Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Friends and Vocations

I heard this morning from a college friend who informed me that a mutual acquaintance of ours had recently died. Well, I should say, the deceased was actually an acquaintance of mine was friends with my friend. I certainly knew him fairly well and was always happy to see him, but I would be hard pressed to call him a "friend" in any meaningful way. For my friend, on the other hand, the deceased was a true friend and confidant.

One thing my friend recounted to me was the number of people who have said, "Nothing will ever be the same." The cynic might hear this and say, "Of course it will. You will all grieve and move on and, pretty soon, everything will go back to normal."

I should like to think that the cynic is desperately wrong.

I do not think it an exaggeration to say that each death alters the very fabric of history. A person who has left his or her mark on many people has died and there is now a vacuum in many hearts and lives. Indeed, and far too often, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to think that a friendship affects solely "me and my friend." Yet this is far from the case! When one life is extinguished, those closest to that person are diminished as well, just as when a light is snuffed out, those objects closest to it are seen less clearly. The loss of a friend, of a loved one, in other words, contributes to the dimming of the entire world for all those who stood near enough to the person's light.

My friend who called me today will smile a bit heavier, will perhaps laugh a little slower. Never again with the knowing glances pass between him and the deceased, a sign of a joke to come, a tip that a prank is being played. Part of my friend has died as well and nothing I can do or say will ever retrieve that part of him. My friend loved and he has lost and what has been lost has left its mark on him forever.

This is the ache of loss, the trace of grief. It is not a passing whim or temporary malaise; it is, rather, an ineradicable feature of our lives. To be so foolish as to love another person, to give oneself to another and to make another welcome in your life, carries both the grace of friendship and the omnipresent threat of grief. To love is to risk loss, it is to cordon off a section of your heart that you cannot ever take back. When the beloved is gone, you may tidy up that room but you can never fill its vacancy. You may build an addition - many additions! - but you will never again fill the emptiness once occupied by another.

It seems to me that the risk of an authentic vocation is the risk taken in every act of friendship. When you have found your vocation, you will have committed your heart to the renovation demanded by the Beloved. A woman with a vocation to be a physician will be etched and shaped by Healing; a lawyer's vocation necessitates that the heart be carved by justice; a teacher's heart will be contoured by Wisdom. When we pledge ourselves to our vocations, we are entering into a relationship that will both challenge and nourish us. A vocation is not something we do, because it is someone we are. I am not one who plays Irish music: I am an Irish musician. One doesn't just do heart surgery; instead, one is a doctor. You get the point.

So what does it mean for me to say that "I am a Jesuit?" It means this: that in my encounter with Jesus Christ, I have offered my heart - sometimes grudgingly, sometimes freely - to be transformed and renovated into a disciple. I have dedicated myself to helping others to find the presence of God in all that they do and, in realizing this discovery, to claim more fully their own vocations. A surgeon need not believe in God in order to be a great physician. But for the physician who has come to see her vocation from God as being a surgeon will be motivated further by this calling. Through her craft of surgery/dance/music/law/teaching/ditch-digging, she will understand her vocation as contributing to the upbuilding of God's Kingdom on earth.

When we come to know and embrace our vocations the world is transformed. Our passion and energy illuminate those around us, helping them to discover just what it is that sets their heart on fire. When that light goes out, the world is a little bit darker on account of it. We mourn this loss and know that it cannot be replaced. But we are grateful for that light's illumination and we give thanks for the various facets of ourselves we discovered on account of its incandescence.

Friendship, like vocation, tells us a great deal about ourselves: where the heart lies and what and who it is that stirs our passion. Neither relationship leaves us unscathed and embracing either entails the risk of loss. Thus we must ask: are we not always better for having loved? Despite the aching pain the loss of a loved one leaves us with, are we not infinitely enriched for having offered our lives to another?

I mourn today the loss of a life that that taught so many others what it meant to love and to be loved. Years of passing will never fill the hole left by this loss, nor should we ever hope for it to be rubbled over. The wound of love is the painfully blessed reminder of our humanity and invisible threads that unite our hearts to one another. It is the wound of vocation, to have heard and responded wholly and generously to the request to have one's heart remodeled to accommodate another. For one with eyes to see, every vocation shines forth an aspect of God's Kingdom: the Wisdom of God, the Healing of God, the Justice of God, etc.. My vocation, as I have come to know it, is to help introduce or re-introduce others to the Word of God so that they might hear more clearly who it is that God wants them to be.
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