do it.
As for the “materialization”, as you call it, I tell you this: just think of the fact, and it is amazing, that when Samuel grows up, he consecrates Saul, the first king, on the outskirts of the city, not in the temple. I like very much that a fundamental act of biblical history happens in a suburb, in the suburbs of a city, not in the temple. Just as God meets Moses while his sheep are grazing, and God meets the Apostles while they are fishing.
I really like this: the secular nature of life! That is, the most important things happen while you are at work, while you are washing dishes, while you are driving your car… This is the secular nature of vocations, they happen just where you live, where you are. From the history of the Gospels, it seems that the Archangel Gabriel himself reaches Mary in her house, not in the temple, and I am sure that she was washing the dishes or cleaning the room.
Yet today it is difficult to hear that voice in the midst of a hubbub of voices that tell you very different things, take you on other roads, but also in the midst of a thousand duties and tasks…
Look, I am a big fan of Noah, because Noah is a righteous man in a broken world after Cain, a world where people were killing a boy for a scratch, where they had come to a war of everyone against everyone.
The Bible says that there was only one right man: it was Noah. You can save an entire city if there is one left, you can save a business if there is one, a family, if there is one of them. It is not that we need 50, but it takes someone who is a good listener and responds to a vocation: this is what a “right” man means. Then, this “one” also finds companions, but basically Francis was “one”, Clare was “one.” It begins with one calling you: “Francis!”, “Clare!”, “Noah!”.
“One” and “right” who answers a calling without speaking, because Noah in the Bible does not speak with God, he speaks by building the ark. God tells him, “build an ark!” and he does it. There are some people, some who become Noah, making the ark, who hear a call to build an ark. They do not know who the voice is but they feel an inner drive, they build the ark and then, maybe after so many years, they find out what the voice was. The ark is an image: it is a family, a commitment in politics, in the music conservatory, or in a given profession. What is important is that this “ark moment” arrives, sooner or later. So many vocations begin like Abraham’s: “Go, I will make you happy” and they end up like Noah’s. That is, you begin for your own happiness and you end for the happiness of others. You go somewhere to find your own happiness and one day you realize that what really matters is not your happiness but saving others.
Maybe one spends his/her whole life searching for a vocation … but never discovers it…
This type of vocation has no age. It can even come just before death. You discover that you are a poet at the age of 80, you did not know it and you write a poem, but that poem has been prepared for 80 years. This is fundamental, vocations flourish, life works when ‘the ark arrives’ and you forget about yourself and save someone: it can be an ark, it can be a yacht, it can be a cruiser, it can be a canoe, but not a single-seater! It cannot be a k1, at least a k2. You need someone with you, that is, you have to save someone. This, in my opinion, is a beautiful way of imagining life, that is, a life that begins by thinking of oneself and it ends up by thinking of others. You eventually understand that you are making choices that are more authentic than the choices that are only geared toward your personal happiness. Everyone’s happiness is the most important thing. These are all vocations, irrespective to how they are expressed (a religious language, a secular language, an artistic language…). It takes “one” who feels called, who answers, who seeks happiness and then, one day, he/she understands that happiness means building an ark to save others, to save someone.
What, then, are the “places” of vocations?
If we wanted to understand where we are to find these vocations in the world today, we should look for them especially in the existential suburbs, on the boats of immigrants in Lampedusa, in the areas of those who fight for human rights, for the environment, for refugees, for prisoners, for the poor…